The Evangeliary of Teodelinda, a gift from Gregory the Great in 603

Popes 2017

New exhibition – Popes 2017 – is being planned in Mannheim. The point is to make room for a Catholic presence at the reformation festivities 2017. This is welcomed by high-ranking protestants involved in the other exhibitions

Luther as Monk - engraving by Cranach 1520
Luther as Monk at the time, when he was excommunicated – Engraving by Cranach the Elder 1520. Source Wikipedia

In 1517 Martin Luther famously posted his 95 theses on the church-door in Wittenberg to call for a scholarly disputation of the wrong-doings of the late medieval Catholic Church – more specifically on the “Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”, that is the practice of selling time-off in the purgatory. Unfortunately Luther also sent out of politeness a copy of the theses to the Archbishop Albert of Mainz and to the bishop of Brandenburg, his superior at that time. Although the text was formulated as a typical scholarly invitation to debate, the tone was somewhat confrontational. One example of this may be found in these 86, which posed the question: “Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of Saint Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?”

Behind this initiative was at its core a theological revelation of Luther’s. In his opinion God is not someone you can wheel and deal with. God is not a horse-trader. Salvation or justification can accordingly never be anything but a free loving gift from God, received by anyone who has faith in Him.

As is well known the reformation grew out of these theses, catapulting Europe into a series of horrible wars as well as a major schism. It stands to reason that the catholic and the Protestant churches have not been able to agree upon how to write this history. While the Catholics believe the Protestant movement was schismatic from the beginning, the Protestants regard it as a necessary showdown, which served to secure the personal freedom of conscience for Christians.

Leo X - Drawing from the Chatsworth Collection
Leo X, the Pope who excommunicated Martin Luther – drawing from the Chatsworth Collection in Devonshire

Presently the Catholic and Protestant churches live their own lives, although occasionally meeting “each other” in more or less ecumenical settings while striving on the local level to find timid practical solutions (e.g. sharing church-buildings in minor villages or collaborating in order to organize more popular events like festivals, exhibitions etc.) Simmering beneath this praxis of friendly and courteous co-existence a number of discrepancies can be detected. Some of these hark back to the issues brought up by the reformation (like for instance how to understand the doctrine of justification); others have to do with how to write the church history of the events in the beginning of the 16th century, when Luther and his writings were officially banned by Rome as both heretic and schismatic, while the Protestants termed the Pope the “Anti-Christ” and likened him to the great Babylonic whore.

It is no wonder that these issues have cropped up in the last few years where Lutheran churches from all over the world are busy planning a major celebration in 2017 of the 500-year anniversary of the posting of the Theses in Wittenberg. In Germany, where the plans and festivities have been underway for more than a decade, the finale is not least consisting of a series of major exhibitions in Berlin, Wittenberg and Wartburg (to this might be added a series of earlier exhibitions for instance in Torgau in 2015).

The Vatican Response 

The question, which has of course been hotly debated inside the Catholic Church, has been how to respond to these celebrations and events.

On one hand it does not seem attractive to just ignore the festivities. This might obviously be seen as an unfriendly act. On the other hand a full reconciliation does not seem viable as long as the central theological question of how to obtain justification is basically unsolved. Do we as Christians believe that indulgencies, a certain number of “Hail Mary’s or just plain “good” deeds can placate God, and that we as human beings have a practical role as co-creators of God’s Heavenly Kingdom? Or do we believe in an almighty God who is “unmovable” by human acts (be they worthy or not), and that our role is to be participants less than entrepreneurs? Although the continuous sifting of his texts and writings have shown how nuanced his theology was, there is no doubt Luther considered this question the linchpin in his endeavour to reform the church. As do Lutherans today, who continue to consider the doctrine of justification as the “articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesia” (the article by which the church stands and falls.) But there is also little doubt that the Catholic Church has never really accepted this radical thought, although there seemed at some point in the 90es to be hope for a more enduring reconciliation.

The Joint Declaration of the Doctrine of Justification

The Signing of the Joint Declaration in Augsburg 1999
The Signing of the Joint Declaration in Augsburg 1999

This hope built upon a long and laborious ecumenical process concerning the formulation of a “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification”. At first the result seemed filled with hope. Thus when Cardinal Edward Cassidy presented a draft of the declaration at a news conference in Rome in 1998, a central formulation was that “by grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping us and calling us to good works.” In the words of Cassidy the joint declaration should pave the way for a full reconciliation.

However, immediately afterwards Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict) sabotaged this text by claiming that although the level of agreement was high, the text did not affirm that all differences separating Catholics and Lutherans were simply “a question of emphasis and language”. Afterwards he assembled a small working group in Regensburg, which came up with a “reworked” text, which was presented by Cassidy in 1999 as the final text acknowledged by the Vatican’s doctrinal office. It was this text, which was later signed by both The Catholic Church and The Lutheran World Foundation. However at the general assembly of the Lutherans only 89 of 124 members voted yes. Of the 35 members, which cast their votes against the declaration a number of high-profile Lutheran churches could be counted. To this should be added that a number of renowned Lutheran theologians at the same time claimed that all Lutherans should repudiate the JDDJ, since it represented nothing but a “dishonest” reiteration of the traditional Catholic position. More than 246 professors of theology later supported a statement whereby the document was declared fundamentally wrong. It was generally believed to be nothing but a Lutheran sell-out. Later the renowned theologian, Eberhard Jüngel, published a book in which he scaldingly repudiated the declaration. What should have been a festive occasion in 1999 turned in the aftermath into a sour reiteration of an old controversy.

Justification and Freedom 2014

Recently in spring 2014 a new row broke out when a paper was published by the EKD (Evangelische Kirche Deutschland) outlining the fundamental theological questions raised by the commemoration of Martin Luther in 2017. This paper was formulated in order to stimulate local theological discussions and reflections upon the central issues in 1517. According to the introduction it is also intended as a contribution to the overall ecumenical debates, which it is hoped the celebration of the anniversary in 2017 will nourish.

Titled “Justification and Freedom. 500 years of reformation 2017” the paper was nevertheless immediately noted for its lack of mentioning “The Joint Declaration” from 1999. It was also noticed that Christoph Markschies from the Humboldt University, who was in charge of the working group behind the paper, had been one of the 246 theologians, who signed the statement against the “Declaration” in 1999. Cardinal Walter Kasper, who was active then, voiced that he felt both hurt and discouraged, while another theologian, Wolfgang Thönissen declared that in his opinion no Catholics should take part in the festivities in October 2017. However, this should perhaps be seen as a conservative reaction to the fact that the president of EKD in Germany went to Rome in April in order to personally invite the Pope to take part in the festivities commemorating the theses in October 2017. (So far no reply has come out of the Vatican.)

However, in the follow-up the authors of the paper prepared by EKD answered that the reason why they did not mention the Joint Declaration except indirectly and by allusion, had to do with the group of readers, the paper was written for: protestants with a very limited understanding of the core of the theological positions, which instigated the massive upheavals in the 16th century. The intent was to unpack the theology, not to write church history, claimed the authors in the aftermath of the public dispute.

As of now peace seems to have broken out once more, although the question until now still remained how the Catholic Church was planning to “take part”.

Popes 2017

A few days ago it appeared that the Catholic Church had finally come up with an answer to their dilemma: how to take part without seeming to condone, what was instigated by Martin Luther in 1517.

Freising Weltchronik - the flight and death in Salerno of Gregory VII
Otto von Freising “Weltchronik”: The flight from Rome in 1086 and the death of Gregory VII in Salerno. It is probable that these events in the 11th century will figure at the exhibition. Jena, Thüringer Universitäts-Landesbibliothek: Ms. Bos. q. 6, fol. 79r

The plan, which has been in the crucible for several years, is to mount a huge and impressive exhibition in Mannheim in 2017 telling the story of the “The Popes and the Unity of the Latin World”. The exhibition is being planned by the Mannheim Reiss-Engelhorn-Museum together with the University of Heidelberg and the Vatican. At a press conference in the end of October Prof. Dr. Alfried Wieczorek, Director General of the Reiss-Engelhorn Museums, emphasized the uniqueness of the project: “It is the first time that an exhibition will tell the fascinating history of the papacy from its beginnings to the Renaissance. It is also the first time that all Vatican institutions support such an exhibition project. Many of the unique exhibits will thus for the first time be shown outside the Vatican. This close relationship is also expressed by the fact that the exhibition will not only be shown here in Mannheim, but subsequently also in the Vatican in 2018.”

All in all more than 600 unique manuscripts, documents, paintings, sculptures, crafts and textiles are expected to be exhibited in the Mannheim Reiss-Engelhorn-Museums from May the 21st and up until November 1st, 2017. The exhibition will tell how Christianity rose from Jewish roots in the East of the Roman Empire to become one of the world’s great religions. Further it will tell the story of how the papacy became the spiritual and temporal authority, which characterized not only the theological development, but also the formation of the Latin West. The exhibition begins with Peter and considers the development to the beginning of the 16th century, presented in the work of outstanding popes.

Part of the project has apparently been to open the exhibition in Mannheim around the same time in 2017 as the exhibitions in Berlin, Wittenberg and Wartburg will be.

Gregory the Great - writing with a dove in his ear-
Gregory the Great writing with a dove in his ear. From: Corpus Christi College MS 389

“The date has been chosen deliberately,” says Msgr. Dr. Matthias Türk, who ads that “the anniversary should not commemorate the separation, but rather the unity of the Christian denominations. Before Catholics and Protestants went their separate ways, they shared 1,500 years of common and distinctive history”.

The project is under the direction of the Reiss-Engelhorn-Museums and the University of Heidelberg. They have called for the joint “Research Centre for the History and Cultural Heritage” to life. “This close link between university and museum is a wonderful stroke of luck” as the Director of Research, Prof. Dr. Stefan Weinfurter, made ​​clear at the press conference: “It is an innovative model that has no equal in the humanities.”

The Vatican and its scientific and museum facilities promote the project in an unprecedented manner. The close partnership is also reflected in the patronage. Cardinal Koch is representing the Holy See, while the president of the parliament in Berlin Norbert Lammert who is a Catholic has agreed to act as patron. The project is supported in Germany by the Archdiocese of Freiburg and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Baden. Leading scientific institutions in Germany and Italy take content to the project. These are, the Pontifical Comitato di Scienze Storiche, the German Archaeological Institute (DAI), the German Historical Institute in Rome (DHI), the Rome Institute of the Gorres Society (RIG), the Istituto Storico Italiano per il Medioevo (ISIME), the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz – Max-Planck-Institute (KIF) and the Department of History at the Johannes-Gutenberg-University Mainz. Finally the Forschungsstelle Geschichte und kulturelles Erbe (Research Centre for the History and Cultural Heritage) at The University of Heidelberg is posed to play a major role.

A Question of Church History

As is common in Germany such exhibitions are always accompanied by scientific conferences and huge scholarly catalogues complete with publications of central scientific expositions. Such a conference took place in Mannheim in October. At the end a panel discussion was opened for the public and here it was possible to gauge the mood between the two “opposing” parties.

First of all it became apparent that the plan is not to present a “counter-reformational” event; rather the intention is to present a supplement to the Lutheran exhibitions, thus opening up for the possibility for “cultural tourists” to get a deeper understanding of the pre-history of the events in the 16th century. Further it appears that high-ranking officials in the EKD (bishops and professors) are pleased to take part in this addendum to the events and exhibitions in 2017, thus furthering a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the complex history of what the Reformation was all about.

In this they agree: at the centre of the reformational movement were a number of theological questions and controversies. To understand, though, why these became so important, we need church history.

The recent addendum to the planned exhibitions in Germany in 2017 is thus widely welcomed. It is hoped that it will cover the prehistory of the Catholic Church as that of a Christian community marked by a pendulum continuously swinging between conservatism and reformations, of which the Lutheran – never mind its wide reaching impact – was but one amongst many.

This story deserves to be told.

Karen Schousboe


Die Papste und die Einheit der lateinischen Welt

Die Päpste und die Einheit der Latienischen Welt. Von Petrus zum Stellvertreter Gottes. Internationaler Koongress 16. bis 18. Oktober 2014
(Currently no information is available under the domain, but further information is promised to be made available there)

Papsttum größte Hürde für vereinte Kirche. Mannheimer Podiumsdiskussion zur Geschichte von Kirche und Papst

Wem Gehört Luther? Symposium in Berlin 23. Oktober 2014

Luther 2017


Die Gemeinsame Erklärung zur Rechtfertigungslehre. Dokumentation des Entstehungs- und Rezeptionsprozesses
By Friedrich Hauschildt (ed.) together with the Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity together with Udo Hahn und Andreas Siemens
Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2009

Rechtfertigung und Freiheit. 500 Jahre Reformation 2017. Ein Grundlagentext des Rates der Evangelischen Kirche in Deutschland, 2014
Translations of the text into English and Spanish are currently in preparation.

Justification: The Heart of the Christian Faith
by Eberhard Jüngel
Bloomberg 2006

A collection of links to papers, interviews etc. outlining the current debate in Germany concerning the declaration from EKD 2014


The Evangeliary of Teodelinda, an alleged gift from Gregory the Great in 603 to a Lombard Queen active in combatting the Arian leanings of the Lombards. Gregory will definitely be one of the great popes featured in Mannheim 2017.



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