In 1516, Johann Tetzel, a Dominican monk and papal commissioner for indulgences, was dispatched to Germany by Pope Leo X (1513–21) to sell indulgences to raise money to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. (An indulgence was full or partial remission of temporal punishment in purgatory for sins already forgiven, granted after a sinner had confessed and received absolution.) Granted for specific good works, like donating money to the Church, Catholic doctrine held that faith in Jesus alone could not gain salvation in heaven, i.e., “justify” mankind; justification rather depended on faith active in charity and good works, fides caritate formata.
Strongly disputing the claim that freedom from punishment for sin could be “purchased,” Martin Luther (1483-1546), an Augustinian monk and professor of theology at Wittenberg University, confronted Tetzel, asserting that the Pope had no right “to sell” salvation — one of his Ninety- Five Theses (a list of what Luther considered to be problematic practices of the medieval church). His Ninety- Five Theses, written in 1517, set in motion what would become the Protestant Reformation. Additionally, Luther asserted that 1) the Bible contained all the knowledge necessary for salvation and holiness; 2) all the baptized were part of the holy priesthood, not just the ordained; and 3) Matthew 16:18 (“…you are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church…”) did not confer on popes the exclusive right to interpret Scripture, and, accordingly, 4) popes and church councils were not infallible. In short, salvation, for Luther, could not be earned by good works, but could only be received as a free gift of God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ. For refusal to retract his heretical ideas, as commanded of Pope Leo X in 1520 and by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther was excommunicated by the pope and condemned as an outlaw by the emperor.
Luther is reputed to have said at his trial in the Diet of Worms: “Here I stand, I can do no other. God bless me, Amen!” The Diet of Worms was a general assembly of the estates of the Holy Roman Empire that took place in Worms, a town on the Rhine. Luther escaped being burned at the stake only because Frederick III, the Elector of Saxony, intervened and placed him in protective custody in Wartburg Castle at Eisenach. While there, Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German, making it more accessible to ordinary people, and continued to issue doctrinal and polemical writings, including his controversial, On the Jews and Their Lies, written in 1543.
Although initially sympathetic toward Jews, later in life Luther became virulently anti-Jewish. Angered by their refusal to convert to Christianity, in On the Jews and Their Lies, he depicts Jews as Christ killers and criminals bent on ruling the world. (The conspiracy to rule the world theme reappears in the twentieth century forgery and hoax, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a cornerstone of Nazi racist propaganda.) Luther contended, inter alia, that the Jews were a “base, whoring people, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth.” They were full of the “devil’s feces … which they wallow in like swine…” The synagogue was a “defiled bride … an incorrigible whore and an evil slut.” He advocated that their synagogues and schools be set on fire, their prayer books destroyed, rabbis forbidden to preach, their homes razed, and their property confiscated. “My advice …is first, that their synagogues be burned down and that all who are able toss sulfur and pitch; it would be good if someone could also throw in some hellfire.” They should be shown no mercy or kindness, afforded no legal protection, and these “poisonous envenomed worms” should be drafted into forced labor or expelled “like mad dogs” from the land for all time. Luther, seemingly, also sanctioned their killing by writing: “We are at fault in not slaying them.” Luther’s incendiary rhetoric concerning Jews was in the tradition of the Church Fathers. Tragically, much of what he proposed be done to Jews actually occurred during the Third Reich.
The City of Nuremberg presented a first edition of On the Jews and Their Lies to Julius Streicher, editor of the Nazi newspaper Der Sturmer, on his birthday in 1937. Streicher described it as the most radically anti-Semitic tract ever published. The tract was publicly exhibited in a glass case at Nuremberg rallies and quoted in a 54-page explanation of Aryan Law by Dr. E.H. Schulz and Dr. R. Frercks. In December 1941, seven Protestant regional church confederations issued a statement agreeing with the Nazi policy of forcing Jews to wear the Star of David, “since after his bitter experience Luther had already suggested preventive measures against the Jews and their expulsion from German territory.” Hitler was particularly fond of quoting from On the Jews and Their Lies.
The Catholic Counter Reformation began with the Council of Trent (1543– 65) and ended at the close of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648. Convened by Pope Paul III (1534– 49) to deal with the Protestant crisis, the Council of Trent, among other things, condemned Protestant reformers as heretics and defined various church teachings in the areas of Original Sin, Justification, Tradition, the Sacraments, the Eucharist and the veneration of saints. Luther and other reformers were excommunicated, some, like Jan Hus, were burned at the stake. And their books were burned. To counter Protestant claims of “justification by faith alone” and sola scriptura (“scripture alone”), Trent reiterated that papal interpretation of Scripture was inerrant and that anyone who disputed papal interpretation was a heretic; reiterated that Scripture and Tradition were equally authoritative. For Catholics, understanding Scripture is mediated by the universal teaching authority of the Church, (the Magisterium), which has primacy over the Word.
Trent, however, failed to correct some obviously problematic church practices like the sale of church offices (simony) and indulgences for fear of acknowledging and, therefore, legitimizing the reformers’ claims. It should be noted that throughout its long history absolutist doctrines (e.g., papal inerrancy; the church is a spotless bride of Christ; the Church is the embodiment of God’s kingdom on earth) coupled with its reluctance to cause or admit scandal, have made it difficult for the Church to acknowledge error and change course. The Church’s reluctance to cause or admit scandal figures into its controversial response to the recent worldwide child sex abuse scandal by pedophile priests. The scandal began when in January, 2002, the Boston Globe published a front-page story entitled “Church Allowed Abuse by Priests for Years.” It was an account of how Boston’s archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law, and his predecessors had protected pedophile priests, enabling them to continue what was widely characterized as their predatory crime spree.
In an attempt to blunt the rise of Protestantism and spearhead the Counter-Reformation, Pope Paul III in 1542 established the Roman Inquisition, which expanded the range of targets to include, in addition to heretics, rationalists and scientists. After the Protestant Reformation, a siege mentality gripped the papacy, as it increasingly viewed itself under siege on all sides by evil forces. This mentality intensified during the Age of Revolution (1775-1848) and would lead, in the nineteenth century, to Pius IX’s war on Modernism. In short, rather than acknowledge and reform admittedly problematic church practices denounced by Martin Luther and other reformers, the Vatican chose to stay the course, variously described by historians as “hunkering down” or “circling the wagons.” Its static worldview, including its doctrine of anti-Judaism, enthusiastically endorsed by Luther, continued into the twentieth century, helping to pave the way for the Holocaust.