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August/September 1996

Luther, Anglicanism and the End of History



It's time to take the gloves off! Both Martin Luther and the Anglican Church have been indulged for far too long. In this Jubilee year celebrating the 450th anniversary of his death, moves are afoot to rehabilitate Luther, to portray him as more sinned against than sinning; a misunderstood, prophetic and even saintly figure. Before such bare-faced lies we hear only muted objections and embarrassed shuffling of feet. Meanwhile, for its heinous undermining of Christianity, and thus English society, Anglicanism barely collects 40 lashes with a wet noodle from the perennially diffident British Catholic intelligentsia.

This essay draws on the masterful insights of Jacques Maritain to remind one and all that Martin Luther is the spiritual father of the self-destructive modern age in general and the Anglican remnant in particular. Though not a modern man any more than he was a Protestant in its latter-day sense, he is at the origin of the modern world just as he is at the origin of Protestantism. Contemporary phenomena like the "atomisation of society" were preceded by religious individualism, a quintessential Lutheran concept. Among other things, the advent of the Self, confusion between the individual and the person, the eclipse of reason, the principle of immanence, the origin of activism and the "social gospel" have all derived in a wholly theological way from Luther. They continue to torment the modern world.

It is postulated here that the spirit of Martin Luther hangs like a dead-weight over English life, which presents the worst symptoms of Luther's enduring legacy to the post-Reformation world - the spiritual void of extreme individualism. In the process of bringing Luther's essence to maturity, Anglicanism had neutered religious belief in England long before its cult of the "priestess" theologically castrated Christianity. Today, English citizens have been properly adjudged by one of their own as "among the most unspiritual and religiously uninformed people's in the world." A country where, according to another local commentator, "any old garbage passes for culture in what is fast becoming the most intellectually anorexic country in Europe."

Half a millennium on, the historical overflow of Luther's individuality has reached its logical end point in Western society. When community has become a collection of parts without being able to aspire to a whole, when there is no reference point beyond Self - no point of departure and no destination - we are left in the present, paralysed in time, at the end of history.

* * * * *


It ill-behoves we Catholics to take perverse delight in the shambles that passes for Anglicanism today. Those in glass-houses, we are told, should not stand up in the bath! Point taken. Yet even faced with that embarrassing allegorical prospect, the Catholic Church - the Bride of Christ - can always depend on the Third Person of the Trinity to pass the towel; to preserve, as it were, Her essential modesty. Despite the continuing best efforts of ignorant or malicious churchmen, Her Divine Protector, through Peter, will at least prevent ultimate humiliation.

As a purely human construct, however, the Anglican Establishment possesses no such means of being saved from itself. Consequently, comparable ignorance and malevolence within its own ranks has reduced that body to a state of public ignominy infinitely below even the shameful depths of the present Catholic condition. Polite analysis of the conservative\liberal balance or pagan voting patterns at the latest Synod has long become a futile diversion that perpetuates a myth. Which is to say, it diverts attention from the fact that Anglicanism - if words still mean anything at all - is no longer a Church, having jettisoned any last vestiges of coherent doctrine, but a mere socio-political institution satiating itself on pseudo-Christian verbiage. Through its shameless ecclesiastical masquerade it has reduced the popular notion of religion, in this most irreligious of countries, to the level of tragi-comic farce.

Barely a day passes without it breaking new-ground in this arena, and one hardly knows whether to laugh or weep. On 9 August last, after becoming the first female vicar to marry her daughter, fifty-one-year old mother of three, Mary Cottee, declared: "I was thrilled to conduct the service - it saved me the bother of buying a hat." Said the bride: "Mum wore her robes for the service. Then while we signed the register she rushed into the vestry, changed like Superwoman and emerged in her outfit - a peach coloured suit." Honestly, you couldn't make it up!

Meanwhile, the vicar of Ropley village near Winchester, Royston Such, divorced the mother of his five children for adultery, allegedly paid for her to join a dating agency and secretly married his deaconess! According to one press report, Mr. Such was "unrepentant, astonished even, at the thought that he should be sorry." He and his new wife "described themselves proudly as professionals and ran through their varied programme of services . . . that made their parish sound like a branch of a building society with target figures and line charts." Despite the terminal shock and dismay of his parishioners, Mr. Such was complacent. He would find new worshippers. "But he is only counting numbers", the report concluded. "The tragedy is that he, and the Church of England, is losing the heart and soul of a religion..."

In fact, that "heart and soul" - the serious doctrinal element distinguishing a religion (a Church) from a social welfare agency - has long been lost to Anglicanism. "There were no rules," lamented the deflated followers of outrageous Rev. Chris Bain, whose bizarre and dangerous yet officially sanctioned liturgical services exploded into tabloid headlines last summer. Hardly surprising, since without Divine protection doctrines either ossify or dissipate while rules, being rootless, wither and die. And then what is left but the sheer logic of sentiments like the one writ large above the Royston Such debacle: Betrayed by a Church that, seems to stand for nothing. Again, in charity, one must fine tune that observation somewhat: to wit, it is not simply an appearance but a reality that Anglicanism per se stands for naught. The emperor has no clothes - is stark naked, in fact - and this time no one is pretending otherwise. "You cannot join the Anglican Church," observed another London daily, "…for the simple reason that there is nothing to join. A club is its rule book and, in this club, there is clearly no such book."

That is precisely why, long before the women priests fiasco, grassroots Catholic faithful were so baffled by calls for ecumenical dialogue with Anglicans at a corporate level - because such dialogue implied a two-way conversation involving' two coherent sets of standards about things that count. The sensus fidelium perceived, with a simplicity abhorrent to ecumenically correct clerocrats, that lacking any external authority beyond themselves by which to determine whether in fact things should or should not "count', Anglicans of necessity had to count them out. Nothing too serious. Nothing too final. Newman himself, who knew the inside story, remained extremely sceptical about the whole notion of corporate reunion with Canterbury, which he claimed would take "a miracle - in the same sense in which it would be a miracle for the Thames to change its course." An intellectual, authoritative, personalist Catholic body in dialogue with an anti-intellectual, anti-dogmatic, individualist, disembodied phantom called "Anglicanism'? For the faithful, as for Newman, the absurdity - the futility - of a utopian exercise like ARCIC, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission which began discussions soon after the Council, was beyond words. Yet it continued. It continues.

This intrinsic inability to conduct anything more than superficial discourse afflicts more, however, than just the remnant of the ecclesiastical Establishment in England. It is ingrained in the psyche of the deeply secular culture Anglicanism has spawned, and reflected most vividly in the stylish yet vacuous chatter that pervades the electronic and print media on both sides of the political divide - a point elaborated upon recently in The Times by a former Oxford University Tutor now teaching at Harvard. He bemoaned the egoistic banality of English social debate in the so-called "quality" press; the overriding desire to impress or demean at the expense of studious concern. Further, which may come as a shock to U.S. readers in view of the manifold problems now afflicting American society, he observed an honesty and genuine intellectual curiosity in his Harvard tutorial classes wholly lacking among his former Oxford students. "The country positively sighs with cultural exhaustion", he lamented. Without perhaps intending it, he evoked a scene of mass cultural regression, depicting the same characteristic that dominated pagan society in the Fourth Century, where a well-turned phrase gave more pleasure than a cogent argument. St. Augustine termed this hallmark of his age "loquacity": it used fine words but had little or nothing to say. Following his conversion he even felt bound to concede that his profession of "selling words" in the "bazaar of loquacity" was vulnerable to moral criticism.

That no such scruples exist today is testimony to the final, ironic trumping of Anglicanism by the very ideas so fiercely and publicly renounced by its founder who won the papal epithet "Defender of The Faith". That, of course, was during Henry's pre-syphilitic days, before he turned from intellectual to more corporal pursuits like serial adultery and murder. Yet like a drip upon a stone down the centuries, sure and unyielding, so the essential ideas and spirit of the apostate monk he once vilified have slowly, inexorably, fashioned his "Church" and an entire society that now "believes in nothing" beyond imperial, Protestant Self. In this sense, Anglicanism steps forward defiantly as the unholy, adult offspring of its spiritual father Martin Luther, for whom the centre of religious life was not God but man.

This last comment may give slight pause to the uninitiated since - of late, Luther is enjoying something of a reconstructed Second Spring. Eager proponents, keen to dust off and present anew the old version of his life put forward for so long in the official Protestant hagiography, have even called for the Church to remove Her ancient condemnation of the redoubtable heresiarch in return for magnanimous Lutheran concessions to certain Catholic theological positions! No doubt such blind devotion and rank audacity merits a certain respect, but if one contemplates the calamitous tragedy of the Reformation that Luther ignited, one might rather consider whether it was "better for that man if he had never been born" [Mk 14:21]. In truth, considering Luther's contribution to the root problems which torment modern life - obsessed with the particular and practical but incapable of grasping the universal or discerning the essential - and viewing their end-game symptoms in Anglicanism and

English society, it might have been better for "all men" if he had never been born. And that despite the glorious Counter-Reformation he inadvertently precipitated subsequent to his death, precisely 450 years ago.

Is all this to lay too much upon the shoulders of one man who, after all, was certainly not a modern man any more than he was a Protestant in its latter-day sense? The simple answer is that this does not prevent him from being at the origin of the modern world just as he is at the origin of Protestantism. Notwithstanding the contribution of Descartes, Rousseau and others to the philosophical, social and moral disorder of our times, one cannot overstate the long-term corrosive effect of Luther's essential spirit and thought. In this regard, it is important to understand that frightful contemporary phenomena like the so-called "atomisation of society" - the withdrawal from social solidarity to personal insularity - and the escape from reason to sentiment, were preceded by religious individualism, a quintessential Lutheran concept. "By the very fact that the Lutheran revolution bore on religion, on that which governs all human activity", wrote the great twentieth-century Catholic convert and philosopher Jacques Maritain, "it was bound to change most profoundly the attitude of the human soul and of speculative thought confronted with reality."

It is in Maritain's masterly essay Luther or The Advent of the Self (1928) that we find a powerful response to the ongoing push for Luther's ecclesiastical rehabilitation. As a long overdue corrective to such spurious nonsense, let us then sift the essentials from Maritain's long neglected but truly formidable critique. In the process, those of us not schooled in all the complexities of theology and philosophy can better understand why Luther stands proudly as the spiritual father of the self-destructive modern age in general and the Anglican remnant in particular.


That man is the measure of all things is the unwritten axiom of modern life and we find the seed of this monstrous falsehood in the early inner life of Brother Martin. As a young Catholic religious in pursuit of perfection, he seems to have sought in the spiritual life what is called sensible consolation, that assurance in feeling which may be given to souls or withdrawn from them by God as He wills, and which is only a means. For Luther, however, to feel oneself in the state of grace was both the means and the end of mystical life -sensibility was all - as if grace in itself were an object of sensation! In a sermon of 27 December 1514, he railed against the theological thesis that grace is infused into the soul at the very moment when sin is effaced. It drove him "almost to despair of God, of all that God is, and all that He possesses" because he did not experience in himself that perfect purity of grace.

This was the starting point of Luther's marginalising of God: "the human subject ... became in fact for him of more concern than God in the order of mystical experience and the spiritual life and of the interior search for Christian perfection." Such mystical "egocentrism' cannot be found in a specific declaration affirming man more interesting than God but rather, according to Maritain, in a change in phrase and idea within his doctrine of justification as in the preponderance of the problem of redemption in his theology. "It is not," he emphasises, "theoretically and according to Truth that the Lutheran doctrine of justification, by denying that sanctifying grace washes away original sin and makes us intrinsically good, shuts us forever within ourselves and makes man, not God, the centre of our religious life: for since we are made no longer sharers in the divine nature, we can produce no vital act of our own, no essentially personal act which comes from God vivifying us supernaturally."

Thus trapped within himself - "Relying on my works, I trusted not in God, but in my own justice" - Luther relied on his own strength to arrive at Christian virtue and perfection, "trusting in his own efforts, in his penances, in the works of his will, far more than in grace." As a consequence, he practised the very Pelagianism with which he was to charge Catholics. He fell victim to scruples, especially in blaming himself for all the first involuntary impressions of the senses as if they were sins: "I became the persecutor and horrible torturer of my own life: I fasted, I watched, I wore myself out in prayer, which is nothing but suicide." Then, during a dark night when he lost all sensible consolations as he perceived the vanity and perversity of his human heart, "the whole building of perfection which he had tried to build with his own hands seemed to overturn on him." At this crucial point, rather than forsake himself and cast himself on God in the manner of the Saints, Luther escaped into that secular panacea so beloved of liberal Catholics and all post-industrial Protestant confessions: activism. "He stunned himself by working madly."

"I need two secretaries," he wrote in 1516 to Lang, Prior of Erfurt. "I do practically nothing all day long but write letters... I am called daily to preach in the parish, I am Regent of Studies and Vicar of the district. After listing his many other ecclesiastic and civic duties, including the oversight of eleven convents, he concludes. "I rarely have time to recite my Office and say Mass." Which is not to say that at that early stage Luther had already lost his affection for Mass and breviary, but that he "was plunged into feverish activity, which left him no time to pray as he should have done, and to turn himself to God." In this state, he lost the strength to stand firm against the malignant fevers of nature; he despaired of grace. "I am," he admitted three years later, "I am but a man prone to let himself be swept off his feet by society, drunkenness, the movements of the flesh." And again in a sermon of the same period on the state of marriage, "What is needed to live in continence is not in me." And so, the serpent whispering in his ear to accept the rottenness of his very being, "Luther makes that act of perverse resignation; he gives up the fight; he declares that the fight is impossible." Surrounded on all sides by what he thinks to be sin, he goes with the flow and comes to the practical conclusion: concupiscence - not only the desires of the flesh but the general propensity towards an uncontrolled love of oneself and of perishable things - cannot be conquered.

In Catholic teaching, this propensity is the "seat of sin" (fomes peccati) which is in us even after baptism like a wound in our nature - it is the mark of original sin but it is not that sin, which is washed away by baptism and sanctifying grace. Luther, on the other hand, identifies concupiscence with original sin - original sin is always in us, ineffaceable; it has made us radically bad and corrupted us in the very essence of our nature. God commanded the impossible when He gave us His law. But now Christ has paid for us and His justice redeems us. He is just instead of us. Justification for Luther, explains Maritain, "is wholly exterior to us and we are still sin to our very bones: it infuses no new life into us, it simply covers us as with a cloak." Beware! In the Lutheran theology, grace is always extrinsic to ourselves. Man is walled-up in his nature and can never receive in himself the seeds of true participation in the divine life. For Luther, grace is nothing else than the simple exterior favour of God. In other words, there is nothing for us to do to be saved.

And so arrived the absolute uselessness of works; salvation by faith alone, that is, through confidence in Christ. In which case the only really serious and fatal sin is lack of faith. "Christianity," wrote Luther, "is nothing but a continual exercise in feeling that you have no sin, but that your sins are cast on Christ." Maritain states that the reality of grace, of charity and of infused justice is the great truth which is still unknown to the defenders of Luther because the Reformer's fatal mistake was in "believing that salvation can be attained by faith alone and by an external imputation - and not by charity which regenerates and justifies man from within, makes him produce really good works, and forces him to struggle so as to preserve, acquire at fortify the Virtues."

In this context, it is charity's twin virtue, humility, that immediately springs to mind, the cultivation of which is rendered meaningless by Luther's self-justifying faith. This faith, according to Bossuet, "did not consist in a general belief in the Saviour, in His mysteries and promises, but in believing most certainly, with an infallible certainty, each in his own heart, that all our sins are forgiven us." Not only is humility incompatible with such pride but it follows that the instigator of a doctrine of "infallible certainty" must view himself, of necessity, as infallible. And so he did. "I do not admit," Luther wrote in June, 1522, "that my doctrine can be judged by anyone, even by the angels. He who does not receive my doctrine, cannot be saved."

"Luther's self," wrote Moehler, "was in his opinion the centre around which all humanity should gravitate; he set himself up as the universal man in whom all should find their model. Let us make no bones about it, he put himself in the place of Jesus Christ."

It was, after all, an inescapable conclusion - since the Lutheran dogma of the certainty of salvation is nothing but "the transference of that absolute assurance in the divine promises which was formerly the privilege of the Church and Her mission to the human individual and his subjective state." Having refused obedience to the Pope and broken with the communion of the Church, Luther is left supreme. His self became the centre of gravity of everything and, moreover, took on a representative value as "the self of created being, the incommunicable ground of the human individual." In this way did the Reformation unbridle the human self in the spiritual and religious order, as the secret spirit of the Renaissance unbridled the human self in the order of natural sensibilities.

We have thus arrived at the prototype of modern man - that pleasant liberated beast whose continued and infallible progress delights the universe today. One who, like Luther, shuts himself forever in his self, withdraws from himself all support but his self, constructs a doctrine to fit his personal disorder and places the centre of his life not in God but man. Furthermore, the Lutheran essence of the modern age is underscored as Maritain adds that unlike other great heresiarchs who started from a dogmatic error, what counts with Luther "is his life, his history. Doctrine comes as an extra. Lutheranism is not a system worked out by Luther; it is the overflow of Luther's individuality."


With great religious pomp the modern world has proclaimed the sacred rights of the individual, and yet, asks Maritain, "was the individual ever more completely ruled by the great anonymous powers of the State, of Money, of Opinion?" All this is simply because the modern world confounds two things which ancient wisdom distinguished. It confounds individuality and personality.

Catholic philosophy tells us that the person is "a complete individual substance, intellectual in nature and master of its actions." So the word person is reserved for substances which possess that divine thing, the spirit, elevating them above the bodily order to a spiritual and moral world which, strictly speaking, is not part of this universe. What makes their dignity - their personality - is precisely that subsistence of the spiritual and immortal soul and its supreme independence in regard to all fleeting imagery and all the machinery of sensible phenomena. Hence St. Thomas teaches that the word "person" signifies the noblest and highest thing in all nature.

The word individual, on the contrary, is common to man and beast, to plant, microbe and atom. While personality rests on the subsistence of the human soul (independent of the body and sustaining the body in being), Thomist philosophy tells us that individuality as such is based on the needs of matter and the principle of individuation i.e. matter requires to occupy a position and have a quantity, by which that which is here will differ from what is there. In so far as we are individuals we are only a fragment of matter, a part of this universe to whose laws we are subject. "As we are individuals, we are subject to the stars. As we are persons, we rule them."

Modern individualism is, then, "the exaltation of individuality camouflaged as personality, and the corresponding degradation of true personality." John Paul II has said it often enough in different ways. Today, the modern city - mirrored in the cloudy forms and indefinite compromise of an Anglican Synod, itself a parody of all contemporary liberal Protestantism - sacrifices the person to the individual; it grants universal suffrage, equal rights, liberty of opinion, to the individual, and delivers the person, isolated and naked, to all the devouring powers, which threaten the soul's life. To all the greeds and wounds which every man has by nature, it adds incessant sensual stimulus and all kinds of errors, sparkling and sharpened, to which it gives free rein while proclaiming amidst the turmoil: You are a free individual, defend yourself, save yourself, all by yourself. "It is," reflects the master philosopher at length, "a homicidal civilisation."

Thus is born the monarchic despotism of a Rousseau or the "God-State" of a Hegel, as the individual - only a part - is completely annexed to the social whole. Catholic teaching, on the contrary, proposes that it is because man is first an individual of a species that he is consequently an individual member of society. On that count he is subordinated to the good of the city as to the good of the whole, the common good, in need of the help of his fellow creatures to complete, here below, his specific work (civilization). But taken as a person whose destiny is God - "the distinct and common good" of the entire universe - the city exists for him, for the advancement of the moral and spiritual life: "for that is the very end of personality; and it is only by virtue of this that the city has its common good." For this reason, Catholicism bases law and juridical relations not on the free will of individuals, but on justice towards persons. "The Christian city," writes Maritain, "is as fundamentally anti-individualist as it is fundamentally personalist. This distinction between the individual and the person when applied to the relations between man and the city, contains the solution to many social problems in the realm of metaphysical principles."

In, the spiritual order, personality develops the more reason and liberty dominate the senses and passions and rise above the sensible world. It is only fully realised, after the fashion of the Saints, when lost in God - Who is Personality perfect and complete; absolutely independent in His being and action. This is the secret of our life that the poor modern world does not know: we gain our soul only if we lose it; a total death is needed before we can find ourselves. To develop one's individuality, on the contrary, is to live the egoistical life of the passions, to remain like the animal, a simple individual, the slave of events and circumstances.

So Luther did not free human personality, he led it astray. What he did free was the material individuality - the animal man. It was reflected in his own life "which fed on instinct and feeling, not on intelligence; possessed by the passions... breaking every obstacle and all 'external' discipline; but having within him a heart full of contradictions and discordant cries; seeing life, before Nietzsche, as essentially tragic, Luther is the very type of modern individualism (the prototype of modern times, Fichte calls him). But in reality his personality is disunited, ruined."

Noting the significance of Luther's disobedience in breaking the vows of religion in order to free the human being, Maritain surveys the social impact of his doctrine and describes the "epidemic of despair that swept across Germany from 1530. It has scarcely abated ever since, breaking anew like a tidal wave upon humanity at the close of the millennium. And this because "in psycho-social terms," as Fr. George Rutler has put it, "if we are not obedient we are alienated. The refusal to obey is not liberation. And when alienation becomes permanent, it is, to use the appropriately ghastly word, damnation." Accordingly, right from the outset, there was ghastliness, and doom aplenty: "everywhere an increase of melancholy, of gloomy sadness, of agonies, of despair, of doubt of the divine grace, and of suicides... ." Neither Luther himself - "sadness of heart is not pleasing to God, but although I know that, I fall into that feeling a hundred times a day" - nor his panegyrist Mathesius, nor others besides could escape the temptation to have done with life, to such a degree that when they were in that state it was dangerous for them to have a knife at hand. "George Besler, one of the first propagators of Lutheranism at Nuremberg, fell into such deep melancholy that in 1536 he left his wife in the middle of the night and plunged a hunting spear full in his breast." A host of Luther's friends "fell, more or less, especially in their last years, into overwhelming agonies, into an incurable sadness, and even into madness, without the consolations of Luther and others being of any use to them."

Until then, nothing like it had been seen and there was bitter irony in the fact that preachers "cannot boast enough about the consolation which the new 'Gospel' brings, as opposed to the agony produced by Catholic doctrine, and yet they are compelled to draw attention publicly to the increase of sadness and suicide…" - A more contemporary synopsis one could not find.

What then of claims about the greatness of Luther? "Material greatness, quantitative greatness, animal greatness, yes, we will grant you that and, if you will, admire it," responds Maritain, "but truly human greatness, no."


If confusion between the individual and the person is at the heart of Protestantism and modernity, so is another of Luther's striking characteristics - a profound anti-intellectualism barely masked by so much self-indulgent chatter. Speaking of Aristotle and St. Thomas, he said: "Aristotle is the godless bulwark of the papists. He is to theology what darkness is to light. His ethics are the worst enemy of grace." He is "a shameless corrupter of minds." As for St. Thomas, "he never understood a chapter of the Gospel or of Aristotle." "In short, it is impossible to reform the Church if Scholastic theology and philosophy are not torn out by the roots with Canon Law." The Sorbonne and the theologians of Louvain are no better treated.

He had no grudge against a particular system but was at war with philosophy itself, believing that "one should learn philosophy only as one learns bad arts, that is to destroy them." He similarly refuted the very notion of logic in theology, since Christ was in no need of human inventions, and thus declared war essentially on reason which retained a purely earthly, pragmatic value. In spiritual things it was not only "blind and dark" but truly "the whore of the devil. It can only blaspheme and dishonour everything God has said or done." All this enabled Luther to lie or contradict himself at will. Falsehood never stopped him. "A necessary lie," he himself said of the bigamy of Philip of Hesse, "a useful lie, a helpful lie, none of the these lies goes against God… What harm would there be in telling a good big lie for a greater good and for the sake of the Christian Church?" The Duke of Saxony called Luther "the coolest liar" he had ever known and in connection with a certain 'Pack affair', he wrote on 19 December 1518: "We are bound to say and write of him that this apostate monk lies to our face like a damned scoundrel, dishonest and perjured." It is well known that he called the epistle of St. James an "epistle of straw" because it contradicted his doctrine.

Luther's contempt for reason is in harmony with his general doctrine about human nature and original sin. As we have discovered, according to Luther grace and baptism cover over, but do not efface, original sin. Reason at best, therefore, may be granted a practical part in human business but it is incapable of knowing first truths. Thus all speculative knowledge, all metaphysics is a snare, and theology as the scholastics understood it a scandal. "Reason is contrary to faith," he wrote in 1536. And a little later: "There is nothing so contrary to faith as law and reason. You must conquer them if you would reach beatitude."

In short, Luther delivered man from the intelligence, "from that wearisome and besetting compulsion to think always and think logically." Yet he never quite managed a total liberation himself, writing in his Commentary on the Epistles to the Galations: "Alas, in this life reason is never completely destroyed."

In a classic tale of cause and effect, Luther's theories inevitably exploded into contrary practice. Upsetting the balance of Catholic teaching rooted in natural law, he necessarily produced a compensating overreaction. In this case, his banishment of reason resulted in the exaltation of the other spiritual faculty, the will. "In Luther the swollen consciousness of the self is essentially a consciousness of will, of realization of freedom...

True freedom is therefore found not in an intellectual assent to eternal truths in the spiritual realm but through human works and actions which, because they are of no avail for salvation, can no longer be ordered to God but only to the realisation of the human will. This recipe nourishes a mentality which lauds activism over contemplation (Luther finally abhorred the contemplative life and the Saints it nourished), reducing religion purely to the service of our neighbour. We find it epitomised in the rise of The Salvation Army and other 19th century Protestant WOWSER's (We Only Want Social Evils Removed), and in the "social gospel" equivalent in which we are soaked today - exemplified in Liberation Theology, Anglicanism, et al. And all that because Luther rejected the Catholic truth that charity is infused participation in the very life of God and Christ, which makes man just in the eyes of God. Luther was thankful to God for allowing sinners their salvation by faith alone - even "were we to commit a thousand fornications a day or as many murders"(!) - but considered it impossible 'to make ourselves "one spirit" with God. So although he may not have suppressed all love of God, it was not a question of charity but mere thankfulness. Harnack summed it up: "the object of charity is your neighbour, of faith is God." Faith remains in the heart; charity acts externally.

Whether Luther realised it or not, this erroneous conception of charity was to lead more and more to the worship of man - God asking nothing of us, neither works nor gifts, and man having no value but in relation to his neighbour. "Nothing is more disastrous than this abasement of charity turned from its first object [God]," comments Maritain. "The progress of this mistake may be seen through the whole of modern times." Quite. Primacy of will has finally emptied charity of true meaning and left it indistinguishable from philanthropy. To the modern mind, Mother Teresa's Sisters of Charity are more or less a philanthropic corporate entity - certainly more endearing, probably more ethical but no different from The Rockefeller Foundation or Oxfam(1)

In the ever delicate balance between these two complimentary but essentially different activities - the intellect and the will - Luther's excesses are contrasted with the harmony of Thomistic doctrine. Aquinas avoids extremes of absolute intellectualism or absolute moralism by respecting the nature and laws - which belong to the intelligence and the will, "without turning the movements of the appetite into confused ideas (with rationalism), or the operations of the intelligence into a deformation of the real (with the philosophies of feeling)." A purely volitional world contemns truth and beauty and becomes a sort of moralist and fetichist monster, a la Rousseau. A purely and exclusively intellectual world, on the other hand, scorns its eternal interests; becomes intoxicated with the hows.

Thomas Aquinas himself was powerfully drawn by the joy of pure knowledge and grew in holiness only through "an extraordinary strength of the moral virtues to ensure the rectitude of the will." On the contrary, repulsed by the very operation of the intellect, Luther fed instead on instinct and feeling and thus fell into a lewdness of thought, speech and writing on the subject of chastity the like of which, writes Denifle, "could only be found and even then but rarely, in the most depraved authors." A distant portent of our Freudian age that hates chastity no less, than poverty, Luther hated virginity, believing that sex was a "divine work" utterly impossible to resist: "for me it is as necessary as my manhood, more necessary than eating, drinking, evacuating, sleeping and waking." This animalistic attitude was inevitable because the intellect is the animating light of the will: "the metaphysical nobility and the spirituality of the will come only from its being an appetite rooted in the intelligence."

Thus Luther himself and those captured by his thought were bent on disaster, since his philosophy asks light and guidance from a power in itself blind. He did not so much create as set free the evil that exploded around him as priests and regulars often tore nuns from their cloisters to make them their "wives". Profaned nuns were then literally traded; "put up for sale." Luther supposedly deplored the debauchery, yet after a rape of nuns which took place on the night of Holy Saturday, 1523, he called the organiser, citizen Koppe, a "blessed robber," and wrote to him: "Like Christ, you have drawn these poor souls from the prison of human tyranny. You have done it at a time providentially indicated, at that moment of Easter when Christ destroyed the prison of His own."

As ever, war against Christian virginity unfailingly generated a base contempt for womanhood. "The work and word of God tell us clearly," Luther stated in 1523, "that women must be used for marriage or prostitution." And again in a sermon on marriage in 1522: "If women get tired and die of bearing, there is no harm in that: let them die, so long as they bear: they are made for that." Maritain remarks that many similar statements are unprintable! As for the inflammatory effect of such talk on the passions of the populace, Heinrich Heine noted that German history at that time is almost entirely composed of sensual disturbances. "The peoples," declared Luther in 1544, "behave so scandalously towards the Gospel that the more one preaches the worse they become." Ten years earlier he had already made the telling observation that "it is clear enough how much more greedy, cruel, immodest, shameless, wicked, the people now is than it was under Popery." Wrote Waldner: "Adultery, fornication and incest know no bounds." The worst was the corruption of youth; hardly surprising when, under the veil of commiseration, Luther inflamed rather than stifled the passions of young men and women, declaring to them in 1536 that "nothing can cure libido, not even marriage, for the most part of married people live in adultery."


One cannot conclude a treatment of Luther without noting the most obvious of all the destructive illusions that spewed out of his tortured soul. Welling up through a dozen generations behind the hard-won, civilizing barriers of Catholic antiquity, finally bursting forth in that diabolic flood of impiety which fouls the modern age - it is the exaltation of Spirit against Authority. This is the essence of the Lutheran Reformation - "the interior energy, of man the master of his judgement against dead ideas and lying conventions imposed from without."

Maritain explains that this immanentist error consists in believing that liberty, inwardness and spirit are opposed "to what is not the self in a breach between what is within and what is without. Truth and life, therefore, must be sought only within the human subject; everything in us that comes from what is not ourselves is a crime against the spirit and against sincerity." Furthermore, anything that unites the interior and exterior, that brings them into communication with each other, is regarded as an "intermediary" which separates them. Hence, for modem Protestant individualism, the Church and sacraments - as "intermediaries" - separate us from God. So, for modern philosophic subjectivism, the sensation and idea separate us from reality. Luther did not formulate this principle as such and was himself excessively dogmatic and authoritarian. Yet by setting up Faith against Works and Gospel against Law, he introduced the principle to modern thought in a special and wholly theological form. His "heretical pseudo-faith could not but come down gradually to what it has become with many Protestants of our days, a transport of distress and distrust towards the unknown from the deeps of the self." Speaking of this essential stress in his own Protestant sojourn, a recent convert and former Baptist minister likened it to walking through life on a tightrope suspended across eternity.

No doubt Luther reflected at great length about this question of immanence. Nonetheless, Maritain claims that his ruminations in De servo arbitrio are "proof that he did not understand anything about it." In particular, he completely misunderstood the true nature of the spirit, which, not being confined like material being, can increase intrinsically and be perfected by what is not of itself without losing its autonomy e.g. interiorization of God's law of the good - making it our own - makes us one with the Author of all Good (extrinsic to ourselves) while simultaneously fulfilling our deepest, most intimate longing.

As for the workings of the Holy Spirit within us, the indwelling of the Divine Persons in our soul, Luther again isolates what is ourselves from what is other - "our spiritual vessel from the surrounding ocean". For Luther, man is essentially corrupted and thus we go on producing substantially bad works because "men's works, even though they always seem beautiful and probably good, are mortal sins," while God's works, were they always ugly and apparently bad, are of eternal merit. Responds Boussuet: "He does not even consider that men's good works are at the same time God's works, since He produces them in us by His grace."

Lutheran externalism pretends to give all to grace but in reality, by regarding it as impossible that a work of man should also be a work of God, "it lays down the principle of unbridled naturalism which in a little more than two centuries ruined everything in Western thought before blossoming into contemporary immanentism... Intellectual magisterium, human or divine, Church and revealed dogma, authority of objective being and the moral law, are finally no longer conceivable except as external and mechanical restraints forced on a nature which suffers them under compulsion."

The end result of this formula is one of two extremes - anarchy or tyrannical authoritarianism to survive anarchy. The latter was imposed in Protestant Germany immediately after Luther for reasons of public safety. The former, under the self-satisfied veneer of a pseudo-sophistication, predominates today and has reached its nadir in abortion on demand - at which point one is no longer speaking of a merely "homicidal civilisation' but, surely, the end of civilisation.

Yet Carlyle wrote with great gusto about Luther - "a man self-subsistent, true, original, sincere" - and saw "the blessedest result preparing itself in all this wild revolutionary work, from Protestantism downwards... a whole world of Heroes. If Hero means sincere man, why may not every one of us be a Hero?" Indeed! And has not this anglo-modern stupidity already come to pass? Are we not a society of perpetually victimised Heroes, whose sincerity justifies all our legal and social claims while obviating our obligations and making martyrs out of sincere scoundrels? Further, if all is shut up within our spirit and nothing received from outside and everything concluded in man - is not man himself God? Does he not already determine who survives the womb and for how long? Heedless of the universal abortion franchise and the grim efficiency of the local charnel house down the road, English commentators have alleged that serial killers Frederick and Rosemary West were "two in a million." I demur. In any event, at least at a philosophical level it was not only this Catholic observer who saw them as inescapably mainstream. At the time he hanged himself, Fred was writing his memoirs: they were entitled, nauseatingly, I Only Ever Loved An Angel. Commented one secular pundit: "My guess is that he meant these words perfectly sincerely. What he deemed important was not what he had done, but what he felt; the warm glow inside more than cancelled out the bodies gone cold under the kitchen floor. The Wests," he decided, "appear to have believed in some of the conceits of our age." An age of subconsciously immanentist Heroes, "sincere men", who only ever love an angel - be it only themselves.


Yielding to a potent cocktail of passions, from deep melancholy to high sensibility, that ruled and thus ruined his personality, Luther could no longer remain faithful to the "external" obstacles and discipline of Catholicism. And since faith is the root and foundation of charity, the more his theology crystallised in opposition to the Catholic faith, the more he misunderstood the true nature of charity. In turn, the more he abased charity, the less he understood the necessity to make it manifest in good works for the love of God above all things - which is simply the perfection of charity that saves and justifies. So it went, and so it goes. "Christianity is a system," said Nietzsche, "it is a consistently thought-out and complete view of things. If one breaks a fundamental idea within it, the whole thing will fall to pieces."

Without this inherent logic of the Catholic faith, first Luther then successive Protestant generations to an ever increasing degree lost their equilibrium, as the edifice of Christian metaphysics collapsed like a house of cards. From the rubble, Anglican Synods have finally emerged as pseudo-spiritual political conventions where factions canvass for votes and not the mind but the will - the strongest lobby - is the Judge of truth. Lutheranism triumphant! For Luther was nothing if not a Man of the Will, characterised chiefly by power in action. "And since", as a professor of dogmatic theology once observed, "absurdity does no violence to the will but only to the intellect, this perversion of their mutual relationship inclines the mind to hug any delusion, however preposterous, provided only it be an agreeable one, even as it likewise closes the mind inexorably against all the facts and truths that are unpleasant or suggestive of moral obligations."

Generations born and raised in this Lutheran legacy, of institutionalised inconsistency and self-contradiction, hardly raised an eyebrow over one recent Anglican report that suggested living together outside marriage was no longer sinful, and barely sniffled at another which, according to a Catholic onlooker, reduced Hell to "what sounds like a casualty waiting room - spartan conditions, long delays but the promise of final redemption when the doctor gets around to calling your number." Nothing unusual in all that since Anglicanism, as one secular journalist noted, "does not demand discipline or coherence, only a rough acceptance of spirituality." This certainly reflects the view of the Supreme Governor of Anglicanism, Queen Elizabeth II, in many ways an admirable monarch, who proudly declared that the Synod's effort to "hold together people of all opinions" in the aftermath of the "historic vote on the ordination of women," must "surely exemplify the Christian faith." How pathetic. But what else could she say? Not only is she a quintessential product of Anglicanism, Her Majesty is stuck with the absurd symbiosis of the monarchy and an Established Church the greater part of which Newman knew to be "without any faith at all" and which, according to the Sunday Telegraph, has done little by way of infusing the nation with spiritual values since the 17th century! As a consequence, Queen Elizabeth's subjects, the Telegraph writer continued, "are among the most unspiritual and religiously uninformed peoples in the world. At least in Spain an atheist knows what he rejects."

This sad fact was postulated by the earlier mentioned ex-Oxford University Tutor, himself a liberal, as a reason for the lack of serious public debate in England. "The British chattering classes masticate marvellously," he wrote, "but stopped believing in anything half a century ago…" And the reason? "The decline in religion is a probable one. It is simply not part of most English people's upbringing to consider, let alone believe, the possibility of universal truths. Since the 16th century, English faith has been resolutely parochial. As one Oxford friend of mine put it: 'I believe in the Church of England - as a bulwark against religion."

Lumbered with this contrary "Church" that exists to assuage the human ego, conditioned by a sycophantic media that scorns intelligence for personal expression, populated by hearts full of "contradictions and discordant cries" and seeing life as essentially isolated and tragic, the spirit of Martin Luther hangs like a deadweight over English life. It surely presents the worst symptoms of Luther's enduring legacy to the post-Reformation world - the spiritual void of extreme individualism. "The number of households with only-one occupant has increased exponentially," reports the Sunday Times, "divorce, broken homes and single parenthood are so common as to be statistically normal."

So what is left when community becomes a collection of parts without being able to aspire to a whole? When millions of individuals living the "egoistical life of the passions" make themselves the centre of everything, slaves to a thousand passing goods and momentary joys? I proffer that at this juncture, with no reference point beyond Self - no point of departure and no destination - we are left stranded in the present, paralysed in time, at the end of history.

In other words, if reality - conditioned by ubiquitous, mesmerizing TV soaps and sitcoms - is little more than a string of inconsequential "episodes"; if the gratification of the moment is the whole business of life, then life is no longer a coherent story of biography but merely a succession of moments, each unconnected to the last or next. On a personal level, this means that if you don't love the mother of your child anymore - you move out. You don't like your job? - toss it in, even though there is no other. You can't control your child, whose behaviour annoys you? - throw him out of the house or call in social services. On a general level, it opens the way to a cavalier perversion of history, not only by professional revisionists but whoever feels the urge. Witness the facile reduction of historical happenstance to ludicrous legend by a London film critic, who recently lampooned the well-documented life and exploits of perhaps the greatest military figure in history: "The Joan of Arc legend," he adjudicated, "is a load of old tosh" and her whole life "about as likely as… well, as a teenage girl taking over the French army," Presto! The dead past, the glorious present; intellect genuflects before the will - history as fact becomes history as feeling. A fleeting example all the more telling for its banality. And in the present context, somewhat ironic too: "If we want to set against Luther's egocentrism an example of true personality, writes Maritain, "let us think of that miracle of simplicity and uprightness, of candour and wisdom, of humility and magnanimity, of loss of self in God - Joan of Arc."

At the end of history we are thus deprived of access to what C.S. Lewis termed the "clean sea-breeze of the centuries," recently defined as: that knowledge of earlier generations and cultures which would help to clear away the smoke screen put forth by religious charlatans. Hence the ineluctable power of Hollywood, glossy magazines, MTV, et al. They have no competition, because no yardstick. Locked in the isolation of the moment, the intellect looks on as the will devours each passing stimulus; personality ebbs, individuality flows - the vicious circle of the "homicidal" age. Thanks to Jacques Maritain, we can better appreciate the locus at which the deadly cycle commenced.

Unintentionally, liberal Irish commentator and lax-Catholic Colm Toibin recognised it too. At the very end of his bitter-sweet travelogue-cum-spiritual odyssey across Catholic Europe, The Sign of the Cross, Toibin actually dated the end of history in his home town. "On Saturday, 16 April 1994," he concluded, "evening Mass was said to a packed congregation in the Protestant church… There must have been some old ghosts hovering around us, wondering what the hell was going on… Protestant service as well as Mass would be said here in the morning… History had come to an end in Enniscorthy."

Well, perhaps not so much an end as a beginning - a symbolic starting point on Luther's circular treadmill. Ireland's facile rapprochement with the liberal spirit of her ancient Protestant nemesis and her increasingly shameless "Dance of the Veils" before the Belgian court are hardly coincidental. Tired of her stifling, antiquated persona, Eire wants to be - you guessed it - an individual! She wants to experience, like Luther, "a consciousness of will, of realization of freedom," no longer sought in intellectual, assent to spiritual realities but through deference to human and economic ones rooted in fundamental opposition to her personality - her Catholic soul. If the divorce referendum marked her coming of age as a European courtesan, legalisation of abortion will, in time, complete the rites of passage to full concubinage with the Bruxellois beaux. But the final price for abandoning the shelter and counsel of Holy Mother Church will not be measured in profit from EU handouts. Disobedience, as we've noted, is not liberation; in her illusory dash for freedom, the Catholic innocent becomes a "kept woman". It is a cycle as sure as death and taxes. Because "the essential conflict of spirit and authority, of Gospel and Law, of subject and object, of intimate and transcendent," explains Maritain, "is a specifically Protestant conflict. It is meaningless in a [Catholic] order of things that takes account of spiritual realities."

In other words, when all the "veils" have fallen, and Eire stands as naked as a whore before the Lords of the world - stripped of the ancient supernatural verities which sustained her in the worst - she will find, as Maritain concludes, that that "blessedest result" Carlyle saw at the end of all the "wild and revolutionary work from Protestantism downwards," is, after all, catastrophic nonsense pure and simple: "It promises rest to the reason only in contradiction, it sets a universal war within us. It leaves us hopeless in the face of the great problems, which Christ and His Doctors solved for redeemed humanity so long as it was faithful."

And that, when it's all said and done, is the bottom-line: Brother Martin lost the Faith. England went down with him. Catholic Europe has since capitulated without a whimper. And now, after half a millennium, the Irish bastion teeters on the brink.

Truly, the spirit of Luther continues to gnaw at the modern world without respite.



(1) According to Catholic teaching good works are not the cause of our justification, they are rather the products and manifestation of it. Faith is the root and foundation of all our justice because it is the root and foundation of charity. By it we are saved and justified when it is perfected in an efficacious love of God above all things. And if good works are necessary for our salvation, it is that it is impossible to love God efficaciously above all things without acting in consequence, just as it is impossible to choose a created good for final end (e.g. love of mankind alone) without losing charity.

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