The Salesian Center for Faith and Culture wrapped up its 12th annual Heritage Week with a closer look at Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation.
“Tonight is our way of marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation,” said Fr. Thomas Dailey, OSFS, director of the Salesian Center, as he introduced The R. Wayne & Joan Kraft Memorial Lecture and Michael Root (pictured above), who presented Martin Luther after 500 years.
October 31 will mark the anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses, which criticized the corruption of the Catholic Church in 1517. Root’s lecture provided a Catholic assessment of where we are all these years later. “Protestants and Catholics today are all shaped by that event, whether we like it or not,” said the Catholic University of America professor.
Catholic assessments of Luther were mixed from the start, Root told the crowd. While many circles approved of Luther’s writings, the same can’t be said for religious leaders, including his own bishop, who sent his writings to Rome to be investigated. “Luther had the great misfortune that from the age of 35 on, somebody wrote down everything he said,” Root joked. “We have more words from Luther than virtually any other theologian.”
Nine months after writing the Theses, Luther was declared a heretic. Root cited a Catholic rush to judgment and a shift from the controversy of indulgences to questions about the church’s authority. “Would the criticism have come to the surface sooner or later?” he asked. “Was he radicalized by his critics?”
By the time of Pope Pius X, different views of Luther emerged. But the great change, as Root called it, came in the mid-20th century. While the view of Luther was still somewhat negative, it also became more sympathetic. “The interpretation of Luther is very much bound up in one's own theology,” Root said. “You have to untangle Luther if you're going to assess Luther with other things he's bound up with.”
For Root, that means distinguishing the man from the movement. As a man, he calls Luther complex. But he also recognizes that while certain aspects of Luther’s writings may trouble Catholics, some of his ideals can also be embraced. “Catholic theology today is much closer to a clear-eyed assessment of Luther than ever before,” he said. “In the end, Luther is one of those figures like Augustine with whom our assessment is never done. Catholic theology can only profit by taking up the challenge.”
The Kraft Lecture series is designed to offer a humanistic viewpoint on an issue of national prominence and relevance. The Salesian Center spends an entire year searching for the perfect speaker. “We always want to bring someone of weight,” says Lore McFadden, assistant director of the Salesian Center. “We want to bring someone that can really contribute and not just repeat something we already know. We want to bring someone who can give us a different view, a different vision. And that's why we search high and low to pick the right speaker.”
The series honors Deacon R. Wayne Kraft and his wife, Joan. Kraft served as a professor of metallurgy and material science at Lehigh University and as an adjunct professor at Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales. He passed away in 1994 and his family endowed the lecture series in the couple’s name.
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