Today’s 500th anniversary of the ‘Reformation’ is a rather arbitrary one, based on the legend, perhaps apocryphal, that Martin Luther’s defiantly nailed his ’95 theses’, questioning indulgences amongst other things, to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg on the vigil of its eponymous solemnity. The young Augustinian monk, who was prone to theatrical displays, may well have thought that his proclamation would be fittingly placed on a church named after those saved souls, most of whom had taken advantage of indulgences, and other Catholic disciplines, to help in their journey to heaven.
I could wax eloquent on indulgences, a doctrine which has since been clarified, but that is ultimately not really the point: Luther ended up rebelling against the whole institutional church: He rejected the papacy, the notion of a ‘Vicar of Christ’, and a Magisterium under his authority, declaring every man his own spiritual authority in matters spiritual; gone also was the hierarchical and ministerial priesthood, celibacy, the sacrificial and efficacious nature of the Mass, in fact the whole sacramental economy; religious life, the rational basis for the faith, the entire motiva credibilitatis; the requirement for intellectual assent to believe in God and His Christ, the merit gained from works; hence, now it was sola fides, ‘faith alone’ that suffices, with Scripture interpreted by one’s own rather limited lights, along with a purported vague and inchoate guidance of the Holy Spirit. And on it goes.
In short, Martin Luther rejected the whole notion of what we know as ‘Catholicism’ and, perhaps to some degree unwittingly, founded his own quasi-church, a loose confederation of Christians and their pastors, cast free from what they saw as Roman and papist tyranny, but which quickly came under the power of German princelings, who saw the chance to loot the Church’s lands and wealth, and became, in effect, its new ‘bishops’. So much of Germany and Europe went from a divinely-guided hierarchy (however much said hierarchy resisted such guidance), to a perverse and wayward Erastianism, with the secular powers taking control of the spiritual, evident throughout northern Europe, but most so perhaps in Henry VIII’s England, who curiously could not stand Luther’s doctrine, at least at first, but lived out many of its principles to the full.
Who was Martin Luther? A complex figure, difficult to compartmentalize, Luther was a young law student destined for what might have been a rather ordinary but successful career, when, caught in a violent thunderstorm on July 2, 1505, he made a vow to God, through the intercession of Saint Ann, that he would become a monk if saved.
Well, saved he was, at least in the temporal sense, and two weeks later, in the face of his father’s indignation at what he saw as a waste of his education, Luther rather sadly and unwillingly entered the Augustinian Order.
He suffered from scruples, fasted, went to confession a lot, was rushed through his philosophical and theological formation, which he never fully assimilated, and was given tasks that were well beyond his capacity. He admitted once in a letter that he had no time even to say his breviary, a significant sign of what was to come. After all, he was bound under oath to recite the Office, so we see that from this initial phase, Luther’s conscience was somewhat, shall we say, malleable.
The rest of the story is rather familiar: Luther eventually came to the realization that the whole ‘Catholic’ system was not for him, nor for anyone, really. He came to the conclusion that concupiscence, that is, wayward sexual desire, was unconquerable, so Luther gave in. At the tender age of 41, he married a former nun, the 26 year-old Katherine van Bora, whom he had helped ‘liberate’ from a convent. There is nothing wrong with such a marriage, in theory, and perhaps in some way that may have been their original vocation. But, again, they were also both bound by formal vows, made before God, from which they had not been dispensed. But, then, to paraphrase Tertullian, what had Rome to do with marriage, by this point?
God can bring good out of disordered situations, and the Luthers set up a rambunctious household and raised a number of children (they had six, with some dying young).
Luther was a talented man, translating the Bible into fine German, tendentiously to be sure, adding the term ‘alone’ after the word ‘faith’, which he thought God and his authors must have intended. He was also quite the musician, producing a prodigious number of hymns which came to define Protestant services; for what else will one do at ‘services’ once the Mass and all its glorious accoutrements, chant, polyphony, prayers, are gone? Luther prayed in his own way, read and wrote a lot, vociferously and violently, especially with those who disagreed with him in language we might find scandalous, drank German beer, ate large helpings of ‘his Katie’s’ food, put on weight, and hung out with his wife, children and boon companions.
If he had only done this, he may well have been a footnote to history, perhaps even gaining a chapter all to himself.
Yet Luther could not rest easy, and his forceful, vivid writings, pamphlets, sermons, preaching a resistance to Rome and her doctrines, tore apart the Catholic Church, and as a consequence, Europe and the whole civilized entity the Church had been instrumental in founding. The nations of Europe, once united by a common faith, were now divided, with the unbelievably violent peasant and religious wars soon to begin, followed by a resurgent Islam which came within a hair’s breadth of dominating the whole continent (still an imminent threat to a now even-more weakened, divided, perhaps inevitably moribund, Europe).
Sure enough, it was the staid and logical Frenchman, Jean Cauvin, known more popularly as John Calvin, who set up the intellectual foundation of Protestantism, with his voluminous and meticulous ‘Institutes of the Divine Religion’, a book few have read and, as Hilaire Belloc so eloquently put it, founded on a theology of doom, with a predestination that denied completely human free will, in bondage to sin. Doom or not, it was completely logical, trying to fit God’s mysterious providence into Calvin’s meticulous brain.
But it was Luther who gave the new religion personality; he was the spirit, if you will, of the Protestant movement, which is still with us: The resistance to authority, autonomy of conscience, freed from any ‘priestly’ or ‘Romish’ domination, indeed freed from any strictures at all, even philosophy and reason itself. Pecca fortiter, sed crede firmius, Luther once wrote: Sin boldly, just believe more boldly.
Of course, Luther did not believe one should go forth and sin with unrestrained abandon, but he did believe that man could not resist sin, that the grace of Christ was extrinsic, leaving us in our wretchedness. Hence, the need for that bold act of faith, really a casting forth of the will and passions, not of the mind and reason, upon Christ.
Many dire and irrational consequences have flowed from this premise, not least the tragic separation of faith from reason, of State from Church, of positive law from the moral law, of law from liturgy, of religion from public life. Even though he never really lived that way (he, and certainly his successors, had to maintain the need for some kind of external, visible ‘church’, even a teaching authority), nor did he intend all these consequences (in fact, he would have abhorred much of the modern world), Luther by his principles made the Church, and religion itself, an interior, private thing, so private that it eventually fades away, sowing the seed for the discord that would flow. As Newman wrote, Protestantism all on its own leads inevitably to agnosticism and secularism, and it is only its attachment, however conscious, to the one Church of Christ that keeps the whole Christian religion going.
For an unsurpassed analysis of Luther’s spiritual journey, peruse The Three Reformers by the philosopher Jacques Maritain, and how Luther, the troubled former priest, struggling with his own idealistic principles, ended up projecting his own vast and dominant personality on the very Church that he sought, at first, to reform.
Nam oportet et haereses esse, wrote Saint Paul to the Corinthians: It is necessary that there be heresies, to test, try and purify our faith. Luther’s questioning, and eventual rejection, of basic Catholic principles led to the Council of Trent, which commenced the very year before his death in 1546, a Council which so clearly and succinctly defined doctrine, everything raised by Luther and his fellow Protestors: from the canon of Scripture to the reality of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. The Church was also prompted to examine her own practices, some of the reasons for her teaching, her relation to the world, which would eventually bear fruit in the centuries to come.
Alas, we are not free yet, for many areas even of the Catholic Church, to say nothing of most Protestant denominations, still suffer under that tendency to an emotional and enthusiastic religion, which minimizes reason and discipline, the clappy-hand, feel-good liturgies which feed our emotions, and little else; the priest also feeling the need to impress his own personality on the liturgy, and teachers their own ‘ideas’ and revisions on the Church’s defined doctrine and practice.
Luther supposedly declared, when confronted with his heretical doctrine at the Diet of Worms in 1521, that he could not violate his conscience: here I stand; I can do no other. It is with that conscience that he went to face his God and Maker. So will we all. But we should remember that that same conscience must be formed by the Church Christ founded, guided by the Roman Pontiff and the Magisterium in her defined teaching, as well as nourished, even immersed, in her sacramental and liturgical life. This is the surest path to heaven, the only one revealed by God Himself.
Here I myself stand, for I can do no other.