Yesterday marked the 500th anniversary of possibly the most momentous event in modern Western society. Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 theses on the church door at Wittenburg demarcates the transition from a medieval society going back to the era of Charlemagne into what we know as the modern world in many respects. Most Protestants today regard Luther as the sainted reformer of Christianity while other Christians would see him as a heretic who split the Church asunder. And while both views may have their respective merits (and passionate defenders) neither view provides a clear and dispassionate analysis of Luther’s methods and objectives.
The first question one might ask is this. “Was Luther’s cause just?” As a Catholic benefitting from 20/20 historical hindsight, I would have to agree with his defenders that Luther articulated some very valid complaints in his initial tracts of 1517. But then the call to reform the clergy was hardly surprising or unique to the 16th century. Countless earlier reformers, taking aim at clerical morals and institutions, had come and gone: St. Bruno, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Dominic Guzman. All had left their mark on the Church in earlier centuries. Things would improve for a time and then inevitably slide back into laxity. Human nature is fixed it seems, and reform is the necessary and constant uphill struggle against the forces of spiritual gravity.
There had been clear warning signs of a new breakdown, however, throughout the prior 15th century. The burning of the Czech reformer Jan Hus in 1415 for the supposed crime of demanding that priests live lives of evangelical fervor had set Bohemia on fire. The Czech religious wars proved to be a tragic prelude to the religious wars that would ravage much of Europe in the following century. The Maid of Orleans, St. Joan of Arc was also burned about the same time as a heretic, although the real reasons for her execution were political, not religious (in an age when few drew any real distinction between secular and Church affairs). Again, in the 1490s the Dominican friar Savanarola was burned at the stake in Florence, again for urging reform, although perhaps a little to strenuously.
Above all, the spiritual and political chaos of that unfortunate century greatly undermined the influence of, and respect for, the papacy which always seemed to be at the epicenter of the maelstrom. The ill effects of these events were bound to carry over into the new century, which they did unabated. The Church, inextricably tied into the political ambitions and squabbles of European princes, had become dangerously akin to a tinderbox waiting for some careless passerby to drop a match.
That person just happened to be Fr. Martin Luther, although in fact it could have been any one of a hundred academics disgusted by the engrained avarice, selling of bishoprics, and general decadence among the higher clergy. But Luther, unlike earlier Catholic reformers, seems to have let the momentum of true reform get quickly out of hand. The intended reform of the Church and papacy rapidly degenerated into outright condemnation instead, abetted by Luther’s visceral polemics which turned increasingly strident and defamatory. Church authorities seemed to be equally unyielding which only exacerbated Luther’s defiance, so unlike the gentle 13th century man of Assisi who had always maintained a meek and humble attitude, whether in the company of popes and princes or even his detractors and Franciscan brothers.
Granted, society had changed in many respects over the intervening 300 years. The printing press now gave one a much broader audience and universities had sprung up everywhere where vigorous debate prevailed and academics like Luther were trained to defend their ideas rather than to look for intellectual compromise. Luther was a product of this new academic world where holding one’s ground was considered more important than seeking reconciliation with the opponent. To make things worse, Luther’s primary opponent, Pope Leo X, was a spendthrift intent on driving the papacy into bankruptcy. Such a man was ill prepared to address the new kind of spiritual crisis that Luther and his followers represented. Two immovable objects locked horns stubbornly at the very moment when only the most delicate diplomacy might have saved the day, and the Church’s unity.
In hindsight the reformation begun by Luther would eventually bear fruit but, sadly, this took nearly 40 years and four intervening popes, when the Council of Trent belatedly introduced true and lasting reforms into the life of the Church. Unfortunately, by that time half of Europe’s Christians had been severed from their mother Church along confessional lines, which readily multiplied to the confusion of all. Although Luther retained the Mass, he rejected an ordained priesthood along with five sacraments. Furthermore, he denied that the Mass had any sacrificial character which left it only as a memorial meal. Other reformers would jump off from that springboard to abolish it entirely. Even so, without ordained priests it became entirely a symbolic gesture anyway in Lutheran lands. In places like Scotland and England the Mass, source and summit of Christian unity, was outlawed entirely.
Still, the Church today should recognize that Martin Luther did it the service of forcing the eventual adoption of a true and comprehensive reform which 16th century churchmen were generally loathe to implement internally. But the best intentions of men often go awry and, in Luther’s case, his long term legacy is one of endless division and factionalism among Christians who had been united in polity and faith for 1,500 years. He correctly saw the need for reform because human beings are in constant need of it, even today. But as always the devil is in the details, and the means that Luther and his followers used ultimately did more to rend than to heal Christ’s Church on earth. Today, more than ever, that lack of Church unity is playing into the hands of a thoroughly secular world. The Church has been described as the soul of the world, and without its soul the world must eventually expire, and not from greenhouse gases but from its own existential demise.
Francis J. Pierson +a.m.d.g.