Monday, May 24, 2010

Lortz on Luther's First Mass: Proof of Psychosis?

I've been reading The Reformation: A Problem for Today (Maryland: The Newman Press, 1964) by Roman Catholic theologian Joseph Lortz. Lortz's claim to fame was his Luther research. He was a well-respected theologian, known for being one of the first Roman Catholic writers to positively re-evaluate Luther. Previous to Lortz, most Roman Catholic evaluations of Luther were destructive, more or less following in the footsteps of Cochlaeus. Lortz though saw Luther as a fundamentally honest religious man.

While Lortz says many positive things about Luther, he did offers criticisms as well. He still viewed Luther as a heretic, prone to subjectivism, and also sharing guilt (with the Roman Catholic Church) for dividing the church.

That being said, as Jared Wicks says, for Lortz "his criticism was penetrated by amazement over Luther's pulsating spiritual richness, the wide range of his talents, the vastness of his productive labor for the new community, and the concentration of all his thought on God's grace revealed in Christ and transmitted by the Gospel."

To highlight the approach of Lortz, consider this contrast. Recently I took a look at Luther: The Rest of the Story By Ken Hensley. While Hensley post-dates Lortz, Hensley goes backward, returning to destructive criticism of Luther. Hensley evaluates Luther's first mass and determines the fear Luther felt during the mass was fear that was instilled by his own father. After the mass, Luther's father embarrassed his son in front of everyone. At the first mass, Luther claims to have been "without faith" during this period in his life. Luther also mentions that as a devout monk he hated God. These statements question the validity of Luther's call to the monastic life. Luther in essence, needed to learn to cope with his father, he didn't need the monastery. Luther wasn't called by God to be a monk. He was a man with a faulty image of God that wrongly chose the monastic life. Luther's struggle was based on the father he loved, feared, but could please. This transferred to Luther's understanding of God: Luther feared that he could not please God. While Hensley says Luther loved Hans Luther, he hated God and viewed him as angry deity. Thus, Luther's first mass stands as proof of a man with deep psychological issues.

Contrarily, here's how Joseph Lortz describes Luther's first mass (pp. 118-123):

Luther was soon ordained (1506). For every priest, the experience of celebrating his First Mass is of the greatest importance. For a man like Luther, who was so powerfully governed by the emotional level of experience, it was of even greater importance. He has left us a number of accounts of his First Mass. If we take the essential elements of these, we find that according to Luther he was so profoundly moved that he would have been swept from the altar if the assistant priest had not held him back. It may be questioned whether he was really tempted to rush from the altar. Perhaps in later years he was yielding to the tendency to speak in superlatives, but there is no doubt that he was profoundly moved. Luther also tells us why: he was deeply impressed by the nearness of the awesome majesty of God, who is addressed in the Canon as the living and true God.

Luther's experience shows us first of all that he was a religious man, forced to his knees as it were by the tremendous reality of God. We see in his experience something which cannot without some restrictions be called healthy. Does this entitle us to speak of mental illness in his case? We see that he was often profoundly moved, subject to strong depressions, restless at intervals, and, later in life, subject to violent changes of temper. All of this is quite apparent and shows that Luther had a tempestuous character, and that in his soul raged forces that were beyond his power to control. It tells us, too, that we are dealing wits a soul obsessed with anxiety in the face of sin and the divine judgment and caught in the net of scrupulosity. But scrupulosity is a weakness proper to a tender conscience; thus there is no reason to speak of mental illness in the proper sense of the word, at least at the time of his First Mass. This possibility is further excluded when we realize the tremendous amount and the fine quality of the works that Luther produced unceasingly. (Whether one could speak of a psychosis in Luther's case in the more restricted medical sense of the word is a matter for psychiatrists and does not concern us here.) At any rate we should be quite clear about the meaning of "mentally ill." It seems that the rather loosely used schema "manic depressive" (when it is not used in the sense of insanity) can be quite easily verified in the average mentally healthy individual if that individual is unusually sensitive. It is quite easy to say what Luther was not: he was not balanced, moderate or prudent, not restrained; one might say that he was quite uninhibited, that in a typically Germanic way he escapes classification and categorization. His lack of restraint is shown by all sorts of exaggerations; they indicate a violent impulsiveness which extends even to the falsification of objective facts in such impossible forms that the reader is utterly amazed. What Christian conscience will, for example, be able to accept his statement that he preferred Christ to all the devils, because he stood in such deadly terror of Him?

Whether the violent depressions of the year 1527/8 are correctly described by the Danish psychiatrist Paul Reiter as mental illness in the strict sense, is a matter for doctors to decide. But the entire mental structure and the intellectual and spiritual work Luther turned out (as Reiter himself admits), show that mental illness is by no means a sufficient explanation. At any rate it is impossible to declare simply that Luther was mentally ill. If one were so inclined,a whole book could be filled with individual examples which point in the direction of mental illness, but if we are going to keep a just proportion, we would have to match this with ten or more volumes which would positively prove Luther's mental, spiritual, and religious health.
The one conclusion we can come to now from Luther's experience at his First Mass is that he was entirely preoccupied with the anxiety that he felt as, with all his sins, he stood alone before the sovereign majesty of God. It is true that in the Canon, the living and true God is directly addressed, and that the Canon is preceded by the solemn, threefold Sanctus addressed to the divine majesty, but that is not the whole story.

The Preface has nothing of the awesome and exalted tone of the Sanctus; rather this prayer is a great lifting of the mind and heart, a great surge of adoration and praise which embraces heaven and earth and joins the voices of men to the song of the angels, but Luther was unaware of all this.

Furthermore, the Canon itself begins with the wonderful and consoling words: "Te igitur, clementissime Pater,per Jesum Christum, Filium Tuum, Dominum Nostrum, supplices rogamus." That is: "We humbly call upon Thee, most merciful Father, through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord." God is not addressed as the Judge who threatens to punish all the defects, but as a kind and loving Father. And the sinner approaches the Father not on his own, but through our Saviour, the Mediator, Jesus Christ. This is precisely the formula which Luther will later say contains all of the Christian message, but for some reason Luther did not see it then. He undoubtedly knew these words by heart as he did the rest of the Canon, but did not realize them. He was so deeply involved in those ideas which he had from his early days, the preaching he had heard, the Ockhamist theology he had learned, and above all his own peculiar disposition and correspondingly unique experiences, that he was simply blind to the solution for which he was striving so violently and which was given to him here, word by word.

This was so characteristic of Luther. He could not accept anyone else's solution. He was so individualistic and in a sense so narrow that only solutions of his own appeared valid. Luther was capable of assimilating only those things which were adapted to the peculiarities of his personality. He was an individual in the strictest sense of the word and this influenced his every act; it was the source of both his greatness and his limitations.

Here again we see a fact of primary importance: Luther never really understood the Missal as a compendium of the theology of grace and the sacraments. Some have objected to the emphasis I place on Luther's experience at his First Mass or feel that I make too much depend on this thesis. Luther did finish that Mass and later, at breakfast, he had been able to talk in calm and collected fashion with his father; for years afterwards he continued to celebrate Mass.

The important thing to note, however, is that no one ever asserted that Luther continued in his disturbed state for a long time. (If this had happened, beyond doubt he would have been mentally ill.) But note this: Luther's experience at the time of his First Mass was no isolated or independent event: it is an instance of the disposition which was central to Luther's character and caused him so much trouble. On the one hand he was an introvert, and on the other, he had a one-sided concept of the severity of an avenging God who demanded good works of His creature.

If the experience at the time of the First Mass were unique, the objection would be valid; however, the various observations we have made on Luther's life as a young monk agree in the points mentioned, and reinforce one another. Therefore, there is no question of trying to draw too many conclusions just from the First Mass.

In Luther's experience at the time of his First Mass, the same struggles of conscience appear which beset him in the monastery. Naturally, Luther's later assertions about the unceasing tension he was under are not to be taken too seriously. We know that on occasion he himself described his early life in religion as a calm and peaceful one. But his struggles of conscience were extremely severe. With unending perseverance he tried to get to the bottom of his problems and find a way out. In so doing, he was relentless in the war he waged on himself. We can accuse him of a good deal of imprudence, but we cannot say that he did not take his problems seriously enough. He brought them into the presence of God as he struggled with all his might to reach the complete solution.

Anxiety weighed him down—anxiety at the burden of sin which he saw in himself and which endangered his immortal soul, and made him feel the pains of the damned. (Even if Luther's description of this experience is expressed in terms taken from Tauler and has a rather elaborate literary coloring, still no one can deny that it was part of Luther's objective experience and a burden that weighed terribly on him.)


From the psychological point of view, we have before us a man who was extremely troubled by a serious type of scrupulosity. He had developed a real talent for disputing with himself, bringing forward arguments and counterarguments, and by so doing, tortured himself by running around in circles.

But the religious aspect is more important. Luther experienced his anxiety so terribly, largely because at one and the same time he longed so profoundly for a kind and loving God. To be free from sin and to reach this kind and loving God was Luther's problem and all his powers were directed to this end.


So, will Hensley or Catholic Answers, or any of the other recent Roman Catholic apologists be going out to purchase books by Lortz? My guess is no. My question is this: why are the works of men like Lortz, Wicks, and many other Catholic theologians typically ignored by the modern day Romanist-apologist? There are enough nuggets of negativity in Lortz's book to satisfy a hungry polemicist. One of my guesses is that saying anything even remotely positive about Luther is an admission of Roman Catholic guilt over the Reformation.

1 comment:

Matthew D. Schultz said...

My question is this: why are the works of men like Lortz, Wicks, and many other Catholic theologians typically ignored by the modern day Romanist-apologist?

Perhaps because demonizing makes such an emotionally effective polemic.