It is a funny thing, as I look back on all our daily theme posts after vacation, that back in mid-June nearly all the streams had arrived at the point of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. The exception is the Thursday Catechism entry. In rereading the last Morality Monday post from June 20, I noted how the practice of granting indulgences had become a very detailed and very lucrative activity of the Catholic Church, and certainly a practice not without its controversy.
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.
My wife and I are taking a bit of a "down day" today after a very full day in Old Montreal yesterday. Tomorrow we begin the trek south to Buffalo for the weekend wedding/family reunion. We have been on the road close to three weeks now, and I do miss setting behind the computer with my books and coffee to do the day's blog entry. My hope is to begin posting again next Tuesday (July 19) though the following day might be more realistic. I think my wife has plans to bike with her adventurous partner (she of the rescued passport intervention a few weeks ago) on the 19th, the morning after we get home, so with enough coffee in me, the Tuesday post may go up in its normal place next week. If so, thank Folger's, not me.
We have had some great meals in Montreal, and at remarkably low prices, in no doubt reflecting the weakness of the Canadian dollar. Over dinner yesterday we agreed that one of the most striking events of the trip so far was yesterday's 11AM Mass at the Notre Dame Cathedral in the old city. The Mass was in French, but translations of the Scriptures were made available in English.
Granted, this was the cathedral, where a certain level of gravitas is generally expected. Even with that said, the Mass was the closest experience to the Mass of my youth despite its faithful adherence to the 1970 ritual of Pope Paul VI that we use today.
The church itself is a religious and artistic marvel, and simply worshipping in such ambiance is a moment of mystical affect. The rituals of the Mass, which included the use of incense, were conducted slowly and attentively. There was a total absence of casual or humorous display.
The Cathedral choir sang from a large loft at the rear of the church. It sang in four-part or polyphonic style, including the parts of the Mass we generally sing, such as the "Lord, have mercy," the Gloria, the "Holy Holy," and the "Lamb of God," in Latin. The organist was a true artist, and at the end of Mass, when all of us stepped out of our pews and began shooting pictures--everyone except me, as I had run out of data space on my phone--he played a brief but stirring entre on the giant pipe organ, after which all of us in the church gave him a rousing ovation.
Given this experience, along with exhortations this past week from the Vatican's Cardinal Sarah of Africa that the Church return to its ancient custom of facing the East--priest and people alike--when celebrating the Mass, I think it is a fair question to discuss the mood of Mass, for want of a better term. Are we better served by a worship that is "other worldly" in the true medieval sense, or by a worship marked with generous social interchange in the "here and now." Now I have heard people say over the years that the post-Vatican Mass combines the best of both, but I'm not so sure about that. At the very least, the locals who filed into Notre Dame yesterday were expecting a different experience of the divine than I might expect in, say, Florida. While I am fortunate enough to attend sound liturgical experiences in my part of Florida, I am also aware that the architectural and liturgical environment of Mass at home rests considerably upon the social or horizontal nature of the event. Over a century ago Rudolf Otto wrote of man's need for what he called the "numinous" or the mystical sense of "other" in his analysis of religious life.
I guess the big difference, personally speaking, is that when I walk into my church at home I feel like a shareholder, which I guess has some basis in reality. When I attend Mass in the cathedrals of another age, I feel very much like a pilgrim in history and grace, and the last thing I feel is power.
Travel is a great teacher, so long as you balance cuisine with church.