Left: Portrait of Martin Luther in 1528 by Lucas Cranach the Elder (Wikipedia); right: The meeting of Martin Luther (right) and Cardinal Cajetan (left, before the book) (Wikipedia).
This coming year will mark the
five-hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses
onto the door of the collegiate church of Wittenberg, traditionally
regarded as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
been a cause of some concern and consternation for many Catholics to
have learned that there will be Catholic (even papal) participation in
various events connected to this anniversary. What could be celebrated?
The break-up of Catholic unity? The demise of Christendom? The impetus
for rationalism and secularism? To commemorate, perhaps, but surely not
to celebrate. Even many serious Protestant clergy and theologians have
insisted that one must not celebrate something that brought on such dire
(and probably undesired, unforeseen) consequences. To commemorate would
necessarily mean studying the causes and the unfolding of events
learning from the errors and repenting of the sins of any and all that
rent the seamless garment of Christ. This is no more and no less than
what the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council urged and what St. John
Paul II often referred to as “the healing of memories.” Which means
genuine honesty. That honesty was carried on in spades at the Council of
Trent and in the Counter-Reformation, both of which admitted that true
problems had crept into the Church and needed correction.
Luther is such a pivotal character in the drama of the sixteenth
century, it behooves all to put him under the microscope for closer
observation. To be sure, Luther was a brilliant theologian. He was also
deeply imbued with the understanding of the absolute holiness of God,
the centrality of Christ in the work of our salvation, and the
concomitant need for the Church to be the spotless Bride of the Redeemer
which St. Paul calls her.
All that said, Luther was also a
vicious anti-Semite; one given to exaggeration and extremes, taking no
prisoners; a crude man whose language would be constantly “bleeped” even
on modern television. The ex-nun whom he took as a wife he treated with
arrogance and disdain. His apparent inability to be faithful to his vow
of chastity drove him to near-despair. To say that he was a conflicted
individual is to succumb to understatement (as late as 1521, he was
still willing to admit the necessity of the Petrine office in the
Church). Even the most ardent supporter of the Reformation would never
accuse Luther of being a model of Christian holiness.
much of the negative side of the ledger must be attributed to
“personality” difficulties of the leader of the revolt against
ecclesiastical authority. As a seminarian over four decades ago, in
March 1971, I wrote a paper on Luther’s psychological
incapacity to accept the papacy. It discusses Luther’s relationship with
the papacy and attempts to understand his negative reaction to papal
authority in the light of his psychological deficiencies, stemming from
early childhood and youth. After considerations of youthful fear,
depression and despair we shall see how these events led up to the break
with Rome and indeed, that the break was inevitable.
A harsh childhood
is no deep secret or information privy to the most proficient
psychologist that the first world experienced by the newborn infant is
the most important world in which he will ever live since this microcosm
of society symbolizes all of society to him. The family life into which
young Martin was born was none too happy. Old Hans Luther was a
hard-working miner and expected the same attitudes and values in his
children. The normal parental disappointment when established goals for
children are not attained went beyond normal proportions since Martin
could remember serious disagreements leading to weeks of
non-communication. Severe beatings were daily fare for Martin at the
hands of both father and mother.
Young Martin had an acute memory
and later in life commented, “My father once whipped me so severely that
I fled from him and it was hard for him to win me back…. My mother once
beat me until the blood flowed for having stolen a miserable nut. It
was this strict discipline which finally forced me into the monastery.”
From this single statement we can gain several insights. A great deal
of harshness and pettiness is revealed in this “microcosm” previously
mentioned. The incipient stages of resentment, fear and anxiety in the
face of authority are evident here as well.
Since we attribute the
role of fatherhood to the First Person of the Trinity, Luther found
himself incapable of approaching the Father. In addition to this
problem, “God the Father and Jesus were represented to him as stern,
nay, cruel judges, to appease whose wrath the intercession of the saints
must be secured.” We now see the transfer of the poor “father image” to
God Himself, which would have serious theological repercussions
throughout Luther’s life.
In school he was struck by the brutality
of the teachers with their frequent floggings. He stubbornly refused to
converse in Latin and incurred the wrath of his professors. He compared
his Latin examination to a “trial for murder.”
Therefore, the final authority faced by any child also affected him
adversely. Erikson makes a rather salient point in asserting that “the
disciplinary climate of home and school and the religious climate of the
community and Church were more oppressive [to him] than inspiring."
later youth was greatly plagued by that “tristitia” which followed him
for life. Despite an apparent inability for father and son to get along,
Martin never ceased to try to please his father so much so that he
intended to study law for his father’s sake. Nevertheless, the “Saul
episode” in his life on the way to Erfurt made him vow himself to
monasticism if he survived. He kept his promise and entered the
Augustinian monks, a very educated, dedicated community at that time.
When Martin announced his decision, “Old Hans Luther was bitterly
opposed to his son’s step, which he believed destroyed all chance of a
successful career.” Once again, the father-son tensions were aroused.
Luther the monk
the monastery, Luther began by performing the most menial of tasks but
soon his talents were discovered by Staupitz, the Prior, who offered him
several opportunities to exercise his intellectual abilities. His
earliest influences were the Bible, Augustine and Occam. The influence
of Occam is especially important for he was one of the sharpest critics
of the medieval Church, and his frankness doubtlessly eased the burden
on Luther when he followed in his footsteps.
Although he sought
spiritual comfort in the monastery, he confesses: “. . . I was often
terrified at the name of Jesus. The sight of a crucifix was like
lightning to me and when his name was spoken I would rather have heard
that of the devil…. I had lost my faith and could not suppose that God
was other than angry.”
His constant attempts at absolute perfection and daily confessions
(even more frequently on occasions) all give evidence of a very
unbalanced spirituality which led him to doubt and even despair of his
faith and ultimate salvation. His First Mass also was tainted with
torment and dread as he haltingly uttered the words of Consecration. His
father, though consenting to come, did his damage with his comment
after Mass by reminding Martin of the saying used to arouse the
sensibilities of the clergy, “Panis es et panis manebis!” (“Bread thou
art, and bread thou shalt remain!). Martin related later in life that at
that moment he felt like murdering his father.
apparent problems of faith, he rose to great prominence in his Order and
in the academic world. His preaching became the object of adulation for
the simple and educated alike and “in both sermons and lectures many a
trenchant word against spiritual wickedness in high places remind one
that the monk was already a reformer.”
on a journey to Rome, the young monk went through all the motions of a
faithful pilgrim to the “Eternal City,” yet doubting their efficacy all
the while. Shock at the highly immoral life of the Italian priests,
their hurried Masses, legalism and double standards makes him comment as
he reminisces on the trip, “No one can imagine what sins and infamous
actions are committed in Rome; they must be seen and heard to be
believed. Thus, they are in the habit of saying, ‘If there be a hell,
Rome is built over it; ‘ it is an abyss whence issues every kind of
his return to Germany, the scandal of Rome fresh in his mind, he
opposed the infamous peddler of indulgences, Tetzel. He openly
challenged the theory of indulgences and especially the way in which
they were being preached. Interestingly enough, Todd notes that he
appealed to authority to back his protestations, asserting that he
criticized “in obedience to my duty and the burden resting on me . . .
moreover, by virtue of papal authority I hold a public teaching office.
Accordingly, it is one of my official duties to strike out against all
the wrong of which I become aware, even if the wrong is done by persons
in high position.”
Here we see Luther vacillating between attacking authority and relying
on authority for his power to do so, which is again a throw-back to his
“cat and mouse” games with his father.
Unrest and rebellion
the issue progressed and the debates continued, Luther further
developed his concepts along the lines of “personal faith, personal
humiliation, salvation and justification.”
The emphasis was, of course, on “personal” a word which became an
obsession with the man who had to do everything for himself. In this
context it is easy to see his stress on “sola Scriptura” for he espoused
a personal interpretation of Scripture. Another strong emphasis was placed on the acceptance of Jesus as personal Savior. A gross insecurity becomes evident.
the outset of his rebellion, Luther had genuine misgivings about his
right to challenge established norms and doctrine. In his struggle,
“Martin Luther repeatedly affirmed the frequency of the temptation… .
Satan often said to me: What if your dogma is false whereby you thus
overthrow the Pope, the Mass and the monks? And thus, he often took me
by surprise that the sweat poured out of me…. He once troubled me with
Paul to Timothy and simply strangled me so that my heart felt like
melting in the body….”
It is well to note how he so sought to reassure himself of the
righteousness of his cause that he says Satan tempted him to maintain
traditional doctrine. Todd asserts that “there was a big element of
physical tension also of spiritual horror as he moved further away
from the established traditions” and, in fact, so grave were his doubts during this period that he confesses he was almost driven to suicide on occasion.
already mentioned, Luther disdained any source of authority, save
Scripture, but O’Hare suggests one exception: “He would have none of
them (the Fathers) or their teachings, except when some fellow-rebel
against Divine authority was in collision with him or when he had to
appeal to some authority beyond himself, to refute an adversary.”
At no stage were his concepts clearly crystallized, and it would seem
that O’Hare’s observations are well-founded: “Ever vacillating,
ambiguous, contradictory, he was utterly incapable of formulating a
clear, well-defined, unhesitating system of belief to replace that of
the old divinely established Church.”
From previous discussion of Luther’s personality and psychological
state, these inconsistencies should not be surprising for he was a man
struggling between revolting against authority and setting himself up as
an authority, a Gottgeistig (a spiritual or intellectual god).
This period in Luther’s life and the one immediately subsequent to it
were characterized by manic productivity and severe breakdown and hence
we see why “Reiter considers the years … when Luther was 22-30 as one
long Krankheitsphase, one drawn-out state of nervous disease, which extended to the thirty-sixth year.”
Hostility toward Church authority
the lines of demarcation became more formally fixed and solidified and
entrenched, Luther became more open in his hostility to the Pope and the
authority and power which he wielded. “With almost every step that Rome
or other ecclesiastical authority took, in an attempt to silence,
condemn or compromise with Luther, Luther took another step in the
development of his theological critique, proposing even more drastic
modifications of the ecclesiastical institutions.”
The truth of this statement becomes obvious when for hundreds of years
the theory was “ubi Petrus, ibi ecclesia” (where Peter is, there is the
Church) and then Luther says, “Where the Word of God is preached and
believed, there is the Church.” Smith gives Luther’s position on Rome as
follows: “The assertion that the Roman Church is superior to all other
Churches is proved only by weak papal decrees of the last 400 years
against which militate the accredited history of 1100 years, the Bible
and the decrees of the Nicean Council, the holiest of all councils.”
Certain questions can be raised here: Why are the papal decrees
referred to as “weak”? How is the primacy of Rome definitively
contradicted by Scripture? Why is Nicea to be regarded as “the holiest
of all councils”? The answer would seem to lie in the fact that Luther
thought in that way and for him it had to be true for, while professing
to be open to theological debate, he “anathematized everyone whose
belief differed from his own.”
after refusing to appear in Rome to plead his case, he agreed to
receive and discuss his position with Cajetan, the papal legate who
proved to be an unfortunate choice for several reasons. Cajetan was an
Italian, and Luther was extremely nationalistic and vehemently
anti-Italian. Cajetan was a cardinal, and this position smacked of the
establishment which Luther wished to dissolve. He was the Cardinal
Protector of the Dominicans, and one need only recall that the entire
incident began with the Dominican Tetzel. Cajetan was a confirmed
Thomist which gave them little common ground even philosophically
speaking, prescinding from theological positions. Most of all, he was
the representative of the Pope, the “Holy Father,” again reminding
Luther of his earthly father whom he hated and his heavenly Father whom
he feared exceedingly.
Perhaps the most ill-chosen words
Cajetan ever uttered were those which promised Luther a “fatherly
hearing.” “The psychological implications of the meeting are important.
Insofar as Luther did have a ‘thing’ about his father, and then about
God and found himself often both revolting against and trying to appease
authority, then his clash with the Roman Curia was likely to provide a
concrete occasion for him to fight back, with a feeling of justification
at authority. The meeting with Cajetan would be symbolical…. It does
not seem very fanciful to see that Luther found here a father figure in
reverse, a figure whom he found good reason to oppose.”
In the discussion which lasted hours, Luther’s main points against the papacy may be summarized thus:
the Church does not need a Pope;
a visible head is inconsistent with the nature of the Church;
a definite place (Rome) is inconsistent with the character of a spiritual kingdom;
the power of the keys has been given to all Christians;
the Pope has no jurisdiction over matters of sin, grace and indulgences.
all these arguments a fear of the necessity of a mediator (e.g., the
Church, the Pope) is apparent and the need for him to work out his own
salvation independent of the Church is obvious. Salvation, for him, was a
matter of the individual and Jesus, with no need for the community of
the Church only personal faith. Here, more acutely than elsewhere, can
be sensed Luther’s great urgency to attack the papacy at its very
roots. Questioning the genuine interest of the Pope, fearing his wrath
and despising his power were brought on by the transfer of image: from
father (earthly authority) to God (divine authority and justice) to the
Pope (the combination of both).
the threat of excommunication came in the bull, “Exsurge, Domine,”
which Luther promptly burned along with the books of Canon Law.
“Chagrined and wounded in his vanity, he grew litigious, vengeful and
as witnessed by his statement: “…know that I, with all who worship
Christ, consider the See of Rome to be occupied by Satan and to be the
throne of Anti-Christ, and that I will no longer obey nor remain united
to him, the chief and deadly enemy of Christ.”
most searing attacks on the papacy came in his work, “Wider das Papstum
in Rom von Teufel gestftet” in which “Le Pape y est dénommé non 'très
saint' suivant l'usage, mais 'très infernal.’ La papauté s'est toujours
montrée assoiffée de sang. Le livre est directement adressé à 'l'âne
pontifical.'” (“The Pope is there spoken of not as ‘very holy’ according
to common usage, but as ‘very infernal.’ The papacy is always shown
dripping in blood. The book is directly addressed to “the pontifical
In this book were also found the crudest sketches and maxims on the
papacy and one must agree with O’Hare that “for one who claimed that his
mouth was the mouth of Jesus Christ,' we are astonished at the
vocabulary of insult and rancorous hate.”
die had been cast. The Diet, final excommunication, the formal
establishment of Lutheranism and his marriage all follow from the events
discussed and are a matter of historical fact, not psychological
As indicated at the start, the goal of this essay was
to demonstrate how Luther, as a result of various psychological
influences, revolted from papal authority. The bulk of the blame has
been placed on the shoulders of his father, for “a most pathological
is evident here. Several of the key moves in Luther’s life were made as
a rebellious answer to the authority he encountered at the time, the
most notable being his decisions to enter the monastery over paternal
objection and to found his own church over the protestations and threats
of recognized ecclesiastical authority and Tradition.
end of his life, we see Luther as an unhappy, broken man and Erickson’s
theory deserves some consideration: “It is not surprising that the
period of deepest despair emerged when he becomes so much of what his
father wanted him to be.”
From a most radical, rebellious youth, in old age a sign of passive
resignation leaves the foreground and sinks into the background
espousing a philosophy of patient acceptance which, if practiced earlier
in life, would have completely altered the course of history for
Western Christendom: “Il faut que j´aie de la patience avec le pape,
avec mes disciples, avec mes domestiques, avec mes femmes, toute ma vie
n´est que patience” (“I must be patient with the Pope, with my
followers, with my household, with my women; my whole life is nothing
so, the severity encountered by the young Martin in the person of his
father had such far-reaching effects that it made him sickly and anxious
as a boy, sad as a youth, scrupulous to a fault in the monastery,
resentful of authority in his prime and beset with doubts, depression
and despair in the dusk of life. Perhaps most indicative of the man’s
agonizing search for absolute truth and yet lack of certainty is what is
often given as his closing statement at the Diet of Worms: “Hier ich
stehe. Ich kann nicht anders.” (“Here I stand. I can do no other.”) But
he quickly adds, “Gott helf mich.” (“God help me.”).
Preserved Smith, The Life and Letters of Martin Luther (New York: Houghton and Mifflin Co., 1911), 3.
Erik H. Erikson, Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History (New York: W. W. Norton and Co, 1962), 78.
Ronald H. Bainton, The Age of Reformation (New York: Van Nostrand Co., Inc., 1956), 94.
“Against the Roman Papacy An Institution of the Devil,” the last written work of Luther.
John M. Todd, Martin Luther (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1964), 96.
Frederick J. Zwierlein, Reformation Studies (Rochester: Art Print Shop, 1938), 43-44.
Patrick O’Hare, The Facts about Luther (New York: Frederick Pustet, 1916), 141.
Hugh P. Smyth, The Reformation (Chicago: Extension Press, 1919), 39.
Franz Funck-Brentano, Luther (Paris: Éditions Bernard Grosset, 1934), 338.