01 August 2013

In the studio with Vincent Browne
discussing Martin Luther’s legacy

Discussing Martin Luther with Vincent Browne for the new TV3 series, ‘Challenging God’

Patrick Comerford

I spent much of yesterday evening [31 July 2013] in the studios of the TV3 Group, taking part as a panellist in a programme for a new television series, Challenging God, presented by the journalist Vincent Browne.

I was on a panel with Dr Salvador Ryan, Professor of Ecclesiastical History in the Pontifical University, Maynooth, and Pastor Corinna Diestelkamp of the Lutheran Church in Dublin.

The first programme in this series goes out next Sunday night (4 August 2013). The programme I took part in last night is due to be broadcast on Sunday 1 September 2013 and was produced by Lisa-Marie Berry.

As a panel, we were invited to discuss Martin Luther, whether he was right in rejecting the Papacy, the sale of indulgences, in his claim that the Bible is the only source of divine knowledge, and in his rejection of clerical celibacy.

Inevitably, with Vincent Browne in the chair, the discussion went much further, and we got into a deep discussion about faith in God and the meaning of faith, grace, the love of God, the meaning of love, the incarnation, salvation, suffering, the Holocaust, racism, misogyny, the place of women in the Church, the modern Papacy, music, ecumenical convergence, and joy or the lack of joy in our liturgies.

These are the notes I had prepared as reminders for my discussion about Martin Luther and took with me to the TV3 studios last night:

Patrick Comerford: Notes on Martin Luther


1483: born 10 November 1483, in Eisleben, Saxony.

1507: ordained priest.

1512: Doctor of Theology.

1517: nailed 95 theses to door of Wittenberg Castle Church on 31 October 1517.

1519: denied supreme authority of the Papacy.

1520: censured.

1521: Diet of Worms; formally excommunicated by Pope Leo X on 3 January 1521.

1522: The Little Prayer Book, encouraging lay prayer rather than laity being visual spectators at the Liturgy.

1525: Married Katharina von Bora, former Cistercian nun, on 13 June 1525 – he was 41 and she was 26.

1529: Small Catechism.

1530: Augsburg Confession.

1534: Luther completes his translation of the Bible into German.

1546: Martin Luther dies on 18 February 1546, aged 62, in Eisleben. Buried in Wittenberg Church.

Some ready answers:

Luther was not so much challenging the Papacy as the high mediaeval model of the Papacy, which rejected the conciliar model of the Church, and which was based on the model of a late mediaeval king, who had supreme and absolute authority.

A different style of papacy emerged with Vatican II (conciliar papacy).

A different style of papacy is being seen in style and approach of Pope Francis I.

The sale of indulgences depended on believing (1) that there was temporal, measurable time in purgatory (2) that this could be bought off.

I doubt whether anyone believes in (1) this understanding of sinfulness and of time today (2) that the sale of indulgences is efficacious; so all can object like Luther to this way of raising funds to build Saint Peter’s Basilica.

Some questions:

Why was Luther excommunicated and not, say, Francis of Assisi, who challenged many aspects of the mediaeval Papacy and was the first to refer to the Pope as the Anti-Christ?

Why did Erasmus stay in the Church?

Wh did Luther have a greater impact than Hus, Tyndale and Wycliffe?

Some understandings and misunderstandings:

Luther rightly argues that God’s grace is freely available to all. It is not something to be sold or bought. It is God’s to give, and God gives freely and generously.

Luther gives Primacy to Scripture, but does not ignore tradition. He has a very full grasp of patristic writings. He chooses Scripture over innovation that has no Scriptural foundation.

Luther is not innovative, and is not setting up a new Church. He stands in a long line of tradition that includes Francis of Assisi and the Brothers of the Common Life.

Luther retains sacramental confession.

Luther rejects Transubstantiation, but it was not defined in the present understanding until the 13th session of the Council of Trent in 1551, more than five years after Luther’s death.

Luther accepts the concept of ‘Real Presence’ and that the Eucharist is genuine participation in the life of Christ. There were other definitions and understandings of ‘Real Presence’ and they are held to this day, for example, within the Eastern Orthodox Church, without being considered heretical by Rome.

Luther moves the Eucharist from being a ritual action passively observed to a genuine participation by all present.

Luther emphasises the holiness of the everyday life of work, family and citizenship.

Luther defends religion art and music against the iconoclasts.

His German Mass of 1526 makes vernacular hymns and chorales central to congregational worship. He was a prolific hymn writer.


German language: the German Bible is for the German language what Chaucer, Shakespeare and the King James Bible are for English, or what Dante is for Italian.

Church Life: The high sacramental liturgy and architecture of the Scandinavian Lutheran churches, especially in Sweden challenges many Roman Catholic prejudices about Luther’s legacy.

Bach: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) set many of Luther’s hymns to music; his Passions have brought the Gospels to life for many.

Bonhoeffer: Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), perhaps the most influential theologian of the 20th century, provides the foundation for resisting unjust state structures.

Separation of Church and State and the Reformation opening the door to the Enlightenment.

Negative legacy:

The Peasants’ War: was Luther cementing social stratification and injustice?

Antisemitism: Luther argued that the Jews were no longer the chosen people but “the devil's people,” and referred to them with violent, vile language. Luther advocated setting synagogues on fire, destroying Jewish prayer books, forbidding rabbis from preaching, seizing Jews’ property and money, and smashing up their homes, so that these “envenomed worms” would be forced into labour or expelled “for all time.”

‘German Christians’: was Luther mis-used by the Nazis and their supporters?

Personal obsessions: His personal obsession with his bowels and constipation.

Luther’s principle demands:

A change in the Papacy – conciliar model of Church restored at Vatican II; new style of Papacy emerging under Pope Francis I.

And end to the sale of indulgences – all agreed.

The Bible and Liturgy in the language of the people – all agreed.

An end to of clerical celibacy – this is not a matter of doctrinal dispute; it is a matter of church discipline, and it does not apply in many parts of the Roman Catholic Church (e.g., Maronites, Uniates, or Anglicans who cross the Tiber).