Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The "Luther" entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia

Below is a section from my paper, The Catholic Understanding of Luther (Part one). It's the write up I did on the author of the Luther article in the Catholic Encyclopedia. I scoured many a library looking for information on George Ganss, author of the C.E. Luther article. I haven't searched out any new information on Ganss since the advent of Google Books, though I'm sure there is probably a lot more available.

Catholic Encyclopedia (1910): Luther Entry

American Catholics in the first half of the twentieth century were guided in their understanding of Luther by the article in the Catholic Encyclopedia written by George Ganss (1855 – 1912). Now available on-line, a new generation of Catholics (and non-Catholics!) are similarly coming under the influence of Ganss’s work. Ganss was strongly influenced by Denifle, and he has been credited for bringing the “views of Denifle to the English speaking world.” [87] James Atkinson gives an accurate summary of Ganss’s article:

“He declares that Luther inherited a wild temper from his father, who was an irascible man almost carried to murder by his fits of temper. Ganss denies that Luther ever had a true vocation to the monastic life; and suggests that in the monastery he became the victim of inward conflicts. He also claims that Luther was unfaithful both to the rules of his order and to the teaching of the Church, and that his infidelity brought on very deep depressions of a mental and spiritual kind. Ganss attributes Luther’s consequent despair to a false understanding of the Roman teaching on good works, and describes his break with the church as the product of reforming zeal that degenerated into political rebellion. The reformer is portrayed as a revolutionary who, in the enforced leisure of his sojourn at the Wartburg, broke down under sensuality; it is alleged that in his book On Monastic Vows, Luther pleads for an unbridled license.

Ganss presents Luther’s irascibility in pathological terms, and describes him as disheartened and disillusioned in his old age, dejected and despairing, tortured in body and spirit, abandoned by friends and colleagues alike. He assembles his portrayal of Luther in terms of “The Accusers’: it is all a matter of revolt, apostasy, a fall- the unhappy end of a monk unfaithful to his vows. There is nothing of Luther’s searching biblical theology, of his glad-heartedness in Christ and joy in the gospel, of his deep prayer life, of his compelling power as a preacher, of his invincible faith. He speaks of Luther’s sojourn in the Wartburg as beset by sensual temptations, and yet makes no reference to the fine books he wrote there during his captivity of some nine months, books such as his Refutation of Latomus, not to mention his magnificent and influential literary masterpiece, the translation of the entire New Testament, which in itself would have been a life’s work for any other mortal.” [88]

Patrick W. Carey also gives an insightful review:

“To give the article a sense of scholarly objectivity, Ganss informed his readers that he had relied primarily upon German Protestant authors as his authorities, and when he cited Catholic authorities he put an asterisk beside the authors' names. The lengthy article quoted selectively from the Protestant sources and from a few of Luther's own texts to verify the negative assessments of Luther found in the Catholic historian Denifle. Throughout the article, the early Luther is presented as a deeply disturbed personality, one with a brooding melancholy, scrupulosity, and morbidity that was susceptible to spiritual depression. Luther, Ganss asserted, would later attribute his own personal religious anxiety to the Church's teachings on good works. Thus the central doctrine of the Reformation was, in Ganss s view, the product of a "hypochondriac asceticism." Ganss failed to examine in any detail the substance of Luther's teachings and presented Luther as an isolated figure in the history of Christianity, neglecting to place Luther in the context of the late Middle Ages, except to agree with Denifle's judgment that Luther's "historical inaccuracies have been proved so flagrant, his conception of monasticism such a caricature, his knowledge of Scholasticism so superficial, his misrepresentation of medieval theology so unblushing, his interpretation of mysticism so erroneous, .. as to cast the shadow of doubt on the whole fabric of Reformation history.

Luther's Reformation ideas were successful, however, primarily because he pleaded with the masses in the language of the populace when he could not win his scholarly battles in the academy through the regular process of disputation. His appeal, moreover, was to the "latent slumbering national aspirations" of the German princes and people. And by such solicitations the reformer became "the revolutionary." His physical ailments and his "congenital heritage of inflammable irascibility and uncontrollable rage" isolated him during the days of his decline and he ended his life in a "deluge of vituperacion" against the Jews and the papacy. From Gansss perspective Luther was a tortured and unhappy soul whose own self-delusion operated as a driving force behind the Reformation. It was a moral and psychological analysis that isolated the individual from the wider historical currents of thought and culture, and that gave no insight into the theological discoveries Luther had made. It is difficult to know in the present state of scholarship how widespread Gansss view of Luther had become in early twentieth century American Catholicism. Similar negative views of Luther were evident in Father Patrick R O'Hare's (1848-1926) The Facts About Luther (1916), a popularized account of Luther's character and motives reminiscent of Denifle and Grisar. Luther, in O'Hare’s view, was no religious reformer but "a deformer."” [89]

Richard Stauffer has also provided a valuable analysis of Ganss’ article:

“With the help of Denifle, Ganss sketches a portrait of Luther with the following main characteristics. Burdened with a bad inheritance (his father, irascible by nature, was carried by fits of temper almost to the extent of murder, cf. p. 438, col. 2), the young Augustinian monk was the victim of inward conflicts which jeopardized his vocation—supposing he ever had a vocation. Unfaithful to the rules of his order and to the teaching of the Church, he sank into a "depression, physical, mental and spiritual" which, by a strange aberration, he attributed to the Roman Catholic doctrine of good works (p. 441, col. 2). Cornered by despair, he had to react; and this he did by breaking his ties with the Church and setting himself free for "religious agitation". But this "reforming activity" had to degenerate into "political rebellion". By considering himself to be the herald of the aspirations of his people, Luther became "the revolutionary" (p. 445, col. i). In all this he could not find the peace he was seeking. To his ordinary disquiet must be added, during his sojourn at the Wartburg, outbursts of sensuality that found him defenseless (p. 447, col. i). Under these conditions he wrote the De votis monasticis and promulgated a new moral code in which concupiscence cannot be overcome, "sensual instincts are irrepressible" and sexual appetites to be satisfied by no matter what physiological demands (p. 448, col. i). So vicious a man could obviously not enjoy a happy old age. Ganss therefore puts a last touch to his portrait. Having reminded us that Luther's increasing irritability and explosions of passion must be viewed pathologically rather than historically, he depicts the Reformer as abandoned by most of his friends and colleagues (p. 456, col. 2), dejected and despairing, tortured in body and spirit (p. 457, col. i). Thus he draws up a completely negative balance sheet. In it nothing can be seen of the eminently theological motives to which Luther subjected himself. In effect, it makes it all a matter of the revolt, apostasy, fall, and unhappy end of a monk who was unfaithful to his vows. On the other hand, although Ganss is blind to the bright side of Luther's work and character, he does play down Denifle's more violent theses. One must grant that his portrait is far the better of the two, both in manner and at heart.” [90]

Interestingly, the New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967) does not use Ganss’s article on Luther, but rather uses Catholic Reformation scholar John P. Dolan’s article. Dolan argues,

“no evidence existed for prior Catholic assertions that Luther's family's poverty "created an abnormal atmosphere" for his early development. It was absolutely absurd, moreover, to contend that Luther was a "crass ignoramus," and it was no longer tenable to hold, as Denifle did, that Luther was an "ossified Ockhamite." To question Luther's religious motives for entering the monastery, furthermore, did Luther a Fundamental injustice. Dolan instead focused upon Luther’s religious and theological discoveries and admitted the scandalous and immoral simoniacal acts associated with the sale of indulgences. Dolan’s article recognizes precisely what religious and doctrinal issues were at stake in the Reformation, a view that was not evident in the earlier twentieth or nineteenth century views of Luther.” [91]


[87] James Atkinson, Martin Luther: Prophet to the Church Catholic, 14. Stauffer notes, “The "Accusers", as I have called them, did not fail to influence Roman Catholic theologians in the English-speaking world who were interested in the person and work of Luther. To my mind, the first time that Denifle's control is perceptible is in the long article "Martin Luther" in The Catholic Encyclopedia. If he is indebted in the first place to Janssen and Dollinger, the author, H. G. Ganss, owes a not inconsiderable part of his information to Denifle. Moreover, he pays him homage more than once. Thus, he praises him for demolishing the "legend" that Luther built on his memories of the monastery. He praises him, too, for succeeding in the greater feat of calling in question Luther's account of the history of the origins of the Reformation” (Luther as Seen by Catholics, 20).

[88] James Atkinson,. Martin Luther: Prophet to the Church Catholic, 14-15.

[89] Patrick W. Carey, “Luther in an American Catholic Context,” found in: Timothy Maschke, Franz Posset, and Joan Skocir (eds.), Ad Fontes Lutheri: Toward the Recovery of the Real Luther: Essays in Honor of Kenneth Hagen’s Sixty-Fifth Birthday, (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2001), 45-46.

[90] Richard Stauffer, Luther as Seen by Catholics, 20-21.

[91] Patrick W. Carey, “Luther in an American Catholic Context,” 52-53.


Anonymous said...

I just got through reading Dolan's work on the Reformation and have written a review for it on It is now out-of-print but well worth the search.

James Swan said...

Send me the link for your review. I have not read this book, but somewhere in my library is a copy of Dolan's Luther article for the N.C.E.

Anonymous said...

L P Cruz said...

The more I study the catechisms that Luther wrote the more I get to respect him. In fact, his catechism for example should be read by every one who identifies himself as a Protestant. I say this only to recommend that he has such insight and helpful way of synthesizing in a coherent manner the Christian faith. If one reads the Large Catechism, one also sees the humor and his genius in the way he exposits Biblical truths.

Let me give an example. In his exposition of the First Commandment, Luther says that when this is in tact all the rest of the commandments fall into right order. All violations of the other commandments is in effect steming from the violation of the first.

Now that insight should be appreciated -- be the reader a Romanist or a Protestant, Luther does have a point and a good one too.

Luther has the right to be called a church father.