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Martin Luther - 500 Years Later

Martin Luther - 500 Years Later       Gerry O'Shea

This year we commemorate a momentous event in the history of Christendom: The posting of ninety five theological propositions in October 1517 by  Martin Luther on the door of the church in Wittenberg, a town located on the river Elbe in Germany.

Luther, an Augustinian monk and college professor, was challenging the  practice of selling indulgences  that the Church claimed reduced or eliminated the residual punishment in purgatory due for sins already confessed to a priest. While the dubious practice of promoting indulgences has fallen into abeyance in our time, many readers who grew up in the 60's and 70's can tell stories about how they were encouraged to say certain prayers with indulgences attached that varied from a mere 100 days relief in purgatory to a plenary indulgence which could blot out a multitude of transgressions committed by oneself or others.

Luther was objecting as a loyal Catholic priest and certainly had no plans to break away from Rome. However, his condemnation of the church-wide sale of indulgence certificates  gained widespread support in some parts of Europe, and when he was excommunicated by Rome as a schismatic in 1521, he responded with a full-scale attack on what he called Romanism.

 He extended his criticism of the Catholic Church to their explanation of how a person achieves salvation - solely by God's grace according to Luther with the Catholic theologians stressing the importance of good works as well. Also, Martin and his followers looked to the bible as the sole source of true doctrine while Catholics also stressed the importance of church tradition as interpreted by Rome.

The divisions that developed in  Germany and throughout Europe were often more about power politics than theological beliefs. However, the disputes that arose from the dangerous cocktail of religion and politics led to more than a century of savage hostilities in Europe, with some estimates of more than seven million deaths from wars and civilian starvation - all supposedly in the name of the Prince of Peace!!

Indeed religious allegiance and prejudice cast a long shadow right through to our own time, having an impact even on the two world wars of the last century. For instance, British military recruiting propaganda for the First World War called on Irishmen to join the fight against Germany's invasion of Catholic Belgium. And historians point out that Luther's virulent anti-Semitism played a significant role in developing a German culture that eventually allowed the awful Nazi policy of exterminating Jews.

Ireland became the last bastion of Reformation thinking in Europe. De Valera's 1937 constitution accorded a "special position" to the Catholic Church and was cleared by the Vatican before it was promulgated. When the first president of Ireland, Douglas Hyde, a Protestant, died in 1949, the prime minister and other political leaders were photographed standing on the street outside St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin because they were not allowed to enter a Protestant church to pray.

In Northern Ireland the Rev. Ian Paisley proudly presented himself as a Reformation man. He echoed Luther, who in his later years pointed to the pope as the anti-Christ. Paisley, an outstanding orator, referred to the Catholic church as "the whore of Babylon" and the pope as "old red socks!" While denominational religion plays a greatly-reduced role in the Irish Republic today, it continues to largely define the tribal and religious divide in the North.

But Northern Ireland is an exception. Today's Europe is correctly spoken of as post-Christian. A recent survey showed that only 51% of Europeans believe in God. The European Union members refused to include any reference to the importance of Christianity in the preamble to their revised governing document, the Treaty of Lisbon, in 2007.

Pope Francis will join Lutheran leaders to co-lead a major commemorative ceremony in Lund, Sweden this October. They will be recognizing the great historical importance of Martin Luther's provocative  95 Theses posted on the church door in Wittenberg in 1517.

No more controversy about how indulgences can help believers to get into heaven. When last did you hear a sermon about purgatory? Does anyone really worry about whether a Christian is justified by faith or good works? Does anyone think in those categories anymore? What reader knows or cares about the different understanding of the Eucharist represented by Catholic transubstantiation or Protestant consubstantiation? 

If you struggle to understand the ferocious hatred between Shia and Sunni Muslims, as I do, perhaps we should reflect more on the savage religious wars between Protestants and Catholics that resulted in millions of deaths during  the Reformation which was started by Martin Luther  500 years ago.


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