Wednesday 31 October 2012

495 years ago today, Luther opened a can of worms

                                                        Knocking the Church, as popular in 1517 as it is today

On October 31st 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 revolutionary opinions to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg.

In so doing he set in motion a series of cataclysmic events that would shatter the Catholic world.

Foremost of his concerns was the so called selling of indulgences.

We know from Chaucer and others that such abuses occurred but there is a narrow line between charging for an indulgence and making an offering or paying a stipend.

The chantry system whereby the laity paid for Masses to be said for their souls and those of their loved ones was an established and popular practice; it continues to some degree today when we hand in our list of names of deceased family members with our November offering.

Catholics have always contributed to the support of their pastors and it is encumbent upon us to do so.

Nothing wrong in that. In fact, there is a great deal of good in it.

And today, when we wish for a Mass to be offered for a special intention, we include a stipend as a contribution to the priest. Would Luther classify that as 'buying a Mass?'

The selling of indulgences in the 16th century was not really the foundation block that Luther planned to reconstruct the Faith from but it was a good 'headline' catcher and he used it against the Church much as today, clerical abuse is used as a means of attempting to destroy something that is fundamentally sound, fundamentally good, the Church led by Pope Benedict XVI.

So now, on this anniversary of the birth of Protestantism, let us remember those among us who have died and may be in Purgatory and compile our lists ready for the month of the Holy Souls.

Apart from fulfilling yet another of our requirements, praying for the dead, it is also a very good indicator that Luther did not succeed.

The Church that he despised is still strong; it weathers all storms and, it will triumph with the help of Our Blessed Lord and His Mother.

Posted by Richard Collins - Linen on the Hedgerow


  1. So what are we saying?

    "Every time a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory doth spring" is good sound RC theology misunderstood by Luther?

    To me the idea of saying you can pay your way out of purgatory was a horrific abuse of both the people and the Gospel and needed reformed but hey I'm Protestant

  2. "So what are we saying? 'Every time a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory doth spring' is good sound RC theology..."

    No, that is exactly what the author was NOT saying.

    The abuses committed by men -- individuals -- such as Johann Tetzel were horrific, ones that the Catholic Church did not support or approve of: in fact she has always condemned them. One swallow a summer does not make. In fact, these types of simonic abuses by greedy individuals have always been with us and are one reason why the real Church is always in a constant process of reform and renewal.

    The particular abuses of Tetzel were only in evidence in certain parts of Germany mainly because bishops in other parts of the world had dealt effectively with the phenomenon known as 'pardoners'. (These men were much ridiculed in England, for example, and for all his criticism of the priests of his day, St Thomas More hardly referred to them in his writings.) The real 'reformation' had started well before Luther, and was in fact a Catholic one -- led by Catholics saints, bishops, priests, and laypeople.

    Luther jumped on the bandwagon, claimed that such abuses reflected official Church doctrines -- knowing full well that they didn't -- so as to create schism and heresy: which, I would argue, rank as far greater crimes before God than does simony (itself a grave and horrendous crime indeed.) Luther did not want reform of the Church, he wanted schism and power: a Church in his own image. All we need do is study his life to see how far he reformed himself (the only person we can successfully reform): he became a worse and more vile person the further away from the truth he led himself.

    The real Church, founded by Jesus Christ, as opposed to a German ex-monk with severe personality problems, did reform the financial abuses of the 15th-16th centuries: and removed them. This was definitively done at the Council of Trent, which absolutely condemned practices such as Tetzel's and ordered bishops to stop spiritual fraudsters such from operating in their dioceses. Further reforms were enacted by various popes. real reforms, which changed behaviour but kept the Church one. (Reform does not mean rupture, neither does it mean destruction and scandal -- disunity is Christendom's gravest scandal.)


    1. (Continued from above)

      Coming from a Protestant background, I can attest to the fact that money led to abuses in various non-conformist denominations, too. Until very recently (and possibly still so), in my local Methodist, Presbyterian and Baptist churches, one had to 'buy' membership in the church. Without paying a fixed sum, let's say £600, upfront per annum, one could not effectively be considered a Christian! To make things worse, the minister / pastor would announce from the pulpit who had and hadn't paid their annual fee, and how much debt was owed by certain families. It was often assumed by the people that those who were not members, due to lack of funds, were lazy sinners, whom God had punished by not providing them with adequate means, and who might even end up in Hell for their avarice / sloth. To make things worse, until recently, the local Anglican churches where I grew up, in a very 'Reformed' Protestant part of Wales, still had boxed pews for the wealthy, benches for those who could only afford a certain amount, whilst those with little or no money were required to stand in the porch or the very back of the church! (The church in the parish where I lived still operated this system well into my teens -- mid 1990s! No wonder they only had about 4 members in the congregation and that the whole church has now closed down.)

      No-one can 'pay' their way out of Purgatory, or, more correctly, pay for someone else to be relieved of the purgation needed before a soul beholds God face to face. The Church has always condemned this abusive and false teaching -- as she has always condemned child abuse (this was the point the author was making). We can perform works of mercy for those souls who have died, though, and charity -- love -- requires that we do so. Our hope is, of course, that Christian souls would not need to pine for God for too long and they are purified, as we trust in His mercy and love: even if we know that nothing unholy can stand before God and His justice.

      It has also, of course, been a Christian thing to support the upkeep of our priests by making an offering to them when they 'work' for us. (A labourer deserves his wages.) I used to preach for the Baptists and would be paid £50 per sermon on Sundays (three sermons a Sunday provided me with a wage comparable to my father's, who worked 60 hour weeks and was heavily taxed!). In similar fashion, it is an act of charity and justice to offer to give a priest a gift -- donation -- for saying a Mass for someone or a situation (marriage, funeral, dead, living, peace, the parish, etc). I agree, that such things can be prone to abuse... and we (Protestant or Catholic) must always tread carefully when money -- that tainted thing -- becomes entangled in the things of God.

    2. correction: "pine for God for too long [before] they are purified..."

  3. James, I'm not sure what you are saying but I'm certain of what I state.
    Your line of 'paying to get a soul out of Purgatory' does you no credit.
    As Catholics we know that it is not possible and, even if it was claimed to be so, then it was wrong.
    The rest has been framed by A Reluctant Sinner far more eloquently and measured than I would be able to, for which he has my grateful thanks.
    Finally, you may be Protestant but the door of the Catholic Church is wide open to you.

  4. Martin Luther was a very wicked man. A priest, he not only broke his own vows but induced others to do the same including a nun who he married. And such a man is held up by some as a hero! Pot and kettles come to mind!

  5. A Reluctant Sinner,

    A brilliant answer and one which I find myself agreeing with throughout though obviously I have a couple of disagreements. Tetzel’s abused the people’s misunderstanding of Purgatory and indulgences but sadly many within the Latin Rite still choose to ignore this.

    You are right to point out that there was/is a distinction between official teaching and what was being preached by greedy individuals and this of course does not mean the whole RCC was inherently corrupt. However it does mean that there was a need for genuine reform, and Luther rightly or wrongly had a point in his 95 thesis. Okay later he extended his rebukes and came to oppose the Papacy in totality but on that fateful October 31st in 1517 I do not believe that Luther was setting out to cause schism or destroy the Church. He may have jumped on the bandwagon, calls for reformation had been growing for centuries undoubtedly, but when Luther was nailing those 95 thesis to that door in Wittenburg I believe it was the last ditch attempt of a desperate man to get his superiors to stop the abuses of indulgences raging throughout his area.

    I believe he tried to speak privately with his superiors, about serious pastoral and theological concerns and in return he was told to shut up or get out. Now of course that doesn’t explain away everything else that he said in his life, nor his sins nor his rabid anti-papalism which he so aptly expressed in later years... but it does it explain the events of reformation day 1517.

    As for the Church it did reform, but one has to wonder if such reforms would have taken place had Luther and co kept quiet. Indeed one has to wonder if Trent could ever have taken place without the Reformation, or if the Catholic Reformation (previously called the very unecumenical “Counter Reformation”) with all its tremendous benefits and wonderful improvements could have occurred had Luther and co not spurred that movement into action.

    To admit as such does not mean that one holds Luther as a great Catholic or that he was right, but simply that the Church was, at the time of the Borgia Popes, in real need of reform and Luther had valid concerns about Tetzel (in 1517 at least).

    Oh and don’t get us started on the financial abuses with Protestantism which continues right through to the present.

    As for purgatory I am well aware that people cannot buy their way out, and I am disappointed that the guild has tried to make out that I don’t, what I was doing was such an idea... which Tetzel pronounced and Luther condemned... was an abuse, something which Trent agreed with.

    My point was that Luther, regardless of his actions in later life, may have actually been trying to stand up for what was right in 1517 and that the characterisation of the reformation as a bunch of whingers who wanted to make their own church is unfair and grossly inaccurate. I just find it difficult to say that Tetzel’s abuses were wrong and Trent was right to condemn them, yet Luther was wrong in condemning them decades earlier. I suppose the reality that both sides of the reformation had a part in causing the hurt and that both sides of the division have a part in resolving the division doesn’t really fit into the grand narrative of the holy and faultless Church being bullied by the big bad “revolutionists” who caused schism and sin...

    Anyway thank you “A Reluctant Sinner” for your great answer, it really is wonderful to see people dealing with other’s concerns in a meaningful way and I’m sorry if this reply is a bit of a mess I am at work and have written this in between projects!!

  6. In the recent election in the United States, the majority of self-identified Catholics voted in ways and for things contrary to their faith, contrary to the guidance of their bishops. I suppose if they could find the appropriate place, they’d nail their own list of Church “abuses” to the door. (They’re certainly posting them on the internet.) They often proclaim that were Jesus alive today, He’d be teaching us to do the things they espouse --- Jesus’ teaching would change with the times and the culture. Truth is not really absolute, they believe (although they might not agree with saying it). Recent popes have talked and written extensively on this belief: relativism. (In the United States as a whole, there are huge numbers of people --- and judges --- who believe our Constitution, on which we were founded with rights coming from God, must be judged relative to the times. And the government, not God, must be the source of our rights, but I digress.)

    I’ve heard talk that part of our problem is “freedom” --- freedom is a fearful thing. It gives us choices, but responsibility for those choices. There is something in our nature which longs for hugs and comfort and security, and where the family is disintegrating and the teachings of God are not studied or understood, having the government (whether democracy, king, or dictatorship) take care of you is comforting to many. And so they are perfectly willing to let it define what are moral “truths”.

    I’ve read much of Luther’s writings, but remain uncertain of the depths of his Catholic wisdom. Certainly I see many things wrong (in my understanding) with the Catholic Church today, but many wise men in His day saw things wrong with Jesus. Many a saint has written how one of the hardest things to do for a saint, is to obey. The Church (and men) may make mistakes, and perhaps reforms will be needed. But perhaps, in all humility, I need to first look at myself and seek endlessly to understand: “Is it I who need to understand, and to be reformed?” And meanwhile, to obey.

    No matter what I believe, I shall never leave this Church, nor this country, and I pray to understand the Truth. And sometimes these times are frustrating to me. I think, in part, Luther gave in to his frustration.


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