MARTIN LUTHER: Catholic Dissident
by Peter Stanford
Hodder & Stoughton, London
Hardcover: 448 pages
Reviewed by Peter Westmore
The five hundredth anniversary of the commencement of the Protestant Reformation took place in 2017. The occasion was marked by a series of events led by the Lutheran Church to commemorate the events which split Western Christianity asunder, gave rise to the nation state, and arguably changed the world irrevocably.
Central to these events was Martin Luther, who, at the time, was an Augustinian friar and professor of theology at a new university established in the German town of Wittenberg, in the state of Saxony in what is now eastern Germany.
Among the books published to mark the anniversary was this biography of Martin Luther written by Peter Stanford, a former editor of a prestigious English religious journal, The Catholic Herald, and author of biographies of Bronwen Astor, Lord Longford and Poet Laureate C. Day-Lewis.
However, this work follows his religious works, which include Judas: The Troubling History of the Renegade Apostle The Devil: A Biography Heaven: A Traveller’s Guide to the Undiscovered Country The She-Pope, an investigation of the Pope Joan legend.
Not surprisingly, Stanford’s biography is subtitled Catholic Dissident, to emphasise that Luther’s intention, in posting his 95 theses in 1517, was not to create a new church or to split Christendom, but to debate a number of Catholic Church doctrines with which Luther disagreed, particularly those associated with the then-common practice of selling indulgences, the practice of praying before relics of the saints, and similar beliefs.
This book is less concerned with the political, historical or social significance of Luther than with his importance in the religious and cultural conflicts of the 16th century. Unlike most Catholic writers on Luther, Stanford’s aim is not to condemn Luther’s theology, but to understand him and, in the process, to look afresh at the tragic events that unfolded at that time.
The author has his own interpretation of these events but generally lets the story tell itself, and lets the reader form his own conclusions about a headstrong and at times violently polemical writer who was, at the same time, utterly sincere and incredibly courageous, putting his life at risk time and again for what he regarded as the truth.
Having visited Wittenberg in Germany, I was struck by how Catholic many of Luther’s concerns were. To this day, the town church in Wittenberg, now a shrine to Luther, contains the crucifix, which was universal in Luther’s day, paintings of the Virgin Mary and the Last Supper, and an altar where Luther celebrated the Eucharist.
There are some aspects of Luther’s story though that have far greater significance than Stanford allows.
It is striking that, after entering the Augustinian monastery in 1505, Luther was ordained a priest in 1507, just two years later. After being appointed temporary lecturer in philosophy at the new Wittenberg University in 1508, he was awarded a doctorate in theology in 1511 and was professor of theology in 1512.
Apart from his teaching responsibilities, Luther had authority over about 12 Augustinian houses in Saxony, which involved a lot of administrative responsibility. From this I conclude that his theological formation was poor, and promotion to senior positions both within the order and in the university gave him a prominence that would not have existed in an older, more established university.
It was not his fault, but Luther lacked the formation and the judgement that was required of him.
After he published his 95 theses in Wittenberg in 1517, there were respected theologians in Germany (and elsewhere) who engaged him in public debate, and generally were more persuasive than he was. But his opponents wanted to silence him, so they prevailed on the Medici Pope Leo X to force Luther to recant, or face excommunication. Foolishly, the pope agreed to this course of action.
It was the excommunication of Luther in 1520, just three years after his request to debate his 95 theses, that began the inexorable process which culminated in the Reformation and the establishment of the Lutheran Church, a process which Luther later said he never intended.
Had Rome taken a different course, in withdrawing the foolish preaching of an indulgence for donations to rebuild St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and encouraging competent theologians to debate Luther, there is reason to believe that the disastrous divisions of the Reformation could have been avoided.
In time, the “sensus fidelium” would have resolved the issues that Luther had raised. Interestingly, the Catholic Church has rarely invoked its power to excommunicate since the 16th century.
There are many statues and memorials to Martin Luther in Germany, but there are none to Pope Leo X in Rome. Surely that tells us something.