Our tour guide in Regensburg, Germany this past October had given us an excellent overview of this ancient city on the banks of the Danube. It had once been one of the northernmost points of the ancient Roman Empire, dating back to the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. During World War II, Regensburg was one of the few German cities that escaped bombardment by the Allies, in the attempt to defeat the Nazis, which means that much of the city’s history is well preserved.
Still, I was filled with curiosity and asked our tour guide about the Diet of Regensburg in 1541, which was not mentioned during our 2-hour walk through the city. After the tour was officially over, he kindly took us to the place where this famous dialogue was held, between representatives of the Roman Catholicism elite and the growing Protestant movement of the 16th century. The building where the meeting was held was next to a beautiful, yet unassuming city square.
A virtual who’s-who of leading thinkers made the journey to this old city, to see if there was any way to heal the breach between the Roman Pontiff and Martin Luther. Luther’s number one cohort, Philip Melanchthon, as well as Johann Eck, Luther’s papal interlocutor at their famous debate in Leipzig, headlined the conference. But then there was Martin Bucer, the Reformation leader from Strasburg, along with Cardinal Gasparo Contarini, a leading Roman Catholic theologian, who sympathized much with the Protestants. Even a young John Calvin was in attendance.
The stakes were high. Unlike today when doctrinal debates among Christians might lead to church splits, where two or more groups simply agree to move along their own separate ways, confessional unity in 16th century Europe impacted more than just determining what church you would attend. The Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, wanted the Christian peoples of Western Europe be of one accord in political allegiance, and political allegiance was drawn on church confessional lines.
While the followers of the Papacy and the followers of Luther squabbled with one another, a threat had been continuing to emerge from the east. The Islamic Turks had captured the famed Byzantine Christian city of Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1453, and they were moving towards the west, in hopes of ultimately conquering Vienna, Austria, which was the gateway into the rest of Europe. Charles V was anxious that some acceptable theological/confessional solution be reached in order to contain the Turkish threat. A Europe with divided churches might not be able to stand against this looming threat from the east.
On top of the external threat, concerns internal to Western Christendom weighed heavily among Europe’s political leaders. What would become of the church lands scattered across the regions where Protestantism was gaining ground? According to some scholars, somewhere around 7% of the land in central Europe, on average, belonged in some fashion to the church: Would the Protestants lay claim to much if not all of the land being contested, or would the Roman church still retain title? It was a recipe for war within Christendom. It was a mess.
According to Peter Matheson’s Cardinal Contarini at Regensburg, which chronicles much of the story behind the 1541 proceedings at Regensburg, Charles V was willing to accept some form of toleration of Protestant beliefs within the empire. However, the official legate representative of Rome, Gasparo Contarini, was hoping for something more that just “toleration.” Contarini envisioned a start towards formal reunion among the Roman Catholics and the Protestants, at least by embracing what he considered to be certain essentials of “Catholic” faith.
Remarkably, both sides in the dialogue came to a number of conclusions that were in agreement with one another. For example, both the doctrines of creation and sin were discussed, and met with substantial agreement by both sides (It would only be until the Council of Trent took place that different theological conceptions of sin and sanctification would stiffen the divide between Protestants and the Roman Church). Surprisingly, a formulation regarding the doctrine of justification was agreed upon by all parties present.
So far, so good.
However, there were a few main sticking points that kept the conference itself from being a full success. First, there was the nature of Scriptural authority. What had the final say, the Bible itself, or the magisterial teaching authority of the Bishop of Rome?
The two sides were unable to agree. This was probably the biggest deal breaker, but the issue of the Eucharist made for another huge obstacle. A lesser dispute over the sacrament of confession and penance was another.
Sadly, even if the conference were to come to a full agreement on everything, the chances of the Diet’s success turned out to be slim. Luther himself was suspicious of the Diet, thinking that it was a waste of time and would not be fruitful, and the office of the Roman Catholic Pope pretty much thought the same way. In other words, the Diet of Regensburg might have been doomed before it even started.
The reputations of some of those who worked hard towards reunion suffered in the wake of the failure at Regensburg. On the Protestant side, Martin Bucer’s legacy was tarnished in the eyes of more entrenched Protestants, for trying to give too much of certain Protestant principles away at Regensburg, particularly on the doctrine of justification.
On the Roman Catholic side, while a frustrated Cardinal Contarini had ultimately and regrettably rejected the Protestant counter-proposals in contrast to his own, Contarini’s efforts at reunification with the Protestants were viewed as compromise among hard liners at the Vatican. Contarini died the year after the Diet of Regensburg. One can only speculate that the stress of being caught in middle of this dispute contributed to his death at age 59. As the conflict wore on through the mid-16th century, the Roman Catholic/Protestant divide only got wider.
Few today even know about the Diet of Regensburg. For example, I have yet to find an English translation of the full transcripts of the Diet available in print or online.
Neverthless, the Diet of Regensburg serves as a reminder of the importance of theological dialogue, in order to try to preserve the unity of the church, and work through theological disagreements.
But perhaps the timing was just all wrong….
Let us speed up some 450-ish years….
In 1994, the Lutheran-turned-Roman-Catholic theologian and First Things magazine editor, Richard John Neuhaus, and evangelical Protestant leaders, including Prison Fellowship’s Charles Colson and theologian J.I. Packer gathered together to hammer out a joint statement entitled Evangelicals and Catholics Together. That meeting was sort of like the 20th century version of the Diet of Regensburg. Out of those series of meetings, the joint statement noted points of agreement between Protestant Evangelicals and Roman Catholics in areas of doctrine as well as marking out common causes that both parties can work towards in promoting Christian concepts of culture. Evangelicals and Catholics Together has had their supporters, as well as their detractors.
Not too long after my wife and I returned from Europe, another session of Evangelicals and Catholics Together had met again and released an updated statement, 2022 Evangelicals and Catholics Together. This new statement is more about sharing a common vision of what it means to be Protestant Evangelical and Roman Catholics together in an age which has seen incredible culture shifts over the last ten years or so. Surely, the same type of criticisms that plagued the 1994 Evangelicals and Catholics Together statement, as well as the 1541 Diet of Regensburg, are still there. What is perhaps new this time around is that the dominant mode of Western culture in the 21st century appears to be at odds with certain core assumptions about cultural life shared by both Roman Catholics and Evangelical Protestants. In other words, Roman Catholics and Protestant Evangelicals have their serious points of disagreement, but both parties have far less in common with the trajectory that secular culture is taking. We have come a long way since the era of a divided Christendom in 16th century Europe.
Is this a new opportunity to try to heal the rift between Roman Catholicism and Evangelical Protestantism that the Diet of Regensburg tried to tackle (and eventually failed)? Time will tell.