On this day in 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the Wittenberg door, thus initiating the Protestant Reformation. If you have never actually read the 95 Theses, you should take some time to do so. They are almost exclusively about indulgences, and many of them rightly condemn the abuses within the Church of Luther’s time. However, many of them also explicitly reject teachings of the Catholic Church. This is the paradox of the Protestant Reformation: it rightly called the Church to reform her erring ways, yet it also ended up rejecting many of the divinely inspired teachings of Christ’s Church – including the very teachings that would help the Church to reform.
The first two Theses exemplify this paradox. The first thesis is:
1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
I think all Catholics would give a hearty Amen! to that statement. And if you look at the life of many of the bishops and priests and popes of Luther’s time, you see how needed that call to repentance was (and if you look at our own lives, you see how much it is still needed). I am currently reading a book about the history of the popes, and to be honest, the section that spans between around the 8th century until the 16th is a depressing list of mostly corrupt and scandalous behavior on the part of the popes. Granting the Cardinate to 14-year-old nephews, having concubines, living in luxury: the vices of these popes were legion. And one only has to read a brief biography of Pope Alexander VI (who was pope when Luther was a youth) to realize that a corrupt stench was emanating from Rome and needed to be reformed. So Luther’s call to repentance was long overdue in the Church of his time.
Then we read Luther’s 2nd Thesis:
2. This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.
Oops. Here we have the classic case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Instead of realizing that a renewed call to the sacrament of penance would greatly foster a universal call to repentance, Luther instead decides to abandon the very sacrament which Christ instituted to help us repent. Like all heresies, the Protestant Reformation emphasized one truth to the exclusion of others.
In many ways, the Protestant Reformation, despite the great evil it caused, was very beneficial to the Catholic Church. It was in response to the Protestants that the Church called the Council of Trent, which led to sweeping and much-needed reforms within the Church and which strengthened it in a multitude of ways. I honestly wonder if the Protestant Reformation never happened, would the Catholic Church been able to reform itself internally? Regardless of the answer to that question, it is clear that God used the evil of the division of Western Christendom to reform the Church.
Say a prayer today for Martin Luther and pray as well for the continued reformation of the Church.