I’ve been reading some Reformation Day reflections by Roman Catholics, some of whom have expressed a little grudging appreciation for Luther, while blaming him for splitting the Church. (You can find some here.)
But Luther was excommunicated. Why? Because he criticized the sale of indulgences. In the case that precipitated his nailing the theses to the door, a salesman named Tetzel was participating in a manifestly corrupt venture–having to do ecclesiastical bribery and simony–that was theologically untenable.
Here is an excerpt from Tetzel’s sermon “On Indulgences” (1517):
Consider that for each and every mortal sin it is necessary to undergo seven years of penitence after confession and contrition, either in this life or in Purgatory. How many mortal sins are committed in a day, how many in a week, how many in a month, how many in a year, how many in the whole extent of life! They are nearly numberless, and those that commit them must suffer endless punishment in the burning pains of Purgatory. (via Primary Sources.)
This was no Purgatory as “taking a shower” before entering Heaven, as in some contemporary Catholic apologetics. Nor was it ascending Dante’s mountain. It was penal fire that people were taught might last hundreds, even thousands of years. (7 years per sin; do the math.) And this was for sins that were forgiven! Sins that were repented, confessed, and absolved STILL had to be punished.
Luther believed this teaching and this practice obscured the Gospel. He just wanted to debate it! His attempts at reform were repudiated.
The Church of Rome, meanwhile, upped the ante. Luther said that these teachings could not be supported by Scripture. The reply was that they rested on the authority of the Church and of the Pope, which, in practice, trumped Scripture. Luther, still thinking of the obvious distortions in the indulgence traffic, could not accept that.
(The Church, in effect, later conceded many of Luther’s points. Exchanging indulgences for money was later forbidden. The duration of Purgatorial punishment has since been softened, saying that no one knows how long it will last and that time doesn’t exist in the afterlife as it does on earth. The number of years each indulgence remits–some were for tens of thousands or even millions of years–has been reinterpreted to mean that it is the equivalent of that period of time devoted to earthly penance.
Still, the doctrine of Purgatory remains, along with the need to be punished for each forgiven transgression, as does the doctrine of Indulgences, including the notion of the Treasury of Merits, that the Church administers all of the surplus good works of the saints, which can be credited to the account of those in Purgatory. Also, much of Roman Catholic devotional practice–such as the repetition of specific prayers, each of which earns an indulgence–is tied to this theology.)
At any rate, isn’t it clear that the Church of Rome at that time, in the way it handled the controversy, split the Church? Not Luther, who never intended such a thing, though his protest was certainly a catalyst for what happened? And since, for Roman Catholics, the church doesn’t err, shouldn’t they consider Protestantism one of its good creations?