Friday, February 16, 2018

Luther: "Chastity or continence was physically impossible…"

“Chastity or continence was physically impossible… The womenfolk are ashamed to confess it, yet it is proved by Scripture and experience that there is not one among thousands to whom God gives grave to keep entirely chaste. A woman has no power over herself… The gratification of sexual desire was nature’s work, God’s work… And, as necessary aye, much more so, than eating, drinking, digesting, sweating, sleeping”. - Martin Luther (De Wette II, 535)
This quote appeared in the discussion, Did Martin Luther allow divorce? The person who posted it didn't explain how exactly it was relevant to the topic of discussion, divorce. It was posted along with a number of other shock quotes, all I suspect have the goal of preaching the evils of Martin Luther to the choir. This same person commented elsewhere, "How is quoting Luther’s filthy works verbatim, ‘bashing him’?! Can we not expose his works to stir the hearts of those who ignorantly follow his theology, to reconcile them back to the Church Christ founded?" And also, "We aren’t attacking the person of Martin Luther. We are merely exposing his works for what they are. Wouldn’t you want to know if your denominational founder’s works were vile and lewd? Or, would you want to remain in the naive comfort of not knowing?" This is the mindset of this particular defender of Rome: it's not an attack to present out-of-context quotes devoid of either an historical or actual context!

Let's take a look at this quote and see exactly what's going on. We'll see that it's either two quotes from two different sources or some of it is just a summary statement of Luther's beliefs. When the bulk of the quote is placed back in its context, Luther isn't saying anything  filthy, vile, or lewd. Rather, he's making comments in regard to the heated sixteenth century debate over the validity of monastic vows.

Documentation
"De Wette II, 535" is provided as the reference governing the entire quote. "De Wette" refers to a collection of Luther's letters compiled by Dr. Wilhelm Martin Leberecht De Wette: Dr. Martin Luthers Briefe, Sendschreiben und Bedenken. Here is volume II, 535.  Page 535 contains Luther's letter from August 6, 1524 "to three nuns," in which he gave advice on leaving the convent. Though not contained in LW, an English translation is available in Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel and also Luther's Letters to Women.  The Catholic Answers participant probably did not take the quote from De Wette, but rather, Patrick O'Hare's, The Facts About Luther, (or some web-page utilizing O'Hare). Father O'Hare states,
Luther, horrible to relate, with the gospel in his hand, taught his disciples, male and female, in the world and in the cloisters, that no man or woman could be chaste in primitive, much less in fallen nature. "Chastity or continence," said this vile man, "was physically impossible." In the most brutal frankness, he writes without a blush the following lines to a number of religious women: "Though," he says, "the women folk are ashamed to confess it, yet it is proved by Scripture and experience, that there is not one among many thousands, to whom God gives grace to keep entirely chaste. A woman has no power over herself. God created her body for man and to bear offspring. This clearly appears from the testimony of Moses i, 28, and from the design of God in the construction of her creation." "The gratification of sexual desire was nature's work, God's work," as he cynically calls it, "and, as necessary, aye, much more so than eating, drinking, digesting, sweating, sleeping," etc. (De Wette II, 535.) We dare not repeat all he enumerates in his filthy catalogue. "Hence," said he, "to vow or promise to restrain this natural propensity, is the same as to vow or promise that one will have wings and fly and be an angel and morally worth about as much as if one was to promise God that he would commit adultery."
Notice O'Hare's text was sifted to present the version found on the Catholic Answers forums. When O'Hare states, "'Chastity or continence,' said this vile man, 'was physically impossible,'" these words are not from the context of this letter (see below). O'Hare does not document them, but gives the appearance that they're part of De Wette II, 535. I've gone through O'Hare's book for a number of years now. I've grown more and more convinced he did very little of his own research into Luther's writings. He appears to have simply done the equivalent of a cut-and-paste with his favorite hostile Roman Catholic secondary sources. He appears to have blatantly plagiarized The American Catholic Quarterly of 1884 article, "Martin Luther and His American Worshipers" by Rt. Rev. Monsignor Corocan. Notice the obvious similarities in bold type:
With the gospel in his hand, he taught his German disciples, male and female, in the world, and in monasteries, and female convents, that no man or woman could be chaste in primitive, much less in fallen nature. Chastity or continence, said he, was physically impossible. The gratification of sexual desire was nature's work (God's work as he cynically calls it), as necessary, aye, much more so than eating, drinking, digesting, sweating, sleeping, etc. (we dare not go through with his filthy catalogue). Hence, said he, to vow or promise to restrain this natural propensity, is the same as to vow or promise that one will have wings and fly and be an angel, and morally worth about as much as if one was to promise God (we are giving the vile man's own words), that he would commit adultery. The way in which he explains all this in his coarse Latin, and still coarser German, is such that it cannot be reproduced before American readers. As a Catholic, we dare not sin against St. Paul's warning by mentioning, even for a good purpose, what no Christian ear should listen to. As a man and a citizen of a southern commonwealth, what else could be our first irresistible impulse than to lift cudgel or other weapon upon the theological Rabelais who teaches, in virtue of his new gospel, that all our women, Catholic or Protestant, outside the few that are married, are necessarily unclean and impure. If Protestants hearing Luther's language can keep cool and restrain their indignation, it only shows how far religious bigotry can control all natural impulses of decency and honor.
O'Hare attributes a direct citation to Luther for the first line, "Chastity or continence... was physically impossible." This was a summary statement from Coracan, not a direct citation of Luther. There is another Roman Catholic source (also from 1884), Luther: An Historical Portrait By J. Verres, that makes a similar attribution, but provides documentation. Verras states, "According to Luther, chastity (apart from the matrimonial state) is a physical impossibility; where it exists, it is a great and extraordinary miracle." The reference though is to a completely different writing from Luther, Walch XIX, 1818. This page from the Walch edition of Luther's works is from Martini Luthers von den Gelüb den der Mönche und Nonnen  (The Judgement of Martin Luther on Monastic Vows, 1521).  Verras is also summarizing what Luther said:
There is no doubt that the monastic vow is in itself a most dangerous thing because it is without the authority and example of Scripture. Neither the early church nor the New Testament knows anything at all of the taking of this kind of vow, much less do they approve of a lifelong vow of very rare and remarkable chastity. It is purely a most pernicious invention of men no different from all the other inventions of men. St. Paul, having made a vow, pitied himself along with four other men [Acts 21:23–26]. Who cannot see that it was a vow left over from the old law? For the moment I shall pass over the fact that it was only a temporal vow, for this very apostle was in the habit of observing all the other parts of the old law along with his fellow Jews, but he had no intention of setting a pattern for the New Testament. As we all know, he did not observe the law in the company of Gentiles [LW 44:252-253].
This tedium about the first sentence is necessary to demonstrate that some of Rome's defenders are not going deep into history, but are rather regurgitating spurious propaganda from long ago. With this first sentence out of the way, let's examine the bulk of the quote, which is from Luther's August 6, 1524 letter "to three nuns." I have provided the entire brief letter to display the complete context.


Context 
Grace and peace in Christ Jesus, our Saviour. Dear Sisters: I have now and again received your letters and have gathered from them what is on your hearts. I should long since have replied if a courier had been available and I had had an opportunity, for I am very much occupied with other matters. Have you thoroughly understood that there are two grounds for abandoning convent life and monastic vows?
The first exists when human laws and monastic works are imposed by force, are not assumed voluntarily, and become burdensome to conscience. Under such circumstances one should flee and let the convent and everything connected with it go. If, therefore, it is the case with you that monastic works were not undertaken of your own free will but were forced upon your conscience, call upon your relatives to help you get out and, if the secular authorities allow it, to provide for you in their homes or elsewhere. If your relatives or parents are unwilling, let some other good people help you to depart, no matter whether this causes your parents to be angry, die, or rejoice. For God's will and the soul's salvation should come first, since Christ says, "He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me." But if the sisters grant you liberty in the convent and at least allow you to read or hear the Word of God, you may remain with them and perform and observe such convent duties as spinning, cooking, and the like, so long as you do not put your trust in these works.
The other ground is the flesh. Although women are ashamed to acknowledge this, Scriptures and experience teach us that there is only one in several thousands to whom God gives the gift to live chastely in a state of virginity. A woman does not have complete mastery over herself. God so created her body that she should be with a man and bear and raise children. The words of Gen., ch. i, clearly state this, and the members of her body sufficiently show that God himself formed her for this purpose. Just as eating, drinking, waking, and sleeping are appointed by God to be natural, so God also wills that it be natural for a man and a woman to live together in matrimony. This is enough, therefore, and no woman need be ashamed of that for which God has created and fashioned her, and if she feels that she does not possess that high and rare gift, she may leave the convent and do that for which she is adapted by nature.
All these things you will abundantly read and sufficiently learn if you come out and hear good sermons. I have proved and substantiated these things again and again in the book on monastic vows, in the tract on rejecting the doctrines of men, in the treatise on the estate of matrimony, and in the postil. If you read these, you will find adequate instruction on all points, be it on confession or something else. It would take too long to repeat everything here, nor is it necessary to do so, for I suspect that you will be leaving the convent, as you threatened to do in your first letter, whether you are affected by both or by only one of these grounds. If it should come to pass that the convent introduces real freedom, those who have the gift and a liking for that life may enter or return. In just this way the town council of Berne, in Switzerland, has opened the renowned convent of Konigsfeld, and is allowing girls, who so choose, to leave, remain, or enter at will, giving back to those who leave what they brought with them when they entered.
Herewith I commit you to God's keeping and ask you to pray for me.
The day of Sixtus, the Martyr, 1524. Martin Luther.
A friendly letter to be delivered to the three nuns, my dear sisters in Christ.
 Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, pp. 270-272.

Conclusion 
It's fascinating to compare the sifting of this context to denigrate Luther (presented on the Catholic Answers discussion forums) to the actual letter Luther wrote. The sifted version presents a "Luther" that views women as sex-crazed and out of control. The letter itself though shows the balance in Luther's thinking about this subject. He presents two grounds for a nun to leave the monastic life: the first ground is if a woman was placed there by force. The second ground is in regard to those who have not been given the supernatural gift of chastity, but long to fulfill their biologic desires. When I read Luther's letter,  I don't see anything filthyvile, or lewd. Of this context, O'Hare states, "We dare not repeat all he enumerates in his filthy catalogue." His plagiarized source, Corocan, says similarly, "we dare not go through with his filthy catalogue." What were these men reading?

 For Luther, biologically, people are typically designed with the desire to procreate. "Scriptures and experience" prove this. This desire can either be carried out in a God pleasing way (marriage) of a non-God pleasing way (fornication). Luther's continual exhortation throughout his career was to partake in the former.

4 comments:

Don Stein said...

Excellent, as always, James. Thank you for hunting down the source.

PeaceByJesus said...

Thanks for the diligent work again, and which reveals how even changing even one word can make a substantial difference, as in

that there is only one in several thousands (to whom God gives the gift to live chastely in a state of virginity)

that there is not one among many thousands

But which is in addition to apparently complete false attributions such as "to vow or promise to restrain this natural propensity, is the same as to vow or promise that one will have wings and fly and be an angel.."

But since Catholics can add to Scripture, it is no surprise they would add to Luther, or believe those who did.

James Swan said...

PBJ: Thanks for your continued support over the years!

Regards, James

PeaceByJesus said...

I am the one who should give thanks. But how are you still in Catholic Answers? (By the grace of God) Are your on Francis friends list? Speaking of which, how about posting on the obedience required to the pope based on traditional teaching (I have some) while it is the traditionalist who daily rail against him. They typically will not answer me.