The Reformation

Was Luther a "Catholic Reformer"?

by Art Sippo

In our era of facile and intemperate ecumenism, there has been a movement afoot to "revise" history and rehabilitate the character of Martin Luther as a "Catholic reformer" while dismissing the Catholic Church's objections to his teachings as "misunderstandings". In such a climate, it is incumbent upon the Catholic people to recall the facts of history surrounding the so-called "reformation" and to reaffirm the reasons why the Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman Church rejected Luther and his views as heretical.

First of all, the theology Luther rejected was not classical Catholicism but the via moderna, the perverted "scholarly view" of his day which roundly rejected the classical theories of truth and knowledge which underlay the teachings of the great minds in the Christian tradition such as St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and St. Bonaventure. His faith had been poisoned by the 16th century equivalent of modernist catechetics.

His "reformed" theology was derived not only from the via moderna but based in part on the new humanistic scholarship and its advocation of getting back to the original texts and ignoring subsequent interpretations in favor of modern ones. He decided that the only reliable theology text was the Bible and that anything written afterwards was to be judged on how well it conformed to what the scriptures said. Naively, Luther assumed that the Bible was "perspicuous" (i.e., clear to understand) so that everyone would come away from the text with essentially the same interpretation. Based on this prejudice, he dispensed with the historic teachings of the Fathers, Doctors, Popes, Creeds, and Church Councils.

One of the consequences of Luther's via moderna program was a general denial of universal truths in theology. Salvation was conceived in purely personal terms without reference to the Church. Despite the fact that the Bible portrays salvation as communal and refers to the Church as the bride of Christ, Luther was preoccupied with his own salvation and developed a system in which he thought he could be absolutely certain that he was among the elect based solely on a trusting or fiduciary faith in his being saved.

Luther first publicly revealed his "breakthrough" theology in 1517 with the publication of his "95 Theses". (Contrary to popular myth, the theses were not nailed to the Wittenburg Cathedral door but published as a pamphlet.) The "95 Theses" raised quite a controversy in Germany. The nobility in particular were happy to support any movement which weakened foreign influence in Germany and prevented large amounts of money from leaving the country for Rome. Luther had a number of noble patrons on his side including his local lord, Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony.

Many Lutherian "hagiographers" try to portray Luther as a loyal Catholic who only abandoned the Church after the Pope excommunicated him. Yet an examination of his correspondence from 1516 onwards demonstrates that he considered the Pope to be the Antichrist from the time the "95 Theses" were published onward and only became more adamant with time. His views on "justification by faith alone" were too central to his own personal concept of salvation to ever be negotiable. The "95 Theses" were not the first step towards his abandonment of the Catholic Church but the public declaration of his intent to leave unless the Church conformed to his opinions. He had ceased to believe in Catholicism long before that.

In 1518, Pope Leo X sent Tommasio Cajetan to talk to Luther and defuse the situation. Cajetan was probably the greatest theologian of that time. After spending three days talking to Luther, Cajetan wrote a letter to the Pope saying that there were two serious problems with Luther. First, he totally ignored and disparaged Papal teaching. Secondly, Luther defined faith in a manner that was unlike what the Bible and Tradition taught. Cajetan didn't think there was any chance of reconciliation and recommended that steps be made to curb Luther's activities.

Pope Leo X waited for three years hoping that Luther would recant. In the interim, Luther publicly debated the theologian John Eck. Eck showed Luther how his views contradicted the solemn teachings of the Popes and Ecumenical Councils. Luther then stated freely that Popes and Councils could be wrong and that he only accepted his own interpretation of the Bible as his supreme authority. This was a damning admission which clearly showed that Luther was no longer a Catholic in any meaningful sense.

Finally, the Bull, "Exsurge Domine", was promulgated in 1521 and Luther was formally excommunicated. Shortly thereafter the Diet of Worms was convoked to deal with this and other issues in Germany. Luther was again addressed by several top Catholic theologians but made his now infamous reply to their entreaties, "If I am not convinced by evident reason and the Scriptures I will not believe. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe." In essence he reaffirmed that he recognized no teaching authority other than himself and that he alone would set the conditions for belief. There is no mention of truth here, only personal conviction. This introduced a novel level of subjectivity into Christian faith which had never been seen before and set the stage for the total ecclesiastical anarchy of the German "Reformation."

Luther remained an apostate for the rest of his life and never even considered reconciliation with the Catholic Church. He declared that only Baptism and Holy Eucharist were true sacraments. He vehemently denied the sacrificial nature of the Mass and called it an abomination. Ministry was purely at the sufferance of the local nobleman and the Church was put under state control. He called celibacy a sin and taught that no one should be sexually frustrated as long as there were willing maidens around.

He wrote many works thereafter including a final treatise on the Papacy which can only be described as one long toilet insult accompanied by disgusting graphic woodcuts of the basest kind. He eventually lived with and then married a former nun, Katherine Bora. Their marriage was quite stormy and gave Luther little pleasure. He embarrassed her in public on several occasions, one time causing her to swoon after he commented publicly on their sexual activities. He died in 1546 cursing the Pope and the Council of Trent with his dying breath.

In no way can such a degenerate apostate be considered a "catholic reformer". His teachings and his subsequent lifestyle reaffirm what Our Lord said, "[b]y their fruits shall you know them." (Matthew 7:20). I hope that this shows the total incompatibility of Luther and his teachings with the Catholic faith and reaffirms in the minds of the Catholic people how fortunate we are that the superintendent protection of the Holy Spirit through the Papacy and the Magisterium has preserved the purity of Catholic doctrine from pollution by Luther’s errors

Art Sippo
The Catholic Legate

This article originally appeared in the Jul/Aug. '96 issue of
St. Catherine Review.