Utah Catholic scholar: Protestant Reformation did the Vatican some good, too

(AP-Photo/HO) Martin Luther provided the intellectual underpinning for the Reformation. This picture shows him in his study.

Some Roman Catholics may blanch at the idea that the Protestant Reformation did Christendom any lasting good.

Scott Dodge is not one of them.

Sure, Martin Luther’s nailing of his “95 Theses” to the Wittenberg Castle chapel’s doors five centuries ago eventually led to a prolonged, bloody schism in the Western Church, and the more than 30,000 Protestant denominations existing today — all asserting, to some degree, to be the “truest” expression of Christian faith.

But Dodge, an ordained deacon at St. Olaf’s Parish in Bountiful, insists the Reformation — still seen by some less-ecumenical Catholics as more of a “Protestant rebellion” — brought changes for the good from the Vatican.

Well, at least eventually, says Dodge, who will speak Wednesday at 7 p.m. on the topic at Blessed Sacrament Church, 9757 S. 1700 East, Sandy. His comments conclude a series of seminars commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

“When you look at the history of that, at first, the [Roman] church learned little to nothing,” Dodge says. “Even up to and including the Council of Trent, the church pretty much just reacted.”

The 18-year-long Council of Trent, beginning in 1545 (28 years after Luther’s church door posting), condemned Protestant heresies on one hand and made key doctrinal clarifications on the other.

Reacting to Luther’s insistence on “sola scriptura” (that the Bible is the sole and infallible rule for doctrinal truth), Dodge says, “the Catholic Church learned the importance of scripture, not just for doctrine and practice, but in the lives of Christian men and women on a daily, ongoing basis.”

The deacon, a respected religious scholar in his own right and a current ministerial doctoral candidate at Oregon’s Mount Angel Seminary, says a second major change out of the Holy See took longer to fully germinate.

The three-year Second Vatican Council, beginning in 1962, cleared the way for the formerly Latin Mass in local languages; allowed priests to face parishioners, rather than celebrating Mass with their backs to the pews; and eased restrictions on musical and art expressions within the church. It also permitted changes to prayers and the liturgical calendar.

“[Rome] found it important for Catholics to fully, actively and consciously participate in the liturgy,” Dodge explains. “The reforms [of Vatican II] gave us the Mass in vernacular, in forms the people can relate to and, more importantly, participate in.”

While Roman Catholics mourn the fracturing of the Western church to this day, there is no doubt that one of Luther’s legacies — making the Bible available in languages other than Latin — led to renewal of the importance of scripture to lay Catholics.

The first Vatican-approved English language Catholic scriptural canon was the 1582-1610 Douay-Rheims Bible, though translations of portions of scripture from Latin into vernacular already had been around for more than 200 years.

Hearing and reading the Bible in their own languages “allowed people to not just know what was going on, but to participate in that,” Dodge says. “Forms [of worship] were important, but they can become empty ritualization.”

Holy Writ in common tongues also promoted “a richer personal prayer life.”

The Vatican still offers indulgences — the 16th-century corruption of which got Luther started on his opening ecclesiastical broadside — but these are not the get-out-of-purgatory passes that preachers hawked 500 years ago throughout Europe.

Indeed, the actual selling of indulgences ended by papal decree in 1567. A wider, more complete response to “Luther’s critique of indulgences” wasn’t completed until Vatican II, Dodge acknowledges.

Today, the idea behind indulgences, which cannot be sold, bought or even exchanged for temporal goods, is to foster acts of repentance. Upon confession of sin, a priest offers forgiveness from God, but the penitent still needs to address the earthly consequences of his or her acts.

(Photo courtesy of Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City) Deacon Scott Dodge

“Grave sins damage relationships. Confessing won’t make the wrongs right,” Dodge explains. “Indulgences [today] involve not just penitent acts [but] working in cooperation with God for the redemption of the world and to foster our own friendships with God.”

After five centuries of history, does Dodge believe the Reformation was needed?

“There are lots of opinions. If you focus on Luther, he was not intent at the time of his ’95 Theses’ to create a split within the church,” he says. “If you look at the state the church was in then, it was badly in need of reform, and not just Luther saw that.”

Dodge notes that other contemporaries of Luther — theologian Erasmus of Rotterdam and English philosopher Thomas More — also called for change, but remained Catholics.

Indeed, Luther’s actions may not have led to a full-scale schism had Pope Julius II lived a few more years beyond his death in 1513. He was succeeded by Pope Leo X, the less-than-stellar, free-spending, pleasure-loving pontiff promoted by Italy’s notorious Medici family.

Although with some reluctance, Julius II had launched a study of reforms in 1512 — along with military campaigns that earned him the moniker “Warrior Pope.” However, his more mercurial successor, Leo, had little interest in even the few modest reforms suggested by Catholic clerics some months before Luther’s Wittenberg trip with mallet in hand.

“There’s a good possibility that, at least in regard to Luther, with Julius II that situation could have been resolved differently, and without a split in the church,” Dodge suggests.

As for ongoing ecumenical efforts, Dodge prays for unity, but allows that Christians likely will remain divided on matters of doctrine, dogma and doings.

“[Unity] won’t be everyone becoming a Roman Catholic, but more a matter of unity in diversity,” he says. “It’s not going to be everyone dropping their objections and disagreements and seeing everything our way.

“The difficult work of ecumenism,” Dodge notes, ‘’really comes down to listening to each other.“