For al least the next two weeks I am directing all posting to the Sunday Stream to discuss the recent Pennsylvania report on clerical child abuse, including its implications for catechetics and Church/parish life. You can jump over to Sunday's stream by clicking here.
It has been a month since we last looked in on Martin Luther’s educational and religious journey, as well as the question of his personal and psychological composition, at least to the degree that historical sources allow. In 1501, at 17, Luther was ready for college and he left home for the University of Erfurt. The city of Erfurt was situated in a section of Germany known as Thuringia. The university itself was founded in 1379, the first institution of university learning in Germany. It was closed when Prussia annexed this land in 1816. Remarkably, the university reopened in 1994 when East and West Germany were reunited, making it today the oldest and the youngest university in Germany. The city of Erfurt is currently celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and Luther’s decade there, as this tourist site indicates.
An immediate question for a student of Luther is the identity of the University of Erfurt, i.e., was it a Catholic school? During the years of Luther’s studies (1501-1505) the question would not have made sense as there were no independent state schools nor schools of other religions in Western Christendom. Luther’s course of study tells us a lot: at the bachelor’s level he was required to master the seven liberal arts, enumerated and clearly explained at the Brigham Young University School of Humanities website (2014). “Liberal arts” is an umbrella term for what we might call philosophy and anthropology, and as the BYU site points out, it is the philosopher Aristotle in the pre-Christian era who provided this template for organized learning.
Bachelor students lived like monks in many respects. They rose at 4 AM for devotions and retired at 8 PM. There were six residences or bursa around the university, each with its own atmosphere and temperament. Luther settled into the Heaven’s Gate bursa, where all 150 Psalms were prayed over a two-week cycle and spiritual texts and classics were read during the meals. According to Eric Metaxas [see home page], both the texts, particularly the biblical commentaries, and the religious atmosphere in general were critical in arousing an intense intellectual and religious devotion in the young collegian. [p. 24]
Although the University of Erfurt was a Catholic institution of learning, it was not immune to the philosophies and trends of Catholic intellectuals and men of letters. Metaxas devotes a section of Luther’s biography to humanism, the emerging alternative to the scholasticism of St. Thomas Aquinas which had dominated university education since the 1250’s. Metaxas refers to the scholasticism of Luther’s time as “a fussy, over-formalized way of instruction that was fatally removed from life’s issues.” [p. 25] In Luther’s day critics already poked fun at scholastics who would argue “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” Luther’s formal instruction in theology would have consisted of dry propositions, most likely the Sentences of Peter Lombard. Systematic study of the Bible was not generally offered.
Events outside of Luther’s college classroom would have significant impact on his intellectual and theological development. About fifty years before Luther graduated with his bachelor’s degree, the great city of Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453. Eastern Orthodox Catholic scholars fled to Western Europe bringing with them a new method of theological study, the return to original sources, popularly known as the ad fontes movement [“return to the original source of the waters”]. This era is not called the Renaissance for nothing; it is a rebirth or rediscovery of what the earliest sources might tell us, without the obfuscating and confusing layers of scholastic addition.
The ad fontes method, officially termed Ressourcement in our time, was a critical tool during Vatican II and beyond, particularly as historical theologians revisited the earliest forms and rites of the sacraments. In Luther’s time Ressourcement led to a demand for access to the full Bible and in its most accurate translation. Scholasticism used select portions of the Bible as proof texts for decrees and texts, but the consideration of the Scripture as a whole, and in its original languages, was never undertaken as a scholastic project, at least until the Renaissance era.
Thus Luther, as an inquiring young scholar, naturally embraced the humanist quest to “go back” to what he understood as the sources of the Catholic faith. The Catholic humanist Erasmus, eventually a friend of Luther’s, mastered both Hebrew and Greek to read Biblical texts in their original languages, and in doing so discovered errors in the official Church text of the time, the Latin language Vulgate translation of St. Jerome in the fifth century. Years later, when Luther translated the New Testament into German, he used Erasmus’ Greek text, and not the Latin Vulgate, as his starting point.
As a collegian in a humanist age, Luther did not approach the more radical conclusions he would later reach, but he did find an intellectual atmosphere which left him to question whether there might be more historical-spiritual data from the past that might open new paths of spirituality and church practice. This is certainly true in his approach to scripture. The enthusiasms of the time seemed to jump start his academic intensity; he achieved his bachelors’ degree in three semesters. But Luther was determined to earn a master’s degree in theology, which he did in December 1504, a remarkable achievement for that time.
That he undertook theological studies at all is surprising, since his father had shouldered the financial burden of preparing him for a law degree. Luther prepared to begin his law studies, essentially a second master’s degree, and had purchased his Corpus Juris, the expensive text for all future lawyers. The common story of this juncture tells us that Luther, during an intensive lightning storm, made a vow to St. Anne that he would become a monk. Metaxas provides a more comprehensive hypothesis, suggesting that Luther, at this stage of his life, was impacted by a fear of the afterlife that modern day historians like Kevin Madigan have come to appreciate about late medieval and early Renaissance life. Luther may have been excited by humanist possibilities, but a deepened consciousness of the possibilities of damnation were never far from his mind, either.
In his later writings Luther would speak of his Anfechtungen, the closest translation being “to duel with.” Metaxas puts it this way: “So Luther’s Anfechtungen meant to do battle with one’s own thoughts and with the devil. But for him this was something so horrible that it’s difficult for us to fully comprehend.” [p. 28] Kevin Madigan writes that this morbid state of fear of hell was common in the northern reaches of Europe. In any event, Luther’s future battles would not be conducted in common court rooms.
We left off a month ago with Luther entering college, a period where his life began to diverge from that of his colleagues and the lines of his intriguing story begin to take shape. Given the antagonism of Catholicism to Luther in many quarters, and the admittedly unusual circumstances in his life, the question has been debated over Luther’s identity as a narcissistic rebellious monk, a sexually frustrated monk, or a deeply neurotic one. As recently as 1958 the famous psychoanalyst Erik Erikson compiled a best-selling diagnostic of Luther’s developmental years (through his 35th year). Today such a work would be considered unethical—diagnosing a patient one has never seen. Aside from the ethics, the pool of data about Luther since the 1950’s, has grown exponentially, which would render any psychological determinations woefully out of date.
The suggestions that Luther had unresolved “father issues” which poisoned his ability to respect authority, or PTSD from a brush with lightning, or a neurotic scrupulosity which led him to despair of salvation are all enhanced by frequent repetition and, admittedly, because they make for interesting story-telling. My guess is that even the most casual follower of Luther has heard the tale that the monk had his most significant psycho-religious-digestive breakthrough while seated on the throne of the outhouse in the library tower of his monastery.
For those who subscribe to family theory, what are we to make of Luther’s family? As I have posted earlier, Luther’s parents were devout Catholics. Martin’s father directed mining operations in his town and had achieved enough upward mobility to long for the day when he would have a son who graduated from college. Martin’s success in college fed his father’s hope that as an accomplished gentleman his son would assume and expand the family operations, not to mention continue and enhance the family name.
For reasons I will explain in a moment, Martin made a volte face and entered the Augustinian monastery, embracing the studious cloistered life of a monk. Knowing that his vocation would deeply upset his father, the younger Luther entered the monastery surreptitiously. It would be several years before they spoke again, and the occasion was Martin Luther’s ordination to the priesthood. His father agreed to attend and even spent a fair amount of money on the celebration with the Augustinians. In his 2017 biography of Luther, Eric Metaxas does make note of the exchange of toasts between the new priest and his father, citing a certain edginess which laced the humor. That said, when the name of Martin Luther achieved fame and notoriety throughout Europe, his parents did change their last names from Ludher to Luther. [In the custom of the day among Renaissance intellectuals, Martin Ludher had changed his last name to the ancient Eleutherius, which he then shortened to Luther.]
Historians note that during the consecration of the bread and wine during his first Mass, the new priest froze and could not immediately recite the words. Metaxas attributes this to a spirituality and belief system which bordered on the neurotic. I tend to agree in part, but this “neurosis of religion” was quite common at the time. In the closing paragraph of his treatment of Medieval Christianity (2015), Kevin Madigan writes that “Luther spoke for many northerners in his anxiety of not knowing how many masses, how many confessions, how many prayers, novenas, pilgrimages, and pious actions were sufficient for salvation? How could one know?” (p. 434)
As a young monk, Luther confessed to his spiritual director, Johann von Staupitz, so frequently and at great length—up to six hours—that Staupitz finally had to address the entire penitential situation with Luther. It does not appear that Luther was a particularly ruthless sinner; on the contrary, he applied himself arduously to monastic responsibilities and study, as his body of academic work would attest to later. The problem appears to be more of a pressing insecurity that his contrition was inadequate, that a failure to mention even the smallest failure would render his sacramental encounter a “bad confession” and make matters even worse. In my own training I learned to recognize the “scrupulous” penitent and encountering the sufferings of a scrupulous penitent in the confessional even today is painful to behold.
But Luther was also engaged in another internal wrestling match which Metaxas describes vividly in his biography. As a young monk-priest Luther was assigned a journey to Rome to tend to bureaucratic matters for his order. Like all first-time visitors to Rome, he strove to take advantage of the blessings and indulgences available to pilgrims. He sought to offer Mass at St. John Lateran, where common practice had it that he could gain full or plenary indulgences for his parents if he said Mass in that church. Much as he tried, the press of crowds and the large number of priests made it impossible for him to do so. After several such experiences in the Eternal City, he began to reflect upon the unfairness of ecclesiastical arrangement, and then to question whether the good work under consideration actually “worked.” Cynicism of Church law and practice was common in the Renaissance era, but Luther was no typical cynic. That there might be cleavage between the laws of God and the laws of man—or more specifically, that the Vicar of Christ might not be a man of unadulterated virtue—was a thought too fearful to contemplate.
For a man who confessed as often as he ate, such a realization would have been devastating. What saved his life—and ultimately began the Reformation—was his inspiration from St. Paul that salvation and grace from God was a gift exclusive of human effort. Luther undertook his Pauline studies in a library tower with a privy at its base, and hence the legend that the inspiration came to him while seated there and released him from chronic stress-induced constipation. But it is true that Luther, psychologically speaking, became a changed man when he untangled himself from the excessive legalisms of redemption which had attached themselves to the Church and “placed burdens upon men too great to bear.”
Luther was not an excessively angry man for his times. This does not mean he was consistently above the fray, and scatological insult and humor were not unknown to him. The excessive rage and violence of his followers and enemies alike would become a great worry to him over the years. In some ways he could be naïve and shocked at the venality of churchmen who derided his theological concerns about indulgences with the simple retort that Luther was disobedient to the pope. I read his 95 Theses, his statements of theological debate on the matter of indulgences and salvation issued in 1517. They are, essentially, an invitation to conversation addressed to theologians and, most respectfully to his bishop. The 95 Theses were not nailed to the Cathedral door; they were mailed to his bishop. While critical of certain practices and attitudes, there is no indication here of a man blinded by anger or set upon destruction of his Church.
Luther’s mental state of mind throughout his life was “hyper” in the sense that he devoted his being to high stakes in this world and the next. But were his theological concerns distorted by mental impairment? Not a chance.
I was not happy with the limited posting I was able to do in June, and I feel like I left a lot of you hanging. One reason for the limited posts is several changes in my circumstances. Back in May I opened a free mental health service in the local Catholic Church here in my town. It is open Fridays all day, and in less than a month the available time slots were full. I am enjoying it very much, but I cannot do anything else on Friday, which eliminates another day I can devote to the Café. I continue to work Mondays at the Catholic Charities Clinic in Eustis, Florida; in fact, I will be driving over in an hour or two.
A second issue is the increasing demand for more reading prior to posting. There are several streams going at the same time which call for more research. Certainly, the Thursday stream on Luther and the Reformation is one; the nature of evil in the Monday Morality stream is another. This year I began commenting on the First Readings on the Sunday Mass, which meant a return to Old Testament studies, a discipline which is not one of my greatest strengths. When I started the Café four years ago, one of my goals was to introduce busy professionals to the best of new religious, catechetical, and theological works. This assumes reading the books first!
A third issue is retirement itself. Having turned 70 this year, I am finding that increasingly friends and family need contact and attention. Again, I am very pleased to become more involved in their lives, but this too devours the hours of the day. On the other hand, all the medical advice for seniors speaks of exercise and interpersonal interactions as means of maintaining a sound mind and a good spirit. This is a time of life to cultivate and enrich the relationships I already have, and perhaps engage in new ones. I know a fair amount of people who have outlived their friends and face their final years in an undesired solitude.
And, I am beginning to feel older. While I continue to be blessed with good health, I am no longer the young buck who could read till 2 AM. If I stay up that late, I will feel it the next day, like a hangover. When I was on retreat with the Trappists two weeks ago, I talked about all of this with a wise monk who reminded me that the senior population brings an example of transition and serenity, and he gently challenged me to stop running around like a chicken with its head cut off.
I have no intention of discontinuing the Café, because aside from the pressures of brewing up new flavors frequently, it is one of the more pleasurable enterprises in my life. Realistically it is probably best to say that the weekly grind of each stream will be tapered back to two weeks instead of weekly. On days when I am on the road, like family reunions, I may post with more spontaneity and less pedantic. Old bloggers don’t die, they just reign it in a bit.
For all his success in his mining ventures, the father of Martin Luther was unable to rise above the social status of “local citizen makes good.” Johannes or Hans Luther was not considered a social “nobleman,” but he recognized that his adolescent son, whose academic abilities were already noted, could take the family’s financial and social status to new heights. Then, as now, a college education was de rigueur for advanced ambitions. Thus, at age 13, the Luthers sent their son to a boarding school in Magdeburg, about forty miles from the family home in Mansfield, in the region of Saxony. The senior Luther wished his son to study among the offspring of nobility and to master the language of Latin, the coinage of all advanced learning.
Students in similar financial circumstances to Luther, those with high hopes and limited capital, found local boarding with the Brethren of the Common Life. Founded in the Netherlands, the Brethren was a fraternity or brotherhood of men who lived simply and piously. Their mission was the copying and printing of books in the service of educating adults in the direction of meditation and the inner life, critical of the highly speculative spirituality of the 13th and 14th centuries. Metaxas observes that Luther’s year with the Brethren was probably his first intimate exposure to an intensely spiritual, simple, structured way of religious life.
The following year Lather transferred to the city of Eisenach, 74 miles from his family but closer to many relatives, where he would set roots for the next four years. Eisenach was something of a religious hub, containing three monasteries [Dominican, Carthusian, Franciscan] and three parishes. The Church of St. Mary—with twenty altars--claimed to possess a bone fragment of the forearm of the Virgin Mary, a relic of the arms that held the infant Savior. Eisenach was a town of 4000 inhabitants; years later Luther referred to it as a “nest of priests and an emporium of clergy.” [Metaxas, p. 18]
If Calvin Coolidge could say centuries later that “the business of America is business,” a Renaissance observer might claim that “the religion of Eisenach was religion. Whatever Luther was learning in the classroom in his high school years, which was probably some variant of Peter Lombard’s Sentences, he could not have been immune from the general unrest in the Church which inevitably found supporters and detractors in the compacted church world of Eisenach.
For starters, Luther lived with the mayor of the town and his family, through some distant family connection. The Mayor, Heinrich Schalbe, and his family were pious Catholics and leading patrons of the Franciscan monastery there. The Franciscans had been born three centuries earlier when Francis received a vision from Christ commanding him to “rebuild my house.” Franciscan spirit throughout the middle ages always carried some feature of “loyal critic” to Church lethargy and corruption; some Franciscans [notably the Spiritual Franciscans] actually did rebel and break from the Church; their apocalyptic forecasts of the coming of a “pure Church” became part of Reformation thinking years later.
Luther would probably have heard something of John Wycliffe [England] and Jan Hus [Bohemia], reformers of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries respectively who ran afoul of the Church on the matter of corruption and reform. But perhaps closest to home was the advice of his host, Schalbe, who introduced him to the ideas that the love of God was more powerful than anything Luther had experienced at his churches at home, and that “there might be some daylight between God’s idea of the Church and the institution of the Church itself.” [Metaxas, p. 19] Schalbe probably introduced Luther to the plight of one elderly Franciscan monk, Johannes Hilten, who at that very moment was wasting away in an Eisenach prison cell for his pronounced criticisms of the Church.
Hilten is an interesting character in Luther’s life, for in his condemned writings he predicts that in 1516 a man would arise to fight the corruption of the Church and would succeed. Luther would write his first formal theses on the need for reform of the practices of selling indulgences in 1517, and the 95 theses are points of academic discussion, not calls for a crusade. Later in life Luther would identify with such apocalyptic predictions, but not in his high school years.
At the age of 17 Luther entered the University of Erfurt, to the delight of his father, who expected his son to obtain a law degree and assume the management of the family business among his other future ventures. At Erfurt Luther would pursued a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, after which graduates branched off into master’s programs to prepare themselves for a clerical career or a legal one. Erfurt’s schedule was not without resemblance to a monastic life; students rose at 4 AM and retired at 8 PM after a day that included periods of prayer and devotion. [All universities in Western Europe were Catholic at this juncture.] Meals were taken in silence as passages from St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible were read. Metaxas believes that Luther may have received his first inclinations to study for the priesthood during this phase. [p. 24]
Luther entered college at a time when the old order was indeed passing away and a new one was gaining momentum. Scholasticism had enjoyed its glory days in the times of St. Thomas Aquinas three centuries earlier, but by Luther’s day this system of logical thought and premises no longer inspired very many students or their professors. The adage of “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” originated in the context of late medieval scholasticism.
Two new forces were in play in Catholic Renaissance European universities. The first is the trend to return to the original sources of antiquity, to recover the riches of antiquity [in the history of the Church and among pagan classics] in the original languages. Scholars of Luther’s time included Christianity’s greatest philologist, Desiderius Erasmus, known as “The Father of Humanism,” who among his other contributions to the times came to discover significant errors in Biblical texts then in use in the liturgy and academics.
Which brings us to the second major academic trend of the time, a return to the Bible. As I posted earlier this week, what we would call “Biblical study” today was, in the middle ages, a study of systematic commentaries such as those of Peter Lombard’s Sentences. The freedom to examine books of the Bible as free-standing works of literature composed by inspired thinkers for specific purposes under the umbrella of Divine Inspiration was coming into Renaissance thought and practice as Luther entered college. Given that some years later Luther would proclaim that we are saved sola scriptura, “by Scripture alone,” one can imagine that Luther did not burn his college notes.
I am pleased to tell you that Eric Metaxas’ Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (2017) is proving to be an excellent read and is worth your time and money if you are interested in examining Luther’s life more intensely than I can do in the weekly post. I will be consulting Metaxas frequently along with Reformations (2016) by Carlos M.N. Eire. Both Metaxas and Eire bring forth the issues, philosophies, and persons I have tried to cover over the past six months—and much more—so if you take up one of these works you will not be out of your league, at least where Luther’s own life is concerned.
One of the stranger bits of history is that there is no certainty about when Luther was born. Luther himself said 1484, but documentary examination puts the year of his birth as either 1482 or more likely 1483. His baptism certificate indicates that Martin was his given name, after St. Martin of Tours, the third century Roman soldier and pacifist who defied a command to engage in active combat. Nearly executed, the third century Martin went on to engage in monastic life. There is no little irony in the fact that the saint made his solemn declaration of Christian pacifism in a Germanic town which in Martin Luther’s day was called Worms. In 1521, over a millennium hence at the famous Diet [or Assembly] of Worms, Luther would one day declare “Here I stand; I can do no other.”
Luther’s family name was Luder or Ludher. At some point in his college years Martin changed his last name to Luther. The best guess is that like many young Renaissance intellectuals engrossed in the ancient classics, Luther took for himself a classical last name, Eleutherius, and shortened it. Given that his friends would include Desiderius Erasmus, Philipp Melanchthon, and Johann Oecolampadius (who probably should have shortened his name), this explanation may have some merit. When Ludher/Luther became famous, his parents took the same last name for themselves.
Luther was not born into poverty. His father, Johannes or Hans, owned mining and smelting interests and developed rich veins of copper in the family’s residence, Eisleben, in the German region of Saxony. The family took its Catholicism seriously, including intense devotion to St. Anne, the mother of Mary, and the patron saint of miners; in late medieval thinking, both Anne’s and Mary’s wombs had borne jewels of eternal treasures, which made them fitting protectoresses of men who mined the riches of the earth. Speaking of mining, archaeologists have discovered that the diet of the Ludher family was rich in the better meats of the time, such as pork. In 2008 more household items were found, including cooking ware of such high value that it was often mentioned in wills.
Luther and his family lived during a serious decline of the papacy. The six popes of Luther’s youth and early adulthood were of such poor character that the twentieth century author Barbara Tuchman discusses them as a group in her 1984 work, The March of Folly. In truth, the identity of the reigning pontiff was not known, or of little interest, to Catholics of Luther’s time, as church life was highly localized with many variations of devotion and rite. Later, as a traveling young monk/priest, Luther was unable to offer Mass in Milan because he was unfamiliar with the Ambrosian rite of the Mass.
Much has been made of Luther’s relationship with his father, particularly after the 1958 work Young Man Luther, an attempt by the noted psychoanalyst Erik Erikson to pry into Luther’s inner motivations. Erikson maintained that Luther conflated a grim, judging God with his own father, resulting in an “Oedipal spasm” that tore the Church apart. (Metaxas, pp. 13-14) Historical analyses of discovered documentation since 1958 provides much evidence that Luther loved his father, to the degree that their relationship survived Martin’s later entry into monastic life, much against his father’s wishes that he enter the legal profession and assume the family’s copper mining interests. One needs to look elsewhere for Luther’s psychological crisis with religion, which more accurately accounts for Luther’s thinking and preaching after 1517.
For a window on Luther’s school day experiences we are indebted to several volumes of his story telling to students and boarders in his home, an unedited collection written by his young admirers in the 1530’s and 1540’s when Luther was getting on in years. Metaxas summarizes Luther’s recollections: “One gets the general impression that childhood for an exceedingly sensitive and intelligent boy such as the young Martin Luther must have been an endless, fear-filled trial from which he could hardly wait to escape.” (p. 15) In the Renaissance era the Latin language was promoted in the homes of the rich and cultured. Luther’s father never learned the language, and thus Martin went to school—where Latin was the only permitted language—with a pronounced disadvantage.
Luther would recall later that his fear of authority would become chronic throughout his life. In his teen years he came to suspect that that the physical and psychological punishments of his school might be a cause for the irrational fear of a good God, which in turn poisoned both the academic and pastoral dimensions of the Church. Scholars do underscore the difficulties of sorting out Luther’s old man remembrances from his actual thoughts at, say, age 16. But it is certain that in his college years at Eisenach Luther learned of an elderly Franciscan monk named Johannes Hilten, at that time imprisoned in the Eisenach monastery for his pronounced criticisms of the Church. Hilten died imprisoned in 1500 when Luther was 16. Hilten was something of a mystery to Luther as a Franciscan advocating reform; it is not certain if Luther recognized him as a successor to medieval reformers John Wycliffe and Jan Hus, both of whom came to bad ends in official Church conclaves. [Later Luther would read Hus’s work in a monastery library, even though the Czechoslovakian’s works were officially banned.]
Luther’s father continued to prosper, and by the time Martin Luther was ready for college at age 17, his father was able to afford to send his son to the University of Erfurt, to major in law. But now Luther found himself submerged in Renaissance Humanism, with the opportunity to study both classical pagan authors and the earliest Christian writings. He must have found this environment stimulating and fascinating, for at Erfurt his own considerable scholarly talents began to break their bonds.
The next time I post on this stream we will begin to enter the life and works of Martin Luther himself and the events we know collectively as The Protestant Reformation. As we close the build-up to October 31, 1517, there is a legitimate question of whether the break-up of the Roman-Latin Western Church was an inevitability. My opinion: the explosion in learning and science would have triggered some sort of intellectual revolution in matters of Church doctrine and discipline: linguists and Church scholars would have eventually questioned the literal nature and egregiously poor translations of the official Vulgate Latin text of the Bible, for example, in the fashion of the Renaissance Catholic scholar Erasmus [1469-1536].
It was Luther’s claim that the Church needed reform in capite et membris, [Latin, “in head and members.”], that is, at the top and the bottom. Our last several posts examined the “membris” and found many of them anxious for reform, if somewhat disorganized and disjointed. The failure of the last century before Luther was primarily a matter of the “capite,” the papacy and the college of bishops. By the early 1400’s the papacy was in shambles, with three separate men claiming the Chair of Peter. During this period, as the Church wrestled with a solution, the ancient concept of bishops’ exercising a collective authority over the Church returned to the forum of university thought. Termed Conciliarism, the legal concept of universal bishops exercising an ultimate authority in the Church was the guiding principle for the Council of Constance [1414-1418]. How well did the last three Councils address reform of the capite before 1517?
The Council of Constance was a wild and woolly affair, involving the discrediting and exiling of all three claimants to the papacy. The Council finally elected Martin V as valid successor of Peter but exercised its conciliar power to extract a commitment from Martin and presumably his successors to call a church-wide council of bishops periodically, at intervals of five or ten years. Having concluded the Great Schism of multiple popes, the Council turned its attention to reform, or at least its perception of what reform looked like. It attacked the ideas of John Wycliffe (England) and Jan Hus (Czechoslovakia); Wycliffe was the father of the “Lollards” and Hus the champion of the chalice for the faithful at Mass. Wycliffe was long dead; Hus had been invited to the Council under safe passage, which was revoked by the Council, and he was burned alive. This did not augur well for future advocates of Church reform.
Martin V was anxious to restore the papacy to its previous preeminence and delayed calling another Council until near death in 1431. It is a measure of its disarray and poor attendance that the Council of Basel-Ferara-Florence [1431-1449] lingered nearly two decades and divided into at least two distinct councils, one of which attempted to excommunicate the pope over the issues of Conciliarism and reunion with the Eastern Orthodox Church. At the very least, this council soured the thought of another one for six decades.
Of more interest is the Fifth Council of the Lateran [1512-1517]. The very dates of this Council speak volumes; it dissolved in the same year that Luther came to prominence. As a Council, Lateran V did little. The historian Carlos Eire put it this way: “In essence, all that the Fifth Lateran Council seemed to accomplish was to confirm the death of Conciliarism and the weakness of the high clergy, leaving nothing in its wake but missed opportunities for reform, along with censure and dissent.” (Carlos M.N. Eire, Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650, p. 115) In fairness, Lateran V did address standards for pawnshops.
Eire, in his conclusion of the state of Catholicism on the eve of Luther, summarizes conditions well: “At the end of the Middle Ages, then, Catholic reformers were more or less on their own. This is not to say that reform could not take place, but rather that it was difficult to for any reformer to have an impact beyond a local level. Without papal or conciliar support, the best anyone could do was to focus on one’s immediate environment.” [p. 115]
It is no accident that most of the medieval reformers adopted some degree of poverty into their religious agendas, i.e., the absolute poverty of Jesus, who had “no place to lay his head.” Laity, religious, and a fair number of clergy longed for a Church whose leaders, structures, and preoccupations spoke of Jesus as he appeared in the newly printed Bibles that were now circulating through all levels of society in local translations. Were the leaders of the Church oblivious to this?
I would say that the hierarchical Church of late medieval times carried a different paradigm or model from local soul seekers. Way back in this stream I described the papacy of Boniface VIII and his encyclical Unam Sanctam in 1302, which claimed that all spiritual and secular power ultimately resided with the Bishop of Rome. It is easy to scoff at such a claim today, but Boniface saw himself and his office as a protector of world order, a role that a few of his predecessors had necessarily assumed, such as St. Gregory the Great in the 500’s. His mistake, I believe, was identifying himself as the Vicar of the Trinity and not the vicar of Christ, who saved by serving others to the point of giving up his very life. The claim to ultimate worldly supremacy was discredited in Boniface’s own lifetime, but his successors understood themselves as enjoying supreme spiritual authority and rigorously protecting Church practice and thought. If this involved the suppression of pious practice and original writing and thought on the natures and health of the Church, such was the price of doing business.
It is also true that a “follow the money” factor played into the separation of leaders from laity. Popes were elected from among the richest families of the day, such as the Borgias and the Medici’s. Bishops—often appointed by kings and regional sovereigns--depended heavily upon the benefices or wealth of their dioceses, often holding multiple dioceses at the same time they worked for the popes in the legal work of the Church. To reform in the fashion of the return to Christ’s poverty would mean financial and social ruin for the upper tiers of the hierarchy.
As noted above, Catholic reformers were generally locally based and attempts by the Inquisition to censor their views sorely limited their influence. What makes the Lutheran Reformation different is the perfect storm of a scholarly Catholic monk, torn by his own doubts about salvation, scandalized by the Rome of his day and its questionable practices [e.g., the sale of indulgences], deeply influenced by his reading of the Bible [notably St. Paul], and protected by local German princes by the reach of the Inquisition. Next week we will begin walking in Luther’s shoes to understand his motives and actions intended to reform the Catholic Church.
There are thousands of books written about Luther, and for our purposes here I am recommending Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (2017) as well as the Reformations work by Dr. Eire cited above.
I had laid out the format for two remaining posts prior to addressing Luther and the Protestant Reformation directly. Next week will look at the last Councils of the Church prior to 1517 and how they failed to produce the reforms necessary to keep the Western Church together. Today’s post is one last look at the religious orders of Catholicism prior to the emergence of Luther.
In looking at my own growth curve regarding the Reformation, I was brought up in my Buffalo Catholic enclave to believe that Luther was an assault on the sinless Catholic Church. In my neighborhood no one was ever baptized with the names Luther or Calvin, and people named Cal were suspect. [Thankfully, Cal Ripken, Jr. came along much later in my life.] My youthful sense of history embraced a terrible upheaval with Luther, and the Church fought back, and was continuing to fight back even as I was growing up. Then I went to college and graduate school and discovered that some of the “Protestant ideas” weren’t so crazy after all, and the Church had not done such a good job in policing its excesses. I learned that I had been correct about the “fighting back” part and came to understand that I had been raised in the post-Tridentine era [i.e., after the Catholic reform Council of Trent, 1545-1563].
Today I am more attuned to the common problems of all the Christian Churches, including mine: the abandonment of all Churches which incorporate faith, tradition, and teaching authority. This trend away from “organized religion” is not new, though when the heat of the Reformation died down, there was greater freedom of expression for intellectuals to write and voice doubts about the churches. [I have not included Evangelicals in this post because I sense that at the present time Evangelicals in the U.S. are deeply divided among themselves as to whether they are a religious entity or a social/political one.]
At this juncture of our Reformation posts, I hope that we all have a better sense of the complexity of the Church in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance Era. The Church stood in grave need of reform in 1500, but the need was one of leadership. Last week we visited the many varied forms of grass-roots piety that demonstrate how the Church never lost its mission of holiness. Today I am looking back at a remarkable burst of Catholic energy before the Reformation which spilled into the Catholic Counter-Reformation after Trent, the religious orders. Beginning around 1450 the existing orders began wholesale renew of spirituality and apostolic energy. What is more surprising is the number of new religious communities which sprung forth during the Renaissance, nearly all of them created to serve in the marketplace of human service and education. Their appearance around the time of the Reformation upheaval put them at the vanguard of Church reform, eager to carry forth the renewal spirit of the Council of Trent.
Robert Bireley’s The Refashioning of Catholicism, 1450-1700: A Reassessment of the Counter Reformation  explores how the renewal and establishment of religious life developed before the Reformation and became a vital force in the centuries immediately following the rupture, putting forward the model of the Catholic Church as a servant Church in contrast to the monarchical papacies of the 1500’s. Bireley’s work was very helpful to me, and 15 years ago I wrote a review which sums up the life of the Renaissance Church as well as anything I can add today.
[The Refashioning of Catholicism] is an interesting introduction to an era that traditionally bears the name “Counter Reformation.” Bireley, a Jesuit Professor of History at Loyola University of Chicago, argues persuasively in his opening remarks that the term “Counter Reformation” has outlived its usefulness in the study of Catholic history. In fact, he observes, nearly all of what we would call today post-Tridentine reform not only has roots in the fifteenth century but in many cases was in full bloom and inspired the Council of Trent to do what it did. Trent, in his view of things, was the institutional crest of a wave that had been building for a century. Moreover, Bireley’s global view—geographic, political, scientific, theological—invites the reader to view the Church against the backdrop of forces it could not control and critique the many accommodations made by the Church to the world of the seventeenth century.
Why 1450? One reason was geographic exploration. The exploits of DeGama and Columbus reflected a growing sense of the cosmos, later amplified by Galileo and others; a new economic world order, so to speak; and the increasing sense of nationalism and centralization of governments, later abetted by formalized “confessions” of religious doctrine and worship after Luther. Another reason for this new delineation of Catholic epochs was the Renaissance and the humanistic philosophy it nurtured, which the author maintains had significant impact upon many major Catholic leaders of the time, including Ignatius Loyola and Francis de Sales. At the other end of the chronological spectrum, Bireley designates 1700 as a marker because of the impact of Cartesian rationalism upon official Catholic thought in the bigger context of the Enlightenment itself
Without ignoring the contemporary problems of the “Catholic confession”—papal excesses, poor training of priests, etc.—Bireley is remarkably upbeat about the condition of the Catholic Church at the time of the Reformation and the Council of Trent in the sense that the need for reform was widely recognized and in many places being addressed already. Popular piety throughout Europe was strong in pockets, and the printing press, so often termed a tool of Protestant reformers, was cranking out thousands of copies of “The Imitation of Christ.” The author notes that in the late fifteenth century the existing religious orders, or at least many of them, were distinguishing themselves by excellent preaching, pastoral practice, and adaptation.
After 1500, however, the combined challenges of Protestant confessions, humanist demands of higher education, and missionary work, not to mention ecclesiastical reform itself, led to a veritable explosion of new religious orders. Not surprisingly, the Jesuit phenomenon is extensively chronicled. But to his credit, Bireley gives significant attention to Francis de Sales and the Salesian efforts to address the spiritual needs of the new humanized Catholic. Joined with the efforts of the new Capuchins, Ursulines, Oratorians, Hospitalers, Theatines, Oratorians, Visitandines, Piarists, Barnabites, Sulpicians, and the Christian Brothers, to cite several, these movements addressed the above cited needs in ways that have sculpted the Catholic experience to the present day.
It is probably obvious that none of the above-named orders is, strictly speaking, contemplative. Bireley contends that the paradigmatic shift in Catholic thinking in this era was toward the world, not away from it. Educators, confessors, and spiritual directors and writers consciously or subconsciously picked up the gauntlet set down by Machiavelli, whose thesis broadly read argues that the marketplace is the arena of practicality, not faith. It is no accident that the curriculum of Catholic schools at every level broadened to include the best of classical thought, that Aquinas and the idea of synthesis came back into style, and the Jesuits added drama and the fine arts to their standard cursus studiorum. Theologically speaking, it was an age of “doing.” Loyola himself did not impose choir upon his men to free them for mission. The case study or manualist method of moral theology was born.
Certainly, no collective group was doing more than the missionaries. The work of the Church in the new worlds is complex and not without controversy on many levels. Bireley is somewhat limited by this complexity in his attempt to give an overview of the missionary situation, but in general no one can deny that it was not large scale and heroic. The argument is often made that Catholic missionary efforts were part of a larger colonization effort. Bireley implies in his overview that this accusation is probably more appropriate to those missionaries whose monarchs exercised state control of the Church in their kingdoms, such as Spain and Portugal. By contrast, missionaries working more directly with the papacy and the newly formed Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, such as the Jesuits in the East, worked with remarkably less baggage, the Malabar Rites Controversy notwithstanding.
Although only two hundred pages, this is a thought provoking work that overall depicts a Roman Catholicism of considerably more vigor and spirituality than is generally attributed to the Reformation era. The author’s thoughts on the importance of the new religious orders, humanism, and ecclesiastical globalization call for further reading and reflection. Curiously, this work, published by The Catholic University of America, was printed in China. One way or another, Francis Xavier was going to get there. It was only a matter of time.
One of the major focuses of modern day medieval Church history is the mystical life of its members. There have been countless histories of the “institutional” Church, e.g., studies of popes, administrative machinery, interactions with secular kings and prices, and the like. There are numerous works in academia translating and exploring the writings from medieval Church scholars and universities of that time, what history would call the pillars of scholasticism and foundational theology. Medieval mysticism, on the other hand, until recent times has gotten at best a short shrift and at worst wholesale condemnation. Today I checked my review of Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (1970) by the venerable Englishman R.W. Southern, and in a concluding remark I said that
Southern's penultimate chapters are devoted to what he called the fringe orders; today we would think of these in part as the Beguines and the multitude of spontaneous mystical and devotional movements associated with the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. His final chapter, "A Confusion of Tongues," continues his account of spiritual diversification leading to early Protestant thought and practice.
I happen to be an admirer of Dr. Southern, who was knighted by the Queen in 1975, but were he alive today he would have access to better documentation and translations, not to mention the greater appreciation among scholars for the vitality and influence of grassroots movements of spirituality. In speaking of mysticism, we are addressing the intense internal experiences of individuals and their communications to a following of people disposed to embrace an accompanying lifestyle. The first question, naturally, is whether the religious experience of a mystic is real or “valid.” Here, the traditional criterion for credibility is Biblical, “by their fruits ye shall know them.” Even today the Church is very slow to offer a pastoral opinion on the origins of devotional religious movements or reported visions, unless its proponents stray from Church Tradition and practice.
The “fruits” would be identified as maintaining an organic connection to the teaching Church and a holy way of life. Mystics. Francis of Assisi at his heart was a conservative and loyal son of the Church who sought the permission of a sitting pope (Innocent III) for his little band, its mission of preaching penance, and the austerity of his primitive rule. On the other hand, in the fourteenth century the Spiritual Franciscans—an extreme branch of the entire Order—were condemned as heretical for maintaining that no pope could change the Order’s rule as written by Francis, who had died a century earlier. The Spirituals, with their austerity, devotion, and unbreakable respect of Bible and founder, served as catalysts and spiritual directors or chaplains for many like-minded Catholics of the age in many parts of Europe.
Another question is the relationship of mystics and spiritual movements to religious founders and established religious orders. Here the answer is more complex. Not every religious order was founded by a mystic, but the template of the order’s lifestyle became an inspiration and eventually a way of life for laity who witnessed the communities in their midst. It is little surprise that monasteries were magnets for laity seeking a closer relationship with God with an intense experience of prayer. There is frequent reference in medieval paperwork regarding lay persons building huts and residences next to monasteries, and the same Innocent III who blessed Francis of Assisi issued a prohibition against lay women entering the Premonstratensian Order of monks itself!
Mysticism and mystical communities took shape throughout Western Europe, and in some places with notable intensity. Moreover, the focus of local spirituality and the type of religious intensity varied from place to place. Medieval Irish mysticism included intensely penitential focus, austerity, and missionary fervor, certainly colored in part by Celtic culture, landscape, the weather, and the rough seas. (One of our faithful readers told me once that there would be no Irish folk music had Prozac been developed centuries ago.) It is no accident that individual repeatable confession originated in Ireland in the later part of the first millennium. One of the lesser-known qualities of the Franciscan movement was advocacy of pacifism, which disturbed civil authorities to no end when they attempted to raise forces for the many medieval clashes.
On the other end of the spectrum from the friars were the controversial Knights Templar. I have not yet read Dan Jones’ The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God's Holy Warriors (2017, New York Times best seller), but this controversial movement of warrior spirituality developed as a response to the atrocities of the First Crusade (1095-1099) and the spiritual encouragement of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, whose own biography is a study in medieval spiritual identity. The Knights, “fighting monks,” began as a religiously structured military protection force for pilgrims in the Holy Land, developed into a fighting elite or flagship army in successive Crusades in union with King Richard the Lion Hearted, and later into something of a medieval House of Rothschild financial empire, until the Church—for complicated reasons—signed off on their execution, disbanding, and confiscation of goods in the early 1300’s.
The overarching piety of motivated lay Catholics in much of continental Europe was a movement called Devotio Moderna, which overlapped and integrated many local spiritual movements. DM was a move toward simpler and uncomplicated religious life, with emphasis upon the interior life over external manifestations. It originated in the Low Countries and much of its best literature comes to us in Dutch. Devotio impacted religious orders as well as lay clusters, and its roots seem to have sprung from disenchantment with institutional Church life and the conduct of the clergy, though sources differ on the point. It is safe to say that religious enthusiasm probably did not find many parochial channels in the routine of life in the centuries leading up to the Reformation.
The spirituality of Devotio Moderna had the advantage of outstanding authors—whose translation into English continues to this day—and the newly expanded printing and binding industry. One product of this spirituality may be the most published devotional of all time, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis. I am posting a link here to the Mercer University edition, which provides a scholarly description of the work and a good sampling of the text itself. [When I attended a high school boarding seminary in the 1960’s, The Imitation of Christ was the one work that helped me get through some hard times.] Translator William Creasy explains the attraction of this work, and by extension the Devotio movement itself: that everyone has the choice to capitulate to the fear and chaos of his time or seek security within the depths of his soul of eternal truths.
By 1500 the Catholic Church was experiencing massive internal difficulties in reforming diocesan and parochial life to the point where its most venerable rites and leaders were able to feed the longings of its baptized members for that safe harbor in the turbulence of what we now call the beginnings of the modern age.The outcroppings of spiritual movements and devotions to fill this void had met this need for many and probably postponed a Reformation-scale rupture for a time. The last hope for the spirit of medieval spiritual reform to save the unity of the Church was the Council Lateran V (1512-1517). Summoned by a Borgia pope and badly attended by bishops, it dissipated early in the same year that Luther posted his 95 Theses.
The preparation for our next post is going slowly, but I hope to have the next installment up by April 19.