Martin Luther: True reformer or defender of erroneous conscience?

R. Jared Staudt PhD, serves as Director of Content for Exodus 90 and as an instructor for the lay division of St. John Vianney Seminary. He is the author of How the Eucharist Can Save Civilization (TAN), Restoring Humanity: Essays on the Evangelization of Culture (Divine Providence Press), and The Beer Option (Angelico Press), as well as editor of Renewing Catholic Schools: How to Regain a Catholic Vision in a Secular Age (Catholic Education Press). He and his wife Anne have six children and he is a Benedictine oblate.

The key issue in debating Luther’s legacy on conscience in the Catholic Church entails whether the teachings of the Church are subordinate to one’s own conscience or whether conscience is bound by the teaching of the Church.

Left: “Martin Luther” (1526) by Lucas Cranach the Elder [Wikipedia]; right: “Sir Thomas More” (1527) by Hans Holbein the Younger [Wikipedia]

Two trials, two appeals to conscience.

Trial 1: I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.

Trial 2: If the number of bishops and universities should be so material as your lordship seems to think, then I see little cause, my lord, why that should make any change in my conscience. For I have no doubt that, though not in this realm, but of all those well learned bishops and virtuous men that are yet alive throughout Christendom, they are not fewer who are of my mind therein. But if I should speak of those who are already dead, of whom many are now holy saints in heaven, I am very sure it is the far greater part of them who, all the while they lived, thought in this case the way that I think now. And therefore am I not bound, my lord, to conform my conscience to the council of one realm against the General Council of Christendom.

What is the difference between these two quotes?

The first, from Friar Martin Luther, asserts the primacy of conscience over the universal consent of the Church and the tradition.

The second, from laymen Thomas More, note the agreement of conscience to the faith of Christendom, the history of the Church, and the saints of Heaven.

Why are these appeals to conscience significant? I think Belloc is fundamentally correct in his assessment of the nature of Protestantism as a denial of religious authority, resting in a visible Church:

The Protestant attack differed from the rest especially in this characteristic, that its attack did not consist in the promulgation of a new doctrine or of a new authority, that it made no concerted attempt at creating a counter-Church, but had for its principle the denial of unity. It was an effort to promote that state of mind in which a “Church” in the old sense of the word-that is, an infallible, united, teaching body, a Person speaking with Divine authority-should be denied; not the doctrines it might happen to advance, but its very claim to advance them with unique authority.

The individual quickly emerged to fill the vacuum left by the Church, as the dominant religious factor in the modern period.

Martin Luther: Revolutionary, not reformer

In this year of the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, we have to take stock of the legacy of the renegade, Catholic priest, Martin Luther. What were his intentions? It is commonly alleged, even among Catholics, that he had the noble aim of reforming abuses within the Church.

In fact, Martin Luther discovered his revolutionary, theological positions about a year before he posted his 95 theses. Probably in the year 1516, while lecturing on Romans at the seminary in Wittenburg, Luther had a pivotal experience, which shaped the way he viewed the Christian faith. Essentially, his “tower experience,” resolved his difficulty of conscience. He saw God and His commandments as a moral threat:

But I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God. I said, “Isn’t it enough that we miserable sinners, lost for all eternity because of original sin, are oppressed by every kind of calamity through the Ten Commandments? Why does God heap sorrow upon sorrow through the Gospel and through the Gospel threaten us with his justice and his wrath?” This was how I was raging with wild and disturbed conscience. I constantly badgered St. Paul about that spot in Romans 1 and anxiously wanted to know what he meant.

Reading Romans 1, while in the tower of his monastery, Luther suddenly saw the resolution of his troubled conscience through faith: “All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light.”

As we see in Trent’s teaching on justification and the Joint Declaration of Faith, there is nothing wrong with the realization that righteousness (the same word as justification) comes through faith alone, moved by the grace of God. The problem is the re-reading of Scripture and all of the Christian tradition in a different light through this realization. Luther’s troubled conscience and experience of faith led him eventually (as it took him a while to work it out) to reject many of the Sacraments, books of the Bible, and the Church’s authority all in the name of liberty of conscience. A great schism would follow from Luther’s personal experience.

The significance of Luther’s teaching on conscience

No doubt reforms were needed in the Catholic Church in 1517. Contrary to popular opinion, however, Luther primarily sought to spread his understanding of the Gospel, not to correct abuses. Catholic practices became abuses precisely because they contradicted his tower experience of 1516.

One of Luther’s early tracts, Appeal to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (1520)lays out the implications of his view in more detail:

Besides, if we are all priests, as was said above, and all have one faith, one Gospel, one sacrament, why should we not also have the power to test and judge what is correct or incorrect in matters of faith? What becomes of the words of Paul in I Corinthians 2:15: “He that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man,” II Corinthians 4:13: “We have all the same Spirit of faith”? Why, then, should not we perceive what squares with faith and what does not, as well as does an unbelieving pope?

All these and many other texts should make us bold and free, and we should not allow the Spirit of liberty, as Paul calls Him, to be frightened off by the fabrications of the popes, but we ought to go boldly forward to test all that they do or leave undone, according to our interpretation of the Scriptures, which rests on faith, and compel them to follow not their own interpretation, but the one that is better. . . .

Thus I hope that the false, lying terror with which the Romans have this long time made our conscience timid and stupid, has been allayed

Luther never condoned license (though he did condone Philip of Hesse’s bigamy), as he said his conscience was captive to the Word of God, but he did separate the decision of his conscience from the authority of the Church. This proved absolutely foundational for Protestantism and modern, religious experience.

Father of the modern world

The claim that Luther stands at a crucial moment between medieval Christendom and the modern world is not contentious. This is a need for care, however. His separation of faith and reason and insistence on the spiritual nature of the Church, in my opinion, did quicken the advance to secularism. However, Luther did not directly intend the creation of the modern, secular world as we know it. Yet his stand on conscience and his individualistic interpretation of faith did lend themselves to modern individualism, which I would even say is the heart of modern culture.

Cardinal Ratzinger suggested that Luther stood at the forefront of the modern movement, focused on the freedom of the individual. I recommend looking at this piece, “Truth and Freedom” further, but his central insight on Luther follows:

There is no doubt that from the very outset freedom has been the defining theme of that epoch which we call modern. . . . Luther’s polemical writing [On the Freedom of the Christian] boldly struck up this theme in resounding tones . . . At issue was the freedom of conscience vis-à-vis the authority of the Church, hence the most intimate of all human freedoms. . . . Even if it would not be right to speak of the individualism of the Reformation, the new importance of the individual and the shift in the relation between individual conscience and authority are nonetheless among its dominant traits (Communio 23 [1996]: 20).

These traits have survived and at times predominate our contemporary religious experience.  The sociologist, Christian Smith, has noted in his study of the faith life of emerging adults, Souls in Transition, that an evangelical focus on individual salvation has been carried over into a new religious autonomy. He claims that…

the places where today’s emerging adults have taken that individualism in religion basically continues the cultural trajectory launched by Martin Luther five centuries ago and propelled along the way by subsequent development of evangelical individualism, through revivalism, evangelism and pietism. . . .  Furthermore, the strong individualistic subjectivism in the emerging adult religious outlook—that “truth” should be decided by “what seems right” to individuals, based on their personal experience and feelings—also has deep cultural-structural roots in American evangelicalism.

Luther’s legacy clearly points toward individualism in religion, setting up a conflict with religious authority and tradition. The average Western Christian probably follows his central assertion that one must follow one’s own conscience over and against the Church.

Luther’s view of conscience in the Catholic Church

The key issue in debating Luther’s legacy on conscience in the Catholic Church entails whether the teachings of the Church are subordinate to one’s own conscience or whether conscience is bound by the teaching of the Church.

I know an elderly Salesian priest who told me with all sincerity that the purpose of Vatican II was to teach us that we could decide what to believe and how to live according to our conscience. This is clearly the “Spirit of Vatican II,” as Gaudium et Spes, while upholding the dignity of conscience, enjoins couples in regards to the transmission of life: “But in their manner of acting, spouses should be aware that they cannot proceed arbitrarily, but must always be governed according to a conscience dutifully conformed to the divine law itself, and should be submissive toward the Church’s teaching office, which authentically interprets that law in the light of the Gospel” (50). Dignitatis Humanae, Vatican’s Declaration on Religious Liberty, holds together two crucial points, stating that one cannot “be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience,” (3) as well as that “in the formation of their consciences, the Christian faithful ought carefully to attend to the sacred and certain doctrine of the Church” (14). The Council upheld the dignity of conscience as well as its obligation to accept the authority of the Church.

The misinterpretation of the Council’s teaching on conscience as license found its first test case just three years after the Council closed in Humanae Vitae. Theologians such as Bernard Härring and Charles Curran advocated for the legitimacy of dissent from the encyclical on the grounds of conscience. The Canadian Bishops, in their Winnipeg Statement, affirmed: “In accord with the accepted principles of moral theology, if these persons have tried sincerely but without success to pursue a line of conduct in keeping with the given directives, they may be safely assured that, whoever honestly chooses that course which seems right to him does so in good conscience.”

Conscience also stands at the center of the current controversy over the interpretation of Amoris Laetitia. I’ve already written on how Amoris stands in relation to the Church’s efforts to enculturate the modern world in relation to conscience. Cardinal Caffarra claimed that the fifth dubium on conscience was the most important. He stated further: “Here, for me, is the decisive clash between the vision of life that belongs to the Church (because it belongs to divine Revelation) and modernity’s conception of one’s own conscience.” Recently, the German bishops, following those of Malta, have decided: “We write that – in justified individual cases and after a longer process – there can be a decision of conscience on the side of the faithful to receive the Sacraments, a decision which must be respected.”

In light of the current controversy on conscience, it is troubling that Luther is now upheld as a genuine reformer. The most troubling is from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in its Resources for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and throughout the year 2017: “Separating that which is polemical from the theological insights of the Reformation, Catholics are now able to hear Luther’s challenge for the Church of today, recognizing him as a ‘witness to the gospel’ (From Conflict to Communion 29). And so after centuries of mutual condemnations and vilification, in 2017 Lutheran and Catholic Christians will for the first time commemorate together the beginning of the Reformation.” The Vatican also announced a commemorative stamp (which to me sounds like the United States issuing a stamp commemorating the burning of the White House by British troops).

Pope Francis has spoken of Luther several times in the past year, including in an inflight press conference returning from Armenia: “I think that the intentions of Martin Luther were not mistaken. He was a reformer. Perhaps some methods were not correct.” In response I ask, what did Luther reform? Francis pointed to two things in his journey to Sweden. The Reformation “helped give greater centrality to sacred scripture in the Church’s life,” but it did so by advocating the flawed notion of sola scriptura. Francis also pointed to Luther’s concept of sola gratia, which “reminds us that God always takes the initiative, prior to any human response, even as he seeks to awaken that response.” While the priority of God’s initiative is true and there are similarities to Catholic teaching in this teaching (that faith is a free gift that cannot be merited), Luther denied our cooperation with grace, our ability to grow in sanctification and merit, and that we fall from grace through mortal sin. Francis also noted, while speaking to an ecumenical delegation from Finland: “In this spirit, we recalled in Lund that the intention of Martin Luther 500 years ago was to renew the Church, not divide Her.” Most recently he spoke of how we now know “how to appreciate the spiritual and theological gifts that we have received from the Reformation.”

It is true that Martin Luther did not want to divide the Church. He wanted to reform the Church on his own terms, which was not genuine reform. Luther said he would follow the Pope if the Pope taught the pure Gospel of his conception: “The chief cause that I fell out with the Pope was this: the Pope boasted that he was the head of the Church, and condemned all that would not be under his power and authority; for he said, although Christ be the head of the Church, yet, notwithstanding, there must be a corporal head of the Church upon the earth. With this, I could have been content, had he but taught the gospel pure and clear, and not introduced human inventions and lies in its stead.” Further, he accuses the corruption of conscience by listening to the Church as opposed to Scripture: “But the papists, against their own consciences, say, No; we must hear the Church.” This points us back to the crucial issue of authority, pointed out by Belloc.

Conclusion: Moreover Luther

We should not celebrate the Reformation, because we cannot celebrate the defense of erroneous conscience held up against the authority of the Church. As St. Thomas More rightly said in his “Dialogue on Conscience,” taken down by his daughter Meg: “But indeed, if on the other side, a man would in a matter take away by himself upon his own mind alone, or with some few, or with never so many, against an evident truth appearing by the common faith of Christendom, this conscience is very damnable.” He may have had Luther in mind.

More did not stand on his own private interpretation of the faith, but rested firmly on the authority of Christendom and, as Chesterton put it, the democracy of the dead: “But go we now to them that are dead before, and that is I trust in heaven, I am sure that it is not the fewer part of them that all the time while they lived, thought in some of the things, the way that I think now.”

More is a crucial example of standing firm in a rightly formed conscience. We should remember why he died and not let his witness remain in vain. He stood on the ground of the Church’s timeless teaching, anchored in Scripture and the witness of the saints. If we divorce conscience from authority, we will end in moral chaos. As Cardinal Ratzinger asked in his lucid work, On Conscience: “Does God speak to men in a contradictory manner? Does He contradict Himself? Does He forbid one person, even to the point of martyrdom, to do something that He allows or even requires of another?” These are crucial questions we must face.

Rather than celebrating the defender of erroneous conscience, let’s remember and invoke the true martyr of conscience, who died upholding the unity of the faith.