Rehabilitating Luther? Lawler Mauls the London Times over Inaccurate Sensationalism

Mr. Lawler’s comments reflect my own thoughts. When I first read this story yesterday, I emailed a friend: “Prediction: The Pope will NOT say that Luther ‘was not a heretic.'” And you can bank on that or my name isn’t newseditor. (OK, I wasn’t exactly going out on a limb, but if I turn out to be wrong, Gene may never trust me again!)

Mar. 6, 2008 ( – “Pope Benedict is to rehabilitate Martin Luther,” announces reporter Richard Owen in the eye-catching opening phrase of his story in the London Times.

Reports that appear in the Times often find their way into other news stories. That is unfortunate, because the Times has a track record of sensational and misleading coverage of Vatican affairs. This story provides one more example.

Here are the facts that Owens supplies:

  • In the Ratzinger Schülerkreis, the informal seminar that Pope Benedict holds each year with his former theology students, the topic for discussion at this year’s August session will be Luther’s teaching and influence.
  • Cardinal Walter Kasper (bionews) says: “We have much to learn from Luther, beginning with the importance he attached to the Word of God.”

Can one logically conclude, from those two facts, that the Pope will “rehabilitate” Luther? No; not even close.

Cardinal Kasper certainly must be taken seriously. As president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity he plays a key role in ecumenical dialogue. But Richard Owen is not reporting on an initiative taken by Kasper’s office; he says that the Pope will issue a statement at the conclusion of an informal seminar.

Ordinarily these summer seminars do not result in formal statements, much less papal policy statements. Yet the Times story leads readers to believe that this year’s session will end with a very important declaration of Church teaching. Moreover, several months before the conversation between the Pope and his old students even begins, Owen tells us what conclusions that seminar will reach.

Owen cites “Vatican insiders” to buttress his prediction that Pope Benedict will find Luther innocent of heresy. But who are these insiders, and where is the evidence for their remarkable prediction? You won’t find those questions answered in the Times story.

Citing Cardinal Kasper again– but, significantly, not quoting him directly– Owen says that the Pope’s statement on Luther will have a positive impact on Catholic-Protestant relations. He continues: “It is also designed to counteract the impact of July’s papal statement describing the Protestant and Orthodox faiths as defective and “not proper Churches.”

Wrong, wrong, and wrong. The document issued by the Vatican last July was not a papal statement but a “Response to Questions” from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It said that the Protestant denominations, lacking the Eucharist, “cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called ‘Churches’ in the proper sense”– a formulation that is subtly but significantly different from the inaccurate quotation in the Times article. Finally, the Vatican statement did not apply the same criticism to the Orthodox churches; on the contrary it affirmed that they should be recognized by Catholics as “sister churches.”

If the Times report can cram three significant errors of fact into a single sentence, how likely is it that the paper’s predictions are accurate? Prudent readers can make their own judgments.