There is great confusion today when we talk about Luther, and it needs to be said clearly that from the point of view of dogmatic theology, from the point of view of the doctrine of the Church, it wasn’t a reform at all but rather a revolution, that is, a total change of the foundations of the Catholic Faith.
It is not realistic to argue that [Luther’s] intention was only to fight against abuses of indulgences or the sins of the Renaissance Church. Abuses and evil actions have always existed in the Church, not only during the Renaissance, and they still exist today. We are the holy Church because of the God’s grace and the Sacraments, but all the men of the Church are sinners, they all need forgiveness, contrition, and repentance.
This distinction is very important. And in the book written by Luther in 1520, “De captivitate Babylonica ecclesiae,” it is absolutely clear that Luther has left behind all of the principles of the Catholic Faith, Sacred Scripture, the Apostolic Tradition, the magisterium of the Pope and the Councils, and of the episcopate. In this sense, he upended the concept of the homogeneous development of Christian doctrine as explained in the Middle Ages, even denying that a sacrament is an efficacious sign of the grace contained therein. He replaced this objective efficacy of the sacraments with a subjective faith. Here, Luther abolished five sacraments, and he also denied the Eucharist: the sacrificial character of the sacrament of the Eucharist, and the real conversion of the substance of bread and wine into the substance of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, he called the sacrament of episcopal ordination, the sacrament of Orders, an invention of the Pope — whom he called the Antichrist — and not part of the Church of Jesus Christ. Instead, we say that the sacramental hierarchy, in communion with the successor of Peter, is an essential element of the Catholic Church, and not only a principle of a human organization.
That is why we cannot accept Luther’s reform being called a reform of the Church in a Catholic sense. Catholic reform is a renewal of faith lived in grace, in the renewal of customs, of ethics, a spiritual and moral renewal of Christians; not a new foundation, not a new Church.
It is therefore unacceptable to assert that Luther’s reform “was an event of the Holy Spirit.” On the contrary, it was against the Holy Spirit. Because the Holy Spirit helps the Church to maintain her continuity through the Church’s magisterium, above all in the service of the Petrine ministry: on Peter has Jesus founded His Church (Mt 16:18), which is “the Church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15). The Holy Spirit does not contradict Himself.
We hear so many voices speaking too enthusiastically about Luther, not knowing exactly his theology, his polemics and the disastrous effect of this movement which destroyed the unity of millions of Christians with the Catholic Church. We cannot evaluate positively his good will, the lucid explanation of the shared mysteries of faith but not his statements against the Catholic Faith, especially with regard to the sacraments and hierarchical-apostolic structure of the Church.
Nor is it correct to assert that Luther initially had good intentions, meaning by this that it was the rigid attitude of the Church that pushed him down the wrong road. This is not true: Luther was intent on fighting against the selling of indulgences, but the goal was not indulgences as such, but as an element of the Sacrament of Penance.
Nor is it true that the Church refused to dialogue: Luther first had a dispute with John Eck; then the Pope sent Cardinal Gaetano as a liaison to talk to him. We can discuss the methods, but when it comes to the substance of the doctrine, it must be stated that the authority of the Church did not make mistakes. Otherwise, one must argue that, for a thousand years, the Church has taught errors regarding the faith, when we know — and this is an essential element of doctrine — that the Church can not err in the transmission of salvation in the sacraments.
One should not confuse personal mistakes and the sins of people in the Church with errors in doctrine and the sacraments. Those who do this believe that the Church is only an organization comprised of men and deny the principle that Jesus himself founded His Church and protects her in the transmission of the faith and grace in the sacraments through the Holy Spirit. His Church is not a merely human organization: it is the body of Christ, where the infallibility of the Council and the Pope exists in precisely described ways. All of the councils speak of the infallibility of the Magisterium, in setting forth the Catholic faith. Amid today’s confusion, in many people this reality has been overturned: they believe the Pope is infallible when he speaks privately, but then when the Popes throughout history have set forth the Catholic faith, they say it is fallible.
Of course, 500 years have passed. It’s no longer the time for polemics but for seeking reconciliation: but not at the expense of truth. One should not create confusion. While on the one hand, we must be able to grasp the effectiveness of the Holy Spirit in these other non-Catholic Christians who have good will, and who have not personally committed this sin of separation from the Church, on the other we cannot change history, and what happened 500 years ago. It’s one thing to want to have good relations with non-Catholic Christians today, in order to bring us closer to a full communion with the Catholic hierarchy and with the acceptance of the Apostolic Tradition according to Catholic doctrine. It’s quite another thing to misunderstand or falsify what happened 500 years ago and the disastrous effect it had. An effect contrary to the will of God: “… that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou has sent me” (Jn 17:21).