Sunday, January 11, 2009

Luther and Abuses

Mel wrote in a comment below:

Here's a question I hadn't considered before, re: abuses in Luther's day. If during the years since then, so many "reforms" have occured, then was that church or today's church any less than the original? (hope that doesn't ramble too much) Is the essence of the church the same but some immoral behaviors or other abuses that made some reforms necessary? Is anyone trackin' with this line of thinking?

My response would be as follows, but it would really help to go look up some discussion of exactly what these abuses were and how they were "reformed".  I'm going to give you the basics as I see them, then I want to address her second question in a little more detail.

First, we need to realize that the abuses that Luther touted as Church teaching were never the actual teaching of the Catholic Church.  There were some priests who were corrupt (as there are now, and as there always have been, always will be, and are in every religion and job that there is) and these men made bad and sinful decisions, sometimes motivated by greed, and sometimes tricked others into thinking they were buying salvation through the use of indulgences (what many people will talk about when they talk about Luther.)  Luther points this out, but exaggerates the extent and fuzzies up the true teaching of the Church on the issue.  Instead of working from within to try and help these people or fix the abuses that indiviudals were doing, he chose instead to introduce schism into the Church - a terrible idea that resulted in the fragmentation that harms Christianity so much today.  Even he himself regretted the results of his teaching.

Luther further perverted the truth by teaching certain false and heretical doctrines, and perverted the true history of the Church by insinuating things like the so called "Deutero-canonical books" were added later by the Church, when in fact they had been used consistently by the Church since the canon was set in stone in about 400 A.D., and had been used by the early Christians extensively, and especially by both Christ and St. Paul.   These and other things that Luther taught attempted to blur the lines between real Catholic teaching and what Luther termed as abuses, many of which were either not wide spread or were total fabrications.  

Enter the Church Councils who decide that some reformation is necessary.  What these councils did was try to reign in on individual abuses within the Church, and make sure that the Church was staying true to its sacred Tradition.  Neither the Church at that time nor the Church today is any more or less the original than it has been.  They are both the only Church which is marked by the four marks of the true Church- One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.  

A good Catholic article on the so-called "Counter-Reformation" is here:

We also need to mention two other Catholic ideas that help us understand how we might think very differently about the question you ask than Protestants normally would.  First is the idea of discipline versus Faith and Morals.  Many Catholic teachings are disciplinary issues - when to fast, when priests are allowed to be married or not married, even what day is required for worship.  These ideas can change over time (many priests used to be married in the Early Church but now Latin Rite priests cannot be married in most cases but Eastern Rite Priests can) and can develop.  That is because they are not part of the Faith and Morals set forth by the Church.  These things do not change over time, but are guarded from error by the Holy Father and the Magisterium of the Church.  

That brings us to the idea of "Doctrinal development" - the fact that we can understand and more clearly define issues of Faith and morals as time goes on.  This does not mean that the ideas change by their nature, but rather that we understand them more fully.  Easy examples of this are the idea of the dual nature of Christ, the Trinity, the Canon of Scripture, etc. etc.  These things were not clearly defined or maybe even understood by the early Church, but they have always been the same and the roots of these ideas are seen as early as Christ's teachings.  We think of these doctrines as flower buds.  Think of a flower as it is closed in the bud, then imagine it as it opens up and begins to flourish as a flower.  It is exactly the same object, but once it is opened up, the full splendor of it is realized.  That is how doctrinal development works, so that over time we can get a more full and understanding sense of the beauty of certain issues of Faith and Morals, while their essence goes back to the beginning of the Church.  

Thus, unlike many Protestants, Catholics are not seeking to be "Exactly like the New Testament Church" because part of the beauty of Christ's Church is that as a living body it is able to grow into a fullness that was not realizable at that time.  As he said, it starts as small as a mustard seed and grows into a tree so large that the birds nest in its limbs.  That's a good way to think about how the Church grows and matures into something much more beautiful as time goes along while still being the same thing.


mel said...

"Neither the Church at that time nor the Church today is any more or less the original than it has been."

This is the answer I was looking for. Thanks for being able to read through my scattered question and for answering it so thoroughly. Wow, have you ever learned a lot in a short time (since your conversion).

I think I'm going to print this page. It's making so much sense. No, the schism and its results have not been the best...but being in a church that has so much of the elements of yours, what I'm really seeing missing in mine is the connection, the historical element. I'll blog on that tonight.

Glad to be of help to give you things to write about. Great job!

The Catholic Journeyman said...

Now, that post...thats a beauty.

Thing is, as you point out well, Luther is the perfect example of jumping the gun on what we call today "circumstantial evidence". He thought such evidence was the identity of The Church, when it is, and was the cause fallible men who attach themselves to it.

Good job, mate.

mel said...

Yes, it was just a few that had their (human, sinful) issues. Yes, the schism that took place wasn't ideal, but it happened. God has still used the spread of His love around the world -- it's more like a multiplication than a division. But I totally see the umbrella of Rome as something we don't have. So I guess the next question is, now what. Now what happens to the other side of the house that calls on the Name of Christ, believes that Jesus is God, and trusts in His atonement. I know about the separated brethren. And for now, that's what I am (yet still very redeemed as I stand before the Father next to my RC brothers and sisters).

Sigh. Still seeking. Thanks for the grace.

Greg said...

Yes Joseph, very nice job!

I would like add a couple brief things. The following is a wonderful book (very short easy read) called Roots of the Reformation. It gives a great perspective from "both" sides, and does a good job of distributing the blame, and may potentially / partially answer Mel's question, "now what"?

Mel, if you don't mind, I'd like to share something personal with you. I was watching Fr. Corapi the other night on EWTN. There was something he said I could very much relate to (which I can't quite capture perfectly here). He described his ordination process as a courting-type of analogy. To make the long story short, after his ordination (being a marriage to the Church), he was in the honeymoon period for awhile. Then one day he woke up, rolled over in bed, and took a look at his bride. Kind of scared him and made him ask, "Lord, what have I done"!

As Joseph pointed out, although the Church Herself is pure and perfect as Christ founded Her, She is made up of many, many imperfect people (laity, as well as priests, theologians, and even bishops). I get frustrated at times and just wish folks would stay true to the Church's teachings. They haven't, don't, nor will they ever. But the Truth is still there, proclaimed strongly by the Pope and Magisterium. As Peter said to Jesus, "where else will I go Lord, you have the words of everlasting life."

This is not to say that we don't benefit from our Protestant brothers and sisters in Christ. We can and do learn a lot from you! You help us in many ways and challenge us in ways of faithfulness. As messed up as Luther was, I almost think it was necessary to get the Church to step back and take a look at Herself. It lead to an internal reform that was much needed. It is also my opinion that the Church today, especially the western Church, needs to step back and take a look at Herself, as there are many abuses still happening.

But over time until the end, the "gates of hell shall not prevail."

Thanks for the great discussion folks!