500 Years of Protestantism: A Traditional Catholic View of the Protestant Reformation

Pope Francis appearing next to a statue of Martin Luther for an ecumenical event held with Lutherans at the Vatican | Photo from Lifesite News

Pope Francis appearing next to a statue of Martin Luther for an ecumenical event held with Lutherans at the Vatican | Photo from Lifesite News

Martin Luther did not have trick-or-treating in mind when he approached the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church on October 31, 1517, though I am sure many Catholics wish he did.

Today marks the Reformation’s quincentennial. Many people may expect some Catholic disdain for this day.  Recently in Rome, however, there has risen a veneration of Martin Luther. Stampage featuring an image of Luther and Philip Melanchthon next to Christ crucified will be issued from the Vatican this year. Pope Francis has done his part in showing his admiration of Luther; he appeared in public during an ecumenical event with Lutherans at the Vatican last October. He was seen next to a statue of the “Reformer.”

Many people may expect some Catholic disdain for this day.  Recently in Rome, however, there has risen a veneration of Martin Luther.

During his controversial visit to Lund, Sweden, Pope Francis held a “common prayer” service wherein 10,000 Lutherans and Catholics set aside their differences and prayed for unity. They prayed “to remain one with Christ.”

Nevertheless, there are Catholics who still approach the topic of the Reformation with distaste.

Last Sunday after Mass, I spoke with a fellow parishioner, mentioning to him that I was writing a story on the Protestant Reformation. “You mean the Protestant Revolution?” he responded candidly.

A German Cardinal theologian of the Roman Church holds the same sentiment. On October 24, Cardinal Gerhard L. Müller, former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote an article entitled: “LUTHER? NOT A REFORM BUT A REVOLUTION.”  

This response best describes the attitude of a traditional priest I spoke with recently.

Father Adam Purdy is a traditional Catholic priest at St. Michael’s in Farmingville, Long Island. He belongs to the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), a priestly fraternity founded by Archbishop Marcel LeFebrve in 1970, devoted exclusively to Catholic tradition in light of its suppression after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). His rigid views on Martin Luther, the Reformation, and Protestantism seem obscure and abandoned in light of the recent ecumenical movement espoused by the post Vatican II Pontificates.

Fr. Purdy characterizes Pope Francis’ trip to Sweden as “true scandal.”

“Martin Luther at the Age of 50” painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1533 | Photo from Wikimedia Commons  

“Martin Luther at the Age of 50” painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1533 | Photo from Wikimedia Commons

 

The event of this anniversary holds no positive significance for Fr. Purdy.

“When is it?” Purdy said in response to my question on how he plans on approaching the quincentennial.

He recommends for Catholics, “If we commemorated anything, it should be the day [Luther’s] doctrines were condemned.”

This day would be June 15, 1520 when Pope Leo X promulgated the papal bull Exsurge Domine. Within this papal bull, Leo X condemned 41 teachings of Martin Luther, threatened him with excommunication, and forbade the faithful from reading, espousing, and disseminating Luther’s writings. Luther would be excommunicated the following year.

But wasn't Martin Luther right in criticizing and protesting the Papal indulgence campaign? What about the well known clerical corruption of the time? Surely these are things any pious Christian would find disagreeable and worthy of protestation. The traditionalist priest says otherwise.

Fr. Purdy says, “Indulgences and church corruption are not the heart of the matter.” He states that they are minor in consequence when compared with Luther’s unnecessary concoction of a new religion and the grave result of Protestantism in separating souls from “the only ark of salvation and spouse of Jesus Christ,” outside of which “there is no other means to save one’s soul.”

“You mean the Protestant Revolution?”

As far as dialogue with non-Catholic denominations, Fr. Purdy says that a Catholic ought to be concerned for the conversion of Protestants, who he says are in the objective “position of heresy.” For Fr. Purdy, there is nothing a Catholic can truly appreciate within the “heretical system” of Protestant doctrine.

Concerning Martin Luther individually, Fr. Purdy echoes what the Catholic Church has always stated.

“Martin Luther is a declared heretic by the Catholic Church” Fr. Purdy says, meaning “he has been condemned for heretical doctrinal positions." Chiefly from “his doctrine of Justification” the entire Catholic Faith is denounced and treated brutally.

St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican | Photo from Business Insider

St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican | Photo from Business Insider

Luther himself did have a pious devotion to the Virgin Mary (he believed in the Immaculate Conception and in her Perpetual Virginity), but he abolished the priesthood, scoffed at, and removed from his liturgy the sacrificial notion of the Mass. He disdained the Papacy (often dubbing the Pope the Antichrist) and asserted that the Eucharist after Mass no longer remains the body and blood of Christ. These are a mere handful of sacramental abolishments performed by Luther, the rest of which can be found in Luther’s On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. All of these are dear to the devout Catholic and are defended through the ages by Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and magisterial teaching. Such indignation towards Martin Luther and Protestantism should be understandable. These beliefs are inherent within most Protestant doctrine rooted in Luther’s Reformation or Revolution.

“The attitude Catholics should have toward Protestantism,” Fr. Purdy states, “is scorn and derision.”

The damage done by Martin Luther, Fr. Purdy says, is “incalculable…a scandal in the purest sense of the word.” It “attacked and opposed the Catholic Faith,” and is responsible for the estrangement and ultimately, the loss of many souls.