On 23 September 2017, the National Catholic Register reported that a group of Catholic clergy and scholars had issued a “filial correction” (Correctio filialis in Latin) to Pope Francis, a step that has not been taken since 1333 when Pope John XXII occupied the seat of St. Peter. To call the Correctio historic, as many have been doing, is thus no exaggeration, and it underlines the ever-increasing gravity of the crisis that has been brewing for some time now in the Catholic Church. The website dedicated to the Correctio introduces the statement as follows:
A 25-page letter signed by 40 Catholic clergy and lay scholars was delivered to Pope Francis on August 11th. Since no answer was received from the Holy Father, it is being made public today, 24th September, Feast of Our Lady of Ransom and of Our Lady of Walsingham. The letter, which is open to new signatories, now has the names of 62 clergy and lay scholars from 20 countries, who also represent others lacking the necessary freedom of speech. It has a Latin title: ‘Correctio filialis de haeresibus propagatis’ (literally, ‘A filial correction concerning the propagation of heresies’). It states that the pope has, by his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris laetitia, and by other, related, words, deeds and omissions, effectively upheld 7 heretical positions about marriage, the moral life, and the reception of thesacraments, and has caused these heretical opinions to spread in the Catholic Church.
As I read the text of the Correctio itself, I was most interested to see that the writers and signatories of the document dedicated the final pages to addressing not only the alleged “7 heretical positions” upheld by Pope Francis, but also to what they interpret as the encroachment of Protestant influence — specifically in the form of Martin Luther’s ideas — on the pope’s thinking and teaching. They write:
In the second place, we feel compelled by conscience to advert to Your Holiness’s unprecedented sympathy for Martin Luther, and to the affinity between Luther’s ideas on law, justification, and marriage, and those taught or favoured by Your Holiness in Amoris laetitia and elsewhere….
[Luther] claims that faith justifies man insofar as the punishing justice withdraws into mercy and is changed permanently into forgiving love. This is made possible out of a “joyful bargain” (fröhlicher Wechseln) by which the sinner can say to Christ: “You are my righteousness just as I am your sin” (LW 48:12; cf. also 31:351; 25:188). By this “happy exchange”, Christ becomes the only sinner and we are justified through the acceptance of the Word in faith….
The gospel does not teach that all sins will in fact be forgiven, nor that Christ alone experienced the ‘judgement’ or justice of God, leaving only mercy for the rest of mankind. While there is a ‘vicarious suffering’ of our Lord in order to expiate our sins, there is not a ‘vicarious punishment’, for Christ was made “sin for us” (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21) and not a sinner. Out of divine love, and not as the object of God’s wrath, Christ offered the supreme sacrifice of salvation to reconcile us with God, taking upon himself only the consequences of our sins (cf. Gal. 3:13). Hence, so that we may be justified and saved, it is not sufficient to have faith that our sins have been removed by a supposed vicarious punishment; our justification lies in a conformity to our Saviour achieved by that faith which works through charity (cf. Gal. 5:6).
Most Holy Father, permit us also to express our wonderment and sorrow at two events occurring in the heart of the Church, which likewise suggest the favour in which the German heresiarch is held under Your pontificate. On January 15th, 2016, a group of Finnish Lutherans were granted Holy Communion in the course of a celebration of Holy Mass that took place at St Peter’s basilica. On 13th October, 2016, Your Holiness presided over a meeting of Catholics and Lutherans in the Vatican, addressing them from a stage on which a statue of Martin Luther was erected. (Correctio filialis de haeresibus propagatis, 12, 16)
There is clearly a lot going on here, and it is not my intention to evaluate the merits, or possible lack thereof, of the Correctio‘s allegations. I only want to draw attention to the fact that, as attested by the Correctio itself, the movement of ecclesial reform that began 500 years ago when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses against the abuses of papal indulgences still matters today, and that for at least two reasons.
First, Luther and his demands for reform seem to be gaining something of a hearing in the upper echelons of the Catholic hierarchy, as represented by Pope Francis and others sympathetic to his views. Now I do not want to exaggerate this claim, as even I have expressed concern in the past relative to the pope’s underlying intentions, but I have no doubt that Francis does desire to reform the Catholic Church, and Luther seems to be playing a role in that, however minor it may be. This to me seems beyond question, evidenced by the fact that the signatories of the Correctio perceive Luther’s influence on the pope to be significant enough as to warrant attention in the document.
Second, in opposing key points of Luther’s teaching, the Correctio reveals why the Catholic Church does indeed still need reform to bring it into greater conformity with the Word of God. Two key statements bear this out: that 1) “Christ offered the supreme sacrifice of salvation to reconcile us with God, taking upon himself only the consequences of our sins”; and 2) “it is not sufficient to have faith that our sins have been removed by a supposed vicarious punishment; our justification lies in a conformity to our Saviour achieved by that faith which works through charity (cf. Gal. 5:6).”
Now the first statement is problematic when set alongside certain biblical assertions. For example, Paul argues in Romans 8:1,3 that “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.” Verse 1 is unequivocal: there is now no condemnation for those in Christ! The justification of those in Christ is not in question; it is an accomplished reality. And it is an accomplished reality not on the basis of their own “works through charity”, but simply on the basis of union with Christ. This is further grounded in the fact that in Christ God did not, contrary to the Correctio, deal with “only the consequences of our sin”, but also sin itself: “he condemned sin in the flesh [of his own Son].” The cross did not merely take away the guilt of sin; it went to the very root of sin entrenched in human flesh and condemned it there. Thus, having dealt with both sin and its consequences, Paul can confidently declare that there is no condemnation for those in Christ.
Or we can consider Hebrews 10:11-12,14: “And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God…. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” Again, the finality of Christ’s vicarious accomplishment is not in doubt. In contrast with the Old Covenant sacrifices which could never take away, Christ’s single self-offering did! This is why follows the astonishing declaration that Christ has in that single self-offering already “perfected for all time” those who are sanctified in him. This salvation is not something that hangs in the balance dependent on our working through love; it is an accomplished and completed reality in Christ.
Thus, with regard to the second of the Correctio‘s statements, it is enough to have faith that God has dealt once and for all with our sin in Christ. Whether “vicarious punishment” is the appropriate phrase to describe this act is another question. But the vicarious nature of what Christ achieved is clear. As John Calvin stated, every benefit and grace of our salvation is found in Jesus Christ, and it is thus simply through union with him—displayed in our baptism (Rom. 6)—that we come to partake of all that is in him. The decisive locus of our salvation is not in ourselves but, as Paul tirelessly repeats over and over, “in Christ”. It is thus simply by looking to Christ in faith—just as the Israelites looked to the bronze serpent in the wilderness—that we enjoy the eternal life which is in him (John 3:14-16). Inasmuch as the Catholic Church (at least as represented by the Correctio) continues to insist otherwise, it stands in need of reformation according to the Word of God.
Thus Luther’s legacy remains as relevant five hundred years later as ever. Not that Luther was perfect, far from it actually! But the movement of reform that he by God’s grace was instrumental in launching in the sixteenth century did accomplish much in recalling the church to greater fidelity to the Word of God, and we would be wise to listen to its insights and renew our commitment to carrying forward its mission in the twenty-first century.