The reprieve of Martin Luther
The Roman Catholic Church has done an about face in its attitude toward Martin Luther. Today Catholic scholars are among Luther's greatest apologists, extolling him as a devout Reformer who tried to better the church in an age of corruption and greed. Catholic historians are calling him "one of the greatest witnesses to the Christian faith" and "our brother in Christ." Luther's "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" is sung in Catholic churches. Even Pope John Paul II has acknowledged "the profound religiousness of Luther."
All this for a man who had been banned, damned, derided, and vilified by the Catholic Church for four centuries!
One needs to study only a little Reformation history to understand why the Catholic Church, particularly the hierarchy of Luther's day, hated him. His basic Reformation tenet of justification by faith undermined the lucrative system of indulgences, which for centuries had been financing church projects such as the construction of St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome.
Luther also taught that both the pope and church councils could err, despite popular belief to the contrary. Luther taught that Scripture alone is the divine norm and authority in all matters pertaining to Christian life--that neither the pope nor church councils can establish articles of faith apart from the Bible. He advocated "the total uprooting and replacement of the canons and papal decretals, and of scholastic theology, philosophy, and logic as they are now taught." 1 When he received the papal bull, Exsurge Domine ("Arise, O Lord"), which threatened him with excommunication, he burned it along with the part of the canon law that gave the pope extravagant powers. He defied church authority by translating the Bible into the common vernacular, abolishing celibacy for the clergy, and introducing the concept of the priesthood of all believers. He even claimed that "the pope is the antichrist. "2
Yet he at first had no intention of withdrawing from the church. "Perish the thought! Perish the thought! To be sure, we censure, we denounce, we plead, we warn; but we do not on that account split the unity of spirit,"3 he wrote in 1519.
Luther's censuring, denouncing, and pleading, however, did cause a split, and it brought upon him a barrage of wrath from the Catholic Church that endured for centuries.
Seed of Satan
Luther's most vitriolic opponent during his lifetime was Johannes Cochlaeus, a German who entered the conflict with Luther in 1520. At the Diet of Worms, he visited Luther several times and tearfully implored him to come into line with the church. Having failed, he became Luther's avowed enemy and wrote an extended diatribe called Commentaries on Luther's Actions and Writings (1549).
In the Commentaries Cochlaeus not only assailed Luther's theology but attacked him and his family personally. He wrote that Luther was the offspring of Satan; the result of his mother Margarethe's intimacy with the devil before she married Martin's father, Hans. This teaching harmonized with the imperial edict of the Diet of Worms, which put Luther under the ban of the empire. The edict declared that Luther was not human, but the devil dressed as a monk.
Cochlaeus set the tone for later Catholic historians. Variations of his denigrations against Luther appeared in most Catholic works until World War II. In later years Catholic theologians have abandoned Cochlaeus' opinion of Luther's supernatural origin, preferring rather to attribute his views and activities to abnormal psychology.
In a biography of Luther written in 1904, the Austrian historian and priest Seuse Denifle, O.P., described Luther as an ignoramus, a glutton, a drunkard, and a liar. He accused Luther of being a forger, a syphilitic, a paranoid, and a suicide. According to Denifle, Luther's undisciplined personality and refusal to seek help from God compelled him to break his monastic vow of chastity and to lead others to despise the church.
In a three-volume German biography (published in six English volumes between 1913 and 1917), H. Grisar, a Jesuit historian, built on Denifle's work, though he eliminated the most outrageous charges. He believed that Luther was a psychopath who suffered from an extraordinary capacity for self-delusion. He disagreed with Denifle, however, saying that Luther would not have been able to do so much work and produce such an astounding amount of writing had he been a drunkard. He also lauded Luther for his translation of the Bible into Ger man.
Prior to World War II, Catholic historian Adolfe Herte found Cochlaeus' Commentaries grossly unfair to Luther. Herte wrote that though exaggerated, distorted, passionate, and incorrect, the Commentaries correctly reflected the contemporary spirit of Catholic hatred toward Luther. Nevertheless, according to Herte, Cochlaeus "painted a picture of Luther in which his hand was moved by hate and contempt, in the darkest colors, and repeatedly he resorted to the lowest suspicions and calumnies, which contributed to renewed judgments of damnation upon Luther. ... It should therefore not surprise us that in his description of Luther's death he openly dared to indicate that Luther in the final judgment would be damned for eternity. To such judgments did his blind and frenzied passion carry him, which made his picture of Luther such an unheard-of caricature of hate."4
At the same time, Danish Catholic psychiatrist Paul Reiter psychoanalyzed Luther. He believed the analysis was needed because the mere mention of Luther's name had traditionally evoked only emotional responses. "Never, either among old or modem Luther biographies, have I found one objective, unemotional, factual portrayal of him always only attacks or apology, but always a colored presentation." He concluded that Luther was neither a schizophrenic nor an epileptic, as had been suggested, but was a manic depressive. Nevertheless, he called Luther "a genius with a singularly unique personality shaped both by his definitely personal characteristics and also by the peculiar times in which he lived. "5
In 1939 the definitive break with the solely condemnatory attitude toward Luther came when Joseph Lortz, who at that time filled the chair of church history in the Catholic theology faculty in Munster, published his History of the Reformation in Germany. Unlike his predecessors, Lortz did not blame Luther alone for the Reformation, but said that the church bore a great share of the guilt. In a later book he went so far as to admit that "revolt against the church could hardly have been avoided any longer. A 'reformation' had become a historical necessity," and that the "split was latent. The institutions still stood, but to a great extent, life had gone out of them. And precisely because the split was latent, Luther's blow fell with such devastating force."6
According to Lortz, Luther was not the cause of the Reformation but just the pin that punctured the balloon that was about to burst. "At the end of the fifteenth century the world was literally filled with cries--impatient, angry, sad, revolutionary, defiant cries against the domination by Rome and the clergy, against Rome's oppression and extortions, against its despotism, and against its all too hedonistic way of life." 7
Though not an uncritical Luther enthusiast,' Lortz wrote that even Pope Adrian VI (1522-1523) was aware that Luther's revolt was largely attributable to the sins of the church. Lortz quoted Adrian as saying, "God permits this persecution of His church on account of the sins of men, and especially of prelates and clergy. . . . Holy Scripture declares aloud that the sins of the people are the consequences of the sins of the priesthood. ... We know all too well that for many years things deserving of abhorrence have taken place around this Holy See. Sacred things have been misused, the commandments transgressed; in everything there has been a turn for the worse."8
Lortz warned that if the Catholic Church did not accept its share of the responsibility for the breach, then a settlement within Christendom would be impossible. He believed that the church should openly confess its faults, as did Pope Adrian VI, and thus help pave the way toward reconciliation.
Catholic scholarly interest in Luther and the Reformation has continued since World War II. At Vatican II this new attitude bore fruit. Through its four constitutions, three declarations, and nine decrees, Vatican II removed and blurred many of the differences that had previously set Catholicism apart from Protestantism. According to Francine Cardman, a Catholic professor of theology at the University of Toronto, "the council recalled the insights of Martin Luther and the Reformers." Some of the changes instituted at Vatican II the "rediscovery of the laity;" the Mass con ducted in the vernacular, with Latin re served for special occasions, and a greater emphasis on the importance of the Bible--echo reforms that Luther advocated centuries earlier. 9
Vatican II opened to Catholics the subjects raised by the Reformers in the sixteenth century. Through these discussions, hierarchical denigration of Luther came to an official end. Pope John XXIII, who oversaw Vatican II, called Luther and his followers in different Protestant churches "separated brethren" rather than enemies and sons of the devil.
Encouraged by the amiable religious climate engendered by Vatican II, Catholic historians continued to study Luther and his writings. By the late 1960s Herte and Lortz had been joined by numerous outstanding Catholic scholars who lauded Luther and his work. They called Luther an earnestly religious man who was derailed into destructive criticism by the failure of the pope and the ecclesiastical authorities to profit from his appeal for reform.
Hans Kung believes that the breach would never have come had Rome chosen to correct abuses and give in on three points: use of the vernacular in church services, communion in both kinds, and marriage of the clergy. 10 A Vatican specialist on Lutheranism, Monsignor Aloys Klein says that "Martin Luther's action was beneficial to the Catholic Church." 11 Like many other Catholics, Klein thinks that if Luther were living today there would be no split.
Contemporary Catholic scholars have been especially interested in the teachings of the early Luther. Dr. Otto Pesch, O.P., of Germany, has compared Luther's concept of justification with that of Thomas Aquinas. He concludes that Luther was a Catholic and "one of the greatest witnesses to the Christian faith and a gift to all Christendom."12 These modern scholars agree that Luther's teaching on grace and salvation was anchored in the writings of Paul, and that Luther had rediscovered this lost treasure for the Catholic Church. They have come to regard Luther not as an innovator but as a restorer of the true Catholic religion.
In 1970 Harry J. McSorly, C.S.P., of Canada, wrote that "the Protestant Reformation included many positive aspects of church renewal, some of which have come to be appreciated and assimilated by Roman Catholicism only as recently as the Second Vatican Council. The tragic dimension of the Reformation lies in the fact that the Reformers were unable to carry out their reformation program in union with the Roman Church but 'were separated from full communion' with the church. " 13
According to McSorly, the neglect by the popes and bishops to feed the flock with the Word of God had fostered theological unclarity as well as a brand of semi-Pelagianism. He recognizes "that Luther, in his central and original reformation protest, was a Catholic reformer, a defender of the traditional Catholic faith against an un-Catholic error that was widespread in the German church of his day." 14 Earlier Lortz had maintained that Luther had saved the church from a shallow humanistic theology: "And it was indeed none other than Luther himself who banished the danger that threatened from humanism. With the tremendous force of his one-sidedness he led the way from the culture religiosity of Erasmus back to the faith religion of Paul. "15
Retrieved from hell
In a 1983 letter addressed to Johannes Cardinal Villebrands, of the Netherlands, head of the Catholic Secretariat of the Christian Union, Pope John Paul II noted "the profound religiousness of Luther" and that he alone should not shoulder the blame for the splintering of the church. "It is time that we distance ourselves," he wrote, "from historic events and assure that they are often better understood and evoked." He mentioned that in the "search to reestablish unity," study of Luther and the Reformation must go on. 16
A few days later Cardinal Villebrands, at an ecumenical conference in Leipzig, said that "Luther has--like all the baptized have--been added, to use a phrase out of the book of Acts, to the Lord Jesus Christ in the tangible form of His church. Through this he has become our brother in Christ. Even though he later on did not remain in full church fellowship, the fellowship in Christ has nevertheless not been disrupted. . . . Martin Luther is not only present in the life of evangelical Christendom; he is also present in ecumenical Christendom. We must therefore renew his theological inheritance." 17
The current Catholic recognition of Luther is also evident in Peter Mann's 500th-anniversary volume entitled Martin Luther. This book, written by the present-day successor to Lortz at the University of Mainz, was translated into English in an abbreviated and popular form for the Luther quincentennial. Lutheran scholar Jaroslav Pelikan, in the introduction, wrote that "the Luther who emerges from these pages stands out as profoundly Catholic in his devotion to the church, to her creeds, and to her sacraments. Even when he denounced the church for betraying the trust given to her by Christ, he was speaking in the name of that which the church confessed and had taught him to confess." Pelikan believes that this book "will aid in bringing Catholics and Lutherans together again, if that be possible." 18
Many believe it is possible. In an attempt to come to a common agreement on the doctrine of justification by faith, the doctrine that brought the initial rupture, the Lutheran-Catholic dialogue on justification issued a 24,000-word joint report in 1983, which stated in the preamble that "Christians, whether Protestant or Catholic, cannot disregard the person and message of this man," Luther. These Lutheran and Catholic scholars announced "that they had reached essential agreement on the meaning of justification,' " and that "the remaining points of difference about the doctrine were no longer reason to keep their churches apart." 19
Dr. Carl Braaten, of Chicago's Lutheran School of Theology, insists that the Protestant union with Rome is precisely what Luther wanted. "The Reformation was always meant to be a temporary movement," he contends. "When the Roman Catholic Church is reformed, there will be no justification for a separate Protestant church. "20
On December 11, 1983, Pope John Paul II preached at the Lutheran church that serves the German business community in Rome. He was meeting an appointment made in 1982 when he had visited a nearby Catholic parish. The local Lutheran pastor, Christoph Meyer, opened the worship service with an invocation written by Martin Luther: "We pray You, Lord, and we beg You that with the aid of Your Spirit, You will return to unity what was fragmented. ..."
The pope responded in his homily, "We ardently desire unity and we make every effort to achieve it without being discouraged by the difficulties we meet on our road."21
Though no one expects a total unification of the churches soon, more progress has been made in the past few years than in the proceeding four centuries. For most Catholics, Protestants are no longer sons of the devil and doomed to eternal torment in hell; and for most Protestants, the papacy is no longer the seat of the antichrist. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the drive for unity is the central role that Martin Luther plays after so many years. Catholic scholars recognize that a reexamination of Luther's writings is of "critical importance" in the quest for unity. 22 For it is around Martin Luther, the man who first caused the great split, that the churches are now finding common ground for reconciliation.
To Seventh-day Adventists this movement toward reconciliation is most interesting. We are encouraged by the new openness to Bible study in both camps. But we also believe that Revelation 13 teaches that the papacy, after being healed from a "deadly wound," will join with Protestant America in persecuting those who refuse to "worship the beast and his image." The new Catholic attitude toward Martin Luther, and the Lutherans' willingness to accept the change, could provide a climate where the unification needed to fulfill this apocalyptic prophecy could be possible.
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1 In Jared Wicks, S. J., Luther and His Spiritual
Legacy (Wilmington, Del.: Michael Glazier, Inc.,
1984), pp. 61,62.
2 Against Latomus," 1521, in Luther's Works
(Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1958), vol. 32,
pp. 141, 147, 151.
3 Lectures on Galatians," 1519, in Luther's
Works (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House,
1964), vol. 27, p. 392.
4 Adolf Herte, Die Lutherkommentare des
Johannes Cochlaus (Munster: Verlag der Aschendorffschen
Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1935), pp. 326,
327; cf. Wicks, p. 15.
5 Paul J. Reiter, M.D., Martin Luther's Vmwelt,
Charakter und Psychose (Kopenhagen: Levin und
Munksgaard, 1937-1941), Vol. I, pp. 10-12; Vol.
II, pp. 554-560, 573.
6 Joseph Lortz, How the Reformation Came, trans.
Otto M. Knab (New York: Herder and Herder,
1964), pp. 110, 111.
7 Ibid.,p. 50.
8 Ibid.,p. 95.
9 Francine Cardman, "'The Church Would
Look Foolish Without Them: Women and Laity
Since Vatican II," in Gerald M. Fagin, S. J-, ed.,
Vatican II (Wilmington, Del.: Michael Glazier,
Inc., 1984), p. 109.
10 Merle Severy, "The World of Luther,"
National Geographic, 164No. 4 (October 1983): 448.
It is interesting to note that today the Roman Catholic
Church allows some married clergy in order to
admit ministers of other churches to become priests
when they convert to Catholicism. According to a
1983 Gallup Poll, the U.S. Catholics favor a married
priesthood by a margin of two to one.
11 Cited by Richard Ostling, in Time, Oct. 31,
12 From his presentation at the Luther Jubilee
Celebration, Washington, D.C., Nov. 7, 1983.
13 In Jared Wicks, S. ]., ed., Catholic Scholars
Dialogue With Luther (Chicago: Loyola University
Press, 1970), p. 107.
14 Ibid.,p. 108.
15 Ibid., p. 88.
16 New York Times, Nov. 6, 1983, pp. 11, 1, 10.
17 Speech: "Martin Luther" at okumenische Begegungstage,
November 11, 1983, at Eisleben-Leipzig.
18 Jaroslav Pelikan, "Introduction," in Peter
Manns, Martin Luther: An Illustrated Biography
(New York: Crossroads, 1982), p. vi.
19 "Justification By Faith," Origins, (Oct. 6,
1983; the preamble, "Martin Luther Legacy," was
prepared by the Joint Roman Catholic-Lutheran
Commission and appeared in Origins, June 9, 1983.
20 Cited in Time, Mar. 24, 1967.
21 Cited in Time, Dec. 26, 1983; cf. New York
Times, Nov. 6, 1983.
22 Wicks, Spiritual Legacy, p. 15.