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Card. Willebrands: Luther is our 'Common Master'

On July 14 -24, 1970, the 5th Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation gathered in Evian, Switzerland. The conference, whose theme was Sent by the World, brought together 240 Protestant preachers. At a lecture delivered at this Assembly, Cardinal Jan Willebrands, then President of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, spoke of Luther in terms that Catholics usually reserve for St. Thomas Aquinas.

The title of "common master" is normally reserved for St. Thomas to indicate that he should be respected by all the theological schools of the Catholic Church. Speaking about the doctrine of justification, Willebrands applied this title of "common master" to Luther. This implies that both Catholics and Protestants should follow Luther's theses. His words follow.

At right, the cover of La Documentation Catholique and photocopies of the French text; below, our translation of the part highlighted in yellow.
Who would dare to deny today that Martin Luther was a profoundly religious personality who sought the message of the Gospel honestly and with abnegation? Who could deny that in spite of torments he inflicted upon the Catholic Church and the Holy See - truth demands that we speak out - he preserved a considerable measure of riches of the ancient faith? Did not Vatican II approve demands that had been formulated by Martin Luther? And aren't these aspects of the Christian faith and life better expressed today than in the past? To say this .... is a cause for great joy and hope ....

In Martin Luther, one word continuously repeats itself, the great word 'faith.' Luther profoundly recognized its value, and many men, both in your churches and outside them, have learned to live from it even to our day. If there seems to be a certain exclusiveness on this point that could derive from the emphasis Luther gave it in his talks, the joint research by Catholic and Protestant scholars on this matter shows that the word 'faith' in the sense used by Luther certainly does not exclude works, love and hope. One can rightly say that, as a whole, Luther's notion of faith signifies nothing other than what the Church calls love ....

In a session whose theme is Sent to the World, it is good to reflect upon a man for whom the doctrine of justification was the turning point of the enduring Church. He can be our common master in this field, as he states that God must continuously remain the Lord and our most essential human response must be an absolute confidence in and worship of God.

(Jan Willebrands, Lecture to the 5th Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation, on July 15, 1970, La Documentation Catholique, September 6, 1970, p. 766)

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