WelCom News
A newspaper for the Wellington and Palmerston North Catholic Dioceses

Luther and Rome – Pastor, Pamphleteer, Prophet: Part 2

This is the second part in a series of five presented by Fr James B Lyons, in May this year, for the
Lutheran Church in Wellington as part of their commemoration of Luther’s 500 year anniversary.
The commemoration goes through to October.

Speaking at the time of celebrations marking the 500th anniversary of Luther’s birth (1983), Catholic theologian Hans Kung suggested that, in the lead up to Luther’s excommunication, Rome did not understand Luther. He was a fully professed monk and an ordained priest; he held respectable and highly regarded professional degrees; he was a professor of scripture and theology with an ability to speak in clear, easily understood language.

Rome was concerned with bigger issues. Financing the building of St Peter’s Basilica was one of them. Another was ensuring its political influence was not hamstrung or overturned by the many kings and princes, and too, archbishops and cardinals, that ruled the kingdoms and provinces that divided Europe.

“When he heard of the stirrings around Luther’s preaching and opinions, Pope Leo X said it was just a German quarrel that would go away.”

There were four Popes in the first half of the 16th century. Pope Leo X, when he heard of the stirrings around Luther’s preaching and opinions, said it was just a German quarrel that would go away. When the trouble escalated and he was forced to excommunicate Luther in 1520/21, it wasn’t appreciated that the disturbance was gathering momentum and becoming much more than a German quarrel.

We should pause here and briefly consider the decree of excommunication that made Luther an outcast and an open target for assassination. It has been described as an exercise in power, not conciliation; a document produced in anger and not in the calm light of reason. Timothy Lull and Derek Nelson, in their book, Resilient Reformer, put it this way: “The decree’s belligerent tone struck most readers as reflecting only power and control, not comprehension of the serious issues that Luther had raised” (RR p 109). This approach to solving the ‘Luther question’ would surely have influenced the following decades.

Pope Hadrian VI was elected in 1522 and sensed that Rome itself should accept some blame for the situation. He sincerely wanted to fix the problem, thinking it would be simple, describing Luther as merely ‘a petty monk’. But he died after only one year. He was followed by Clement III (1523‒34). The Catholic Encyclopaedia says of Clement that he “had unfortunately been brought up in all the bad traditions of Italian diplomacy” together with an inability to stand by his decisions. The political turbulence in Europe, though fuelled by religious controversy, put the survival of Europe at risk. It definitely took Rome’s attention. The ‘sacking’ of Rome in 1526 was indicative of the lack of imperial support for Clement, making him almost impotent against the appeal of Lutherans in Germany. The application by England’s Henry VIII in 1527 for a divorce from Queen Catherine, was about to muddy the waters even further.

Paul III was the fourth Pope of this period, holding the See of Peter for 15 years till 1549. However, he was 66 when elected and had lived a very worldly life and could have been seen as very much part of the problem. In any event, the issue with Luther was being overtaken by larger concerns, not least the issue with the Church in England.

As an aside, another issue that could well have played a part in diverting attention from the theological debate, was an argument to do with economics. Roman numerals had been the accepted form of accounting for centuries, but a challenge from the Hindu-Arabic style of numbering had been brewing through the 15th century. It was an argument to be lost but, because of the enormous part finances played in Church and political life, much energy would have been spent in defence of the status quo. The Church believed the Roman numerals were ‘superior and tamper-proof’ and in the early 16th century was still arguing for their retention in international banking! (Double Entry, Jane Gleeson-White, p 26). Change, at whatever level, or in whatever discipline, is never easily embraced.

These were times a 21st-century Christian cannot be expected to fully comprehend; indeed it would be hard for anyone to appreciate the realities of the 16th or any century with only present day perspectives to work on.

“…the Church – like any family that gets embroiled in serious quarrel – let herself be torn apart, split into competing camps, sacrificing unity rather than facing honestly and courageously the issues raised by Luther and others.”

I personally have learned much in this past year of reading and listening about Martin Luther that has ‘reformed’ my own understanding. Prejudice and bitterness are quick to distort the truth and misdirect fault, and the Church – like any family that gets embroiled in serious quarrel – let herself be torn apart, split into competing camps, sacrificing unity rather than facing honestly and courageously the issues raised by Luther and others.

But, of course, this is a 21st-century, electronic-age response, taking no account of the fact that 500 years ago it took months for travel from Wittenberg to Rome, there was a huge economic and education gap between rulers and citizens, illiteracy prevented clear, widespread communication, and vested interests powerfully defended the status quo.

Part three of the serialisation will be in next month’s WelCom.

WelCom August 2017