The Reformation today - report from CTA conference

St Chad's Durham
St Chad's Durham

Frank Turner SJ represented the Jesuits in Britain at last week's conference of the Catholic Theological Association of Great Britain at St Chad's College, Durham University, and sent this report. 

On the 500th anniversary of the nailing of the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg by Martin Luther, the conference theme, was ‘The Age of Reform: Reflecting critically on the significance of the Reformation for theology in the churches today’. 

Most speakers were members of the Association; however one welcome guest was a Lutheran scholar Dr Simeon Zahl of the University of Nottingham, who posed the question whether there can be said to be a ‘protestant principle’ – in particular, ‘justification by faith’ (or, in its stronger, more controversial form ‘justification by faith alone’). Protestantism is no more monolithic than is Catholicism, and several other principles derive from Luther and his followers, some ecumenically divisive, some not:

  • the rejection of papal authority;
  • Sola Scriptura;
  • the stripping away of liturgical and quasi-sacramental accretions and excesses;
  • no less fundamentally, insistence on essential freedom of the believer before God and therefore the priority of an ‘invisible Church’;
  • and the intrinsic corruption of human consciousness because of sin.

Juxtaposing these last two demonstrates the profound internal tension between these principles, as in ‘Christian principles’ more generally.

Professor Eamon Duffy discussed Catholic responses to Luther’s revolution, in theological and historical facets. These responses were also plural, in their balance of sympathy and critique-condemnation. Even the terminology of our own conference veered between the language of ‘celebrating’ the anniversary and ‘marking’ it.

The discussions did not focus uniquely on Luther. In England at least, the Reformation took a different ‘Anglican’ form and Professor Judith Champ discussed the evolution of the Catholic diocesan priesthood in penal times and after.

Two speakers focused on the broadest themes imaginable: Dr Martin Maier SJ on the ‘principle of reform in Catholicism, as exemplified by the life of Blessed Oscar Romero and the reception of that work within the Church’. And Dr Johannes Hoff on the cultural implications of the revolution in the use of images: the Reformation might have been impossible without Gutenberg’s invention of printing. What happens to us when images and tools (the Statue of Liberty, the iPhone) become quasi-sacramental, virtually secular idols? Do we trust in machines more than in human consciousness?

The most positive and healthy response to the challenges of the Reformation is ecumenism. We experienced this conceptually, but also by holding our morning and evening prayer in Durham Cathedral.  And yet, as we heard from Dr Bridget Nichols, this lovely and serene form of prayer is only one face of the increasingly diverse life of the global Anglican Communion.

These thoughts represent only a selection of the rich discussions. On the first evening, the conference devoted a special session to the future of the study of Catholic theology in the UK, in the wake of the closure of, for example, the Franciscan Study Centre and Heythrop College, London; of the apparently diminished scope for theology in the universities generally, and of the challenges facing theologians in these circumstances.

Frank Turner SJ