Rorate Caeli

Benedict XVI on Luther and the challenges to Christianity today

A speech noteworthy for its strong criticism of "a new form of Christianity" (most likely referring to Pentecostalism and / or 'Evangelical Protestantism') as well as for its statements on Martin Luther.

The following is the translation of Benedict XVI's address to the representatives of the German Evangelical Church (EKD) today:

Ladies and Gentlemen,

As I begin to speak, I would like first of all to thank you for this opportunity to come together with you. I am particularly grateful to Pastor Schneider for greeting me and welcoming me into your midst with his kind words. At the same time I want to express my thanks for the particularly gracious gesture that our meeting can be held in this historic location.

As the Bishop of Rome, it is deeply moving for me to be meeting representatives of Council of the Lutheran Church of Germany here in the ancient Augustinian convent in Erfurt. This is where Luther studied theology. This is where he was ordained a priest in 1507. Against his father’s wishes, he did not continue the study of Law, but instead he studied theology and set off on the path towards priesthood in the Order of Saint Augustine. On this path, he was not simply concerned with this or that. What constantly exercised him was the question of God, the deep passion and driving force of his whole life’s journey. "How do I receive the grace of God?": this question struck him in the heart and lay at the foundation of all his theological searching and inner struggle. For him theology was no mere academic pursuit, but the struggle for oneself, which in turn was a struggle for and with God.

"How do I receive the grace of God?" The fact that this question was the driving force of his whole life never ceases to make an impression on me. For who is actually concerned about this today – even among Christians? What does the question of God mean in our lives? In our preaching?

Most people today, even Christians, set out from the presupposition that God is not fundamentally interested in our sins and virtues. He knows that we are all mere flesh. Insofar as people today believe in an afterlife and a divine judgement at all, nearly everyone presumes for all practical purposes that God is bound to be magnanimous and that ultimately he mercifully overlooks our small failings. But are they really so small, our failings? Is not the world laid waste through the corruption of the great, but also of the small, who think only of their own advantage? Is it not laid waste through the power of drugs, which thrives on the one hand on greed and avarice, and on the other hand on the craving for pleasure of those who become addicted? Is the world not threatened by the growing readiness to use violence, frequently masking itself with claims to religious motivation? Could hunger and poverty so devastate parts of the world if love for God and godly love of neighbour – of his creatures, of men and women – were more alive in us?

I could go on. No, evil is no small matter. Were we truly to place God at the centre of our lives, it could not be so powerful. The question: what is God’s position towards me, where do I stand before God? – this burning question of Martin Luther must once more, doubtless in a new form, become our question too. In my view, this is the first summons we should attend to in our encounter with Martin Luther.

Another important point: God, the one God, creator of heaven and earth, is no mere philosophical hypothesis regarding the origins of the universe. This God has a face, and he has spoken to us. He became one of us in the man Jesus Christ – who is both true God and true man. Luther’s thinking, his whole spirituality, was thoroughly Christocentric: "What promotes Christ’s cause" was for Luther the decisive hermeneutical criterion for the exegesis of sacred Scripture. This presupposes, however, that Christ is at the heart of our spirituality and that love for him, living in communion with him, is what guides our life.

Now perhaps you will say: all well and good, but what has this to do with our ecumenical situation? Could this just be an attempt to talk our way past the urgent problems that are still waiting for practical progress, for concrete results?

I would respond by saying that the first and most important thing for ecumenism is that we keep in view just how much we have in common, not losing sight of it amid the pressure towards secularization – everything that makes us Christian in the first place and continues to be our gift and our task. It was the error of the Reformation period that for the most part we could only see what divided us and we failed to grasp existentially what we have in common in terms of the great deposit of sacred Scripture and the early Christian creeds. The great ecumenical step forward of recent decades is that we have become aware of all this common ground and that we acknowledge it as we pray and sing together, as we make our joint commitment to the Christian ethos in our dealings with the world, as we bear common witness to the God of Jesus Christ in this world as our undying foundation.

The risk of losing this, sadly, is not unreal. I would like to make two points here. The geography of Christianity has changed dramatically in recent times, and is in the process of changing further. Faced with a new form of Christianity, which is spreading with overpowering missionary dynamism, sometimes in frightening ways, the mainstream Christian denominations often seem at a loss. This is a form of Christianity with little institutional depth, little rationality and even less dogmatic content, and with little stability. This worldwide phenomenon poses a question to us all: what is this new form of Christianity saying to us, for better and for worse? In any event, it raises afresh the question about what has enduring validity and what can or must be changed – the question of our fundamental faith choice.

The second challenge to worldwide Christianity of which I wish to speak is more profound and in our country more controversial: the secularized context of the world in which we Christians today have to live and bear witness to our faith. God is increasingly being driven out of our society, and the history of revelation that Scripture recounts to us seems locked into an ever more remote past. Are we to yield to the pressure of secularization, and become modern by watering down the faith? Naturally faith today has to be thought out afresh, and above all lived afresh, so that it is suited to the present day. Yet it is not by watering the faith down, but by living it today in its fullness that we achieve this.

This is a key ecumenical task. Moreover, we should help one another to develop a deeper and more lively faith. It is not strategy that saves us and saves Christianity, but faith – thought out and lived afresh; through such faith, Christ enters this world of ours, and with him, the living God. As the martyrs of the Nazi era brought us together and prompted the first great ecumenical opening, so today, faith that is lived from deep within amid a secularized world is the most powerful ecumenical force that brings us together, guiding us towards unity in the one Lord.


  1. I supplied the last sentence from the version (nearly identical to that of Chiesa) that can be found on "Whispers in the Loggia".

  2. Having recently finished D.B. Wyndham-Lewis' excellent book, CHARLES V, wherein he discusses with perfect clarity the reality of Martin Luther and the entire Reformation, I want to break down in tears after reading what Benedict has said. That a Pope can say these things, a Pope who knows perfectly well the true history of the Reformation, shows us that we are far from extricating ourselves from this horrible swamp.

    Words fail me. Only grief and sorrow for the Church remain. And the realization that this man is in desperate need of prayers.

  3. Anonymous4:18 PM

    Where is the challenge that if we re-unite our efforts in the one, true Church established by Jesus Christ we can change the world? Is there not truth in the dictum that "united we stand, divided we fall" and doesn't that apply to those that have separated themselves from the Vicar of Christ in the Reformation? Is it not time that we profess the one, same Creed? Just askin'


  4. John McFarland5:01 PM

    It is hard to see how any traditional Catholic can do anything but reject this address root and branch.

    But then the same can be said for any ecumenical address.

  5. Anonymous5:38 PM

    So much praise for the vile Luther - from the pope no less. Nauseating.

  6. Igumen Gregory5:46 PM

    I am sorry to inform you that all who separated themselves at the time of the reformation are all long dead.

  7. Tradical6:12 PM

    Hi Igumen,

    I believe 'anon 16:18' is referring to the fact that they have not objectively manifested a desire of separating themselves from the original schism / heresy of Luther et al.

    Subjectively it is possible that some are in a case of invincible ignorance but that does not invalidate the objective case.

  8. Tradical, actually they have given up several doctrine Luther exposed and have given up several doctrines Lutherans 30 years ago exposed. Lutheranism is continually being watered down, as is Anglicanism. We actually have less in common with modern Lutherans than we did at Luther's time.

  9. Picard7:58 PM

    "It was the error of the Reformation period that for the most part we could only see what divided us and we failed to grasp existentially what we have in common in terms of the great deposit of sacred Scripture and the early Christian creeds. The great ecumenical step forward of recent decades is that we have become aware of all this common ground..."

    But that is exactly what was condemned by the Popes before - to look more to and emphazise the common things than (to) the dividing ones.

    And if that really was an "error of the Reformation Period" that "we failed to grasp ... what we have in common" then St. Ignatius was in error, St. Pius V, and all the other Saints and Popes and Churchmen of this period!?!

    That´s not hermeneutic of Continuity, btw...

  10. Picard,
    It is an empirically verifiable fact. There would not be 35,000 different Protestant denominations if Protestants were concerned about seeing what united them.

    Yes, the blame is squarely on the Protestant side (as the empirical evidence proves), but Rome is not blameless either. If Rome had been, neither the Orthodox nor the SSPX would have left the Church, and possibly Protestantism would not have happened and Martin Luther would have been the lone long forgotten voice of a mad-man.

  11. Anonymous9:32 PM

    When will the pope visit the SSPX seminary?

  12. Anonymous9:39 PM

    I will try to keep my temper down to write this.

    The Lutherans, of all people, do not need to be told that the Catholic Church claims to be the one true Church established by Jesus; they get that part. What they need is to be convinced of it, both intellectually and experientially.

    In other words, if you want any Protestants (or Orthodox, for that matter) to recognize Peter's authority in the present Pope, they have to see in him an Apostle and not merely some guy trying to con his way into power. In the person of the Pope, they have to be persuaded to see the image of Christ and not antichrist. They need to see Catholics in their own towns behaving as more authentic Christians than the people they know from non-Catholic churches. (E.g., the witness of Catholics to pro-life causes has converted a lot of people who otherwise wouldn't have given Catholicism a second look.) These will have to do for signs and wonders in our time.

    Let us imagine, for argument's sake, that God somehow ordained that America should be ruled by a king. Someone who showed up claiming to be the rightful king of America would be seen as an insane megalomaniac if he started issuing decrees and demanding his 'subjects' bow to his as-yet unrecognized majesty. Far better for him to patiently and delicately make the case for God having ordained a different form of government, and only then for his particular authority at the top of it. To someone who has not already accepted Catholic premises, Mortalium Animos is thoroughly unconvincing.

  13. Abel Meyers10:52 PM


    Your key difficulty is this one assertion: "What they need is to be convinced of it, both intellectually and experiential."

    Simply put, believe it or not, bishops and priests are not sinless Gods. Even the first bishops, the apostles had Judas in their mists. SSPX has bad bishops and priests too, as do the Orthodox (a google search can confirm both without much difficulty).

    Anyone who expects that his church will be perfect will be doomed to create a new denomination every time someone you don't like joins.

    That's the whole point of what the Pope is talking about. Protestantism at it's core is a self-destructive faith that will either be continually watered down or break into so many factions that it has no effective witness.

    Do you think that there aren't raging arguments within the Catholic Church and even martyrdoms between factions with the Church? Of course there are, look at history. Look at the Bible itself. Most prophets we killed by the same Jews that later honored them. But like the Jews of that time, true Catholics do not renounce their Catholicism when there is factionalism and they certainly don't deny the truths they believe "to be ecumenical within the Church" (at least until the Pope or Council referees and infallibly renders a decision on one side or the other).

  14. Anonymous11:02 PM

    The only legitimate 'encounter' with Martin Luther would have been to burn him at the stake. Because this never happened, countless souls have been lost.


  15. John McFarland11:12 PM

    Dear Craig,

    Do you think that the Lutherans are likely to be convinced to become Catholics by statements of the Pope talking about the things that "unite" us?

    Would the proverbial man from Mars come away from reading the Pope's remarks with the impression that the Pope had any interest in convincing his auditors to become Catholics?

    This seems to me a worse scandal than any of the scandals that you enumerate.

    Finally, I would remind you that a Lutheran scandalized out of embracing the true Faith is different from a Lutheran who does not embrace the true Faith for other reasons or none, only in the quality of his lodgings in Hell, and perhaps the presence of those who scandalized him. Those who give scandal can repent; the only cure for infidelity is Faith.

  16. Benedict XVI is so courteous and courageous. The protesters are nowhere.

  17. I know our great Pope it trying to be politically-correct and ecumenical at the same time, but let's get to the bottom of Luther's agenda:

    He was a Monk who married a Nun, and had "farting matches" with the devil!

    This sounds less like a religious leader, and more like a psychopath; yet, millions revere him.

  18. Anonymous3:35 AM

    Abel, I agree with you entirely except for one thing: I did not say bishops and priests had to be sinless, only that if you want to convince others that the Church is essential to the Gospel, then both the clergy and the laity should (on balance) manifest the love of Christ to other men and do it better than those who do not know Christ and his Church. Sometimes the unbelievers get it right, as when they make bumper stickers saying "Don't tell me how much you love Jesus; let me figure it out".

    Every heretic burned then only served to spawn a million Richard Dawkinses today. Every pogrom then is one more obstacle keeping the Jews from seeing Christ today.

    John, do you think that the Lutherans are likely to be convinced to become Catholics by claims that the most honest and devoted among their families can never have hoped for better than Hell, simply because of the circumstances of their birth? That is more likely to convince them that God cruelly stacks the deck against most people, that in reality God is not love. It will make atheists of them (or at best double-predestination Calvinists), not Catholics.

    Lastly, any rule that excludes honest Lutherans from heaven despite their sincerity can exclude honest Lefebvrians by the same principle.

  19. When we read the papal statements about Luther we can see and understand how disorientated the neo-Catholic eceumenical paradigm has become. This is a complete revision of the pre-conciliar position. Ladies and Gentlemen, the rupture is achieved. The "bastions" have been rased. All that remains is to hybridise the Holy Mass - Latin with NO and the defeat of tradition is final.
    And for those who doubt this? Watch & listen to what will happen next.

  20. Anonymous10:17 AM

    This board is saturated with naturalism.

    A Catholic presumes that everyone receives sufficient actual grace to know the Truth (the Catholic Faith) and to embrace it. Period. That is the presumption of traditional Catholic theology.

    The rest is left God's justice.

  21. Ma Tucker10:26 AM

    I thought he blew Luther out of the water with simple common sense in this address.

    I really see no point in him being impolite regarding Luther and his bowl habits. That would have been counterproductive.

    The Pope simply pointed out that there are things in which we are agreed and things upon which we disagree.
    Luther said
    "Be a sinner and sin strongly, but more strongly have faith and rejoice in Christ."

    Pope Benedict corrects this. Sin does matter. We need to practice the virtues. There can be no genuine faith that does not seek to practice the virtues. This is a polite and gentle correction. The Pope is saying LUTHER'S THINKING WAS WRONG. He is simply speaking the truth to error. Sin does matter. We need to practice the virtues. There can be no genuine faith that does not seek to practice the virtues.

    The truth is given to us by Jesus Christ to free man. It is not to be used as cudgel with which to beat them surely.

  22. Anonymous12:10 PM

    What strikes me as decidedly Lutheran in the original sense is that people feel they have the right to criticize and pass judgment on the Pope in the court of public opinion, which has no authority over the Pope or the Church. Luther nailed his 95 theses on the -outside- of the church door, showing that he was appealing to the court of public opinion; today he uses the internet.

    Oremus proo Papa Nostro Benedicto!

  23. Anonymous12:43 PM

    An outstanding address by the Holy Father.

  24. "Lefebvrians...."

    Such a phenomenon does not exist. This is a meaningless label.

  25. M. A.2:48 PM

    "What strikes me as decidedly Lutheran in the original sense is that people feel they have the right to criticize and pass judgment on the Pope in the court of public opinion,.."

    Not True, anon 1210. It is the previous magisterial,infallible teaching of the Church which passes judgment on the novelties of the post-conciliar popes.

    Our Lady of Fatima alerted us to diabolical disorientation reaching to the very top. It is for us to prayerfully maintain watch lest we be swept away into apostasy.

  26. Anonymous5:17 PM

    This speech gives so many mixed messages. Does the Holy Father write all his own speeches? There is something about it that is so forced - contrived - appeasing , that it does not "sound" like him.

    I'd like to ask the people who think that it is a great speech some questions:

    1.Doesn't it disturb you to read that The Pope, The Vicar of Christ was 'deeply moved' to attend a meeting of the Council of the Lutheran Church - whose founder did all in his power to destroy "The Mystical Body of Christ?

    2.Doesn't this disturb you - "For him theology was no mere academic pursuit, but the struggle for oneself, which in turn was a struggle for and with God." ? This sounds almost like a compliment to me - and if it is - then it is disturbing.

    3. And this: "Luther’s thinking, his whole spirituality, was thoroughly Christocentric: "What promotes Christ’s cause was for Luther the decisive hermeneutical criterion for the exegesis of sacred Scripture." Are you not disturbed that the Vicar of Christ, The Head of the Catholic Church SAID THIS?

    4. and finally this "I would respond by saying that the first and most important thing for ecumenism is that we keep in view just how much we have in common,..." What? What does the Catholic Church Divinely revealed and instituted on earth by Our Lord have in common with a church subjectively invented by a man who did what HE WANTED, and from what I have read - was "not quite right in the head?" You could say the same about the Muslims who "borrow" some Christian ideas and mix them up with their own fairy-tale theology - we have "things" in common with them. Do we not?

    Ir would appear that these ecumenical meetings are utterly pointless - and confusing and the Holy Father is too intelligent not to know this (Heavens - he's brilliant!) and he doesn't need my 3 cents worth. So what's going on?

    I remain his perplexed, but loyal daughter.


  27. Anonymous10:18 PM

    M.A. You are welcome (even under Canon Law) to bring up your concerns to the Holy Father. Have you tried writing him? I don't see how someone who claims to be truly Catholic would appeal to public opinion, or why a Catholic would believe in private interpretation of Tradition any more than in private interpretation of Sacred Scripture. The -method- of expressing concerns or criticisms strikes me as thoroughly Protestant, whether the content is or not.


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