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

In the wake of the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation I have been writing critically of two fundamental Protestant principles, ‘Scripture alone’ and ‘Faith alone’.

While it is necessary to remember and recognize the radical deficiency of these principles that are still very much with us today, it is important also to remember that the Reformation was occasioned by some very serious corruption in the life of the Church reaching to the highest levels. Pope Leo X, who was the Pope in 1517, was marking the end of a quarter of a century or more of truly bad Popes, concerned more with promoting the interests of their family and the temporal power of the papacy, than with spiritual good of the faithful.

As a result, when Martin Luther began spreading his heretical ideas, the initial response of Church authority was to a large extent to say to him, “Sit down and shut up,” while failing even to recognize that their own evil lives had occasioned Luther’s heretical response.

Nevertheless, it will also be worthwhile to contrast the lives of Martin Luther (1483-1546) and his younger contemporary, St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556). The contrast in these two lives shows two very different attitudes towards the Church, not just towards the hidden reality of the spotless Bride of Christ, but also in our day-to-day experience of the field in which the weeds and the wheat are mixed together.

Martin Luther was a German and his view of the Church and the Papacy inevitably became caught up in centuries old resentment on the part of Germans on account of the Italian political domination of affairs in the Holy Roman Empire, of which the German principalities formed a part.

Further, Luther’s heretical ideas were born of a personal interior struggle arising from the combination of his own scrupulous temperament and a distorted image of God as a vengeful judge.  The Jesus he knew was the vengeful judge who would come at the end of time. He does not seem to have entered the monastic life out of love for Jesus Christ, but rather out of fear of divine wrath. As a result, his life as a monk left him burdened with the feeling that for all his dedicated effort he could never please this ‘angry God’. Searching Scripture he discovered ‘faith alone’ in Jesus Christ, who shed his blood for our sins, as the solution to his problem. He experienced this as a truly liberating discovery.

Since Scripture had indeed been badly neglected in the Church culture of his time and place and since he attributed the vision of the ‘angry God’ to the teaching of the Church, backed by the Pope, and since he viewed the whole network of Catholic practices, customs, and rituals, backed by the Pope, as serving and fostering that false image of the ‘angry God’, it is not surprising that Luther then set the authority of the Scripture against the authority of the Pope. Though it was not his original intention, Martin Luther ended by founding a new church, the Lutheran Church, built on the twin principles of ‘Scripture alone’ and ‘faith alone’. He did not merely reform abuses, but rejected 1500 years of the lived faith of the Catholic Church.

St. Ignatius of Loyola was a Spaniard at a time when real Church reform had already been begun during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella and when Spanish political power was beginning to rise. Indeed, the Emperor Charles V, who confronted Martin Luther at the famous Diet of Worms in 1521, was at the same time King of Spain and grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella.

In other words, Ignatius grew up in a self-assured Catholic world that had no need to be particularly resentful towards the Pope. Nevertheless, Ignatius was by no means a good and devout Catholic. Rather, he was a vainglorious and ambitious knight, until his ambitions met with a cannon ball on May 20, 1521, a few days before the Edict of Worms that condemned Martin Luther.  In any case, Ignatius found himself convalescing in the house of his strict and pious older brother, who was the head of the family. Unable to entertain himself by reading stories of knightly adventures, he was forced instead to read not Sacred Scripture, but the adventures of the saints. This led to his conversion. He no longer aspired to be a gallant knight in the service of the King of Spain, but instead a lowly saint in the service of Christ the King.

Ironically, one of the works that profoundly influenced the conversion and subsequent life of St. Ignatius was a life of Christ written by a 14th century monk named Ludolph of Saxony. Martin Luther was a Saxon and it was in Saxony that the Protestant Reformation was born.

After his conversion Ignatius first made a pilgrimage to the Marian shrine at the monastery of Monserrat, then spent a prolonged time in prayer in a cave nearby at Manresa. It was here that his spirituality was formed in prayer, meditation, the practice of works of mercy, and attendance at Mass. At Manresa he came truly to know and love Jesus Christ. (To be continued)



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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