Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Real Story of the Reformation? Catholic Answers Explains Luther's Issue With Indulgences

This is a follow-up to my earlier post on the recent Catholic Answers broadcast, The Real Story of the Reformation with Steve Weidenkopf, a lecturer of Church History at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. Previously I noted how Professor Weidenkopf began his interview by changing the term Reformation to "revolution." Along the same lines he goes on to consider Luther to be a revolutionary bent on overthrowing the Roman Church. He implied that the indulgence controversy was the issue in which this could be achieved.

 Weidenkopf  appears to defend the concept of indulgences, particularly the rebuilding of St. Peter's by the giving of "charitable contributions" towards its rebuilding through the selling of indulgences, thus downplaying the whole scandal behind indulgences. St. Peter's was falling apart, and needed to be rebuilt. The revenue from the indulgences helped fund this papal project. Weidenkopf doesn't appear to be interested in some of the more scandalous facts- like how some of the indulgence money for St. Peter's made its way to Leo X's private treasury, "...for he needed enormous sums for his private pleasures, especially his passion for cards, which he played every day" (Heinrich Bohemer, Road to Reformation, Martin Luther to the Year 1521 (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1946), p. 175). The Catholic Answers listeners didn't get any those sort of facts.

Professor Weidenkopf  does mention quickly in passing "the less than forthcoming" methods of some of the indulgence preachers, noting in half a breath that "Luther kind of latched on to that," but the explanation as to why Luther was bothered by indulgences was more economic than anything else. According to Weidenkopf, Luther was influenced by and part of a nationalist movement seeking economic and political freedom from Rome. What caused Luther's reaction to the selling of indulgences? For Professor Weidenkopf the main factors provoking Luther were economical:

...He was upset that this revenue from Germany was going to be sent down to Rome to build up St. Peter's... Luther had previously visited Rome earlier in his life as a monk and he was just kind of horrified at the excess and the immorality that he saw in Rome, even among unfortunately, some of the clergy there, and so when this indulgence preaching came about in his diocese that was kind of the spark so to speak that moved him to act.(listen starting at 6 min)

The picture of Luther put forth by Professor Weidenkopf is of a man who began by challenging papal power and whose cause against indulgences was based on financial exploitation. This picture of Luther would make perfect sense if indeed Luther was primarily a nationalist revolutionary. Certainly national and financial factors did matter to Luther, but were they the earliest factors which provoked Luther? Was Luther primarily concerned about German money going to Rome?

Luther's biographer Heinrich Boehmer points out that early on, it was largely pastoral concern which motivated Luther. In his book, Road to Reformation, Martin Luther to the Year 1521 (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1946), Bohemer states, "But as early as 1515 Luther was troubled more by the evil effects of indulgence preaching and the indulgence traffic upon the religious and moral life of the indulgence purchaser than by the base motives for granting indulgences (p. 176). Bohemer goes through two of the earliest sermons from Luther in which he mentions indulgences.
The first was delivered on a day that was especially appropriate for such instruction, namely on the eve of the great indulgence festival in the castle church on October 31, 1516. The indulgence, he already argued here, is nothing more than the remission of the canonical penalties imposed upon the penitent by the priest at confession. However, it is to be feared that it often militates directly against true repentance, that is, the inner penitence of the heart which should pervade the whole life of the believer; for one who feels real remorse for his sins does not try to evade punishment, but rather actually longs for punishment. "Nevertheless, I affirm emphatically that the purpose which the pope has in view is good- at least as far can be ascertained from the wording of the indulgence Bulls" (pp. 176-177).
The second sermon of note was from February 24, 1517:
Here he charged that the wholesale distribution of indulgences results only in causing the people to fight shy of punishment All too little of the blessings of indulgences is to be observed; rather there is a sense of security from punishment and a tendency to take sin lightly. Hence, he said, indulgences are well named, for they indulge the sinner. At best, absolution is suitable for people who are weak in the faith and who are easily frightened by punishment into doing penance. With the rest it has only the effect of preventing them from ever receiving the true absolution- divine forgiveness of sins- and hence they never come to Christ. "O how great are the perils of our times! How fast asleep are the priests! O what worse than Egyptian darkness are we in! How safety and securely we go on living in the midst of the most grievous sins!" (p. 177).
The first sermon doesn't appear to have been translated into English yet (it can be found in WA 1:94). It's possible as well that Bohemer is wrong on the 1516 date (see note #76 here. Brecht posits it may be from early March, 1517. See his full discussion on pages 186-188; 522). Regardless of the dates these sermons were previous to the posting of the 95 Theses. The February 24 sermon is available in LW 51:26 ( WA 1:138–142). Luther closes the sermon saying,
Then in addition, the very profusion of indulgences astonishingly fills up the measure of servile righteousness. Through these nothing is accomplished except that the people learn to fear and flee and dread the penalty of sins, but not the sins themselves. Therefore, the results of indulgences are too little seen but we do see a great sense of self-security and licentious sinning; so much so that, if it were not for the fear of the punishment of sins, nobody would want these indulgences, even if they were free; whereas the people ought rather to be exhorted to love the punishment and embrace the cross. Would that I were a liar when I say that indulgences are rightly so called, for to indulge means to permit, and indulgence is equivalent to impunity, permission to sin, and license to nullify the cross of Christ. Or, if indulgences are to be permitted, they should be given only to those who are weak in faith, that those who seek to attain gentleness and lowliness through suffering, as the Lord here says, may not be offended. For, not through indulgences, but through gentleness and lowliness, so says he, is rest for your souls found. But gentleness is present only in punishment and suffering, from which these indulgences absolve us. They teach us to dread the cross and suffering and the result is that we never become gentle and lowly, and that means that we never receive indulgence nor come to Christ. Oh, the dangers of our time! Oh, you snoring priests! Oh, darkness deeper than Egyptian! How secure we are in the midst of the worst of all our evils! (LW 51:31-33).
I realize that Professor Weidenkopf was being interviewed and speaking "off the cuff." But it appears to me that he's picking and choosing what sort of Luther fits his preconceived paradigms of revolution and revolutionary, and this is the sort of Luther that those listening to Catholic Answers want to hear about. This isn't the way accurate history should be done.


Vincent said...

He is at odds with what modern RC Scholars say about Luther and what if the NewAdvent encyclopedia says about the abuses of indulgences, which it admits where very real. What do you think?

James Swan said...

Yes- I'm not sure where Catholic Answers found him, but he definitely represents the older Roman Catholic understanding of Luther.