Justin Kollmeyer was as inaccurate as he was uncharitable in his characterization of Catholicism and the history of the Reformation and Martin Luther, in particular.
I will address some of this points as briefly as I can:
• The Catholic Church does not teach that each man “must earn for himself the favor of God or come under His wrath and severe punishment.” This is Pelagianism, a heresy from a 4th-century English monk named Pelagius. We Catholics have always taught we are saved by grace, but we also uphold the duty to do good works as part of our salvation. But, to be sure, the grace to be saved and to do good works comes as a free gift from God.
• We have never taught that God is “an angry judge.” That’s just ridiculous and makes me wonder if Rev. Kollmeyer ever cracked a book on Catholicism actually written by a Catholic??
We do believe in Purgatory, but it’s entirely incorrect to see it as a “punishment.” Rather, it is the final phase of sanctification the soul must go through to be pure enough to enter into the heavenly realm. It is not a punishment, however. It is a necessary cleansing.
• The Bible was not “only for the clergy and universities, and only translated into Latin.” I too heard this “Latin only” lie as a history major, but the fact is that there were many translations into the vernacular, including English and German.
The main reason the Bible was limited in availability was because before Gutenberg’s printing press, books in general were extremely rare, as was literacy. The Church therefore used art and regular Bible readings during church services to educate the faithful. But there was no intentional denial of scripture to the people in general.
• The pope did not create “indulgences” just to build St. Peter’s. Indulgences were and still are part of the Church’s devotional practice. The teaching is on this topic is hard to understand even for Catholics, but suffice it to say that it wasn’t just some get-rich-quick scheme concocted by Pope Leo X. Yes, the sale of them was abused by some, but that doesn’t mean the principle itself is incorrect.
• Luther’s assertion that the only authority is scripture may sound appealing, but it’s really an illusion because everyone sees scripture slightly to vastly different. Thus we have 30,000 Protestant denominations today and a divided, fragmented Christendom that has steadily lost influence in the West since Luther’s “revolt” (since it was by no means a “reform”).
• Rev. Kollmeyer’s rather rosy view that Luther, and Luther alone, helped to release “the human spirit to soar to new heights for the advancement of all civilization” is perhaps his most preposterous contention, and is one that can only be claimed in a vacuum of historical ignorance.
But, it fits the Protestant and Anglo-Saxon narrative that the world was in darkness before the advent of Luther and the other Reformers, and that they, and only they, truly understood the Bible and Christianity.
This rather arrogant contention assumes that the previous 1,500 years of Christianity were completely devoid of proper theology, understanding, and practice of the faith.
But if you scratch the surface a bit, you find a massive cast of holy people, both men and women, who developed the faith, defended it from multiple destructive heresies, reformed the Church, defended the people from evil secular rulers, created some of the most beautiful art in the history of humankind, and revived Western civilization on a firm Christian foundation.
For sure there was corruption in the Church at the time of Luther. The Church is a human institution, though with a divine component to be sure, but that human element is indeed vulnerable to the corruption that all humans are. Reform at Luther’s time was for sure needed, as it is today.
But Luther wasn’t interested in “reforming” the Church. He was intent on separating from it and dismantling it. If the “church” is the body of all believers instead of just a denomination among many, we can echo Christ’s call that “we all could be one as I and my father are one.”
But that is not the situation now. We are divided and we continue to attack each other, as Rev. Kollmeyer did in these pages, at a time when we should be united to try and face an aggressive secularist and anti-Christian movement in the West.
No, Luther’s legacy is not a grand advancement of civilization. Rather, it is a collapse of Christian unity and an increase in division and mutual suspicion.
Thanks be to God, even amidst this condition there are many good Christian men and women who live the faith well in their respective sect, but one can not help wonder how great our witness would be if we were still united as one flock in the pasture of the Lord.
Peachtree City, Ga.