I recently posted Erasmus was Wrong, Luther was Right, Says Roman Catholic Scholar. In that entry, I took a brief look at Roman Catholic scholar Harry J. McSorley's condemnation of the position argued by Erasmus against Luther on the will.
Erasmus's Diatribe was well received. The Pope, Emperor, and Henry VIII all approved of the work. That's not hard to imagine- when the leading scholar of the day sides against the enemy of the Roman Church, whatever he put forth probably would've been seen as a helpful hand.
It's interesting to note that certain later Roman Catholic scholars have quite a negative perspective on the abilities of Erasmus as a defender of Romanism. For instance, Franz Xaver Kiefl evaluated the debate between Luther and Erasmus and found that Luther understood Christianity on a much deeper level than did Erasmus. He notes Erasmus was a man of Renaissance learning. Kiefl notes the negative impact of the Renaissance on Christianity, and contrarily sees Luther’s positive impact of being God’s “powerful instrument of Providence” in the work of Church “purification”.
Similarly, Roman Catholic scholar Joseph Lortz was troubled by the work of Erasmus. Lortz saw Erasmus as the threat to the Church, not Luther. Lortz explains that this view is not new: during the sixteenth century the papal nuncio Aleander recognized it also:
“There was only one man on the Catholic side who in some measure recognized in time the danger embodied by Erasmus. This was the papal nuncio, Aleander, himself a humanist of some standing... [he said] ‘God forbid that we see fresh papal briefs to Erasmus couched in the same tone as that printed at the beginning of his New Testament and containing an approving explanation by the pope of a work in which he expresses views on confession, indulgences, divorce, papal authority, etc., which Luther has simply to take over. But the poison of Erasmus works even more dangerously…”
“Erasmus at length came into contact with Luther. But Catholics did not see the true Erasmus even in this controversy. They applauded his book on free will, because it contradicted Luther; but they failed to see that the primary aim of the book was to propose an optimistic morality that left little room for grace, sin and redemption" [Catholic Scholars Dialogue With Luther (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1970), p. 7]
In his book The Reformation: A Problem for Today (Maryland: The Newman Press, 1964), Lortz goes into greater detail. Lortz outlines the deficiency of humanism as an interpretive framework by which to do theology. Recall, Erasmus was a leading humanist scholar. Lortz notes,
"Through its contact with antiquity, humanism emphasized the natural powers of man, particularly the power of his will... this new approach was incapable of grasping the real nature of salvation, and the function of grace in the process of salvation was neglected. Both points of view showed dangerous tendancies to interpret Christianity in a moralistic sense, so that humanism became a force that tended to destroy Christianity (p. 64-65).
Lortz though clarifies this in regard to Erasmus:
"Though he did not deny the reality of grace and talked of the insuffiiency of man despite his free will in a most orthodox manner, he did preach Christianity primarily as morality. In the practical order he so emphasized man's own powers of intellect and will that he came dangerously close to moralism.
In his disputation on freedom of will, any number of times we are told in the most orthodox fashion, at times quite emphatically, that all of man's powers and gifts come from God, that man must beware of pride and self-sufficiency, that everything a man can do with his intellect and will belongs to God (Diatribe,75). But for one thing, this Diatribe was written by Erasmus as a proof of his orthodoxy, and secondly, the picture of man which Erasmus gives us in his pedagogical and moral tracts, in his letters and by his example, is more to the point. The answer is not too encouraging. At the very least we are forced to assert that he did not draw the practical consequences from his statements that attribute everything to God and His Grace. (p.73)
Of course, Luther pounced on this. Luther saw the inconsistency in the argumentation of Erasmus. Lortz views this inconsistency of Erasmus's position by explaining that he had an underlying skepticism towards dogma. Lortz states,
[Erasmus] has no more concept of dogma as an exact statement of Chrisitan teaching than did the men of the Enlightenment or modern liberal Protestants. No one recognized this fact more clearly and made more of it than Luther in the First Preface to his work Vom geknechteten Willen" (p. 71-72).
We must say something more on the adogmatism mentioned before. If, as Erasmus thought, dogma is something superfluous; if, as he thought, the doctrine of Christianity could and should be restricted to a few general points, Erasmus was quite near the erroneous interpretation which would equate Christianity with monotheism. When this is done, Christianity becomes indistinguishable from the other higher religions and thus, relativism is just around the corner.
If all this is true, then we have to agree that Erasmus constituted a grave threat to the Church—not because of the frequently frivolous and mocking criticism he directed at it, but because of his adogmatism, moralism, and relativism.
The pope at the time was the humanist Leo X who had a great regard for Erasmus and was quite unaware of the threat which the latter constituted for the Church. Thus we find the papal delegate Alexander writing from the Diet of Worms in 1521: "For heaven's sake, don't send us any more privileges for Erasmus. The man is doing far more harm than Luther ever can." Luther was precisely the one who recognized and rejected the danger from the quarter of the humanists. With all the violence of his characteristically one-sided approach, Luther turned from the cultural morality he found in the humanists to the religion of faith as he found it in St. Paul [pp. 73-74].
From time to time, I come across Roman Catholic laymen attempting to argue that Erasmus eventually beat Luther in their written debate, or that "Luther met his match." Based on the comments of McSorley and Lortz, I simply don't see how a Roman Catholic would ever want to assert that.