Third in a Series on the Protestant Reformation
Fr. Charles Coppens, S.J.
|Luther, the Devil's Bagpipe|
(Woodcut illustration, ca. 1530)
It was in the Lent of 1517 that Luther began preaching some of his new doctrines to the faithful in a church at Wittenberg, where an enthusiastic audience ever hung upon his eloquent lips. He inveighed against those who had made the people believe that they were obliged to cultivate good will, good intentions, good ways of thinking, etc., etc. On July 25, he preached at Dresden, teaching that the mere acceptance of Christ's merits insured salvation. On October 31, he seized a favorable opportunity to vent some of his views in public by attacking the teachings of the Dominican monk, Tetzel, who was collecting alms for the building of the grand Basilica of St. Peter in Rome.
This magnificent edifice is certainly a rish source of glory to God and of edification to mankind. It was fitting that the noblest edifice on earth should be erected for the most solemn functions of the Christian religion. But, of course, it required a vast amount of money, such as could not be collected at the time without appealing to the generosity of all Christian lands. To encourage liberal donations for this worthy purpose, Pope Leo X had proclaimed a special indulgence for all those who, repenting of their sins, should receive the Sacrament of Confession, attend church devoutly and contribute for the erection of St. Peter's church according to their ability. No definite sum was appointed, and those who had no money to give could gain the indulgence by prayers and fasting offered for the success of the work. The preachers of the indulgence were expressly enjoined to dismiss no applicant without the grace, as in this transaction the welfare of Christians was no less considered than the building of the church.
An indulgence is a remission of the temporal punishment due to sin after the guilt has been remitted. That such punishment may remain after the pardon of a sin is taught clearly in Holy Scripture, where we read that Nathan said to David:
The Lord hath taken away the sin; nevertheless, the child that is born of thee shall die. (2 Kings 13:13-14)
Now, Christ comissioned St. Peter, saying "Whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in Heaven" (Matt. 16:19). Hence the Popes, as successors of St. Peter, claim the power of granting the remission of whatever can keep us out of Heaven, both the guilt by absolution and the penalty of sin by indulgences; provided all be done so as to promote the glory of God and the good of souls.
Did any great abuse occur in connection with the indulgence preached by Tetzel and his companions? Yes. What we now call "graft" was pretty common abuse in Luther's time. It was perhaps almost as bad then as it is today. But it was a much greater scandal than it is now, because many persons guilty of it were churchmen, and not merely city or state officials. The crime of simony, that is, selling sacred things for money or its equivalent, has often been a plague to the Church. It has done a very great amount of harm, chiefly by getting unworthy men into sacred offices. Then those unworthy priests and cardinals disgraced their holy religion and caused those very scandals which Luther gave as a pretexts for his reform. For instance, Albert, the archbishop of Mayence, at the time we speak of, had become archbishop by simony, and when the indulgence for St. Peter's church was preached, he strove to have one-third of the money collected in his province turned into his own pocket to reimburse him for the sum he had spent to get his office. This was a great abuse, but it did not affect the indulgence itself.
At the same time, the Elector Frederick, Luther's friend and patron, did not wish any of the money to go from his domains to Rome if he could prevent it. Luther and his brethren, the Augustinian monks, could do him no greater favor than to attack the preachers of the indulgence. They had some additional motive to do so in the fact that this mission had been entrusted to the Dominican Fathers instead of their own more austere order. The master stroke of Luther consisted in throwning the odium of the graft on the indulgences.
The work of inveighing against the preaching of the indulgences was rendered more favorable by certain mistakes made by some of Tetzel's missionaries. It was not in explaining how person could gain the indulgence for themselves - for in this respect, their teaching was correct - but in explaining the manner in which such indulgences can be gained on behalf of the souls in Purgatory. They supposed that a Christian did not need to be in God's grace himself in order to secure an indulgence in favor of a certain departed soul of his own choice. This would take person holiness out of the matter, and it gave occasion to wicked men to call it a "sale" of indulgences. Rome had made no mistake, but some of its missionaries had. Even these did not mean to sell indulgences, but Luther thus interpreted their conduct.
Luther's chief purpose was not to correct this error, but to profit by it for the prupose of making indulgences odious, and indirectly to blame the Pope, who had granted them. The proof of this statement is found in some of the ninety-five theses which he posted up at Wittenberg, one of which asked:
Why does not the Pope, who is rich as Croesus, buld St. Peter's with his own money, rather than with that of the poor Christians?
Now, the Pontiff was not building a private chapel for himself, but a basilica for the whole Christian world. Another thesis said:
Christians should be taught that he who gives to the poor, or assists the needy, does better than he who purchases indulgences.
It was the old argument of the traitor Judas, who asked:
'Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence and given to the poor?' Now, he said this not because he cared for the poor. (John 12:5-6)
Besides, Luther knew very well that the Church does not allow people to purchase indulgences; but he skillfully turned the blunders of some underlings against the higher authorities, and thus gave currency to the slander which has been perpetuated to the present day: that indulgences can be bought for money.
Tetzel answered him on January 20, 1518, by posting up one hundred and six counter-theses. But the dispute soon drifted into a wider field, Luther passing from one accusation to another. He afterwards wrote to Tetzel, whom many blamed for the beginning of the rebellion:
You need no trouble and distress yourself; for the matter did not begin with you; this child had, indeed, quite a different father.
He himself was that father, and the Reformation would have taken place is no indulgence had ever been preached.
Still, Luther seems to have had no fixed purpose - at that time - of separating from the Church, but of reforming both the doctrine and the discipline of the Church after his own peculiar ideas. But until he felt secure of having sufficient support in secular princes, he carefully concealed his rebellious spirit. Thus, on March 3, 1519, he wrote a humble letter to Pope Leo X, in which he swore before God that he had never dreamt of impeaching the Catholic Church, that there was nothing in Heaven or n earth that he preferred before her. And yet, only ten days later, he wrote to his friend Spalatin:
I don't mind telling you, between ourselves, that I am not sure whether the Pope is Anti-Christ himself or only his apostle.
In the following year, 1520, Luther felt secure in the support of a large army of revolutionaries, princes and nobles and learned Humanists and the common people, who would not have allowed any harm to befall him. Then he proclaimed aloud that the new Gospel truth had been revealed to him by the Lord, that he was commissioned to announce it to the people, and that there was no salvation by any but his doctrine. The pith of that doctrine was:
Salvation by faith alone, without good works on the part of man, all whose actions are only so many sins, because human nature is utterly corrupted by the fall of Adam; but belief that his sins are covered with the mantle of Christ's merits, is saving to any man who has it.
Evidently there is no room for indulgences or confession in this system of justification; nor for Purgatory, nor for honoring any Saint, since there are no Saints, but all remain corrupt for all eternity, only the corruption is covered by the cloak of Christ's merits.
Luther taught besides that, "whatever issues from Baptism may boast that it has been consecrated priest, bishop, pope," there is no difference among Christians except the offices assigned to some. Since all Christians are priests, all have equal authority to interpret the Bible for themselves. As he wished chiefly to flatter the princes so as to secure their protection, he taught that:
For as much as the temporal power is ordained of God, to punish the wicked and to protect the good, therefore it must be allowed to do its work unhindered on the whole Christian body, without respect to persons, whether it strike popes, bishops, priests, monks, nuns, or whom it will.
The secular power, he maintained, should summon a free council which "should reorganize the constitution of the Church from its foundation, and must liberate Germany from the Romish robbers, from the scandalous, devilish rule of the Romans." He adds:
It is stated that there is no finer government in the world than that of the Turks, who have neither a spiritual nor a secular code of law, but only their Koran. And it must be acknowledged that there is no more disagreeable system of rule than ours, with our canon law and our common law, whilst no class any longer obeys either natural reason or the Holy Scripture.
This, then, is the "Reformation," or new religion which Luther proclaimed to the world. We shall next consider how it spread like a swelling torrent over large portions of Europe.