When I first began looking into Luther-related issues, it was not uncommon for Roman Catholics to direct me to the old Catholic Encyclopedia (1905-1914). An "encyclopedia" has the connotation of being a reliable source of information complied by credible scholars. If one simply skims through the Luther entry from the old Catholic Encyclopedia, one finds a scholarly well-documented submission explaining that, historically considered, Luther was wild-tempered, depressed, mentally ill, and lustful. He ended up abandoned by most of his friends and colleagues, dejected and despairing, tortured in body and spirit. There you have it: a credible scholarly encyclopedia has spoken.
The Notion of "Encyclopedia"
Most people probably don't even consider what the concept of "encyclopedia" entails. It was during the nineteenth century (particularly with German thinkers), that the notion of "encyclopedia" became a pursuit. The idea was to present information on what is known through the various sciences and how the information has an organic interconnected relationship. During this time period the notion of a theological encyclopedia also became popular. The Catholic Encyclopedia was thus a product of its time period:
"The need of a Catholic Encyclopedia in English was manifest for many years before it was decided to publish one. Editors of various general Encyclopedias had attempted to make them satisfactory from a Catholic point of view, but without success, partly because they could not afford the space, but chiefly because in matters of dispute their contributors were too often permitted to be partial, if not erroneous, in their statements" [source].The article cited goes on to point out that at the time, they attempted to present the best Roman Catholic Scholarship available:
The editors have insisted that the articles should contain the latest and most accurate information to be obtained from the standard works on each subject. Contributors have been chosen for their special knowledge and skill in presenting the subject, and they assume the responsibility for what they have written.Indeed, there is a lot of helpful information in the old Catholic Encyclopedia. But during this time period, Roman Catholic research into the life and work of Martin Luther was still engaged in a period of destructive criticism. James Atkinson explains,
"For over four and a half centuries, since the night that Luther nailed up his Ninety-five Theses against Indulgences on 31 October 1517, Roman Catholicism took an unrelenting line of vicious invective and vile abuse against Luther's person, while virtually disregarding his vital and vivid religious experience, his commanding and irrefutable biblical theology, and his consuming concern to reform the Church according to the teaching and purpose of its founder, Jesus Christ. It is one thing to offer criticism; it is quite another to hurl scurrilous abuse: the former creates and maintains some relationships; the latter will deaden and destroy any relationship that exists" [Atkinson, James. Martin Luther: Prophet to the Church Catholic (Grand Rapids: WB Eerdman’s Publishing co., 1983), 3].This general statement in no way implies Luther research wasn't pursued in-depth by some Roman Catholic scholars during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One need only to skim through Jesuit historian Hartmann Grisar's multi-volume set on Luther, or note the appeal to primary sources put forth by Heinrich Denifle. But overall, their ideal was to attack Luther "the person" rather than consider his work as the output of an honest theologian [See, The Roman Catholic Understanding of Luther (part one)].
The Old Catholic Encyclopedia Entry on Luther
The Luther entry in the old Catholic Encyclopedia was written by George Ganns (1855 – 1912). He was a priest of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. He may have influenced American Catholic attitudes towards Luther more than any other Roman Catholic scholar. I've provided a brief overview of his approach to Luther here.He relied heavily on the tradition of Roman Catholic destructive Luther criticism (Denifle, Grisar, Dollinger, Janssen). For Ganss, Luther was a liar and a psychotic.
The New Catholic Encyclopedia Entry on Luther
the New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967) comes after a paradigm shift in the Roman Catholic approach to Martin Luther. During the first five hundred years of Roman Catholic evaluations of Luther, a strong emphasis on vilifying Luther’s character as a means of discrediting the Reformation was the normal Catholic approach. The emphasis shifted in the Twentieth Century: Roman Catholic historians began to study Luther as a sincere religious man and an honest theologian. I've documented this shift here: The Roman Catholic Perspective of Luther (part two).
The New Catholic Encyclopedia presents an almost completely different image of Luther. The Luther entry was written by Roman Catholic Reformation scholar John P. Dolan. Dolan's approach to Luther is quite different. He 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" [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), pp.52-53.]I've had the New Catholic Encyclopedia article on Luther for a number of years. Every so often I search the Internet to see if either this entry or the entire New Catholic Encyclopedia has made its way to cyber space, and it has: The New Catholic Encyclopedia. It's not nearly as well organized in its cyber-form as the Old Catholic Encyclopedia is (as far as I can tell, the set works from Z to A, rather than A to Z).
Here is the New Catholic Encyclopedia entry on Luther in its entirety. Simply compare it to the old entry, and it's as if two different people are being described. Sometimes it's not what's said, but what isn't said. Luther "the person" is not subjected to personal attack by Dolan. He most often simply states the facts. Lest anyone think though Dolan does not concisely locate Luther on the wrong side of the Roman church, in discussing justification Dolan states Luther "rejected the traditional teaching of the Church."
I offer this simple compare and contrast for any of you that have been accosted with the old Catholic Encyclopedia entry on Luther. If you find yourself in such a situation, ask the following questions:
1. Are you aware of the history of Roman Catholic interpretation on Luther?
2. Are you aware that there is no unified Roman Catholic interpretation of Luther (or the Reformation)?
3. Do you believe that historical research ended in 1914?
4. Have you ever read the New Catholic Encyclopedia entry on Luther?
5. If so, can you explain why it describes an almost completely different person than the old Catholic Encyclopedia does?
6. On what basis does one decide which Encyclopedia article to use?