In a lunch given after his first Mass, an interesting exchange takes place between Martin Luther and his father, Hans. Everything seems to be going smoothly until the ever-belligerent Martin asks his father why he took his decision to become a monk so badly. “Is a quiet and holy life not preferable to the life of a lawyer?” His father interprets this as a provocation; does Martin not know the commandment to honour his father and mother?
Not one to give in to an argument so easily, Martin goes on to explain that he entered the convent to pray for them, and that through prayer, he can be of greater assistance to them than if he were to remain in the world. His decision was also taken in fulfilment of a vow he had made to St. Anne after surviving a terrible storm. Not to be outdone by his son’s reply, Hans curtly answers that he hopes that this supposed calling was not the work of the Devil!
Exchanges of this kind pepper Martin Luther’s life, which is characterised by an intense desire to do the right thing, frequently hampered by a stubborn mind and an overly aggressive attitude. His life and his times are explored in a 2019 work by the Rev. Prof. Salvinu Caruana OSA, “Jien s’hawn nista’”: Martinu Luteru—Riforma jew riforma? (“I can do no other”: Martin Luther—Reformation or Reform?), published by the Augustinian Province of Malta.
This book is the product of years of research, prompted by the 500th anniversary of the event traditionally regarded as the start of the Reformation in October 1517, when Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church of the Wittenburg Castle. Initially, it seemed as though he had no intention of leaving the Catholic Church or abandoning his vocation. But he had long been concerned with Pope Julius II’s grant in 1510 of a special indulgence intended to finance the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, which continued in the reign of his successor Leo X. This practice was recognized by many as one very much liable to abuse; as a pastor of souls, Luther felt that it was his duty to safeguard the faithful from any wrongdoing.
His reaction to the sale of indulgences provoked several further reactions. The Diet of Augsburg asked Luther to retract his 95 theses, but instead, he insisted that the Church call a council to discuss them. In the presence of Cardinal Cajetan, he demanded a meeting with Pope Leo X, and when he was informed that he would have to go to Rome to meet the Pope, he fled Augsburg in the dead of night.
The process to declare Luther a heretic began in January 1520 and was completed by May with the publication of the Papal Bull Exurge Domine. Leo X condemned, reprobated, and rejected “the books and all the writings and sermons of the said Martin,” copies of which were burned in the Piazza Navona in Rome. Luther responded by calling the Pope the Anti-Christ and burning copies of both the Bull and a book of canon law in a public square.
The bellicose Luther had the pretext he needed to raise the stakes. He appealed for a wide-ranging reform of the Catholic Church based on the Scriptures, rejected the doctrines of transubstantiation and the sacrifice of the Mass, and called for Communion to be given to the laity under both species.
There were changes in his personal life too. In 1521, he renounced his vows and ceased to be an Augustinian Friar. Four years later, he married Katarina von Bora, a former Cistercian nun and a formidable woman in her own right. Many had misgivings about their marriage, but it proved to be a happy one, though not without its share of trials. Two of their six children died in infancy. After the death of his sister, Luther welcomed his nephews into his home. The last twenty years of his life were consumed with his so-called “reform” and pastoral duties, which often left him exhausted. His final book, published in 1545, attacked the papacy as the creation of Satan. He died on the 15th of February of the following year.
What should we make of this man whom Jacques Maritain describes as a “lost friar”? Caruana sums up Martin Luther’s character as follows. On the one hand, he was an intensely religious man, one who sought to have a meaningful life of the soul. He tried to live simply, fully trusting in God, while living his religious vocation within a community. He combined hard work with a steely determination. On the other hand, he was a stubborn man; he had little mercy on those whom he considered his enemies; he was cynical, rude, vulgar, and suffered from a persecution complex.
Fr. Caruana argues that to understand Martin Luther’s legacy, one also needs to grasp the milieu within which the changes he initiated took place. “Reform” was a popular slogan of the period. The movements and the arguments associated with the Reformation were not new, but the socio-political conditions of the 1520s and ’30s provided the fertile ground necessary for their ideas to take hold.
Luther’s fundamental understanding of ‘reform’ was theological. He never intended to create another ecclesial community. Initially, he was even open to resolving the Church’s problems by holding an ecumenical council. But he later rejected this notion, claiming that his movement did not require a council but, rather, that the Church in Rome needed to recognise its mistakes and return to what he saw as the right path. Luther’s ideas were also promoted by secular rulers who saw in the Reformation an opportunity to divest the Church of its property, power, and influence. The ground was set for such events, and the belligerent Luther was their ideal champion.
Caruana’s book argues that any treatment of the period needs to take into account the Ecumenical Council called by Pope Paul III in 1537, and finally begun in 1545. Luther refused to take part, and there was little appetite for such a council even within the Roman Catholic Church. The true importance of the Council of Trent and the Counter-Reformation launched by it could only be recognized in hindsight.
The Council led to many significant changes. Older religious orders implemented substantial reforms; new orders were founded and began to flourish, which suggests that renewal was to come from religious life. Common abuses, such as the sale of indulgences, were decisively put to an end. Sacred art and music saw a revival which was more doctrinally sound.
The Council of Trent also addressed the five ‘solas’ of the Reformation—sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), sola fide (faith alone), sola gratia (grace alone), solus Christus (Christ alone), and soli Deo Gloria (glory to God alone). It disagreed with the Protestant understanding that the Bible does not require any additional interpretation by the Church; Scripture could not be separated from tradition, and a living faith necessitated good works.
A correct understanding of Luther is a crucial point for modern ecumenical dialogue. Fr. Caruana’s book drives home the discrepancies between what Luther initially sought to achieve and what the churches founded by his Reformation have subsequently become. Reform was the intended aim, but, effectively, schism was the ultimate result.
In his speech delivered at the Chapter Hall of the former Augustinian Convent in Erfurt in September 2011, Pope Benedict XVI observed that “for Luther theology was no mere academic pursuit, but the struggle for oneself, which in turn was a struggle for and with God.” He laments that, unfortunately, “for the most part we could only see what divided us and we failed to grasp existentially what we have in common in terms of the great deposit of Sacred Scripture and the early Christian creeds.” This situation has now changed, and Christians from different ecclesial communities acknowledge a shared heritage, as well as common challenges.
The Protestant Reformation, however, posits a dilemma for Catholics: how can the Church commemorate an event which resulted in schism? In this regard, the remarks of the Prior General of the Augustinian Order, Fr. Alejandro Moral Antón, help us place this event in context.
In 2017, commenting on the anniversary of the start of the Reformation, he summed up perfectly the dilemma facing the Augustinian Order and the Catholic Church: “the damage done to the Order and religious life in Germany was enormous. Luther was our brother for a time and shared our charism, but he stood outside the Order with his choices, his initiatives, and his decisions.” There is, thus, no reason to celebrate the beginning of the Reformation, but there is a duty to commemorate it.
This schism remains an “expression of failure for all Christians.” Indeed, the aftermath of the Reformation had wide-ranging implications on European society—the effects of which we still feel to this day. Given this, Fr. Caruana’s book allows its readers to better understand such central events in the life of Europe and the history of Christianity.
André P. DeBattista is an academic researcher and occasional columnist based in Malta.