Martin Luther: Prince of heresiarchs

Don Pietro Leone Monselice from the Rorate Caeli blog

In Nomine Patris et Filli et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.

In these times of great ignorance and radical confusion, and when even Catholics of the highest levels of the hierarchy are pleased to praise Martin Luther, we would like briefly to present and evaluate his theology.

I. The theology of Martin Luther

As Fr. Schmidberger of the SSPX points out in his article on the subject, the main features of Martin Luther’s theology may be summarised in his four doctrines: Sola Scriptura, Sola Fides, Sola Gratia, and Solus Deus. Let us proceed to address these doctrines in the light of the Catholic Faith.

1. Sola Scriptura

The first doctrine, that of Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), affirms that the Faith is based only on Holy Scripture and that it is Holy Scripture itself that interprets Holy Scripture (which means, in effect, that the interpretation is left to the person reading it), while the Catholic Church, in a declaration from the Council of Trent (s. 4, 1546), which was taken up again at the First Vatican Council (s.3, c.2), teaches that the Faith is based on Divine Revelation (also called Depositum Fidei), and is comprised not only of Holy Scripture (the written part of Depositum Fidei), but also of “Tradition” (the oral part of Depositum Fidei).

It is not the individual person that has authority over the Depositum Fidei, but the Church. The Church has established which books belong to Holy Scripture, and the Church interprets these books and the data of oral Tradition to define the Dogmas of the Faith. The Ascension is an example of a dogma defined by the Church on the basis of Holy Scripture; the Assumption is an example of a dogma defined by the Church on the basis of oral Tradition.

2. Sola Fides

The second doctrine, Sola Fides (Faith alone) affirms that in order to be saved Faith alone is necessary, and not Faith and works as the Church teaches. In this connection, the sacred Council of Trent (s.6 c.10) cites the following words from the Epistle of St. James (2:24): “Do you see that by works a man is justified; and not by faith only?”

Therefore, both Faith and Charity (or works of Charity) are necessary for salvation, and while the false ecumenists act as if Charity alone were necessary, Martin Luther claims that only Faith is. Luther’s response to the Epistle of St. James, which clearly expresses Catholic Doctrine, was that of cancelling it from his new canon of Holy Scripture, defining it simply as “an epistle of straw”. From this we can see how Luther was less motivated by the Holy Scripture than by his own subjectivist presuppositions. The same goes for other parts of the Bible that were cancelled by him.

Moreover, it is necessary to keep in mind that Luther understands Faith in a very different way from Catholics. According to Luther, Faith consists in trusting that God in His mercy will forgive man on account of Christ, while the Church teaches that the Faith consists in accepting Revelation on the authority of God Who reveals it.

Luther anyway had already completely lost the Catholic Faith from the moment that he denied a single article of Faith, because he who denies even one article of Faith, denies the authority of God Who has revealed it.

3. Sola Gratia

In the third doctrine, Sola Gratia, (Grace alone), Luther affirms that through Original Sin human nature was totally corrupted, so that man became incapable of knowing religious truth and of acting freely and morally, with the result that Grace could not heal man, but only cover his sinfulness. Whereas the Church teaches that human nature is only fallen and wounded, and can be healed with Grace; man can know the truth and possesses free will by means of which he collaborates with Grace in order to act morally, even if this often requires a great struggle.

4. Solus Deus

The fourth doctrine, Solus Deus, (God alone), means that salvation comes directly from God and not through the Church, the Priesthood, the Sacraments, the intercession of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints. Luther claims that there is direct access to God. He does not recognise the intimate union between God and the Church: God in His Divinity and God in the Person of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

(a) God, in actual fact, by the power of of His divine and sublime Majesty, has established a hierarchical order in all things, whether they be natural or supernatural, whether they be in Heaven, Purgatory or Hell; and He operates through this intermediary hierarchical order for His own inscrutable purposes. As for the Redemption, He has acted through the “Fiat” of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, by means of the Incarnation, the Passion and Death of His Divine Son, and, with regard to the particular point under discussion, by means of the Holy Catholic Church and Her Sacraments.

(b) Moreover, God, in the Person of Our Lord Jesus Christ has perpetuated His earthly life and works in His Church: His life on earth through the Church which is His Mystical Body, and in His works through the Sacraments where He acts in Propria Persona. The most sublime and glorious example of His work is undoubtedly the Holy Mass where He continues to offer and immolate Himself to the Father at every moment of the day and night, and will do so until the end of time.

In fact Luther professes only two Sacraments: Baptism, and that which he was pleased to define as “the Supper” in substitution for the Holy Mass, the sacrificial nature of which he denied.

II. The heretical nature of Luther’s theology

So here we have a brief synthesis of Martin Luther’s doctrine contained in the 41 Articles condemned by Pope Leo X, with the 'Damnatio in globo' in the Bull, Exsurge Domine (1520), “ heretical, false, scandalous, or offensive to pious ears, as seductive of simple minds, originating with false exponents of the faith who in their proud curiosity yearn for the world’s glory, and contrary to the Apostle’s teaching, wish to be wiser than they should be”.

Now, according to the Code of Canon Law (CIC 1983, Can.751), “heresy is the obstinate denial, after having received Baptism, of any truth to be believed by Divine and Catholic faith, or obstinate doubt regarding it...” Having denied the truth of the Faith, Martin Luther is heretical, that is a formal heretic. Indeed, in virtue of the quantity of heresies that he conceived and taught, the number of protestant sects that he generated, and the consequent damage he wrought for the Catholic Church, he merits the name of heresiarch, or prince of the heresiarchs, or the heresiarch par excellence.

III. The failure of Martin Luther’s theology

We shall now show briefly how Luther’s theology fails.

1. With the words “Sola Scriptura”, he rejects the role of the Church regarding Holy Scripture, but in rejecting the role of the Church, he rejects Holy Scripture itself because the Church furnishes its true meaning.

2. With the words “Sola Fides”, he rejects the role of good works, but in rejecting good works he also rejects the Faith, because Faith without works is dead (James 2:17).

3. With the words “Sola Gratia” he rejects the role of free will, but in doing so, he rejects Grace also, because sanctifying Grace (apart from the case of Infant Baptism) is essentially a collaboration with free will.

4. With the words “Solus Deus” he rejects the role of the Church, but in doing so he also rejects God, because the Church gives us access to God, and the Church is, in a certain sense, God in the form of the Mystical Body of Christ.

In other words, in his search for the essence of Holy Scripture, of Faith, of Grace and of God, Luther, in effect severs them from other realities with which they are necessarily connected—that is the Teaching Church, works, free will, and the Sanctifying Church—denatures what he is looking for.

In all of these four cases, Luther, rejecting elements of the Faith, loses understanding of the entire Revelation, as the Jews by rejecting the Messiah, lost the understanding of the entire Revelation, since the Messiah is the key for understanding it. Thus the words of Our Lord apply to Luther as they had to the Jews: “From he that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath.” (Mt 13:12)

IV. The essence of Luther’s theology

If we wanted to summarise in one word Martin Luther’s theology, it would be “subjectivism”. Rather than submitting himself to the authority of the Church in order to know the Faith, to know the true interpretation of the Faith, and to accept the Faith, Luther prefers to establish himself the object of the Faith (that is, Holy Scripture) and its true interpretation, and substitutes the act of faith (which according to the Catholic Church consists, as said before, in implicitly accepting the whole corpus of objective Catholic Dogma) with a purely subjective state of mind adopted by the person in their individual relationship with God. The psychological roots of this subjectivism would seem to be Luther’s profound sense of guilt that is also manifest in his doctrine that human nature is totally corrupt.

Romano Amerio shows in Iota Unum that this subjectivism is expressed clearly in his Article 29: “The way is open for us to deprive Councils of their authority and to contradict their acts freely and to profess confidently whatever seems to us to be true.” In this way the four doctrines mentioned above can be expressed more accurately as “Solus Martinus Lutherus”.

V. The Patrimony of Martin Luther

Luther’s patrimony subsists not only in the Protestant sects but, for the last 50 years also, in the heart of the Catholic Church Herself and in the modern mentality in general.

Among Catholics today we discern Luther’s patrimony (and that of Protestantism) in the doctrines, at times mixed up with Catholic doctrines, of the self-interpretation of Holy Scripture, of the Church as solely an institution of men and as sinful, and of the Holy Mass as “a commemorative meal” where the Priest acts merely as “president”.

We discern it, moreover, in that radical subjectivism widely diffused amongst Catholics of today who seem incapable of understanding that the Faith is objectively true and that they must profess it and teach it as such; instead of seeking communion with other Confessions or religions in the name of an indefinite and vague ecumenism; a radical subjectivism in opposition to the concepts of dogma, heresy, and anathema; an individualism that seeks a direct relationship with God in all things, setting aside the Church, the priesthood or Sacraments, and in particular Sunday Mass and Confession.

Protestant elements are found especially in the charismatic movement within the Catholic Church to a degree which effectively constitutes an abandonment of the Church, dogmas, and Sacraments, in favour of a supposedly direct relationship with God.

These elements are most clearly present in the charismatic group known as the “Neocatechumenate” (at least before its recent reform by the Vatican) which proclaims the radical sinfulness of man, denies the true nature of the Church, the sacramental priesthood, the sacrificial nature of the Holy Eucharist in favour of a conception of “supper” or feast, denies the Real Presence (at least in the fragments of the Most Blessed Sacrament), harbours doubts regarding Transubstantiation, plays down the Sacrament of Penance, and teaches the self-interpretation of Holy Scripture.

Regarding the relationship of Lutheranism and Protestantism with the modern mentality, they are part of, or promote, that great current of subjectivism that smoothed the way for Descartes, for idealism and for modern philosophy in general, which draws the world away from God, from the True, the Good and the Beautiful, towards atheism and nihilism.

In the light of these considerations, it is difficult to understand the reasons why a Catholic would wish to extol the achievements of Martin Luther.

VI. Putative Merits of Martin Luther

Some praise Martin Luther for his sincerity, for his trust in God, for the clarity on which he based his doctrines, and his conscientiousness, but such qualities have no value whatsoever if they do not relate to objective reality: objective Truth and objective Good. Yet for Luther it was not so, because he substitutes objective truth with sincerity; he severs trust, clarity and conscientiousness from the objective criteria which give them value: he severs trust from the authority of God and of the Church, he severs clarity from the intrinsic properties of truth, and he severs conscientiousness from the moral law to which it is ordained. It follows that sincerity, trust, clarity and conscientiousness become mere subjective mental states of the individual, and so, morally indifferent. Thus, these elements represent only ulterior manifestations of his radical subjectivism.

Others praise Martin Luther for having attacked the moral abuses of the Clergy and Hierarchy of his time, even if Luther certainly cannot be proposed as a model of Catholic morality, as a Catholic Augustinian priest “married” to a nun, a psychotic, an antisemite, and a blasphemer, who taught: “Pecca fortier, sed crede fortius” (Let your sins be strong but your faith even stronger).

At any rate, the damage wrought by certain Churchmen of his time was definitely less than that caused by Luther: not so much for the civil war that he sparked off in Germany and the religious division in the whole of Europe, but for the damage brought to innumerable immortal souls through his disfigurement of the Catholic Faith.

No, the true good that sprang from Martin Luther’s Reform is that which God, in His infinite mercy, deigned to draw from so many and such great evils: namely the Holy Council of Trent, which codified and established forever the Old Roman Rite, and dogmatically defined Divine and Catholic Faith on Holy Scripture, on Tradition, on Original Sin, on Justification through Faith and works, on merits, on the Seven Sacraments, on Purgatory, on Devotion to the Saints and on Indulgences; so that all Catholics in all successive generations could enjoy that inexhaustible fount of grace and holiness which is the Old Roman Rite, and that they could know these eternal Truths, accepting them in a spirit of devout submission and humility, and living according to them for the Glory of the One and Triune God and for the salvation of their souls. Amen.

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