"...I dont get this, if Luther is not in hell, is anyone at all? if a man that leads millions into a false belief system is not punished, how can any other "mortal sin" warrant it?..." -Musings From a Catholic Answers Participant
The subject of Martin Luther is always a hot topic on the Catholic Answers forums. A recent thread with only 39 posts generated over 500 views in about 2 days. The thread was, Luther’s Eternal Destiny. A person named Johannes raised an excellent question about whether or not the Roman Catholic Church knows who is in Hell and who is not, particularly Martin Luther:
“I read in an RC apologetical work that the Roman Church makes no presumption concerning the eternal destiny of Martin Luther. Is that assertion true, and if so, has it always been the position of the Roman Church? It seems to run contrary to the language of the papal bulls issued concerning Luther. Exsurge Domine said that the Pope could, "without any further citation or delay, proceed against him to his condemnation and damnation..." Luther was nevertheless given time for repentance, so that he might escape "the death of a sinner." But Luther obviously did not repent. Decet Romanum Pontificem spoke of Luther's "depraved and damnable purpose." It called for any of the faithful who were sympathetic to the Lutherans to shun them, so that they "may escape divine vengeance and any degree of participation in their damnation." It further declared concerning Luther and his followers: "...these and the other sentences, censures and punishments... we decree to have fallen on all these men to their damnation." Clarification would be appreciated."
Now this is a well-constructed question. Of course, the mantra response was basically: The Church has made no specific pronouncement on Luther’s eternal state, or more precisely- the Roman Catholic Church has never declared any particular man is in Hell, be it Luther or even Judas.
Now- the implication strongly suggests that Luther, if he remained unrepentant, is currently in Hell, according to Roman Catholicism. This probably pleases many Catholic Answers forums participants.
Johannes made some excellent observations during the discussion:
“I know the bulls do not say that the Pope is damning Luther. However, there is a big difference between (a) damning someone yourself, and (b) finding someone guilty of offenses that will certainly lead to eternal damnation, unless they are repented of. It looks to me like (b) is what the bull is doing. And if that is the case, then Luther's failure to repent would seem to require the conclusion that he is now in hell.”
“The solemn threats of the bulls do not seem to be dealing with a mere probable destiny. Rather, it looks like they claim that Luther must either repent before he dies, or face damnation after his death.”
“I still cannot see how, if the bulls are read in a straightforward way, and understood according to their original meaning, anyone can conclude that there is not grounds to say that Luther would be presumed to have been damned. The standard modern response to this appears to be the assertion that the church never directly or explicitly said that Luther was damned. That is of course true. But it ignores what seems like a simple, albeit indirect, inference from the bulls. For if someone is authoritatively called upon to repent because he is guilty of sins entailing damnation, and if he dies obstinately refusing to repent, then, even without any further declaration, there would appear to be only one possible presumption about his fate.”
In my own studies, I find a shift in attitude toward Luther in Roman Catholic circles. Previous to the work of Joseph Lortz, many Catholic writings against Luther had no problem locating him far from heaven. For instance, a contemporary of Luther’s, Cochlaeus, said Luther was a child of the devil and possessed by the devil- Satan then dragged Luther off to Hell when he died. I tend to think that if you were to poll 100 Catholic scholars in 1560 they would say Luther was condemned as a heretic and got what he deserved- a direct journey to Hell. If you were to poll 100 Catholic scholars in 2006, the responses would be varied. Why is this?
After Lortz ‘s work in the early 20th Century, an ecumenical wave went through the church. Now, it's hard to find Current RCC scholars and apologists willing to be so certain of Luther's fate. Catholic scholarship shifted from its early focus of evaluating Luther "the person" to evaluating Luther "the theologian". The focus shifted from painting Luther as the bogeyman to evaluating his theology. When the emphasis was placed on his character (which was grossly distorted by many earlier catholic works, as many scholars agree)- there was more of an emphasis on him as being the direct voice of Satan, thus damned along with Satan. But with the shift towards evaluating his theology, there has been give and take among Catholic scholarship, This makes things like ecumenical treatises JDDJ and ECT possible.
Of course, protestants are no longer heretics, but "seperated brethren" in current Roman Catholic thought. Gone are the days of the sentiment of the Council of Florence which declared:
"It firmly believes, professes, and proclaims that those not living within the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics cannot become participants in eternal life, but will depart "into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels" [Matt. 25:41], unless before the end of life the same have been added to the flock; and that the unity of the ecclesiastical body is so strong that only to those remaining in it are the sacraments of the Church of benefit for salvation, and do fastings, almsgiving, and other functions of piety and exercises of Christian service produce eternal reward, and that no one, whatever almsgiving he has practiced, even if he has shed blood for the name of Christ, can be saved, unless he has remained in the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church. " (Denzinger 714).
Now the RCC loves everybody: section 841 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
"The Church's relationship with the Muslims. "The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind's judge on the last day."
I don't know if he intended this, But in Johannes closing comments he popped the big RCC ecumenical smiley face balloon:
“What particularly bothers me about this whole matter is that what was actually done in the sixteenth century appears to have been reinterpreted or muddied in more recent times in order to serve the purposes of, for example, the ecumenical movement. It is interesting to me that many today are strenuously pressing the claim that there has never been any presumption about Luther's fate. My guess, which may or may not be right, is that this is in large part motivated by modern ecumenical sensibilities.”
“Ultimately, this matter is for me one of honesty. I would sincerely hope that there is some other more secure foundation for the modern claim that Luther was never officially presumed to be damned. If there's not, simply telling the world that there neither is nor ever has been a presumption seems improper, since it omits a detail [that Luther never repented before his death] that would put the reality in a whole other light.”
Agreed Johannes. Thank you for the insightful comments.