Child to Parent: “No! I don’t want to. You’re not the boss of me”
Child to Stepmom: “I don’t have to listen to you. You’re not my REAL mom.”
Ah, music to any parent’s ears…hardly! A number of professionals (teachers, psychologists, etc.) may consider such exchanges a rite of passage—an assertion of necessary autonomy. We might even be told to welcome these encounters. Such thought says that the child is beginning to step into his future by learning to stand up for himself, which will serve him well as an adult. Perhaps at least partially true, but is it acceptable?
How does all this fit within a discussion on a Catholic apologetics blog site? Bear with me…
As Catholics, we strive to excel in the Cardinal Virtues, while doing our best to avoid the Seven Deadly Sins. There is a strong argument that the sin of Pride (the gateway to all) is the trigger for problems in accepting authority. After all, by refusing to accept a legitimate authority over us, what are we in fact saying that we know better than that authority; however, we will leave that discussion for a later time.
So now that we have observed in the above examples the opposition to legitimate authority, let’s move on to examples in Church history. Starting at the beginning is the usual thing to do, but not today. Our first stop on the journey is the most obvious event in recent history that can shed light upon the issue of authority: The Protestant Reformation. However, before we go there, a point of clarification needs to be stated.
If we consult Webster’s Dictionary, the word ‘reform’ has a meaning as a verb (make changes in something, typically a social, political, or economic institution or practice, in order to improve it), and as a noun (the action or process of reforming an institution or practice). Strictly speaking, since Luther did not stick around to ‘improve’ the institution of the Catholic Church, the so-called Protestant Reformation fits neither of these definitions.
However, if we look to the definition of ‘rebel,’ we find something much closer: to rise in opposition or armed resistance to an established government or ruler. Synonyms listed include insurgent, mutineer, terrorist, renegade. Then in the word ‘rebellion’ we find ‘an act of violent or open resistance to an established government or ruler’, and ‘the action or process of resisting authority, control, or convention.’ Considering how we began this blog, it is ironic that the example given by Webster’s is ‘an act of teenage rebellion.’ Coincidence? Hmmm….But let’s move on.
In Luther’s “95 Theses” we find essentially three main issues: purgatory, the alleged selling of indulgences, and the legitimacy of papal authority. With regards to the purgatory issue, it is intrinsically tied to Church teaching on indulgences, which makes it virtually impossible to address purgatory on its own. The attack against the Church on indulgences has only a degree of truth. Yes, there was a problem with certain bishops and priests tying monetary indulgences far too closely with acquiring Heaven. However, one thing is clear: Church teaching and doctrine never allowed or supported the selling of indulgences as a means of obtaining Heaven. One caveat to admit is that by approaching this topic, Luther did help somewhat in that the Church actually did reform (in the true sense; from within) and eventually root out those who abused the laity by misrepresenting indulgences. What is unclear is whether this problem would have resolved itself without Martin Luther. Since the Catholic Church has always addressed issues and heresies in order to remain closer to its foundational truths, it’s likely those priests and bishops would have been discovered and called to task—even without Luther’s approach and subsequent refusal to recognize the authority over him. That begs another topic of discussion (not to be addressed at this time): was there a need for Luther’s line drawn in the sand that essentially sparked the splintering of Christianity?
Yet even the sale of indulgences may not be the primary key to Luther’s perspective against the Church. His complaints regarding indulgences and his attack against Church teaching on purgatory seems to have had much deeper roots. At the very heart of accepting or denying these Church teachings is the issue of authority. To be Catholic is to accept all doctrines and dogmas that have come through Apostolic teaching and formalized in councils under magisterial guidance. In other words, the authority of the Church is at the heart of those teachings; thus, they are to be accepted for the good of Christ’s Church. This is much bigger and broader than any one pope or era, and stems from the very foundations of the faith. Church Authority, guided by the Seat of Peter and the Magisterium, is the very mechanism by which Christ established His Church so as to protect her against the Gates of Hell. And how might those Gates of Hell open? Via heretical teachings, should they not be addressed and thwarted.
Fast forward to the early 1500’s…
Sometime after nailing his “95 Theses” upon the Castle Door in Wittenberg, Luther determined that one should not be restricted by having to accept the very Authority Christ established when He gave St. Peter the ‘keys’ to the kingdom. What began in 1517 with the “95 Theses” culminated in his refusal to appear when summoned to Rome with regard to his complaints. His refusal was in complete defiance to the authority over him as a Catholic priest. There is speculation that Luther’s problem with authority came from a tumultuous relationship with his abusive father, setting the stage for rebelling against the ‘father’ figure in the Church (the Pope). Luther described this troubling relationship in a letter to his father, as recorded in the Catholic Encyclopedia. Luther states, “when I was terror-stricken and over-whelmed by the fear of impending death, I made an involuntary and forced vow.” There are other accounts of an extreme beating by his mother, as well as severe punishments in school. In other words, the motivation for taking Holy Order vows was intrinsically tied to abuse at the hands of those in authority over him. That connection in part caused him to abandon his studies to become a lawyer (in defiance to his father’s guide), and instead to then take vows as a Monk.
But regardless of psychological issues causing Martin Luther’s rebellion against authority, the fact remains that Luther’s primary problem was in accepting the authority of the Catholic Church under the Holy See. Examining his “95 Theses” reveals that there were not actually 95 separate complaints Luther lodged against the Catholic Church. Instead, the Big Three issues of Indulgences, Purgatory and Papal Authority comprise a large portion of the Theses, reiterated throughout his paper. As previously stated, one cannot separate the issue of Indulgences from that of Purgatory. However, the umbrella over all doctrine, including these two, is Papal Authority. Therefore, upon investigation into his life, writings, and the Theses themselves, one can surmise that difficulty in accepting authority seems to be an overriding issue for Martin Luther. Unfortunately, that issue moved him toward a rebellious, adversarial stand against the Authority that Christ established in the Catholic Church. And that rebellion helped launch a movement that continues to splinter and separate believers into a variety of sects even today.
Yet even in the midst of such great division, we can see many from the various sects returning to the Church Christ founded. Our goal should always align with Christ’s goal that the Church be One, dedicating ourselves to find ways we can bring His desire into reality:
“And now I will no longer be in the world, but they are in the world, while I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are one” —John 17:11
[WATCH FOR PART 2 IN THIS SERIES. Coming soon!]