ON 31 OCTOBER 1517, the German Augustinian friar, Martin Luther, posted The Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, a critical document challenging the teaching and practices of the Catholic Church on indulgences. This act symbolically signifies the beginning of a period known as the Reformation in Europe. One spin off of this has been the splitting of the western Church into Catholic and Protestant denominations, followed by 500 years of sometimes tempestuous and often acrimonious relations among them.
Modern academics have commented that one extreme difficulty involving the issues concerning the doctrine of indulgences, sin and human nature, was their entanglement with European politics and ecclesiastical authority. Luther insisted that according to his conscience and judgement, the teaching of the Church is fallible. Pope Leo X, after heated debates, excommunicated Luther in 1521. Since then, the waves of reformation have been sweeping through Europe.
In the 1960s, Vatican II opened a window in the Catholic Church for the breeze of dialogue to blow through. The spirit of openness advocated by Vatican II inspired theological dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation. On 31 October 1999, both parties signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.
It encompasses a consensus on basic truths of the doctrine of justification and shows that the remaining differences in its explication are no longer the occasion for doctrinal condemnations.
This undoubtedly was the fruit of the dialogue undertaken during the 50 years since Vatican II and laid a strong foundation for ecumenical dialogue. In 2013, the Catholic Church and the Lutherans again jointly issued a declaration entitled, From Conflict to Communion. As another fruit of the ecumenical dialogue, the declaration enabled both Churches to commemorate all the historic events since the Reformation 500 years ago.
In the local context, in 2014 the Catholic Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hong Kong and the Methodist Church in Hong Kong jointly ratified a new Chinese translation of the Joint Declaration. This document was intended to enable the seed of ecumenical dialogue to take root in Chinese-language Christianity.
In all fairness, if the Lutheran and the Catholic Churches were unable to reconcile on theological issues, how could both Churches have been able to reach the consensus on the core of the theological issues and jointly sign the Declaration? What is done cannot be undone.
The current issue is: Do both parties continue to oppose each other or dialogue? The past 50 years’ experience has shown that both parties have opted for dialogue.
Traditionally, the universal Church observes the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity from January 18 to 25 every year. This year is marked by the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
The prayer intention proposed by the local Churches also mentions the continued renewal of every Church after the Reformation and the efforts made to practice justice and show sympathy while walking towards communion and unity.
Five hundred years after the Reformation and 50 years since the commencement of ecumenical dialogue, the local Churches, led by the Holy Spirit, should make concerted efforts to implement ecumenical work in Hong Kong and together bear witness to the gospel in the society of this moment. SE