International expert on church unity, Rev Günther Gassmann, a German Lutheran theologian, has urged the Catholic Church to declare officially that its excommunication of Martin Luther no longer applies.
Such a statement, "in these ecumenically less exciting times ... would be a remarkable step and a sign of hope and encouragement," said Rev Günther Gassmann, who was director of the World Council of Churches' Faith and Order Commission from 1984 to 1995, according to an Ekklesia report.
Luther trained as a Catholic monk, but was excommunicated by the Catholic Church in 1521 after refusing to retract teachings the Church judged to be heretical.
In a March 19 lecture in Rome, Gassmann said that a joint Lutheran-Catholic statement published in 1983 to mark the 500th anniversary of Luther's birth had sought to elaborate a common position on the work and legacy of the reformer.
"Luther, a major symbol and personification during 400 years of the past Catholic-Lutheran conflict and division, is now seen as a common teacher," Gassmann noted, at the Centro Pro Unione, an ecumenical research centre in the Italian capital.
He urged the Catholic Church to receive officially, "this changed evaluation of Martin Luther."
In 2008, the Vatican's top official for Christian unity, Cardinal Walter Kasper, encouraged Catholics to read Luther's hymns, which he declared were "full of spiritual power", and his commentaries on the Bible.
"One will then discover a Luther who is full of the power of faith, whom one cannot simply make Catholic, whom we find provoking and even alien in many respects, but from whom even Catholics can learn," said Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity since 2001.
Gassmann presented an overview of the results of Catholic-Lutheran dialogue from 1965 to 2005. He praised the 1999 signing by the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation of a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification as a "unique" event.
This represented, he said, "an agreement concerning the most fundamental theological difference between Catholics and Lutherans at the time of the Reformation and ever since."
It was the first, and so far only, time that the Catholic Church and one of its dialogue partners have officially confirmed the results of a bilateral dialogue, Gassmann added.
Gassmann noted that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, had been involved in the latter stage of talks that led to the signing of the declaration.
Catholic Church called on to revoke Luther's excommunication (Ekklesia)
Martin Luther (Wikipedia)