Saturday, September 12, 2009

On Luther's Adultery & The Wit of Erasmus

One of the most controversial subjects during the Reformation was marriage. Luther was attacked as being an adulterer for getting married, and some of this rhetoric survived for centuries. Consider Father O'Hare's calumny: “As a matter of fact, [Luther] was openly blamed for his well-known and imprudent intimacy with Katherine Von Bora before his marriage…” “Katherine Von Bora was only [Luther's] companion in sin, and the children brought into the world through the unholy alliance were illegitimate children.” I recently came across this very criticism on the Catholic Answers forums: "Luther was an adulterer - a monk who "married" a nun. So please don't call him a devout Catholic."

Now, if I recall correctly, the celibate priesthood is not a capital "T" tradition, it's rather a matter of discipline. I was listening to Catholic Answers a while back and heard Tim Staples say it is theoretically possible this could be changed, and priests could be allowed to marry in the future.

Ask a states, "Well, the celibate priesthood is in place because of the demands of the priesthood on the individual. If someday the Holy Spirit leads the Church to change it, the Church will."

Catholic Answers states, "Even within the Latin Rite, the Church has made exceptions for a number of converted married ministers to become ordained. This is known as the "pastoral provision," and it demonstrates that clerical celibacy is a discipline, not a doctrine. The doctrines of the Church are teachings that can never be reversed. On the other hand, disciplines refer to those practices (such as eating meat on Fridays) that may change over time as the Church sees fit."

So, Luther's being maligned for something that theoretically could be validated at some point in the future. As a priest, Luther's now considered by many as an adulterer for his marriage to a nun, perhaps in 2050, priests could be allowed to marry. Does that mean he'll no longer be considered an adulterer? One then has to argue his vows to the religious life continue to make him an adulterer.

On a related note, here's one I found in Martin Luther The Christian Between God and Death (Cambridge, Belknap Press, 1999) by Richard Marius. According to Marius, Erasmus initially believed the popular rumor that Cathrine Von Bora had given birth a few days after her wedding, and then commented on whether the child may in fact be the Antichrist. On page 438, Marius describes Luther knew he would be attacked for his marriage:

His forecast that his enemies would reproach him was on the mark. Then and for centuries afterward Catholic antagonists had proof that all Luther had ever wanted was sex, and since he married a former nun, it seemed he had now lived out yet another of the bawdy stories told of nuns and monks lusting for one another. His most bitter foes crowed over the marriage in monotonous fury in print. Erasmus knew of it by October and wrote to friends ironically about it. He passed on the canard that Katherine had given birth to a child a few days after the wedding (10). By March 13 he had learned that the rumor was false, although he understood (correctly) that Katherine was now pregnant. He ruminated on the 'popular legend' that the Antichrist would be born to a monk and a nun- a tale probably circulating about Luther's coming child. If that prophecy were true, he said with bitter wit, 'How many thousands of Antichrists had the world already known!'(11) He expressed the wistful hope that marriage might make Luther more gentle, but by this time he had seen Luther's vehement On the Bondage of the Will, and he had given up all hope that Luther might moderate his language.

(10) October 10, 1525; EE no. 1633; 6:197-199.
(11) March 13, 1525; EE no. 1677; 6:283-284.

EE= Opus epistolarum Des. Erasmi Roterodami, ed. Percy S. Allen et al., 12 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1906-1958).

One may think that since Erasmus "ruminated on the popular legend" he actually took it seriously. This is hardly the case as his comment of "bitter wit" explains. It does go to show popular Catholic propaganda that circulated during the 16th century.

Phillip Schaff interprets the same facts:

[Luther's marriage] was a rich theme for slander and gossip. His enemies circulated a slander about a previous breach of the vow of chastity, and predicted that, according to a popular tradition, the ex-monk and ex-nun would give birth to Antichrist. Erasmus contradicts the slander, and remarked that if that tradition was true, there must have been many thousands of antichrists before this.3

(1526): " De conjugio Lutheri certum est, de partu maturo sponsae vanus erat rumor, nunc tamen gravida esse dicitur. Si vera est vulgi fabula Antichristum nasciturum ex monacho et monacha quemadmodum isti jactitant, quot Antichriatorum millia jam olim habet mundus? At ego sperabam fore, ut Lutherum uxor redderet magis cicurem. Verum ille praeter omnem expectationem emisit llbrum in me summa quidem cura elaboratum, sed adeo virulentum, ut hactenus in neminem scripserit hostilius."

It appears Schaff has the date wrong. The date of the letter is March 13, 1525. It is one of two surviving letters to Francois Dubois (Franciscus Sylvius).

Luther Vindicated by Charles Hastings Collette outlines the same material:

The learned Romanist, Erasmus, who was ordained a Priest in 1492, also a contemporary and opponent of Luther, gave the following testimony on this subject: "Luther's marriage is certain; the report of his wife's being so speedily brought to bed is false, but I hear she is now with child, if the common story be true, that Antichrist shall be born of a Monk and a Nun, as they pretend, how many thousands of Antichrists are there in the world already?"(3) And that Erasmus was unprejudiced, appears in his following words, viz.: " I was in hopes a wife would have made Luther a little tamer, but he, contrary to all expectations, has published a most elaborate work against me, but as virulent as any book that ever he wrote." It must be remembered that Erasmus himself had previously propagated the scandal, in a letter addressed to the President of the High Council of Holland, in 1525, on erroneous reports, spread by Luther's enemies, but which reports, as I have already shown, he was honest enough subsequently to contradict.

This would explain why this book describes the same material and attributes the letter to a correspondence between Erasmus and Nicholas Everhard, the President of the High Council of Holland:

Erasmus sent word to Nicholas Everard, president of the court of Holland, that the Lutheran tragedy would end, like the quarrels of princes, in matrimony. He says, " If the common story be true, that antichrist shall be born of a monk and a nun, as they pretend, how many thousands of antichrists are there in the world already? I was in hopes that a wife would have made Luther a little tamer; but he has published a book against me, more virulent than ever." Erasmus was not well instructed in this affair, or he was too prone to give credit to the scandal which was published against Luther.


Principium Unitatis said...


The priesthood and religious life are not the same thing. Celibacy is accidental to the former, but not to the latter.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

James Swan said...

I don't know the answer to this, and I don't have the time to check right now- were there "official" dogmatic pronouncements during the reformation period (Canon law, papal decree, council statement) that explicitly would have noted this distinction?

Thanks for your comments.

James Swan said...

One other question I would throw out... In the past I've had some interesting conversations with ecumenical Roman Catholics that aren't so ready to place Luther firmly in the torments of hell.

If Luther's marriage confirmed his sin of adultery, wouldn't Romanists have to side more on the possibility that Luther's fate was not spent in the redemptive confines of purgatory?

James Swan said...

An interesting tidbit from the Augsburg Confession:

"If the obligation of vows could not be changed for any reason at all, the Roman pontiffs would not have granted dispensations, for it is not lawful for a man to annul an obligation which is plainly derived from divine law. 25 But the Roman pontiffs have prudently judged that leniency should be observed in connection with this obligation. Therefore, we read that they often granted dispensation from vows. 26 Well known is the case of the king of Aragon, who was recalled from a monastery, and there is no want of examples in our time."

So... could Luther be freed from his vow by a pope, even though no longer living?

From The book of Concord:

"2 In the days of St. Augustine monastic life was voluntary. Later, when true discipline and doctrine had become corrupted, monastic vows were invented, and the attempt was made to restore discipline by means of these vows as if in a well-conceived prison."

so, the idea of monastic vows as a binding written Romanist proclamation ....developed. Certain monks, were "free" until such binding pronouncement?

Andrew said...


I want to thank you for the Luther related posts. I seem to lack the patience and attention span to do that kind of detailed, painstaking research. I find these little tidbits to be very interesting, and helpful.

James Swan said...


I go through periods in which I don't enjoy Luther tedium. Thanks for your encouragement.