During the course of the last several days, I have been forced to reassess my ideas about many different things including modernism and church history. The events occurring in Austria at the present time remind me eerily of what happened in Germany on October 31, 1517.In our history classes and most modern textbooks, we were taught that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the doors of the castle church at Wittenberg. He was an Augustinian monk who had come to the conclusion that man could be saved through faith alone. Luther was alone and fought valiantly against the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope, who sough to squash him. In the end, it was the support of the German princes who saved him.
This, of course, is a very simplistic view of history. Martin Luther’s ideas were not only about indulgences and salvation. In fact, Luther sought to overhaul everything that Roman Catholicism had stood for more than half a millennium. Additionally, according to historian Philip Hughes, Martin Luther had been disputing and writing on these points for years before he nailed his theses to the church door. He had worked in the dark and then lectured on these points for at least a decade before that fateful day.
Luther’s beliefs are many and cannot be enumerated within the scope of a blog posting like this, but there are several that should be pointed out in light of recent events. Like the Protestant theologians, atheists, and naturalists who followed, Luther did not believe that the Pope had the right “to impose a single law upon a Christian man without his consent.” Luther is saying that the Pope has no right to impose doctrines or dogmas on ordinary Christians. Then why is it that Our Lord gave the Apostles the right to bind and to loose? Why were popes for half a millennium able to speak with authority and to legislate on behalf of Catholics all over the world? Why is it that Vatican I proclaimed papal infallibility? Against all of these questions and objections, Luther simply said that the Pope did not have a right.
By this argument, Luther was appealing to the German princes and peasants who were his principal supporters. Duke Frederick the Wise rose to Luther’s defense, kidnapped him, and put him in a castle in order to continue writing his scurrilous texts. By doing so, Duke Frederick incurred the wrath of Charles V and Pope Leo X. Yet this action also convinced many German princes to stand against the Pope.
Another potent argument made by Luther is that any layman can be a priest. What Luther does not understand and cannot is that not every layman has the power or the faculties to absolve men from sin or to say Mass. Priest are formed by a strenuous program of study in a seminary. They are taught dogmatic, systematic, and ascetic theology as well as philosophy. When the bishop lays his hands on the ordinand’s head, he is conferring to him the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
The “priesthood of the laity” appealed to many German burghers who were scandalized by the conduct of their parish priests and clerics. Some priests in Germany and elsewhere, it should be remembered, had mistresses and fathered illegitimate children. (Pope Alexander VI, probably the worst pope to sit in the Chair of St. Peter, did this also.) Not only this, but many of the parish priests were poorly educated and knew enough Latin to get through the Mass and breviary. Our modern seminary system was not put into place until it was mandated by the Council of Trent decades after 1517.
By saying that any man could preach and serve Mass, Luther was opening the door to the Protestant Reformation. Many of the Protestant denominations in existence today have multiplied into the hundreds of thousands since Luther’s time. In many of them, there is no such thing as a priest. Rather, the pastor is a layman or an “elder.”
Most damaging of all, Luther believed that the Bible was the only thing that could guide a Christian. The doctrine of sola scriptura is something that stands in direct contradiction against the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. Holy Scripture cannot be interpreted by just anybody. The Church has entrusted this power to certain theologians, apologists, catechists, and others. Through books of exegesis and other texts by the Greek and Latin Doctors of the Church, it is possible for the ordinary Catholic to understand the Scriptures in the correct way. Of course, the Bible can speak to an ordinary person on an individual level, but there must also be a support system so that the individual believer understands what he reads. Witness the story of the Ethiopian eunuch in the Book of Acts.
In our contemporary situation, the Church has seen many problems since Vatican II was called in 1959. Much of the liberalism and modernism that has invaded the Church is nothing new. Rather, it has always been around in one form or another. As one of the Doctors of the Church once wrote, “There is no such thing as a new heresy.”
To cite on example, Luther and his followers espoused the heresy of Ultraquaism. Ultraquaists believed that all believers have the right to receive Holy Communion under both species. Jan Hus, a Czech parish priest and heretic, was condemned by the Council of Constance for precisely this idea. During the course of the 1960s, the reception of Holy Communion under both species was revived in the OF. According to some persons, this had to do with the liturgical movement’s willingness to get back to the way things always were, but how could they if this had been the Church’s practice for a long time? I’m just saying, of course.
Yet this is nothing compared to what is going on in the Church in Austria. It seems to me that the errors of modernism have finally come out into the open. What the Church so staunchly denied for so long has emerged into the daylight. The declaration of the Austrian bishops is nothing more than a modern day version of Luther’s 95 theses. While couched in the best language possible, something Luther couldn’t do after he started his tract writing career, the bishops have essentially told the Pope to keep out of their affairs. This is nothing other than another Protestant rebellion.
Let us pray for action now and that Holy Mother Church will survive this seeming catastrophe.
Our Lady of the Angels, pray for us!
St. Boniface, pray for us!
St. Florian, pray for us!
St. Thomas More, pray for us!
St. Francis de Sales, pray for us!