The title, Martin Luther, Roman Catholic Prophet, is clearly intended to be provocative. It could give the impression that the book will demonstrate why Luther is a Roman Catholic prophet. The final sentence of the book has a different feel: "To consider Luther as a Catholic prophet would provide the doctrinal latitude, ecclesiological fidelity, and ecumenical witness for today's Christians who are less able to debate Luther than to image him" (154). In other words, Sobolewski is proposing that Catholics might want to look at Luther in a new way.
Sobolewski's topic is an important one. Ecumenists have long wrestled with a difficult problem: Lutherans and many other Protestants see Luther to be something of a saint, and if not a saint, certainly someone to be emulated and celebrated. Catholics, on the other hand, have traditionally understood Luther to be a heretic, a revolutionary, and worse. For any kind of unity among Western Christians to be considered possible, the puzzle of Martin Luther as ecclesial icon has to be solved.
Between the title and final sentence of the slim volume, one finds an introduction, three rather dense historical chapters, and a brief closing "perspective" on the data that has been presented.
The historical chapters provide the substance of the study. The first provides a survey of the way Catholic theologians regarded Luther in the 20th century. Sobolewski provides an engaging literary pedigree of Catholic attitudes toward Luther and his work. Rooted in Catholic controversial works of the 16th century, one finds the origins of attacks on Luther as a liar, drunk, whoremonger, and, finally, as one possessed by the devil. As the quest for a more scientific approach to history grew in the 19th century, the attacks became more measured, but did not lose the foundations set in the 16th century. In the 20th century, Catholic historians strove mightily to shake off their apologetic biases and developed a true appreciation for Luther, acknowledging both his strengths and weaknesses.
The second historical chapter sets forth a detailed overview of magisterial responses to Luther in the 16th century. The presentation of the relevant documents is much more extensive than one usually finds in historical surveys of the beginnings of the Reformation. Sobolewski's careful summarizing allows a deeper appreciation of both Luther and of his critics.
The final historical chapter reviews changing magisterial attitudes toward Luther in the 20th century. By "magisterial" Sobolewski primarily means the Roman magisterium. Here he shows the gradual thaw in official Church attitudes toward Luther in the century just past. My reading of the information presented is perhaps not as positive as Sobolewski's. While the changes wrought by the Church's ecumenical commitment are remarkable, it has to be said that there are limits to the praise one finds from the magisterium. Stated too baldly, Luther is usually commended for his zeal and personal faith while his doctrine is often irenically overlooked or even shown to be other than Catholic. Warmer comments about Luther tend to come from curial ecumenists. As one moves toward the center of doctrinal authority (the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Pope), statements of praise become more carefully parsed. Certainly, one can argue, as Sobolewski does, that at this point the glass is half full, and that is a good thing.
In my view, the book is a good ecumenical resource. A reader who has only a limited background in the Reformation and the story of Western Christianity since may find some of the history to be tough sledding, however. The text appears to be a representation of Sobolewski's 1993 Marquette University dissertation. In an apparent urge to present each and every bit of information that has been surfaced, at times it reads like a dissertation.
But, these are small quibbles. In the main, the work will help the reader to develop a more critical appreciation of Catholic attitudes toward Martin Luther and their origins. And that is a great ecumenical step forward, indeed.