Bishop Robert Barron offers a typically generous assessment…

of Martin Luther–and manages to work Dylan into the conversation too.

I think here of a distant spiritual descendent of Martin Luther, the Nobel laureate Bob Dylan. After his conversion to evangelical Christianity, Dylan wrote a lovely song called Saving Grace, which includes the lines, “I look around this old world/ And all that I’m finding/ Is the saving grace that’s over me.” Mind you, this is the same Dylan who, just a few years earlier, had sung of “guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children” and who had pulled the masks off of “masters of war” and who had complained of “Desolation Row.” But now—and this is the mark of the ecstatic—all that he sees is saving grace. In a more Catholic expression of the same experience, Georges Bernanos’s country priest could cry, “Toute est grace!” (Everything is grace!).

Beautiful? Poetically expressive? Spiritually evocative? Yes! But does it stand up to strict rational scrutiny? Of course not. What Ryrie’s characterization of Luther has helped me to see is how the great Solas of the Reformation can be both celebrated and legitimately criticized. Was Luther right to express his ecstatic experience of the divine love in just this distinctive way? And was, say, the Council of Trent right in offering a sharp theological corrective to Luther’s manner of formulating the relationship between faith and works and between the Bible and reason? I realize that it might annoy both my Catholic and Protestant friends even to pose the issue this way, but would answering “yes” to both those question perhaps show a way forward in the ecumenical conversation?

This kind of generosity will not please the professional polarizers on either side of the question whose main busine$$ is to insist on division and who, on the Catholic side, see themselves as the saviors of the Church against her two greatest threats: Pope Francis and Bishop Robert Barron.  But for those with an appreciation of the Church’s ability to capaciously find the good in all that God has made, it’s a big-hearted way of seeing Luther.

For my part, I have always felt a deep sense of pity for Luther, who seems to me to be one of the most psychologically anguished people in history.  He seems to have been afflicted with profound “daddy issues” and his intense scruples (which drove his confessor nuts) seem to have issued in an intense, high pressure and scalding reaction.   I think Bishop Barron is right that he had a real experience of grace that became (as private revelations often do) the absolute and total focus of his life.  I also think him (obviously) wildly wrong about many things, but I cut him slack because of his obvious woundedness and because I doubt I would have done as well sucked up in the maelstrom of events that overtook him.  Ultimately, it is best to leave judgment of him to God, of course.  But I think Bishop Barron makes a kindly contribution to assessing his legacy five hundred years on, and kindliness is a rare thing in our public discourse these days.

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