As one of 15 panelists invited to address an international conference at the Vatican in March, Dr. Christopher Ocker, Professor of Church History at San Francisco Theological Seminary, contributed to a reassessment of the Reformation.
The theme of the event was “Luther 500 years later: A rereading of the Lutheran Reformation in its historical and ecclesial context.” The event was organized by the Pontifical Committee of Historical Sciences to mark this year’s 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
Ocker was the only panelist invited from the United States. He presented a paper titled “Financial Interests and the Secularization of Church Property,” based largely on his book, Church Robbers and Reformers in Germany. Confiscation of church property—for example, the appropriation of monasteries for use as Protestant schools—“was absolutely essential in shaping the Protestant movement,” he explains. His paper also examined the political role that Protestant theologians played in developing a rationale for confiscating property.
Other speakers addressed such topics as the development of Martin Luther’s theology and its relationship to late medieval thought, the relationship of church and state during the Reformation, and Catholic reform movements.
Ocker and other participants in the three-day event were surprised to receive a private audience with Pope Francis. In his comments to them, His Holiness applauded “careful and rigorous study, free of prejudice and polemical ideology,” which allows the Catholic Church to recognize and embrace what was positive in the reforms.
He continued, “I confess to you that the first feeling that I had when confronted with this initiative . . . was a feeling of gratitude to God, accompanied by a certain amazement at the thought that not long ago a conference of this kind was completely unthinkable.”
Ocker notes what he calls a major “historical shift” in Catholic scholarship in recent decades. “It used to be common for Catholic historians to dismiss Luther as a heretic,” he explains. “Since the 1950s, it became more common for Catholic scholars to view him as a kind of Catholic reformer,” while other historians increasingly stressed the variety and similarities of Catholic and Protestant reform movements. This trend in historical scholarship contributed to Catholic-Protestant ecumenism before and during Vatican II. While the trend continued among scholars, it may not have been so openly embraced by the Vatican since the council, until now.
Ocker says he came away from the conference convinced of the need “to rethink the role of Christianity in a culturally and religiously pluralistic world.” Protestants and Catholics should continue to “work together, find points of agreement,” rather than wait to “achieve formal institutional unity,” Ocker says.
“The bottom line for both Catholics and Protestants should be to follow the teachings of Jesus.”