Martin Luther

As year six begins, Pope Francis’s devotion to Mary shows a traditionalist streak

As year six begins, Pope Francis’s devotion to Mary shows a traditionalist streak

Liberal Catholics have often rejoiced, and Catholic conservatives have sometimes grumbled, over Pope Francis, who was elected on March 13, five years ago.

A Pew Research survey (.pdf here) released in time for the anniversary shows 84 percent of U.S. Catholics over-all have a favorable opinion of Francis -- but 55 percent of Catholic Republicans find him “too liberal” (up from 23 percent in 2015). Yes, it would have been nice to see some survey questions framed in doctrinal terms, rather than this political reference point.

 A new decree on the Virgin Mary reminds reporters going forward that the pontiff does have a traditionalist streak worth remembering, as surely as there’s a perennially interesting feature theme in how Catholicism honors the mother of Jesus Christ and the resulting ecumenical conflict.

Upon endorsement from Francis, the new decree was issued March 3 by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. (Why such convoluted titles at the Vatican?). It states that all church calendars and liturgies will now honor Mary as the “Mother of the Church” the day after Pentecost Sunday, also citing her “divine motherhood” and “intimate union in the work of the Redeemer.”

This is an annual “memorial,” the lowest level of recognition in worship. But higher “solemnities” with obligatory Mass attendance are already on the universal calendar, hailing Mary under the dogmas of her bodily Assumption into heaven (August 15) and her Immaculate Conception free from original sin (December 8). Those provide yearly feature pegs.

Writers who want to develop this aspect of the pope’s personal piety should read a 2015 rundown in the doctrinally conservative National Catholic Register. For instance, twelve hours after the cardinals elected Francis, he quietly visited the Basilica of St. Mary Major to venerate the icon of Mary as the Protectress of the Romans.

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Spies, lies and morality: Could Christian agents use deceit or illicit sex?

Spies, lies and morality: Could Christian agents use deceit or illicit sex?

THE QUESTION: Is it moral for a Christian to work as a spy, and in the process deceive the enemy or employ illicit sex to obtain essential information?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER: Let's explore that fascinating ethical topic, raised by a recent lead article in Providence, a young “journal of Christianity & American foreign policy.” See this link. The journal’s cover illustration, from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1946 movie “Notorious,” showed a U.S. agent (Cary Grant) who seduces and recruits a woman (Ingrid Berman) to exploit her sexuality and spy on Nazis in Brazil.

Fiction aside, consider true-to-life British agent Amy Elizabeth (Betty) Thorpe, who operated during World War Two under the code name Cynthia. She seduced the press attache at the embassy of France’s pro-Nazi Vichy regime and enlisted him in traitorous deceit to feed her secret information. (They later married.) Thorpe had no apologies. She was told her efforts saved thousands of British and American lives and explained, “Wars are not won by respectable methods.”

Providence is neo-conservative in outlook and takes inspiration from liberal Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), who forsook youthful pacifism to espouse “Christian realism” and endorse a necessary “just war” as moral. The journal likewise believes Christians should support use of military force when it’s ethical in terms of the who, the why, and the how.

If we assume soldiering and killing in combat are moral to defend the innocent and one’s country, it makes sense that spying on the enemy for a good cause is an acceptable vocation for a Christian. But if so, what tactics should spies employ, or shun?

Those matters were addressed in Providence by Darrell Cole, an ethics professor at Drew University, whose pertinent  book “Just War and the Ethics of Espionage” (Routledge) has just been issued in paperback. To cut to the chase -- or the chaste -- Cole accepts lying to help a just cause but flatly rejects sexual seduction. Let’s unpack this.

First, is it always evil to bear false witness?

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After New York City terror, once more: How can Islam overcome its violent faction?

After New York City terror, once more: How can Islam overcome its violent faction?

The worst church massacre in U.S. history has all but overshadowed the prior New York City murder spree by a Muslim proclaiming "God is greatest."

But as a news theme, the earlier atrocity certainly carries long-term significance. Oddly, it occurred on the exact date the Reformation began 500 years ago, and some Muslims and non-Muslims muse that Islam needs its own Martin Luther to launch sweeping change.

The big Protestant anniversary is behind us, but for years to come the news media will be covering the moral tragedy of a faction's religiously inspired terrorism. As many pundits observe, western outsiders cannot solve Islam's internal problems. The latest insider proposal:

Writing on Reformation Day, Mustafa Akyol rejected the idea of replicating Luther in a piece titled “The Islamic World Doesn’t Need a Reformation.” (This was posted by www.theatlantic.com, which holds first rank among magazine websites for timely and provocative news analysis about religion.)  

Akyol, a Turkish journalist, TV talker and New York Times op-ed contributor, was named a fellow at Wellesley College’s Freedom Project last January. His books include the pertinent “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty” (2011). Significantly, the book is also available in Turkish, Malay and Indonesian translations.

Though Aykol rejects the “Reformation” label, he does seek to renew his faith’s less violent mainstream tradition and foster tolerance. If so, what’s the matter with the Luther paradigm? For one thing, today’s conflict-ridden Muslim countries do not resemble Luther’s original protest but the later religious bloodshed between Catholic and Protestant armies.

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Will diverse membership save Maryland's Lutherans? Baltimore Sun thinks so, with little backup

Will diverse membership save Maryland's Lutherans? Baltimore Sun thinks so, with little backup

It's one of those old truisms that apparently remains true, a declaration by the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:  “We must face the sad fact that at the 11 o’ clock hour on Sunday morning when we stand to sing, we stand in the most segregated hour in America.”

Although many congregations retain a majority from one ethnic group or another, there have been plenty of movements to bridge the gap over the past 50 years or so. And while much, if not most, of the "mainline" Protestant denominations remain dominated by what one wag called "persons of pallor," The Baltimore Sun informs us that local congregations in two branches of American Lutheranism have been revitalized by the influx of non-white members.

Of course, the Sun was not content to position this as just a church news story -- it had to be tied into the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, triggered by one Martin Luther, after whom King was named.

Creating this tenuous link, of which more in a moment, is but one of the journalism problems afoot here. But start with the headline, "500 years after Luther, Lutherans embrace growing diversity" and this lead-in to the story:

When the Rev. Martin Schultheis gazed out over the pews at Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Catonsville on a Sunday 10 years ago, he saw about 200 faces. More than 95 percent, he estimates, were white.
Attendance has dropped since then -- these days, about 150 people attend Sunday services. But those who do go have a different look.
About one-fourth of the worshippers in the congregation are people of color -- a development that stands out in a branch of Christianity that has historically been slow to change.

We then are asked to see this as linked to five centuries of Lutheranism:

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More than an academic question: At year 500, what is the legacy of Protestantism?

More than an academic question: At year 500, what is the legacy of Protestantism?

The Religion Guy raised the above question and answers it with a few thoughts upon the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.

This vast, ongoing split in Christianity involved theology and spirituality, but as a journalist The Guy [disclosure: a lay Protestant] will emphasize culture. The uproar originated on October 31, 1517 (All Saints’ Eve), when Martin Luther issued his “95 Theses.” Matters evolved from there into a sweeping assault on the papacy and the Catholic Church.

Historians debate whether the tempestuous Wittenberg professor actually posted this protest on the legendary door of the town church or simply distributed it. Whatever, Luther sent a copy to the Germans’ most powerful churchman, Archbishop Albrecht, who fatefully referred it to the Vatican for scrutiny.

The “Theses” decried lavish sales of “indulgences” from the church’s “treasury of merits” to lessen punishments due for sins of the living and of the dead in Purgatory. Rid of corrupt money-raising, indulgences still operate in 2017 (per “Catechism of the Catholic Church” #1471 – 1479).

The indulgence money was supposed to fund construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. But Albrecht skimmed off half the proceeds to repay a loan of 23,000 ducats he used to purchase leadership of Germany’s most lucrative diocese -- at age 23!  When Luther faced Catholic derision for violating his monk’s vows and marrying, he told Albrecht to end his unwed sexual partnership!

In other words, late medieval Catholicism had some problems. Nonetheless, was this split necessary?

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How can journalists begin to comprehend all those labels that divide Christians?

How can journalists begin to comprehend all those labels that divide Christians?

WENDI’S QUESTION (paraphrased):

Denominational. Non-denominational. Fundamentalist. Baptist. Mormon. Methodist. Assembly of God. Etc. Etc.: How do we know what type of beliefs these are? Why or why not claim to be ‘Christian’ without anything else added? This is confusing me.

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Wendi has good reason to be confused, especially about the incredibly complex situation in the United States this article will seek to unscramble. By contrast, one or two churches often denominate in European countries and there are fewer minorities. The same was once generally true in developing nations that now have an ever-increasing variety of churches.

Contrast that with the New Testament, where followers of Jesus Christ were simply “Christians” or adherents of “the way.” Jesus himself prayed to God the Father that his followers “may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that You sent me and loved them even as You loved me” (John 17:23).

On the church’s founding day, Pentecost, barriers of language and ethnicity miraculously vanished (Acts 2). The Apostle Paul taught that “there is neither Jew nor Greek” in God’s kingdom “for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28) and that Christians share “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5).

Such is the Christian ideal. But does this spiritual unity require membership within one organization, as the ancient churches -- Catholic and Orthodox -- believe (though they have many distinct subgroups)? Are separate organizations based on culture or doctrinal details appropriate?

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How fares Protestantism upon its 500th anniversary? Depends on where you look

How fares Protestantism upon its 500th anniversary? Depends on where you look

Ed Stetzer of Wheaton College (Illinois) furrowed many a brow with an April 28 Washington Post warning that “if current trends continue” without letup, Americans active in “Mainline” Protestant churches will reach zero by Easter 2039.

Talk about timing.

That bleak forecast -- mitigated by U.S. “Evangelical” Protestants’ relative stability -- comes in the 500th anniversary year of the Reformation. This massive split in Christianity was sparked by a protest petition posted by 34-year-old German friar and professor Martin Luther on All Souls’ Eve (October 31) of 1517.

The Protestant scenario is rosy at the world level, however, according to anniversary tabulations by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC) at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, a standard resource for statistics and trend lines from 1900 to the present (media contact here).  

Director Todd Johnson scanned the situation for Stetzer’s blog at ChristianityToday.com with a 500-year infographic summary (.pdf here).

The CSGC anniversary report is especially useful because Pew Research Center’s comprehensive April update on world religions had numbers for Christianity as a whole but did not break out the Protestant segment. Pew does offer an estimate that 37 percent of the world’s Christians are Protestant if you include Anglicans and the burgeoning “Independents” in the developing world.

CSGC counts Anglicans as Protestant but treats the Independents, non-existent until the 20th Century, as a new, large, expanding and separate Christian branch from Protestantism. Despite some similarities, such churches lack direct ties with historic Protestant denominations.

From its 1517 start, Protestantism grew to claim 133 million followers in 1900, nearly doubled that by 1970, and more than doubled again to reach an estimated 560 million this year, with a projected 626 million by 2025. The faith exists in nearly all the globe’s 234 nations and territories.

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Bookish reporting ahead: J-preps for Protestant Reformation’s 500th anniversary in 2017

Bookish reporting ahead: J-preps for Protestant Reformation’s 500th anniversary in 2017

When the Religion Guy worked at Time magazine and The Associated Press, he made every effort to read a book per week. He also vowed to give important books as much publicity as conditions allowed because “mainstream” print media increasingly neglected religion titles. 

That neglect underscores the importance of reporters keeping up with book reviews in religious periodicals, especially the sophisticated, content-rich Books & Culture: A Christian Review. Otherwise, how can busy newswriters sift through those looming piles of review copies and decide which to cover?

Quick tip: No index, no review.

For astute religion writers, the book scene comes to the fore right now due to a huge upcoming story, the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017. This epochal event deserves careful advance thought about special story packages or series. And that means journalists need some historical reading under the belt to develop the themes to ponder with scholars.

As Thomas Albert Howard of Gordon College wrote four years ago in Books & Culture, the Reformation “has been credited (or blamed) for the rise of the modern nation state, liberalism, capitalism, religious wars, tolerance, America, democracy, individualism, subjectivism, pluralism, freedom of conscience, modern science, secularism, Nazism, and so much else.” He could have added the expansion of literacy, worship in common languages, and the assault on mandatory celibacy.

The agenda includes the title of a 2005 book by Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom: “Is The Reformation Over?” Does the old Protestant-Catholic divide still make sense in the secularizing West? What crucial differences remain today?

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500 years later, how do Protestants and Catholics view each other?

500 years later, how do Protestants and Catholics view each other?

GORDON’S QUESTION:

Is the divide between Protestants and Catholics growing or shrinking?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Will Pope Francis Break the Church?” 

The Atlantic attached that overwrought headline to a sober analysis of internal Catholic tensions written by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat.

No, Francis won’t, despite weighty issues the article surveyed. But a dramatic “break” did actually happen, beginning in 1517 when Martin Luther posted what history calls the “95 Theses.” The German Catholic priest protested sales of indulgences to help the pope build St. Peter’s Basilica “with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.” (Text here.)

Thus began the Protestant Reformation, which quickly raised many other church issues, defied the papacy, split European Christendom, changed the course of civil society and government — and echoes loudly to the present day.

The big 500th anniversary upcoming in 2017 will feature academic confabs and many other observances. The Religion Guy has already received a glossy brochure mailed by the German tourist agency titled “Luther 2017: 500 Years Since the Reformation.” A subhead reads “In the beginning was the Word.”

Indeed, Luther’s Bible translation shaped the modern German language and inspired many other popular translations that supplanted Catholicism’s authorized Latin version. Sadly, Luther’s own devotion to the Bible and its teachings has a diminishing hold on the nominal Protestants of his homeland.

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