Encouraging commemorations in all dioceses of the world, the Pontifical Council notes the theme is drawn from the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
In 2017, it says, “Lutheran and Catholic Christians will for the first time commemorate together the beginning of the Reformation.”
The text also states that “Catholics are now able to hear Luther’s challenge for the Church of today, recognizing him as a ‘witness to the gospel.’”
The announcement follows on the heels of Pope Francis’ controversial trip to Lund, Sweden, where he joined in the launch of the 500th year anniversary of the most devastating split in Christianity in its history.
The Lutheran Church of Sweden to which Pope Francis went for the celebration accepts contraception, abortion, homosexuality, and female clergy, all of which are strictly and unalterably forbidden in the Catholic Church.
Nevertheless, the Vatican is pushing the joint celebration of the Reformation focusing on the common element of “Jesus Christ and his work of reconciliation as the center of Christian faith.”
The theme of the week of Christian unity has Vatican watchers wondering if the Pope may announce that in certain limited cases intercommunion for Protestants might be possible.
The Pope suggested such previously in an informal talk at a Lutheran parish in Rome where in November 2015 he told a Lutheran woman asking about receiving Communion with her Catholic husband to “go forward” guided by individual conscience.
That suspicion was given momentum last month when Cardinal Walter Kasper, one of the Pope’s closest advisors, said he hoped that the Pope’s “next declaration opens the way for shared Eucharistic communion in special cases.”
Eucharistic intercommunion is the main desire for Lutheran and Catholic leaders involved in the Papal participation in the Lutheran commemoration.
Swedish Professor Dr. Clemens Cavallin in an essay on “Sweden and the 500-year reformation anamnesis” notes that the Church of Sweden webpage states explicitly about the pope’s visit: “What we foremost wish is that the common celebration of the Eucharist will be officially possible. This is especially important for families where members belong to different denominations.”
The severity of the change, if implemented, was stressed by Monsignor Nicola Bux, a former consulter to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. If the Church were to change its rules on shared Eucharistic Communion, it would “go against Revelation and the Magisterium,” leading Christians to “commit blasphemy and sacrilege,” Bux told Ed Pentin of the National Catholic Register.
Regarding the Eucharist, Lutherans have a fundamentally different faith from Catholics, who believe that during the consecration at Mass the bread used becomes the body and blood of Jesus Christ while still looking like bread. Lutherans believe in a fleeting presence – that while Christ is present in the bread during the service, it is just normal bread again outside the service.
The approach of Pope Francis to a joint commemoration of the Reformation is partially based on a “naïve” understanding of the theological dialogue between Lutherans and Catholics, according to former Anglican, now Catholic priest Fr. Dwight Longenecker.
Fr. Longenecker points to this statement of Pope Francis about Martin Luther as problematic: “Today, Lutherans and Catholics, Protestants, all of us agree on the doctrine of justification. On this point, which is very important, he did not err.”
Pope Francis draws his enthusiasm for this agreement on a Joint Declaration between Catholics and Lutherans on the Doctrine of Justification.
However, Fr. Longenecker points out that the Vatican issued a detailed official clarification document wherein Pope Benedict (while still serving as Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith) pointed out that there was not a consensus between Catholics and Lutherans on the understanding of justification.
“The level of agreement is high, but it does not yet allow us to affirm that all the differences separating Catholics and Lutherans in the doctrine concerning justification are simply a question of emphasis or language,” said the document. “Some of these differences concern aspects of substance and are therefore not all mutually compatible.”