Two months from today “Reformation Sunday” is observed. Not in the Catholic Church, of course, but in some Protestant communities. This day is set aside each year to remember the actions and the movement initiated by Martin Luther.
In the early 16th century, there were problems in the Church founded by our Lord, Jesus Christ. These problems wounded the Church and were born of sins and poor judgment of imperfect shepherds. As a matter of fact, the institutional Church was not perfect even in the early years nor is she perfect today. She will always need renewal and reformation, but she will prevail.
And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Indeed, the Church has prevailed for 2,000 years through all manner of challenges – both within and without. Some have commented that if it were not for the protection of the Holy Spirit, she would have collapsed long ago! Through it all, the Church has preserved Christian doctrine and rejected all attempts throughout two millennia to “modernize” and dilute it. Truth simply does not change.
Martin Luther’s complaints for the most part were centered on discipline, not doctrine. Discipline is administrative, not faith. It is rooted in the authority given by Jesus to Peter and his successors. For example, how men are selected for the priesthood is a discipline. That married men are not selected for the Latin Rite is a discipline. Simony, selection to ecclesiastical offices in exchange for money, was a discipline that Luther quite correctly objected to.
Perhaps the most famous complaint Luther made was against the selling of indulgences. Indulgences are remissions of temporal punishment due for sins which have already been forgiven. Essentially, acts of contrition in this mortal life can reduce the amount of, or need for, cleansing (purgatory) for the eternal life. In her authority given by Jesus to bind and loose, Holy Mother Church determines discipline regarding indulgences. While selling indulgences may or may not be intrinsically wrong, they certainly led to abuse as a practical matter. Luther was correct to object.
Simony, selling indulgences, and other discipline faults of of the early 1500’s have long been corrected – just as other problems which preceded them have been and just as current and future problems will be.
There have been many great reformers throughout Church history who have worked to renew and purify the practices of the Church. People like Pope (Saint) Gregory the Great, Saint Peter Damian, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Saint Clare of Assisi, Saint Catherine of Siena, Jean Gerson, Jan Hus, Gasparo Contarini, Blessed John Henry Newman and Servant of God Dorothy Day.
Martin Luther could have also been a great reformer. He might have become Saint Martin Luther the Reformer. Alas, he chose the path of revolution over reformation. He violated his vows as a Catholic priest, separated from Christ’s true Church and led generations of Christians away from the fullness of the faith and into error. That is his sad legacy.
In his schism, Luther changed the canon of Holy Scripture infallibly determined over 1,000 years prior (only 400 years after Christ). He discarded Christian doctrine and created new, novel doctrine. On his own accord, this prideful revolutionary made sweeping changes that no pope could ever do. Inspired by this new freedom to redefine and reinterpret the faith, Luther had contemporaries who did likewise – each resulting in conflicting beliefs with the other.
Some will celebrate on October 28th the revolution they incorrectly call reformation. Others will pray for the reunification of our brothers and sisters now in thousands of separated Christian denominations. May they come home to the Catholic Church, inseparable from Christ, founded by Him and protected by Him until the end of time.
Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”