Luther's Legacy

Fr. Joseph, O.F.M.

There have been well-known individuals over the centuries that have been remembered because of the truly great deeds that they have accomplished. Others, though perhaps just as well known, have been remembered for things that they supposedly accomplished but really did not. The former may be considered as real heroes or great men and women. The latter are nothing more than frauds, history having glossed over the objective facts and replaced them with distorted propaganda.

Although there will be many to disagree, one can hardly find a better example of an individual who supposedly brought about a "good" than Martin Luther. When the facts are examined, though, it becomes obvious to the objective observer that Luther fueled the most serious break with the Catholic Church that has ever occurred and in doing so brought about a split in Christendom from which it has never recovered. The Church and the world have never been the same since, for history in the past two thousand years has shown that as the mission of the Church has progressed (more of the world has converted to Catholicism), so has civilization progressed. The reverse has been seen in Protestantism and the conditions today are a testament to this unfortunate situation.

Martin Luther was born in Eisleben, Germany, on November 10, 1483. His father was of peasant stock while his mother came from the burgher class. He was raised in an environment where childish fun and frolic that brought about happiness and good cheer found no encouragement. Home life was exacting, cold, dull, and cheerless. The heads of the house took their responsibilities too seriously and interpreted them too rigorously. The father was stern, harsh, exacting and what is rather unusual, the mother was altogether too much given to inflict the severest corporal punishments. They believed in work and had no relish for innocent play and amusement. In the government of their children they exercised no discrimination or moderation. Because the household was too severe, disaster resulted. In this over-strenuous discipline we may find to a certain degree the explanation for the development of that temper of unbending obstinacy for which their son was so remarkable not only in his earliest years, but throughout his whole life.

In school he met with the same severity that was meted out at home. The schoolmaster of that day was generally a harsh disciplinarian and inspired a fear in pupils, which was difficult to remove ever afterward. Under this harsh environment he learned nothing. Even the customary religious training he received at the time does not seem to have raised his spirits or led to a free, more hopeful development of his spiritual life. "This severity," he says later on, "shattered his nervous system for life."

He was then sent to live with relatives during his high school years. During this time it was necessary that he sing in the streets as a means of collecting alms due to his poor state. This was a common practice among less fortunate students at that time. While doing this he met a woman of a charitable disposition. This lady introduced him into her home, opening up an entirely new world where he got his first glimpses of culture, refinement, and the sunny side of life.

His secondary teachers provided an atmosphere that was in contrast to his earlier years, allowing him to excel in his studies. He went on to enroll at the University of Erfurt where he completed his studies. Because of these accomplishments, Luther's father wanted him to study law so that he might attain a higher position in life in order to be spared the difficulties which he had experienced. This endeavor lasted but a few weeks because of his lack of interest. It is at this time that Martin Luther set out on an unexpected and disastrous course of life.

He decided to work out his salvation within the quiet walls of the cloister. Unfortunately for himself, he made this decision without due consideration of his natural disposition. His closest friends tried to persuade him to reconsider. They knew of his worldly interests and ambitions (he had already earned the degree of Doctor of Philosophy on his way to becoming a college professor), therefore realized instinctively that he was not qualified or fit for the sublime vocation to which he aspired. His father was perhaps shocked more than anyone else, for it was he who had made many sacrifices in order to further the worldly career of his son.

There are, of course, various reasons given to try to explain this decision, but Luther's letter to his father is probably the most trustworthy of these sources. He wrote, "When I was over-stricken and overwhelmed by the fear of impending death, I made an involuntary and forced vow." Once again, there are various explanations for the forced vow, but different authors similarly conclude that it was due to the death of a friend and/or a violent thunderstorm through which he went that caused him to make such a rash statement.

In any case, it does seem that he knew little about the ways of God and was not well informed of the gravity and responsibilities of the step he was taking. The calling he aspired to is the highest given to man on earth, and because it is a ministry of salvation, replete with solemn and sacred obligations, it should not be embraced without prayerful consideration and wise and prudent counsel.

Luther himself admits that despair, rather than the love of higher perfection drove him, into religious life. He said, "I entered the monastery and renounced the world because I despaired of myself all the while." From his earliest days he was subject to fits of depression and melancholy. He experienced what we would call today "sudden mood swings." He fell a victim to excessive scrupulousity, and as he was self-opinionated and stubborn-minded, he relied altogether too much on his own righteousness and disregarded the remedies most effectual for his spiritual condition. Like all those who trust in themselves, he rushed from extreme timidity to excessive rashness.

If he had consulted one of the members of this community who was capable of directing men that desired to enter religious life, he could have told him that due to his abnormal state of mind and his natural disposition, he was not fit for such a life as he chose. Instead, moved by his own feelings and relying on his own powers, he suddenly and secretly decided for himself a career in life which, as events proved, was not only a mistake as far as he was concerned, but one filled with disaster to innumerable others whom he afterwards influenced to join in his revolt against Holy Mother Church.

He, therefore, unwisely proceeded to join the Order of St. Augustine (the Augustinians). Once the usual questions had been answered to the satisfaction of the superiors of the monastery, he took the habit, serving the canonical year of the novitiate. After completing this year of spiritual formation, he was directed to study theology. His course in theology was short-lived, though, as he was ordained to the Holy Priesthood. He said his first Mass on May 2, 1507, less than two years after his entrance (July 18, 1505) into religious life.

He was unable to say his first Mass without being agitated by his excesses. He was awe-stricken and oppressed beyond measure, hardly able to contain himself for excitement and fear, and was tormented due to the sense of his unworthiness. Luther would have come down from the altar had the prior not hindered him. The terrifying idea he had of God spoiled the happiness of that day. This may account in great part for his fearful hatred of the Mass, which surfaced later.

Although it may have been colored by events in the interim, he made this statement years later about his ordination. "When I said my first Mass at Erfurt, I was all but dead, for I was without faith; it was unjust and too great forbearance in God that the earth did not at the time swallow up both myself and the bishop who ordained me."

Luther's own father made a statement on the occasion of his son's first Mass in regard to his objection concerning his son's decision to be ordained, that has shown to be stunningly prophetic, "God grant it may not prove a delusion and a diabolical specter."

The few years he spent in the priesthood before his defection were strenuous, active and busy. He lectured on ethics and special portions of Holy Scripture as well as his hurried preparation permitted, at the University of Wittenberg. Preaching alternatingly in the monastery of his Order and in the collegiate church of the town were also a part of his duties.

He was sent to Rome in the autumn of 1510 on business connected with the welfare of his Order. It has been said (by Luther himself, many years later, and by numerous non-Catholic writers) that as a result of this trip came doubts concerning Rome and the Papacy. If there were, there is no evidence of it in his writings and addresses immediately after his return to Erfurt. Hausrath, a non-Catholic writer, goes so far as to comment "We can really question the importance attached to remarks which in a great measure date from the last years of his life, when he was really a changed man. Much that he relates as personal experience is manifestly the product of an easily explained self-delusion."

It should be noted at this time that the objective, and therefore, honest non-Catholic writers have revealed for all the truth of such matters concerning Martin Luther. The quote above is one among many that confirms Luther's true motives. It is an unfortunate fact that the apologists for Luther are the ones who have been allowed to spread the lies about why Luther defected from the Church.

Hausrath notes that Luther "returned from Rome as strong in the faith as he went to visit it. In a certain sense his sojourn in Rome even strengthened his religious convictions."

In fact, for five or six years after his return we find that he lectured, preached, and wrote on the Catholic means of grace, the Mass, indulgences and prayer in entire accordance with the traditional doctrine of the Church.

In what would seem to be a prophetic statement as to what would occur after his defection, Luther confirms his convictions on the power of the Papacy after having been to Rome: "If Christ had not entrusted all power to one man, the Church would not have been perfect because there would have been no order, and each one would have been able to say he was led by the Holy Spirit. This is what the heretics did, each one setting up his own principle. In this way as many Churches arose as there were heads. Christ therefore wills, in order that all may be assembled in one unity, that His power be exercised by one man to whom also He commits it. He has, however, made this power so strong that he looses all the powers of Hell, without injury, against it. He says: `The gates of Hell shall not prevail against it,' as though He says: `They will fight against it but never overcome it,' so that in this way it is made manifest that this power is in reality from God and not from man. Wherefore whoever breaks away from this unity and order of the Power, let him not boast of great enlightenment and wonderful works, as our Picards and other heretics do, for much better is obedience than the victims of fools who know not `what evil they do.'"

So what caused Martin Luther to revolt against the Catholic Church?

As was mentioned previously, Luther maintained a very busy schedule. He had many duties and there were constant demands made upon his time. Not only did he not have time for intellectual pursuits, but worse yet, infractions of the rules, breeches of discipline and distorted ascetic practices were frequent and increased in gravity as time passed. At times, in order to make up for these failings he would go well beyond what was required to the point of great exaggeration. One example which comes to us is that he was known to omit the recitation of the Divine Office for three or four weeks at a time. In order to make up for this, he would lock himself up in his cell and proceed to recite continually all that he had previously omitted. At the same time he would abstain from food and drink and torture himself by harrowing mortifications. Any reasonable person is able to see the extreme behavioral patterns that plagued him.

It is also known that he was agitated and given to gloom and despair by the sense of sin. He saw in himself, nothing but sin: more sin than he felt he could atone for by any works of penance. In all his prayers and fastings the conception of God he placed before his mind was very much that of a God of avenging justice and very little that of a God of mercy. The fear of the divine wrath made him abnormally apprehensive and prevented him from experiencing comfort and help in the performance of religious exercises. His sorrow was devoid of humble charity, and instead of trusting with childlike confidence in the pardoning mercy of God and in the merits of Christ, as the Church always exhorted the sorely tried to do, he gave himself up to black despair. His singularity brought on distress of soul, and his anxiety increased until restlessness became a confirmed habit. His condition became so sad that at times his fellow monks feared he was on the verge of madness.

All of these troubles may have been due to his having chosen the religious state of life, especially inasmuch as he entered upon it without due consideration. More importantly, though, it is felt that if he had not disregarded the monastic regulations for those of his own devising, and had put into practice the wise directions of his spiritual directors, his troubles would have been greatly mitigated and considerably surmounted. Like most victims of scrupulosity he saw nothing in himself but wickedness and corruption. As he was not content with the ordinary spiritual exercises prescribed by the Rule of St. Augustine, he set out on an independent path of righteousness. In other words, he wanted to have his own way, which is usual for all stubborn minds. Moreover, as he attempted to relieve his situation by his own means, the condition only worsened. Amazingly, Luther confirms these statements in his own words. "I prescribed special tasks to myself and had my own ways. My superiors fought against this singularity and they did so rightly. I was an infamous persecutor and murderer of my own life, because I fasted, prayed, watched, and tried myself beyond my powers, which was nothing but suicide."

As time passed, Luther began to think that the sad condition of his soul resulted from the teaching of the Church on good works, while all the time he was living in direct and open opposition to the Church's doctrine and disciplinary code.

His extreme behavior continued, passing from timidity to rashness. Thus from one absurdity he passed to another with the greatest of ease. He came by degrees to believe that by reason of inherited sin, man had become totally depraved and possessed no liberty of the will. He then concluded that all human action whatever, even that which is directed towards good, being an emanation from our corrupt nature, is, in the sight of God, nothing more or less than deadly sin. Therefore, our actions have no influence on our salvation. We are saved "by faith alone without good works." He thought that "faith in Christ makes His merits our possession, envelops us in the garb of righteousness, which our guilt and sinfulness hide, and supplies in abundance every defect of human righteousness." For those who don't understand this quote, it is the same nonsense that we all hear even today, i.e., live as we wish (good works don't count) for our (supposed) faith has saved us!

It has long been considered among the ill-informed that Luther inaugurated his movement against the Church from a desire of reform. This viewpoint is not borne out by the facts in the case. External causes played little or no part in his change of religion. The impelling motive centered in his own nature, which demanded a teaching able to assure his tormented soul of pardon of sin and ultimate salvation. Troubled with doubts as to his vocation and oppressed by "violent movements of hatred, envy, quarrelsomeness and pride," his singular self-esteem and self-reliance would not suffer him to make intelligent and enlightened use of the remedies most effectual for the cure of his abnormal spiritual ills. He continued until he was led by a spirit that was not of God. He formulated and proclaimed the blasphemous pronouncement that the Catholic Church was unable by her teaching and sacramental system to reconcile souls with God and bring comfort to those thirsting after salvation. Luther passed from error to error in quick succession.

From the vast number whom the enemy of man raised up to invent heresies, which St. Cyprian says "destroy faith and divide unity," not one, or all together, ever equalled or surpassed Martin Luther in the wide range of his errors, the ferocity with which he promulgated them and the harm he did in leading souls away from the Church, the fountain of everlasting truth. The heresies of Sabellius, Arius, Pelagius and other rebellious men were insignificant as compared with those Luther formulated and proclaimed nearly five hundred years ago and which, unfortunately, have ever since done service against the Church. In Luther most, if not all, former heresies meet, and reach their climax. To enumerate fully all the wicked, false and perverse teachings of the arch-heretic would require a volume many times larger than the Bible, and almost every one of the lies and falsehoods that have been used against the Catholic Church may be traced back to him as to their original formulator.

The Catholic Church is God's work, and His protecting power will ever preserve her unshaken and immovable to tell men till the last moment of time what they must believe and what they must do to gain eternal happiness.

As history will correctly show from this spiritual revolution in the 16th century all other Protestant sects or denominations have been spawned. To say this or that "church' is different is false, for they all have as their spiritual father the one and the same Father of Lies.

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