Five hundred years ago today, the Augustinian monk Martin Luther famously nailed his 95 Theses to the chapel door of Germany’s University of Wittenberg. And for much of the ensuing half-millennium, the man who begat the Protestant Reformation has been reviled by the Catholic Church.
Indeed, the view of Luther among many if not most of today’s Catholics is informed by a polemic written by the not entirely objective Catholic clergyman Henry George Ganss. It was published in the Catholic Encyclopedia all the way back in 1910 and republished on the Internet in 1995.
Ganss suggested that Luther was given to “uncontrolled rage.” That he exhibited “psychopathic” tendencies. That he suffered “satanic delusion.” That his observations were “highly exaggerated, frequently contradictory, and commonly misleading.” That he “hated God.” And that he “blasphemed God.”
But that was just so much defamation. Luther’s real offense, in the eyes of those who though him a heretic, who believed him justifiably excommunicated by Pope Leo X, is that he had the temerity to accuse the Holy Roman Catholic Church of slouching towards corruption.
Five centuries and 50 pontiffs later, Pope Francis declared last year that Luther was done a historic injustice. “I think the intentions of Martin Luther were not mistaken,” the Holy Father said. “He was a reformer.”
Moreover, Pope Francis continued, there was during the time of Luther “corruption in the Church. There was worldliness, attachment to money, to power… and this he protested.”
Luther’s 95 Theses concentrated primarily on the Church’s profane practice of selling so-called “indulgences,” which was the currency of the economy of salvation. While penitent sinners were forgiven and would no go to hell after they died, without indulgences, certificates bearing the pope’s imprimatur, they would still face punishment both on this side of the grave and in purgatory.
So it was that Pope Leo ramped up the selling of indulgences to finance construction of St. Peter’s Basilica, sending indulgence preachers to shakedown the Catholic laity. And so it was that Luther decried the Church’s money-changers, who misled the laity into believing that God’s grace could be purchased.
Clearly, the 16th century Church had strayed far from the teachings of the Church that traces its origins to the Apostle Peter, who condemned those who thought the gifts of God could be purchased. Indeed, in Acts 8 Peter tells a sorcerer who offers money to receive the Holy Spirit, “Your money perish with you because you thought the gifts of God could be purchased with money.”
The Protestant Reformation Martin Luther begat saved Christianity be eschewing the corrupt practices of the mid-century Roman Catholic Church in favor of a doctrine based on the Five Solas: Sola Scriptura, which declares the Bible alone is our highest authority; Sola Fide, we have been saved through faith alone in Jesus Christ; Sola Gratia, we are saved by the grace of God alone; Sola Christus, Jesus Christ alone is our Lord and Savior; and Sola Deo Gloria; we live for the glory of God alone.
Because of Martin Luther, Pope Francis said, “Today Lutherans and Catholics, and Protestants, all of us agree on the doctrine of justification. On this point, which is very important, he did not err.”