Admitting our faults


Often, Protestants look at Martin Luther as a hero who came to set straight the “false teachings” of the Catholic Church. Very few Protestants realize, however, that when it comes to false teachings, a.k.a. heresy, Martin Luther was charged with at least 41 counts of it, many that pervade modern Protestant theology to this very day. Like heretics before him, he was excommunicated. What he did caught on, however, because much of his heresy was based on what, in his heart, may have been a genuine misunderstanding of Scripture, a misunderstanding that is very easy to convince others of, especially after the invention of the printing press, if they are not aware of the authority of the Chruch.
Still, even the Catechism of the Catholic Church acknowledges that the Catholic Church was also responsible for the Protestant Reformation. What exactly was the Catholic Church guilty of? Certainly it was not any ex-cathedra doctrine that was faulty. In my understanding, what the Catholic Church was corruptly doing was demanding money for the forgiveness of sins, including the sins of other people in purgatory, in other words, they were selling indulgences.(This was not a “false teaching,” but a corrupt practice.) Matthew 18:34 says, “Then in anger, the master handed him over to the torturers until he paid back all that he owed.” This verse certainly seems to imply that those who are in Purgatory are personally responsible for suffering the temporal punishments due for their sins. There also is a passage in 2 Maccabees that shows that taking up a financial collection for those in Purgatory is a good thing. So, what was corrupt about this? I would think that the corruption lies first in the clergy’s lack of love and charity towards the laity in that they would intentionally keep someone in Purgatory until the price was right, as if they even had the authority to do that in the first place, or the personal knowledge that one is in or being set free from Purgatory. Second, it makes forgiveness of sins easier for the rich than the poor, which would not be consistent with God’s love towards all. Thirdly, it would allow the Church to really abuse Matthew 16:19 in that suddenly the Church was usurping God in judging people’s eternal salvation. Jesus also speaks against abusing power, in Matthew 20:25-27. Martin Luther was definitely right to confront the Church on this. Even our first Pope was confronted when he set a bad example. (Galatians 2:11-14)The problem is, while Martin Luther was trying to strain out this gnat, he swallowed a camel. He became so consumed with anti-magisterium zeal, that he started attacking true beliefs, true doctrines, and even the truly divinely granted authority of the Church. He went beyond what he should have done, and for that, he was greatly at fault. My question to everyone is, do I have this correct? Is the “Selling of indulgences” which the Council of Trent banned wrong, because of my aformentioned reasons? While we can go on and on trashing Martin Luther, what is the proper Catholic understanding of the CATHOLIC faults that led to the Reformation?


One could make the argument that the Catholic Church could have done a better job handling Martin Luther’s rebellion instead of ignoring it and pretending it wasn’t going to go away.

Understandably, the Muslim Turks were a constant threat at this time and the “issue” of Luther took a back seat as a result. One possibility would have the Church take the opposite approach by ignoring the Turks and concentrating all efforts on Luther. The possibility then would be that Western Christendom would have remain unified but under Muslim political rule. How Christianity would have fared under these circumstances is anyone’s guess. My guess is that the Catholic Church would have survived regardless. After all, Christ’s promise of not allowing the Church to go astray can’t be conquered by a man-made empire. If the Roman Empire couldn’t destroy the Church, neither could the Muslim Turks.

Of course we would be living in a much different world today had the Church taken this course of action. But one thing is certain, the Catholic Church would still be here.


I appreciate that bit of history. I am looking for clarification though, in terms of whether it was licit for the Church to declare infallibly that someone is in Purgatory, and that the Church had the power to infallibly release that person from Purgatory, regardless of the money factor. Was that even what the Church was claiming at the time, or am I misunderstanding it?


Well, it was certainly licitly within the power of the Church to declare that there are souls in Purgatory. I don’t believe the Church can say with any certainly who is in Purgatory.

However, I wouldn’t say that the Church has taught that it had the power to release souls from Purgatory. At best, perhaps it could be said that the Church has the power to declare to the faithful the means by which it is possible to release souls from Purgatory (i.e. what constitutes an indulgence).


I read this article by james atkin titled Myths about Indulgences; from CA. Myth # 7 says:

"A person used to be able to buy indulgences.

One never could “buy” indulgences. The financial scandal around indulgences, the scandal that gave Martin Luther an excuse for his heterodoxy, involved alms-indulgences in which the giving of alms to some charitable fund or foundation was used as the occasion to grant the indulgence. There was no outright selling of indulgences. The Catholic Encyclopedia states: "t is easy to see how abuses crept in. Among the good works which might be encouraged by being made the condition of an indulgence, almsgiving would naturally hold a conspicuous place. . . It is well to observe that in these purposes there is nothing essentially evil. To give money to God or to the poor is a praiseworthy act, and, when it is done from right motives, it will surely not go unrewarded.""


You might be interested in reading Facts about Luther. It does an excellent job describing what was really going on in the Church at the time, as well as extensive quotes from Luther himself.I’m still working my way through it, but from what I’ve read so far, I pity him more than anything else. :frowning:


I thank you all for your feedback. That book suggestion looks very interesting, too. So the Church never sold indulgences??? I based my impression of what was happening on what Martin Luther seemed to be objecting to in Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. He seemed to make a strong implication that the Church was selling indulgences on behalf of those who were in Purgatory, and claiming that the person in Purgatory would go straight to Heaven when the Church received the money, which was used to build St. Peter’s Basilica.(sic?) Was Martin Luther misunderstanding the Church teaching, and objecting to something that was not even happening, much like modern protestants do, today? So the Church wasn’t declaring specific people to be in Purgatory, and challenging their family members and friends to buy them out of Purgatory? That wasn’t happening? This is really fascinating. So the Church wasn’t even doing anything corrupt, but Martin Luther perceived corruption?


The Catholic Church failed to move swiftly to protect Germans from Luther’s heresy and his collusion with princes.

When you read the correspondence between Luther and Pope Leo X, for example, one is chiefly struck how patient and charitable the Pope is, trying to gently correct Luther while at the same time Luther’s calling him the Antichrist and publishing pornographic tracts so illiterate Germans could get the idea too.

By treating Luther’s heresy as just another in a long line of “off the reservation” priests, the Catholic Church made the religious wars which destroyed Germany for centuries inevitable. The blow to the Holy Roman Empire which resulted destabilized Europe for hundreds of years.

It is of course interesting to note that the Protestants who cluck-cluck about the sales of indulgences have no qualms about insisting for instance that one must tithe aggressively to improve the number of jewels in one’s crown in Heaven, or because the more you give the church the more wealth God will in turn give you, or because the only way to know you’re saved is to do so, etc. etc.

Whenever I hear such Protestant condemnation of 16th century indulgences, I note, “We built St Peter’s Basilica, the most beautiful church in the world, with the proceeds of these horrible indulgences. You buy Kenneth Copeland another jet, or Benny Hinn a white suit, or Oral Roberts a library, or get a building named after your pastor at Lee University. Who’s after the glory of God?”


I thank you all for you replies. I ordered the recommended book on Martin Luther, too, which should be interesting when it arrives. The question I still have, though, is was there any claim by the Catholic Church that people could buy indulgences to get SPECIFIC loved ones out of Purgatory, and that furthermore, as soon as the Church received the money for the indulgence on that person’s behalf, the soul was instantly released from Purgatory. Based on my understanding of Martin Luther’s 95 theses, that seems to be what he is implying was going on. Did he just connect the dots in the wrong way? Was it outright slander? Or, was such a scandal actually going on?
I supposed I should let everyone know why I started this thread. I have some close Protestant friends who I very recently was trying to convince of the truth of the Catholic Church. I know many Scriptural apologetics to use, as well as Church fathers teachings. What became a stumbling block to my Protestant friends, however, was their belief that “The Church was very corrupt at the time of Martin Luther.” Sadly, I didn’t know how to defend this one as you can’t whip out a verse from the Bible to defend such an allegation, other than about how Jesus commanded the Disciples to listen to what the Pharisees said, but not follow their example. To me, though, that wasn’t enough. My only knowledge of what the Church was doing that was “corrupt,” is what I can glean from Martin Luther’s 95 theses, some of which are heretical thoughts of his, but others that would be legitimate objections if they were in fact happening. What I am trying to find out is, were they in fact happening, or did Martin Luther misunderstand the Church teachings? I would love to say that there was no corruption of significance at the time, but I want to be sure of my facts, and be honest if the aforementioned, “buy your friends and family out of purgatory with assurance” scandal was in fact going on. Or, was it a misunderstanding of Luther, an erroneous attempt at connecting the dots by Luther, or an outright slander against the Catholic Church by Luther.


First, it is my understanding that there were actually a few people who were “selling” indulgences, without the authority of the Catholic Church behind them. (I know, not really selling, but they made it sound that way).
Obviously, these persons were engaged in a corrupt practice, but I find Luther’s response to be, to put it mildly, an enormous over-reaction. (Boxing the ears of the offending individuals, before running them out of town would have made more sense).

Second, I suspect that Luther should never have become a priest in the 1st place. I don’t know how much he did & didn’t understand of Catholic doctrine & practice, and how much he simply rejected. I do see him as one of those people who ‘act in haste & repent at leisure’, as the saying goes, in regards to entering the priesthood.

So I guess, I would say that there is a real tragedy in the fact that Luther was ever in a position to call attention to himslef…(If he had been, say, a baker or :wink: irresistible] a candlestick maker, he could have been as confused and/or angry as he pleased with no harm, no foul).


Well, there are a couple of things to consider:

  1. Indulgences were a longstanding and well-supported practice. Tetzel was doing his job.

  2. There were certainly abuses in the Church of the time, as there are today. In particular, priests having illegitimate children and mistresses was a problem. This was one vice Luther was ill-equipped to criticize. :wink:

  3. Further, as with Alexander VI, many priests came from the nobility, and treated Church property as landed holdings of their own. Bishops became quite wealthy as a result, and were resented for it.

  4. There was considerable issue with clergy not fulfilling their obligations whatsoever, and their seats basically being vacant.

The problem with Protestants’ claims is that it is not enough to say “There were abuses in the Church”—one must establish that there were FEWER abuses in one’s own (hard to do when drowning Anabaptists) and that simultaneously these abuses were the result of being theologically in error.


It should be called the Michael Moore treatment of Luther, not the “facts about Luther”

There is not much factual about it and not taken seriously by many Catholic Historians.

It consists of many “quotes” taken out of context, “quotes” with no sources, “quotes” from students of his.

Art Sippo politely says

“Sadly the book “The Facts About Luther” was written in the mid-19th Century and while it is worth reading, it needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Some of the things it says about Luther are not accurate.”

It’s probably a great book if all you want to do is Bash Luther without the need for pesky real facts.


Reform Came Before the Reformation


Didn’t you know that ALL history is biased? I’ve read a bio of Luther by the Lutherans, now I’m reading about his roots. I know how to read a historical account and not take everything contained therein as Gospel Truth. Give me a little credit, please.

As I said, I’m still reading through it, and what I’ve read so far isn’t Luther bashing at all but makes me feel very sorry for him. He had obvious anger issues, and I suspect he was bi-polar. I have a real love for the Lutherans - I was one for a couple of years whilst on my way to Rome! :thumbsup:


Not quite. It caught on because he was backed by secular rulers who wanted to rule national churches independentent of the Roman Pontiff.

Almost every schism or heresy catches ondue to this. The Reformation, the Anglican Schism (Henry VIII), the Eastern Orthodox (the Emperor in Constaninople), Arianism (the Gothic kings) and currently in China with the Chinese Patriotic Church. That Pope in Rome is always a thorn in the side of ambitous politicians.


Given that the author of “The Facts About Luther” used Protestant sources and not Catholic ones, it would seem your issue is not with him but with Luther scholars of the last century. If I recall correctly, it was released in the early 20th, not the 19th century.


I have to be out this afternoon and will answer your question about our own faults when I get back. But I must take issue with your portrayal of us as ‘going on and on trashing Martin Luther.’ That is a most unfair mischaracterization of what has happened on these forums in the past few months since Francis Beckwith swam the Tiber.

Teflon, estesbob, and I have been called terrible names including ‘anti-Protestants.’ We have been accused of having no evidence for our claims when we have literally blanketed the relevant threads with linked evidence. We have been misrepresented, dismissed, and attacked simply for linking to recorded history.

Why? It’s obvious. Because the frailties of the early Reformers are supposed to be a BIG SECRET. They are an elephant in the room. For gosh sakes let’s not mention them and they’ll go away.

The big deal is that the frailties of the early Reformers had devastating effects on a multitude of societies for centuries after the Reformation. And all of this is a matter of record. Historical record. Surely we should be able to look at that?

The efforts of some to marginalize this history by denigrating Teflon, estesbob, and myself is censorship. We have been polite. We have simply posted realities which are uncomfortable for many to ponder; they caught many unaware, unprepared, with a sense of having been betrayed and gulled by those they trusted.

Well, perhaps it is time to discuss openly whether or not the folks in the pews have indeed been betrayed and gulled by withholding history from them. While I wholly sympathize with the sense of shock felt by many at hearing the message, let’s deal with the message and not shoot the messsengers.

That’s what I have to say about what you opened up in the OP. As I said, I will post something on the Church’s role later.


Simply said, the Church needed a reformation but not a revolution.

There is no need to whitewash the corruption/laxity among the educated classes and the clergy at that time, much like it is folly to ignore the corrupting influence of modernism among some of today’s clergy.


The Church is always in need of reformation. It is a hospital for sinners.

To fetishize the ills of the Church in the 16th century versus those of the 2nd, 10th, or 13th centuries is merely to demonstrate simultaneous ignorance of history and human nature.

Why do you think Christ named Peter, the imperfect apostle, as the first Pope if not to emphasize that human frailty and weakness would not be sufficient to corrode Christ’s Church?



I’m not fetishizing anything. There were several factors that led to the Protestant Reformation. The particular ills facing the Church at that time was one of them.

There need be no reluctance in admitting this. Nor do we need to couch this admission with proclamations of Luther’s evils every time.

Fer instance, at a personal level. Let’s say you are having a squabble with the wife. Sometimes its best to just admit your portion of the fault and work from there on the deeper issues. Otherwise it ends up in a battle of fault rather than one of substance.

It doesn’t matter if Luther was an angel or a devil or something in between. What matters is the division and solving the real issues.

Really, the only reasons I can think of to bring up Luther’s faults at all in apologetics are: 1) someone is arguing that Luther had a particular and peculiar calling. 2) someone can’t get past a bigoted historical midset and needs a dose of balance.

Otherwise, its more a matter of history than apologetics.

(Not that history isn’t part of apologetics etc. etc.):wink:

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit