My last blog entry Young Luther, Saints, And The Virgin Mary looked at Mariolatry in the 16th century and its influence on Luther. There were serious problems with Marian theology in the 16th Century, and these problems helped fuel the Reformation. I think its important to realize the lack of doctrinal standards of Marian piety in the Sixteenth Century. One cannot appeal to the latest version of the Catholic catechism as the doctrinal standard for Marian piety four hundred years ago, or for that matter the Second Vatican Council.
Max Thurian notes , “At the Reformation anything to do with Marian doctrine was considered as being part of free theological opinion, so that Orthodox Christology should not be comprised by this or that opinion” [Max Thurian, Mary Mother of the Lord Figure of the Church (London: the Faith Press, 1963), 23].
David Wright focuses the situation:
“At the outset of the Reformation era, formally approved Church teaching about Mary encompassed only the virgin birth, her role as 'God-bearer' (theotokos) in the incarnation, and her perpetual virginity—and all of these were the legacy of the age of the Fathers. But since these early definitions theological speculation had steadily mounted. If there had so far been no further dogmatic deliverances, this was partly because on one or two issues different segments of the medieval Church were at loggerheads”[David Wright, Chosen By God: Mary in Evangelical Perspective,161-162].
Hhistorian Hilda Graef points out, “…the Mariology of pre-Reformation times had really in many cases become Mariolatry, and needed to be pruned from excesses which could only lead to a debased form of Christianity among the people who were encouraged to place the blessed Virgin beside or even above God” [Hilda Graef, Mary: A History of Doctrine and Devotion Vol. I (New York: Sheed and Ward) 318].
Perhaps this description from the Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue is adequate:
"Late medieval piety was marked by a great emphasis on the intercession of deceased saints and in particular by an intensification of confidence in the power of Mary. The steadily increasing number of saints invoked to remedy human needs and ills, and the long-accustomed role of Mary as mediator between the faithful and Christ, obscured the traditional theological distinction between adoration (latria) and veneration (dulia). In 1517, when Martin Luther called for an academic disputation on the use of indulgences and their relationship to the sacrament of penance, the cult of the saints and Mary became a related issue."[Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue VII, 23]. (I would question on what basis one evaluates dulia and latria in the sixteenth century).
Some may think that 16th Century “theologically educated Catholics” were well aware of the basic truths of Marian doctrine and devotion, and it was only the back-woods' laymen who venerated Mary in excess . What one fails to question though is whether sixteenth century elite Catholics knew what excessive Marian devotion was, and by what standard they used. It seems apparent that many of the theologically educated of the sixteenth century participated in excessive Mariology and deviant piety. Sixteenth-century “theologically educated Catholics” did not understand Marian piety by standards that were created much later. I find it fascinating that the “theologically educated Catholics” who wrote the Confutation against the Augsburg Confession did not write against Mariolatry:
“The Confutation thus defended both the veneration and the invocation of the saints. Asserting that Christ is the sole Mediator of redemption, it proposed Mary and the saints as mediators of intercession. It did not regard invocation as contrary to Scripture but as having a biblical basis. At the same time it did not criticize aberrations in this form of Christian piety. What the Confutation did was to call for trust in the church's understanding of itself as a body whose members (deceased as well as living) are empowered by Christ their head to help one another.”[ Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue VII, 29].
Luther relates an interesting account of his dealings with “elite educated Catholics” in LW47: 45-46:
“Furthermore, how will you endure their terrible idolatries [of the Papists]? It was not enough that they venerated the saints and praised God in them, but they actually made them into gods. They put that noble child, the mother Mary, right into the place of Christ. They fashioned Christ into a judge and thus devised a tyrant for anguished consciences, so that all comfort and confidence was transferred from Christ to Mary, and then everyone turned from Christ to his particular saint. Can anyone deny this? Is it not true? Did we not all, alas, at one time try this and experience it? Are not books extant—especially those of the shabby Barefoot Friars and of the Preaching Friars —which teem with idolatries, such as the Marialia, Stellaria, Rosaria, Coronaria , and they may as well be Diabolaria and Satanaria . Still there is no sign of repentance or improvement, but they obstinately and impudently insist that all this must be defended, and they ask for your body and life for its protection.
Here I must call attention to an incident that occurred at the diet in Augsburg, to show what a precious reason they have for such holy idolatry. When the article regarding the invocation of the saints was being discussed in the committee, Dr. Eck cited the words found in Genesis 48 [: 16 ], where Jacob says of Ephraim and Manasseh, “And my name shall be invoked upon those children.” When, after many words by Master Philip, John Brenz said casually that nothing about calling on the saints could be found in Scripture, Dr. Cochlaeus, to expedite matters, blurted out—profound thinker that he is—that the saints had not been invoked in the Old Testament because at the time they were not yet in heaven but in the anteroom of hell. Then my gracious lord, Duke John Frederick, duke of Saxony, etc., tightened the noose on both of them and said to Dr. Eck: “Dr. Eck, there you find the verse answered which you quoted from the Old Testament.” So sure are they of themselves, so nicely do they agree with one another—these precious writers of contradictions! The one says that the saints were not invoked in the Old Testament, the other says that they were. They cite verses from the Old Testament, just as if we did not know that God performed all the great miracles in the Old Testament for the sake of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as he himself often declares, and that he did not perform one-half, indeed, not one-tenth, as many in the New Testament for the sake of any saint. Like fools, they spit out the first thing that comes into their mouth. Yet all this must be accounted true and be the basis of the articles of faith. All of this goes unrepented; moreover, it is defended. People are condemned and executed over it, and for this you are to war and fight, etc.”
Even the strict orders of monks were infected with Mariolatry:
“The Augustinian Order which [Luther] joined paid high honour to Mary. He remembered being afraid of Christ and taking refuge with Mary and saints, as though they were the mediators and Christ the judge and executioner. 'We held Christ to be our angry judge, and Mary our mercy-seat, in whom alone was all our trust and refuge.”[David Wright, Chosen By God: Mary in Evangelical Perspective, 163].
Eric Gritsch likewise observes, “The young Luther was nurtured in a spiritual environment that stressed the cult of Mary either in personal piety or in liturgical celebration… Marian devotions were intense at the monastery of the Augustinian monks in Erfurt. Some of the theologians there whom Luther revered, such as John of Paltz, based the assertion that Mary was Christ's co-redemptrix on the doctrine of Mary's Immaculate Conception.”(Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue VII, 235-236).
William Cole comments, “As an Augustinian monk Luther found himself in a circle in which the Marian cult was very highly honored and practiced. In Mary's honor the Augustinians wore a white robe and scapular. A legend of the order recounted that St. Monica had received this habit from Mary herself. Everyday the Augustinians greeted Mary in the afternoon with a hymn and there even existed among them a fraternity of the Cincture of Our Lady. When Luther came to Wittenberg, he encountered the giant Catholic Church which supposedly contained among other things pieces of hair, the garments, the mantle of Our Lady, and even wax from the candle she held in her hand as she lay dying” (Marian Studies XXI, 114).
That both the laity and the clergy were in need of reformation is generally not disputed. When the early Reformers criticized the Catholic Church on deviant excess, some Catholic theologians responded: “We never taught such things!” The Reformers in unison replied, “But your people believed it, and you do nothing about it!” Historian Charles Guignebert explains their responsibility:
“Certain Catholic writers of our own day confess that the condition of the clergy was degraded but think themselves to be justifying this state of affairs by saying that it corresponded to that of the laity at that time, on the principle that, in the main, people always get the religion and the church they deserve. This is so, and it cannot be denied that society in the fifteenth and at the beginning of the sixteenth centuries seems very corrupt, judging by its upper classes, and that the religion of the lower classes appears very uncouth. Nevertheless the conclusion indicated is that the Church is largely responsible for this depravity and superstition, upon ascertaining that the demand of the Inquisition for orthodoxy can be satisfied with its appearance only, and that crimes and sins are of little ecclesiastical importance save as they represent a fruitful source of revenue for the vendors of absolution.”[Charles Guignebert, Ancient, Medieval and Modern Christianity (New York: University Books, 1961) 386-387].
I am well aware though of the differentiation between popular belief (or “folk piety”) and elite belief in the medieval world. Elite theology formed by the elite class was Biblical thought placed in the context of Greek philosophical traditions. Scholasticism and Nominalism fed Marian excess. Recall that Luther’s spiritual grandfather, the great Nominalist theologian Gabriel Biel, had a strong excessive Marian piety, particularly in Mary’s role as mediator. Gritsch notes in Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue VII, that Melancthon agreed with Luther’s Christocentric stance, particularly against the backdrop of Biel: “[Melancthon] had encountered liturgical practices, particularly in formulas of absolution, that were based on the view that the invocation of Mary and the saints is a divinely instituted order” (241). “Melanchthon's source was Gabriel Biel's Exposition of the Canon of the Mass as well as contemporary worship handbooks” (382).
"Elite belief" was also a channel that fed Marian devotion toward excess. That the theologically educated during the Reformation similarly added to Marian excess is usually not disputed. Owen Chadwick points out,
"The strong and popular devotion to the Virgin was accompanied by a marked growth in the cult of the saints and their relics, and of pilgrimage to their shrines. Ill-regulated fervour could be superstitious or even demonic... But superstition was no innovation. Since the darkest ages peasants had consumed the dust from saints' tombs or used the Host as an amulet or collected pretended relics or believed incredible and unedifying miracles or substituted the Virgin or a patron saint for the Savior. In 1500 they were ardently doing these things. What was new was not so much the practice as the way in which the leaders of opinion were beginning to regard it.”
[Owen Chadwick, The Reformation (London: Penguin Books, 1964), 23-24].
An interesting point is similarly raised by Jaroslav Pelikan in regard to modern elite Roman Catholic theologians: “The real evil is in the elevation of ... naive piety to the status of a system and in the use of advertising tricks to 'merchandise' the cult of Mary. The simple and unreflecting Ave Maria of a South American peon is one thing, and a multi-volume theological opus on 'the prerogatives of the Blessed Virgin Mary' is quite another thing. The theologians and bishops of the Church, who ought to watch and warn the faithful of the excesses in such piety, are actually the ones who encourage the excesses." [Jaroslav Pelikan The Riddle of Roman Catholicism (New York: Abingdon Press, 1959, 140.]
Historian Leopold von Ranke gives an interesting look at Sixteenth Century prayer books given to the people:
“There are prayers to which an indulgence for 146 days, others to which one for 7000 or 8000 years are attached: one morning benediction of peculiar efficacy was sent by a pope to a king of Cyprus; whosoever repeats the prayer of the venerable Bede the requisite number of times, the Virgin Mary will be at hand to help him for thirty days before his death, and will not suffer him to depart unabsolved. The most extravagant expressions were uttered in praise of the Virgin: ‘The eternal Daughter of the eternal Father, the heart of the indivisible Trinity:’ it was said, ‘Glory be to the Virgin, to the Father, and to the Son.’” [Leopold von Ranke, History of the Reformation in Germany (volume 1), (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co, 1966) 119-120].
These types of prayer books were condemned by Rome twenty-five years after Luther died. They had enjoyed a rich life as normal piety in the medieval Catholic Church:
“The death knell to the traditional Roman prayer books was struck by a bull issued by Pius V on March 11, 1571. Influenced by the reforms of the Council of Trent, the pope placed under strict censorship the same prayer books Luther had named so contemptuously in an introductory letter to his own prayer book in 1522.”[Luther's works, vol. 43 : Devotional Writings II (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.) (Philadelphia: Fortress Press), 10].