In recent days I have had a chance to look at this question more deeply, thanks in large part to Reformations: The Early Modern World 1450-1650, which is shaping up to be the best religious text I have read this year. Up through this point in the stream we have acquired some sense of the science of moral theology, how it came into existence, how the early Church and Irish experience began the process of codifying acts of grave evil, and how the Church addressed the liturgical and legal process of forgiveness and satisfaction. It is fair to say that moral theology experienced—in the classroom and in the liturgy—some golden ages and some deficient ones, and it is a fact of history that one of these “ice ages” of moral theological thought and practice occurred when a little wisdom and reason would have been mightily helpful.
Reformations captures the popular mind of the faithful, what the average baptized person would have thought about sin and its consequences without question or option. In its own parallel history of moral theology and piety, Reformations roots the issue through monasticism, as early as the fourth century, when Christian consciousness truly came of age in its sense of the universal reality of sin and punishment. The early movements toward hermitage and then monastery were not quests for sanctity in the positive, as we might word it today, but a flight to forgiveness through physical and mental ardor of prayer, labor, fast, deprivation, and strict order. Monasticism was critical to the Church not simply as a source of prayer and inspiration, but as the template of everyone’s Christian reality writ large.
Consider for a moment that several years after Columbus discovered America, a young man named Martin Luther narrowly missed being killed by a bolt of lightning. Once he had his wits about him again, he immediately made a vow to St. Ann (patroness of miners, of which Luther’s father was one) to enter a monastery for the rest of his life. This was not an abnormal reaction for a man who had nearly suffered the worst of all fates—an unexpected death without benefit of Confession. Much has been written about Luther’s mental make-up in modern times, and it is likely that he suffered a profound clinical anxiety through much of his early life, but there is nothing abnormal in his fear of dying unprepared and facing an eternity in hell, or the only somewhat less doleful outcome of thousands of years in Purgatory with its own fires and torments. Millions of the faithful shared the same fear; hence the enormous popularity of the indulgence, which granted either a degree of release (partial indulgence) or full remission of temporal punishment in Purgatory (plenary indulgence.)
Luther became the monk’s monk, to the point of making himself sick from his intense austerities, when his superiors ordered him to proceed forward for a doctorate in Sacred Scripture, an assignment he did not relish but undertook with his typical manic zeal, to the point that historian Carlos M.N. Eire would write in 2016 that Luther may have become the most competent Scripture scholar in Europe in his lifetime. Luther’s studies would have exposed him to humanist thinking and scholarship, which emphasized, among other things, exactitude and textual analysis in examining the sacred texts.
Although he was a vowed monk, Luther was also an ordained priest with pastoral responsibilities as well as a university instructor with a large student following. He thus became well acquainted with the enthusiasm of his neighboring Catholics for the campaign of a Dominican papal representative named Tetzel, who preached rallies for the outright sales of indulgences for the purchaser or a deceased family member. Make no mistake, this was a pure cash exchange. Tetzel’s campaign included a musical jingle, “When the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from Purgatory springs.”
Luther was hardly the only wise head in the Church to see the absurdity and scandal of such practice, but it may have resonated with him more intensely because of his continuing anguish over the state of his own soul and an enduring temptation to think that God had abandoned him already to hell fire. Returning to his biblical study of St. Paul, Luther underwent a major paradigm shift when he came to understand that the Christian is saved “by faith, not works.” His vision of God, derived from Paul’s texts, shifted radically. In my own words, I would say that Luther popularized the idea that God’s logic (for example, a seemingly irrational capacity for mercy) trumped the contemporary late medieval structure of sin, justice, and legal retribution created by the human minds of the scholastic medieval era. In the Lutheran scheme of things, the God of mercy replaced the God of scales and balances for those who placed a total and unwavering faith in God.
Luther was also deeply impacted by his Scriptural study of Jesus Christ, who had himself cried out a profound feeling of abandonment during his crucifixion. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Luther found much peace in the idea that his near obsession with divine abandonment was—in his view—a sharing in the life experience of Christ and thus, ironically, a kind of proof of faith. I am only scratching the surface of Luther’s thought here, primarily to make the argument that the Lutheran concept of morality for many centuries to come would soon take a differing path from the traditional Catholic understanding that the believer is an active agent in his redemption even if prompted to undertake these works by God’s initial mercy.
Luther’s life-changing insights and experiences put him at odds with the Church in many immediate ways. His 1517 challenge of the sale of indulgences, for example, led him eventually to a conflict over Church authority, since the pope had authorized the sale in Luther’s back yard. When pressed in debate with a Catholic scholar from Rome named Eck, Luther would claim that in matters of faith and morals he would look not to the pope, nor to a local bishop, or even to a full Church council, but to the pure words of the Sacred Scriptures, which Luther claimed did not underwrite many (most?) of the teachings and practices of sixteenth century Catholicism.
Next week we will look at the Church’s response in terms of moral theology at the reform Council of Trent (1545-1563). For the moment, though, I have provided two links if you wish to pursue today’s posting in greater detail. The first is the teaching from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1993) on indulgences; the second is a link to the Diocese of Orlando (2015) on precisely how one would obtain a plenary indulgence at the designated Holy Door of your diocese in this Jubilee Year of Mercy. Over the years, when asked, I have advised that it is a good idea to make a general confession—a review of one’s life in the sacrament—as a good precondition for receiving an indulgence. Pope Francis has stressed that the Holy Door indulgence must be in some way connected to Reconciliation, which addresses Luther’s pointed criticisms of the indulgence process in the 1500’s.