Father Denifle and Martin Luther By FATHER THUENTE, 0. P.[source]
A Few weeks ago an able writer, a great missionary, a learned and saintly bishop of the East, died in our neighborhood. I mean the illustrious Bishop Stang, of Fall River, who. in the years of vigorous manhood and manifold activity, suddenly breathed his last in St. Mary's Hospital, Rochester, Minn., and passed, as we have all reasons to hope, to his eternal reward.
His last literary work was a scholarly article published in the January number of the Ecclesiastical Review, entitled "Father Denifle and His Last and Lasting Work, Luther and Lutherthum." In this article Bishop Stang expresses great admiration for Father Denifle and shows a thorough knowledge of his book. He calls Denifle "the most intrepid champion of truth in our days,'* "the peer of historians," "a man who excelled and who has never perhaps been equalled in historical inquiry and research work." Of the "last and lasting work" of this "peer of historians" he says: "It dealt scientific Protestantism a blow from which it never can fully recover." "Denifle appeared with his siege gun to batter down the walls of prejudice and ignorance raised to shelter the false prophet of modem times. The book, at its first appearance, produced incredible consternation and dismay among Protestants."
My intention is to give you an idea of the character of Martin Luther as described in this wonderful book. In order to appreciate this more fully a few words about the author and origin of this book may be useful. Father Denifle was an Austrian Dominican, a deep philosopher and a learned theologian. For twenty years he was subarchivist of the Holy See. Full thirty years he devoted to the study of the literature, documents and manuscripts of the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. He was a perfect master of this period of history; his studies naturally brought him to the time and works of Martin Luther. These he examined and analyzed with the experienced eye of a critic, the acumen of a philosopher, and the learning of a master of theology. In these works of Martin Luther he found the soul, the spirit, the character of Luther truly reflected as'in a mirror. This picture of Luther thus discovered he gives us in his work, explaining and proving every trait of his character with abundant reliable quotations from his works. What Denifle says, therefore, about Martin Luther is true, irrefutable and indisputable.
Seeing that the leading professors of Protestant universities, as Harnack, Kawerau, Kolde, Koehler, Seeberg, still misrepresent the life of Luther, teach his false and unfounded doctrines, and repeat his slanderous calumnies without scientific investigation, Denifle attacks and refutes them in a frank and fearless way. The book, therefore, is as theological as it is historical; it deals with the twentieth century as well as with the sixteenth century.
The first general impression we get of Martin Luther by reading Denifle's book is that during the first decade of his monastic life from 1505 to 1515, he was a good, brilliant, zealous religious.When he joined the Augustinian Order he was not an ignorant, inexperienced youth; he was twenty-two years old and was a doctor of philosophy. His intentions were unquestionably sincere and holy. Two years he remained in the novitiate to probe himself and to study the profound meaning and the sacred obligations of religious life. When the young doctor, therefore, made his profession at the age of twenty-four, we have all reasons to believe that he gave himself to God with his whole heart, of his own free will, with no other motive than to strive after perfection and work for the glory of God. We may even suppose that he excelled among his brethren in piety and learning. He was made superior, placed in authority over eleven convents, and as master of arts and theology he was sent to Wittenberg to teach at the university.
Luther lived in the midst of wickedness; his surroundings were exceedingly bad. We shall hardly find a time or place in the history of the Church when and where morals were so low as they were in Germany in the beginning of the sixteenth century. Corruption infected the home, the monastery, and even the sanctuary. Father Denifle decribes this more clearly and more frankly than any other historian.
Luther understood the sad condition of the Church, feared for it and tried to reform it. Speaking of the want of love in the heart of the men of the Church he says: "I am afraid we all shall perish." He encouraged his own to remain faithful and to resist the evil influences. Truly prudent and wise is the advice he gave to a fellow religious who was restless and had a troubled heart. "The Father of mercy and the God of consolation," he writes,"has given you, in the person of Bartholomew of Usingan, the best consolation He can give on earth. Deny yourself, then, follow his advice and keep it in your heart." On another occasion, like a good spiritual director, he recommends prayer and meditation on the bitter passion of Jesus Christ. "A young man." he writes, "who has no devotion and no fervor in the service of God, who is neglectful and cares not for God, cannot. I believe, be chaste. The most powerful weapon is prayer and the word of God. Let a man, in the hour of temptation, take his refuge to prayer, implore the grace of God, read and meditate the Holy Gospels and study in them the passion of Jesus Christ."
To strengthen his subjects against the evil influences of the bad examples that surrounded them, he writes: "I believe there has been no time in the last two centuries when it was better to be a religious than now, just because a religious is despised. If religious were filled with the love of God they would be the happiest and more blessed than the hermits of old, because they come near to the Cross and its humiliation." In the first ten years of his monastic life,therefore, Martin Luther, according to his writings, seems to have been a true religious, and we may add that while he was good he was happy.
The second picture of this religious reformer which Father Denifle draws from the books written from 1516 to 1521 indicates a great transformation, a sad change and a deep fall. His heart and mind, his life and doctrine, all had changed. Instead of a religious fighting the abusers of religion we see an ex-religious attacking Church and religion, becoming the leader and organizer of those who were a disgrace to religion.
What was the cause of this change and fall? This is the most interesting and important question. Almost all historians answer the preaching of indulgences by Father Tetzel. a Dominican friar in 1517. The indulgences, were granted by Pope Leo X to all those who complying with the ordinary conditions contributed to the building of the great basilica of St. Peter's in Rome.
Father Denifle proves clearly and conclusively from the writings of Martin Luther that this answer is false. The change of Luther began in 1515. and the cause of the change was his own heart. In the earlier and better part of his life he had told us that a man cannot be good and conquer his own passions without prayer and meditation. Now he tells us that he is kept so busy with teaching and preaching and the affairs of his convent that he cannot find time to say his Divine Office and say Mass regularly. He confesses that there is no religious discipline in his convent. A little later he tells us that he is in the castle Wartburg "sitting in idleness and
laziness and neglecting his prayers." Moreover, at that time he began to drink to excess. "Drunkenness and gluttony," according to his own words, "are the food of all bad habits."
Luther had told us that in man either the flesh or the spirit must live and conquer, and that if the heart is not fervent the flesh must burn. Martin Luther neglecting his prayers was deprived of God's graces, and being strongly tempted from within and from without began to despair of himself. Instead of looking for help to the "Father of mercy and the God of consolation," "Who," as he wrote, "never denies His grace to those who cooperate to the best of their ability," he lost himself in temporal works and cares. In his pride he relied on his own strength and failed. That led him to the false conclusion: the laws of God cannot be kept and need not be kept; Christ kept them for us: "Christ covers our sinfulness even as the hen covers her chickens. Faith in Christ alone will save us." "Our faith must be heavenly but our lives may be worldly." Remember, this is the first heresy we find in his works, and this one explains his whole future life.
This heresy, Martin Luther expressed in his letters, his sermons, and in his unpublished commentary on the epistle of St. Paul to the Romans as early as 1515 and 1516. He expressed it, not as an opinion or in ambiguous words, but as a doctrine in a plain, unmistakable language.
This first error is fundamental: it strikes the very cornerstone of morality. It contradicts directly the teachings of Christ and the Church. Christ tells us that He is "our way and our life;" "that we must be perfect as He is perfect;" that we must learn from His "meek and humble heart;" that we must "take our cross upon ourselves and follow Him," that we need not fear. that He is with us, in us, our very life; that as the branch is united with the stem and receives life from the stem. thus we must remain in Him and receive life from Him, to purify our hearts, to strengthen them in the hour of temptation, and to fill them with virtue and the merits of good works. Martin Luther, on the contrary, preached "the law has nothing to do with the Gospel." "The practical life has nothing to do with our faith;" "that faith unites us with Christ;" "that through faith Christ covers all our sins as the hen her chickens."
To see how Martin Luther understood this almost incredible doctrine and how consistently and fearlessly he applied it to practical life, listen to what he says, in later years, when speaking about matrimony: "Of our actions you owe to God only to believe in Him and to confess Him. In all other things God makes you free and independent so that you may without any fear of conscience or even without any danger of being asked by Him,in as far as He is concerned, leave your wife. * * * In this matter you cannot sin against God but only against your neighbor." Here Martin Luther preaches doctrines that would make the Mormons blush with shame.
This was the state of the soul of Martin Luther when toward the end of the year 1517 Father Tetzel preached the indulgences. Tetzel was a good man and preached sound Catholic doctrine. Even Luther could not say one word against his character. The sermons he preached are still in existence. He did not teach that indulgences forgave sins or gave permission to sin. He explained indulgences as we find them explained in our catechisms. An intelligent man who still repeats such old calumnies about indulgences is either unpardonably ignorant or maliciously bigoted.
This preaching of Father Tetzel offended the pride of Luther. According to his doctrine it is impossible to control the passions. He certainly did not control his pride and anger. He preached not only against Tetsel and indulgences but used the occasion to explain to the world the revolutionary doctrine which had taken possession of his heart and ripened in his mind during the last two years. "His own wretched moral condition," says Bishop Stang, "was the kernel of his religious system."
Let it therefore be well understood that the preaching of indulgences was in no way the cause, but only the occasion of the change in Martin Luther. "Indeed," concludes Father Denifle, "the doctrine of indulgences in the Catholic Church was only a trifling thing in comparison with Luther's plenary unlimited indulgence not only of the temporal punishment due to sin, but of all sins already committed, or still to be committed, on the one condition to believe and have confidence in Christ."
The false doctrine "we cannot and need not observe the commandments of God." "Christ fulfilled the whole law for us," Luther got not from outward scandals or abuses, nor from misunderstanding Scriptures or the teachings of the Fathers, but in his own heart which had grown cold and consequently weak. It is true he tried to interpret some words of St. Paul in his favor, but in order to do so he had to contradict the unanimous interpretation of the Fathers of the Church.
The books written since 1521 reflect a false, unhappy, insincere, desperate character. Martin Luther practiced what he preached. He kept, or at least pretended to keep a strong faith in Christ but had no regard for virtue.
One of the first qualities of a minister of God, preacher of the Gospel, and reformer of the Church is love for truth and truthfulness, Martin Luther believed in the lawfulness of telling good strong lies; recommended such lying to others, and practised it himself. We shall mention a few of the many instances we find on almost every page of Father Denifle's book to explain and illustrate these statements.
It is well known that Luther gave a written permission to Count Philip of Hesse to marry* a second wife while his first wife was still living. It was not a case of divorce; it was a case of bigamy. The understanding was that the second marriage should be kept secret When the strange news of the second marriage began to be whispered about, the Reformer gave Philip the simple advice to tell "a good strong lie and to deny it." When Philip hesitated to tell "that good strong lie" and threatened to make known the written permission signed by Luther, he (Luther) calmly answered that he would lie himself out of it, and leave him (Philip) to bear the responsibility. When a few young men were about to receive the order of subdeaconship, which implies the vow of celibacy, Martin Luther counseled them to make a mental restriction, "We can not and shall not keep it" His greatest admirers must admit that he had no respect for truth.
To show how this preacher of the Word of Eternal Truth could tell "good strong lies" in important religious matters to deceive innocent nuns and ignorant people we shall briefly narrate two facts.
Martin Luther in his better and happier days said, "The heretics in order to shine before the world as good must represent the Church in their own false and deceitful way as bad." "The heretic takes offense at that which contradicts him: he gets provoked and fights for the spectre of his imagination, by persecuting, calumniating and injuring his opponents." In these words Martin Luther, the religious, describes and condemns Martin Luther, the heretic.
Hardly had Luther left the religious state, which he had praised and defended, not as a novice, but as a university professor, when he turned against the good religious with all the weapons at his command. The private life of the good religious condemned his private life, and the work and popularity of the religious opposed the progress of his new religion. Therefore he tried to make them either leave the monastery, or to make them hateful in the eyes of the people.
In 1518 Luther wrote "The breaking of a vow is for a religious the greatest sacrilege, because he takes away from God what he had given to God of his own free will." In 1521 that same Luther wrote what he calls his best book on religious vows to induce every religious to commit the greatest sacrilege by leaving the convent.
In this his best book Luther gives as one of his principal arguments an historical lie. He quotes St. Bernard, a patriarch of monastic life as an authority against the vows. saying that St Bernard on his deathbed repented his mistake, exclaiming, "tempus perdidiperdite vixi"—"! have lost my time— I have led a bad life." thereby denouncing at the last moment religious life and religious vows. Father Denifle's investigation shows that. St. Bernard spoke these words not on a deathbed but in the pulpit sixteen years before he died. That he made no reference whatever to religious vows. that he repented not of being a religious, but of being a poor religious. That after that sermon St. Bernard established many convents and often praised and recommended religious vows; that consequently Martin Luther shamefully abused the great authority of St. Bernard to lead the nuns to a fatal sacrilegious deed.
The second illustration of the bad faith and insincerity of Luther I wish to mention relates to the Holy Sacrament of Penance—Confession. Luther attacked confession as soon and as much as indulgences. To make the confessions of the monks both odious and ridiculous he asserts that they forgive sins not in the name of Christ, but in the name of the saints. To prove this most serious accusation he quotes a prayer the priest says after the absolution, but the true absolution formula used in his time and at all times used by him and by all priests, according to which the priest asks Jesus Christ in His infinite mercy to forgive the sinner and according to which the priest, in the Name of Jesus Christ, forgives the sins Martin Luther omits entirely.
This may suffice to show that Martin Luther practised what he preached. He asked others to tell lies and he himself gave the example. You will understand that such a Reformer has not the spirit of God; that such a work is not the work of God,—the devil is the father of lies. Count George of Saxony called Luther "the most cold-blooded liar he had ever met." Professor Harnack, the idol of Protestant Germany, admits "that there are absolute contradictions in the theology of Luther."
Still, this Martin Luther is hailed and praised even to-day as the greatest man of Germany, the fearless liberator- of the minds and hearts of the people from the bondage of the Popes, the author of intellectual and religious light and liberty. The little I have said may help to show that he freed not only the priests from their vow of celibacy, the religious from their monastic duties, the people from the laws of the Church, but that he freed himself and all from the Ten Commandments of God,—from all moral duty and responsibility. If such a man is a reformer, then Satan in paradise pretending to free Adam and Eve from the duty of obeying God was a reformer, too.
We may here refer to his vile and vulgar language. Harnack calls it unjust and barbarous. Many of his friends excuse it, saying, it was the custom of the times. Grant it. Does it not prove that Luther, instead of reforming abuses, encouraged the abuses of his time? The same may be said about his habit of drinking, which became notorious and scandalous. Touching his demoralizing doctrine on matrimony I hope to speak on another occasion.
However, you may say that a true reformation followed the work of Luther. -That is true: but Luther was the occasion and not the cause of the true reformation; he woke the sleeping faith and stirred up the cold hearts of the faithful Catholics, brought them together, united them, and they reformed the Church. Luther, and Lutheranism reformed the Church in Germany even as Combes and his allies in the French parliament are reforming the Church in France to-day. Their blasphemous speeches and sacrilegious laws bring together all the bishops, and they, led by the Holy Father and assisted by the priests and loyal laity, fight and finally must conquer. Thus it is to-day, thus it was in the days of Martin Luther.
By speaking thus about Martin Luther and his false and immoral religious principles we do not wish to imply, as Father Denifle also remarks, that the good Protestants of to-day believe them or live up to them. Consciously and still more unconsciously they have returned to the great eternal truths which God has implanted in the human heart, which truths have been explained by Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and which are still being taught and expounded by His infallible Church of which the Holy Ghost is the informing Spirit.
The human heart is by its very nature Catholic. The constant and universal preaching of the Catholic Cnurch has also its silent and secret influence on the now Catholic world. May it help them to see that as Luther's life and work were insincere and his doctrine false, thus what Luther says about the teaching* of the Catholic Church is not true. Many of them, indeed, see that Luther was not truthful and saintly but do not see that the Catholic Church is holy and "the pillar of truth."