Catholics’ and Protestants’ Views 500 Years After Martin Luther

  • March 05, 2018
  • by David O'Reilly

Centuries after the Protestant Reformation, the theological differences that split Christianity in the 1500s have greatly diminished.

Five hundred years after the start of the Protestant Reformation—the theological revolution that forever changed Christianity, reshaped Europe, and provoked a century of catastrophic wars—new surveys by the Pew Research Center find that most Catholics and Protestants in the United States and Western Europe view one another today as more religiously similar than different, and Western European Protestants and Catholics largely say they would welcome one another as neighbors and family.

The surveys also find that many Protestants in both the United States and Western Europe believe that faith and good works are necessary to get into heaven. Roughly half of U.S. Protestants (52 percent), for example, say that faith and good works are needed to get into heaven—a traditionally Catholic belief that the Reformation vigorously rejected.

Majorities or pluralities of Protestants in most European countries likewise view good works as necessary for salvation. Even in Germany, where the Reformation has its roots, nearly three times as many Protestants (61 percent) believe that faith and good works are both necessary as do those (21 percent) who assert that faith alone is enough.

The surveys also show that U.S. Protestants are split on another issue that played an essential role in the Reformation: Forty-six percent of respondents say the Bible provides all the religious guidance Christians need, a traditionally Protestant belief known as sola scriptura, or “scripture alone.” But 52 percent say Christians should seek guidance from church teachings and traditions as well as from the Bible.

The Pew Research Center issued the reports last August in anticipation of the 500th anniversary of the event traditionally understood as having set the Reformation in motion: Martin Luther’s nailing 95 critiques of the Catholic Church to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, on Oct. 31, 1517.

The reports were based on the center’s polling of 5,198 adults in the U.S. using its nationally representative American Trends Panel, in which respondents answer questions on their computers or smartphones. Center researchers also added several Reformation-related questions to a broad-ranging religious attitudes survey of 24,599 adults in Western Europe, conducted by telephone between April and August in 15 countries.

“Many of our surveys ask about religious beliefs and practices,” says Greg Smith, an associate director of research at the center who helped direct the U.S survey. “That said,” he adds, “we never before asked several of the theological questions at the heart of this one, such as `What’s needed for eternal salvation?’ or `Do you believe in purgatory?’ So some of these questions were designed specifically with the intent of gauging what Americans think about the issues at the center of the Protestant Reformation after 500 years.”

And with support from the John Templeton Foundation, the center was able to expand its scope to Europe, says Neha Sahgal, also an associate director of research at the center, who oversees the international religion surveys. “With the Reformation’s 500th anniversary approaching, we decided to look at attitudes and theological understandings in the land that was the birthplace of the Reformation and fought wars over it. And what we found is that after 500 years, one of the major theological differences between Protestants and Catholics—whether faith alone leads to salvation, or both faith and good works are necessary to achieve eternal life—has been washed over.”

Modern scholars now believe that Martin Luther intended not to cause a schism in Christianity but instead to provoke a dialogue on what he saw as the Catholic Church’s flawed understanding of its role in the forgiveness of sins, especially the controversial practice of selling indulgences to spare the buyer from purgatory. Scholars also doubt that Luther, an Augustinian friar and theologian, actually hammered his theses to the church door, although they agree that he wrote letters outlining his concerns to two bishops.

The two bishops and Pope Leo X, however, saw in Luther’s concerns only a challenge to their teaching authority, and in 1521 Leo excommunicated Luther, turning him into a hero for reformers. By the time of Luther’s death in 1546, large parts of northern Europe had become Protestant—and Catholics and Protestants were condemning one another’s doctrines as heresy, leading to such events as the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-48, which claimed 8 million lives.

The passage of time has since had its effect—and, for some religious scholars, not all to the good. Gregg R. Allison, professor of Christian theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, says the Pew Research Center data “confirm what is widely known among theologians … that many churches are not doing a very good job teaching doctrine as it relates to salvation and biblical authority.” He says many Protestant denominations are too eager to erase their authentic differences among themselves and Catholicism and that the findings are “a wake-up call” that “challenge us to be clear in our preaching Reformation theology.”

Theologians underscore that the two faith traditions still maintain sharply different salvation doctrines that remain barriers to full communion. Nevertheless, many religious scholars note that the Catholic Church and most mainline Protestant churches today stress their “common witness” in the face of secularizing trends in the West and competition with Islam throughout the world, and have lately joined hands on humanitarian causes such as the plight of refugees.

This common witness between Catholics and mainline Protestants has been growing since the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s when the Catholic Church decreed that other churches could be “means of salvation.” In 1999, the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation signed a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification proclaiming their “common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ.” Some evangelical and conservative Protestant churches have resisted these moves, saying that many issues that gave birth to the Reformation still remain. But in the years since 1999, other Protestant churches, including the World Methodist Council, the World Communion of Reformed Churches, and the Anglican Communion have signed the Joint Declaration.

Catholics and Protestants “now recognize how much they misunderstood one another back when they were killing each other,” says Michael Root, professor of theology at the Catholic University of America, who helped draft the Joint Declaration—and is himself a Lutheran who converted to Catholicism. “So now, with a bit more distance and things calmer, both sides can hear one another and say, ‘If that’s what you believe, then that’s not what we condemned.’”

Those feelings are evident in the Pew Research Center’s surveys. In the United States, nearly 6 in 10 Protestants and two-thirds of Catholics view one another’s traditions as more similar than different. So while Christianity still wears some visible lines of division, it appears that a half millennium after Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation, the rancor of its founding feuds belongs now to history.

The Pew Research Center’s U.S. survey generated the report U.S. Protestants Are Not Defined by Reformation-Era Controversies 500 Years Later, and the Western European survey was summarized in the report Five Centuries After Reformation, Catholic-Protestant Divide in Western Europe Has Faded.

Among the findings:

  • In every European country surveyed, roughly 9 in 10 or more Catholics and Protestants say they would accept members of the other faith as neighbors, and wide majorities would welcome them into their families. In Germany—where 20 percent of the population died in 17th-century religious wars—98 percent of Protestants and 97 percent of Catholics say they would welcome one another as family.
  • Catholics and Protestants in Western Europe report low levels of religious observance. Medians of just 12 percent of Protestants and 13 percent of Catholics say religion is very important in their lives.
  • In the U.S., belief that salvation comes through faith alone, long held by Martin Luther and other Protestant reformers, correlates with people’s knowledge of the concept. Among Protestants who understand that only Protestantism preaches this belief, known by the Latin sola fide, 77 percent embrace the concept.
  • Just 30 percent of all U.S. Protestants affirm both sola fide and sola scriptura (scripture alone), two of the core confessional beliefs of their faith.
  • Belief in sola fide and sola scriptura in the U.S is much more prevalent among white evangelical Protestants than among either white mainline Protestants or black Protestants. Among white evangelicals who say they attend church at least once a week, 59 percent express both convictions.
  • Seven in 10 U.S. Catholics say they believe in purgatory, their church’s teaching that after death the souls of some sinners undergo a period of purification before entering heaven. Two-thirds of Protestants do not believe in purgatory.
  • One-quarter of U.S. Christians (26 percent) say they are unfamiliar with the term “Protestant.”