Catholic 101: Martin Luther, Mary and the eve of All Hallows

It is one of the coincidences of history, or maybe not, that Martin Luther was alleged to have nailed his 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg on the 31st of October 1517, the day before the feast of All Saints. This act has sparked the Reformations in a way that the various heretical sects and orthodox reformists had tried to achieve for a while to no avail. What follows is a tragic story of human pride and, possibly, supernatural enemies, but beyond the life of Martin Luther himself, the 16th century ushered change in Christendom that had been a long time coming.

The theses themselves addressed the issue of the selling of indulgences, a matter that was settled by the Council of Trent. Let’s take a step back. The selling on indulgences is based on the Catholic belief in a state between eternal damnation and eternal salvation, and that prayers for the dead are beneficial to making sure these souls of the faithful reach the state of sainthood required to be in Heaven as soon as possible, and the fallible humanity of the Church as an institution, keen on making a quick buck. The belief in praying for the dead is based on the books of Maccabees, which have been in the canon of the Church since its beginning (and which Luther removed). If you are interested in a scholarly article on why the books were passed on to us through the Septuagint here’s one. So, back to Luther. Indulgences are the elimination of some or all of the temporal consequences of sin. The concept is very simple: you repent from your sin, receive God’s grace and forgiveness, set on a path of genuine change in your life and that means you do something about it (starting with a penance given to you by the priest, which could be anything from a number of prayers to something more personalised like having to sit without thinking for half an hour, or reflecting on something in particular for…half an hour -I seem to always find priests who really like half hours as a unit of time-). The indulgence, which requires you to go to confession and profess your faith to be gained, simply jumpstarts the process of “put(ting) off completely the ‘old man’ and (putting) on the ‘new man.’ (CCC 1473). It is not something that can be bought, for one because many would buy it instead of having genuine repentance, and secondly because even people with genuine repentance who bought them out of fear of not doing enough for their own salvation would be missing the point. More on the subject here.

So Martin Luther wrote something valid about an abuse of power on behalf of the fallible humans of the Church as an institution (as opposed to the church as the Body of Christ, which is protected from error by the Holy Spirit). In fact, he himself suggested that at the time of the Theses he remained “a papist” (Richard 1999). In fact, a lot of Luther’s beliefs continue to be Catholic for quite some time, for example his views on Mary. As the 31st of October closes the month of the Rosary, this is particularly significant “We can use the Hail Mary as a meditation in which we recite what grace God has given her. Second, we should add a wish that everyone may know and respect her.” (Personal Prayer Book, 1522). He believed in her perpetual virginity and immaculate conception, and even her assumption into Heaven (although he denied, in logical accordance with his idea of sola scriptura, that Scripture doesn’t say enough about them to be dogma of the Church, given how binding to the conscience of the faithful dogma are. The Church has a different position, but that’s a story for another time). This are his own words quoted on Christianity Today, an evangelical magazine. So today, on the 31st of October 2017, we mark the 500th anniversary of something that really doesn’t seem so extraordinary, and yet had some overreaching consequences that come down to present day. The ecumenical movement has been trying to close the wounds of this separation, and in 1999 the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. There are still more divisions to be healed if we want the Church to be one as Jesus prayed it be.

The 31st of October is also Halloween, or the eve of All Hallows, in modern day English All Saints Day. Every year, a controversy ensues with the usual amount of Pharisaic self-righteousness on behalf of some, and carelessness on behalf of others. What buggers me are the number of religious people who treat this as a harmless secular holiday. It’s not a secular holiday at all. You can read about the history here. For me, Halloweentide is an amazing time of the year. The light doesn’t shine any brighter than when there is darkness. As a 3 day festival, we start with the darkness, the reminder of our own mortality, our own fallibility and sinfulness and the reality of spiritual warfare. We wake up to the light, and the holy day of obligation that celebrates all those who, through God’s grace, have gone before us and have reached Heaven. Then the day after we remember those we loved who died and we don’t know where their souls are, and we pray for God’s mercy that they too will be remembered on All Saints Day. And for me, one of these souls is actually Martin Luther. Maybe my view has been skewed by rose-tinted glasses because Joseph Fiennes played him in the 2003 biopic, but I always feel a certain pity for him. Some argue that he never had any good intentions, and that the format of the theses was a way to avoid responsibility, but many people had sought to reform the Church, eventually those at Trent did it, and not all of them ended up as heretics. Something must have gone wrong somewhere to bring him where he went. In a spirit of charity, I give him the benefit of doubt that he was sincerely after God’s own heart, and pray that God have mercy on his soul.

Happy feast of All Saints everyone!

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