The German priest Martin Luther is known for lighting the spark of the Protestant Reformation with his Ninety-five Theses of 1517. He decried many of the corrupt and evil practices of the Catholic Church and was received with a mixture of horror and admiration by European Christians. This sample religious studies paper explores his movement and the Catholic defense against his criticism.
Martin Luther and the Catholic beliefs
Martin Luther is credited with being the initial catalyst for the Protestant reformation by posting his ninety-five theses on the door of Castle Church of Wittenberg in 1517. His protest of what he saw as clerical abuses, especially the sale of indulgences, created outrage that increased his popularity and took parishioners out of the Catholic Church and into new doors of worship.
But there are always two sides (or three), to a story, and this one is no exception. Indulgences and their hawkers were a common sight on the late medieval landscape. Fads are not a modern invention, and the desire for a bit of holy relic among the public stirred the machinery of economics.
The Catholic Church’s position and defense
The Catholic Church intended indulgences to mean that the sinner’s time in purgatory would be remitted if they prayed for the souls in purgatory and made a donation to the church. Often these funds would be advertised for “good works” projects (Kittredge).
Geoffrey Chaucer’s pardoner in “Canterbury Tales” has many counterparts, and eventually, the practice became a bit of a racket promising entry into heaven without a stop in purgatory for those who could afford the price of admittance (Vincent). Inns and taverns were often the traveling stops of salesmen selling pardons and religious relics.
Pilgrimages were common in England during this period. Parishioners would journey to earn a pardon by visiting a church or shrine. Visiting a church was sometimes imposed as a condition for granting plenary indulgence, if a holy object could visit the parishioner, the people of the middle ages were willing to utilize this convenient substitute (Storm).
Herbert Thurston, author of “Indulgences for Sale – Inquire Within”, defends the institution of indulgences: “Even good folks understood quite well that the giving of alms for charitable objects…was just as much a good work as the recital of long prayers or the going on pilgrimage to a distant shrine” (Storm 811).
Holy Relics used in Catholic tradition
Holy relics were extremely popular during this period. Frederick III of Saxony amassed a huge collection of relics. The “Catholic Layman” published articles on the worship of holy relics; discussing relics as being the equivalent of visiting an old friend you might miss when gone.
The church argued that relics fit in with the deep and holy emotions of our nature. The Catholic Church differentiated between the different types of worship a person should address to god, and the kind of worship devoted to relics (On the Worship of Relics).
Martin Luther wrote his Ninety-Five Theses at an opportune time. The printing press was becoming more common, and moral among Catholic parishioners was low due to the excessive abuses of the church. Luther’s outrage when his parishioners traveled to purchase indulgences spurred the movement that some people credit eventually led to the Protestant reformation.
Pope Leo X financed the renovation of St. Peters Basilica in Rome with indulgence funds, which inflamed Martin Luther. His theses number eighty-six is a particular lash at the wealth and privilege of the church:
“Again: since the pope’s income to-day is larger than that of the wealthiest of wealthy men, why does he not build this one church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of indigent believers” (Luther).
Martin Luther’s new awakening
Martin Luther awakened a feeling that was already living in the dissatisfied parishioners around him. The church had gone too far, and what had started as one means to an end for the church ended up being something entirely different. The machinery of economics mixed with the moral expectations of the public and Martin Luther, and the effects has had a long lasting effect on the Catholic Church, and Western religion.
Kittredge, George Lyman. “George Lyman Kittredge, “Chaucer’s Pardoner”; critical study. (/TITLE; .” FAS Web Hosting. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Sept. 2013. http://sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/canttales/pardt/kitt-par.html.
Luther, Dr. Martin. “Luther’s 95 Theses.” The Spurgeon Archive. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Sept. 2013. http://www.spurgeon.org/~phil/history/95theses.html.
“On the Worship of Relics.” The Catholic Layman 7.78 (1858): 65-66,68-69. JSTOR. Web. 19 Sept. 2013.
Storm, Melvin. “The Pardoners Invitation: Quaestor’s Bag or Becket’s Shrine?.” PMLA Modern Language Association 97.5 (1982): 810-818. JSTOR. Web. 20 Sept. 2013.
“The Pardoner and the Church.” Main Page. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Sept. 2013. http://www.stjohns-chs.org/english/Medieval/pdr.html.
Vincent, Nicholas. “Some Pardoners Tales: The Earliest English Indulgences.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 12.6 (2002): 23-58. JSTOR. Web. 21 Sept. 2013.