Heresy and Holiness of Two Contemporaries: Martin Luther and St. Ignatius of Loyola: Part II

Last week I began to compare and contrast the lives of two contemporaries: the rebel reformer, Martin Luther, and maybe the greatest agent of the ‘Counter-Reformation’, St. Ignatius of Loyola. Today, I will bring the contrast to a conclusion.

If we are to contrast Luther and St. Ignatius, what is perhaps most striking is that Luther thought that he discovered the ‘real’ Jesus Christ in the pages of Sacred Scripture and that discovery led him to reject the sacraments of the Church, especially the celebration of the Mass. St. Ignatius, however, discovered Jesus Christ living in his Church. His ‘book knowledge’ of Jesus Christ was rooted in the Scriptures insofar as Ludolph of Saxony and the sources he refers to in the Fathers of the Church were rooted in the Scriptures. More than anything else, however, St. Ignatius, still a layman, encountered Christ precisely where Luther, the priest, rejected him: in the celebration of the Mass. We could say that for Ignatius, the Gospels bore witness to Jesus Christ, alive in his Church, present in the sacrament of the altar.

When confronted by Church authorities, Luther’s typical response was, “Prove it to me from Sacred Scripture.” St. Ignatius, for his part, was at times suspect by Church authorities. While he was still a layman he would go about talking to people about God. If it hadn’t been for Martin Luther, this might not have drawn so much attention, but authorities in Spain were a bit worried about who this unknown man was and what strange ideas he might be spreading, especially as he had not completed his studies in theology. St. Ignatius did not challenge the authorities, even though he was imprisoned, but he did vindicate himself and in the end was told only that he should discontinue wearing distinctly religious garb (a habit). Note this was before he had founded the Jesuits.

Partly motivated by the suspicions he was encountering, Ignatius went to Paris to study theology and it was there he gathered the group of companions with whom he would eventually found the Jesuits, the Society of Jesus. He continued to encounter suspicions and was finally examined by the Inquisition in Rome before the Jesuits were approved by Pope Paul III in 1540.

If someone reads Ignatius autobiography the corruption that marked the life of the Church in his time is largely hidden in the background. He did not set out to reform the Church, but first of all he set out to reform himself. Reforming himself he desired to serve the Lord, lead others to the knowledge of God, and become a saint. In the end, he founded a new religious order, integrated into the life of the whole Church, that did much to introduce true reform.

As for Martin Luther, who was truly a man with extraordinary gifts, we can only wonder what might have happened, had there been someone there to guide him, had he submitted to that guidance, had he been able to integrate any valid insights he had into the life of the Church, instead of breaking away and founding a new church.

Some people have remarked on the “Protestantization” of the Catholic Church in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. They will point to things like the focus on Sacred Scripture, Mass in the vernacular, and the role of the laity. Yet we still have the sacrifice of the Mass that Luther rejected; we still have the mystery of Transubstantiation; we still have the hierarchical Church with the Pope, bishops, and priests; we still have the devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.  When the Scriptures are properly explained and taught in the Church today, they lead us back to all these things that Luther rejected because, so he claimed, they could not be found in the Scriptures.

Perhaps the Second Vatican Council, rightly understood and put into practice, following the lead of St. John Paul II, is not a matter of Protestantizing the Church, but finally allowing certain needed reforms that were long delayed precisely because they had become associated with Martin Luther’s rebellion.



Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.

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