Monday, April 22, 2002

Fr. Joseph Lortz

Last week I mentioned a german Jesuit theologian, Fr. Joseph Lortz, whose career has been devoted to studying the Reformation in general and Martin Luther in particular. For Catholic theologians involved in ecumenical dialogue -- especially with Lutherans -- Fr. Lortz was a major figure in the mid-twentieth century; this is seen in that there is a "Lortz school" of Catholic Luther scholars.

I've been reading Fr. Lortz's The Reformation: A Problem for Today, and it is outstanding. Fr. Lortz is a wonderful example of a theologian who is unabashedly committed to orthodox Catholicism yet is able to engage in real, authentic dialogue with those from other faith communities. That is, he is able to perceive what is beautiful, good, and true in the doctrines held by others, yet able to be critical of them when necessary. His writing is completely honest yet free from decisive polemics. He strongly believes in the urgent necessity for all Christians to come together as one, yet he just as strongly opposes a false unity, i.e. a unity not based on truth. To me, he shows how a Catholic can be thoroughly orthodox and thoroughly ecumenical. That such a statement can seem paradoxical or even contradictory today speaks volumes about the state of ecumenism in our time, but that's another story.

I'd like to share some passages from this book which particularly struck me as I read them.

Speaking about the Catholic Reform of the sixteenth century -- which arose both apart from and in response to Protestantism -- Fr. Lortz writes: Reform within the Church during the sixteenth century came predominantly from the countries of southern Europe, especially Spain and Italy. Post-Reformation Catholicism bears a strong Latin imprint. This presented certain disadvantages from the German point of view and has remained something of a difficulty right up to the present day. It is a form of penance immanent in the historical process which is imposed on the German people for the fact that the Reformation came from the section of the Church. However, the fact that Catholicism bears a predominantly Latin imprint is a loss for the entire Church and deprives it of real strength; Germany's contribution to the life of the whole Church was not enough.

This idea amazes me; I am intrigued by the thought that the Church in Germany was not able to make a sufficient contribution to the Reform of the (Catholic) Church, and that this is indeed a loss for the entire Church. As someone of predominantly german heritage, this strongly resonates with me. Fr. Lortz goes on to enumerate the vital contributions which the Church in Germany made throughout the first millennia and a half of Church history: Germany is not only the land of the Reformation; it is also the country that decisively saved the Papacy, in the tenth century and later restored its unity at the beginning of the fifteen century through the Emperor Sigismund. The influence of medieval Germany on the formation of the Latin liturgy and the Christianization of the East was of primary importance.

Father then points out how pre-Reformation Germany was not nearly as corrupt as Italy in the same period: Actually life had become not as paganized in Germany as in Italy at that time. For despite the radical humanism of the Erfurt school [the same place that Luther received his Ockhamist training] the utterly pagan lack of restraint in the pursuit of the joys of this life was never as promiment as in Italy, even at the papal court.

Yet after making this point, Fr. Lortz makes this thought-provoking assertion vis. the relationship between moral life and the religious life of the Church: In speaking of weaknesses within the Church, I strongly emphasized that the moral element was never really the decisive factor in the religious life of the Church during any given period. The truth of the fundamental principles on which a given age is structured makes the difference. Moral guilt of the worse type does not constitute the greatest evil that can afflict the Church at any time; far worse are doctrinal deviations that make it impossible to remedy a moral evil.

I am again astounded by this insight. What is most crucial in determining the life of the Church is not the moral health of Christians (although that is clearly central), but rather the doctrinal health of the Church. Why? Because if you lack the latter, you cannot heal the former. This insight seems to me to have been demonstrated in our own day in the sexual morality (or lack thereof) taught to Catholics in high school and college. Because that moral theology was... well... wrong, the spiritual and hence moral life of Catholics was stunted. Bad theology leads to bad morality. But good theology can "cure" bad morality. It's that simple.

Returning to the Reform of the Church in the sixteenth century, Fr. Lortz states matter-of-factly, "The saints are the ones who save the day". Continuing this line of thought, he writes this amazing line: the Saint does not leave the world so that he can watch the world go by; he leaves it so that he can properly assess it and then return and conquer it." Yes! How purely true! We as Christians are called to separate ourselves from the world, but not simply to sit back and judge the decadence and errors of the world, as some would have it, but in order to prepare and train ourselves to return to the world and save it as Christ's instruments! Fr. Lortz's insight here reminds me of a book by Hans Urs von Balthasar entitled Razing the Bastions, in which Balthasar argued -- writing in the 1950's before Vatican II -- that the Church had to tear down the ramparts it had erected since the French Revolution (and even the Reformation) to protect itself from the world and its ways. While this defensive measure was necessary at the time, now -- having sufficiently assessed the situation from behind those castle walls -- the Church has to engage in a grand offensive to take back the world from the secularism which has swept across it. And that's precisely what Vatican II called for, and precisely what we -- Catholic or not -- must do. Engage the world, assimilate what is true therein, and then proclaim the Gospel in a language understandable in our day and age.

I'll continue with more from Fr. Lortz later.

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