Young Luther in his days as an
There had been in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in the Rhineland—both German and Dutch—a flowering of spiritual writers including Henry Suso, Johannes Tauler, Thomas á Kempis, Jan Ruysbroeck, and others who made spirituality something for the everyday Christian. The influence of this spiritual renaissance had spread to England as well with Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, Julian of Norwich and other spiritual authors who created a vast body of spiritual and devotional literature. Luther himself had been very much influenced by Tauler and Suso.
Nothing is more dangerous for the institutional Church than when you have an educated and devout laity and a lazy and comfortable clergy. Of course many priests and religious had been touched by the revival of spirituality and by a desire for reform in the Church, but the hierarchy, for the greater part, consisted of men who held their positions for reasons of politics and family. They were more interested in maintaining their comfortable lives and social prestige. (Does this sound familiar??? I mean an educated laity interested in renewal and Church leadership interested in protecting the institution for its own sake and their own sake???)
As I said Luther had personally undergone a deep conversion, not from a sinful life to a graced one, but from a religion of fear of God’s Justice to a faith in God’s mercy. He wanted to see others learn to trust that faith in Jesus Christ was sufficient and to be freed from the compulsive religiosity that too many clergy were instilling—or trying to instill—in the faithful. His 95 theses represented not an attack on the Church but on a superficial and unhealthy religiosity that distorted the faith presented in the Scriptures.
The great events of history usually are rooted in conflicts of interest. Luther—and others—were interested in a spiritual renewal for the faithful. You may remember that back in 2011 we did a series of posts on the history of Saint Peter’s Basilica. (You can review those posts by clicking on Saint Peter’s Basilica in the column on the right of your webpage marked “labels.”) In 1505 Pope Julius II—the patron of Michelangelo—had made the decision to demolish the basilica that Constantine had built almost twelve centuries earlier over the tomb of the Apostle and build a new basilica there. He wanted a grand basilica to hold the elaborate tomb for himself that he had Michelangelo design. And so the project of building the current basilica began. It was an enormously expensive project and special indulgences were offered in return for contributions that would go to the building. (In fact half the proceeds went to Albert of Brandenburg to enable him to recover the immense sum of money he had paid the Holy See to be named Archbishop of Mainz. You see the problems?) A Dominican friar by the name of Johann Tetzel was named the Commissioner of Indulgences for Germany and in his zeal to raise the required funds made some outlandish claims about indulgences. Two of Luther’s 95 theses concerned these claims. As Tetzel went about preaching indulgences, Luther went about preaching against them. Luther’s theology was sounder and appealed to the more thoughtful and educated populace—and to the many who did not give a fig about theology but who resented the vast sums leaving Germany for Rome—and sales of indulgences began to drop. Luther appealed to Pope Leo X, whom Luther mistakenly believed would be more concerned about souls and orthodoxy than basilicas and money but ended up being admonished by the Pope to back off his objections to the sales campaign. Luther, who had been scandalized by his 1510 visit to Rome, now became increasingly disillusioned with the papacy and with the institutional Church in general. He stated that far from being assured that “when money clinks in the collection chest” that souls are released from purgatory, one can be assured that “when money clinks in the collection chest” greed and avarice are increased in the hearts of prelates. By 1521 sales had been in sufficient decline that Luther was excommunicated by the Pope. (Keep in mind that Leo X was a Medici—that is an important piece of information for when we pick up with Henry and his request for an annulment. And we will get there—this background is an important piece however to understand what led to Henry’s being refused.)
Luther did not much bother about excommunication. Plenty of good people, including saints, had been excommunicated at one time or another. (And since as well, if you remember the story of Saint Mary MacKillop, the Australian foundress of the Sisters of Saint Joseph.) What did happen was that more and more people flocked to Luther’s side of the argument. The Elector Frederick was delighted with the reputation this brought his university. And Luther began to write extensively attacking the theological exaggerations of the Scholasticism and Late Medieval Theological meanderings and to bring doctrine and practice more in line with the New Testament texts. Unfortunately Luther did not have much of the historical critical tools we have today and his exegesis is by our standards rather primitive but in the sixteenth century it was state of the intellectual art.
One of the defenders of Catholic doctrine at this time was no less than King Henry VIII who in 1519 wrote his own theological treaty against Luther, In Defense of the Seven Sacraments. Henry dedicated the work to Pope Leo X who awarded Henry the title Fidei Defensor, Defender of the Faith. Ironic, isn’t it; but the title is still carried today by the British Monarch.