Martin Luther’s actions in 1517 caused one of the biggest shifts in world history and opened a schism within the Catholic Church that would never heal. Why and how did this happen? What are the modern-day consequences of what this theologian set in motion? How did it give birth to the Protestant faith?
Five hundred years ago, the German theologian, Martin Luther, sent a letter, including a list of ninety-five theses, to the Bishop of Mainz. The content of that list? What Luther considered as the abuses and malpractices of the Catholic Church and his desire for reform.
Luther’s criticisms were widespread and deeply damning. Several issues were raised, including the Catholic Church’s stance on repentance, prayer, sin and even the merit placed on saints. Luther also criticised the sale of indulgences whereby Christians could buy forgiveness for their crimes.
His words struck a chord across European society. Luther’s theses was copied and spread, the revolutionary Gutenberg Press accelerating the coverage of his work. It was a message that gave birth, almost single-handedly, to Lutheranism, the prelude to modern Protestantism. Unlike Catholicism, Luther’s faith was strictly dedicated to the teachings of the Bible, leaving behind any extra scriptural concepts which had been created by Rome. The use of icons, the Eucharist and confession were all dismissed.
Luther later translated The Bible into the vernacular, promoting, for the first time, the idea that laymen could read and study the Bible. Before, the words of these holy texts were only privy to those well versed in Latin; bishops, popes, and occasionally monarchs. Now Luther had severed these ties, prayer, and a connection to god no longer required the guidance of the Catholic Church.
Civil war and revolution exploded across the continent as society divided between devout Catholics and newly made Protestants. Henry VIII used such ideals to split England from the Catholic Church, divorcing Catherine of Aragon. In France, mass civil unrest and war continued for almost a century as a Protestant gentry attempted to wrestle power from a Catholic monarchy. The early 17th century brought with it continent-wide conflict as a Catholic league faced off against Protestant kingdoms in a The Thirty Year’s War. It would claim millions of lives.
In 1521, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Pope Leo X denounced Luther’s teachings and formally excommunicated him at a meeting known as the Diet of Worms. His doctrine would later insight a peasants revolt throughout the Empire.
Today almost nine hundred million people consider themselves Protestants. Luther’s historic break with strict Catholicism thus shaped much of our modern society. Our stance on abortion, our strict separation of Church and state, our divulgence of wealth towards religious groups, they are all guided by the wedge Luther drove between society and the Catholic Church.
Luther’s actions have shaped a new, liberal, form of Christianity whilst forcing Catholicism to evolve.
The Council of Trent met in 1545. Catholic councils had met before and usually only in times of great turmoil. This time they would discuss how to reform the Catholic Church as a reaction to what Luther had highlighted. Despite his excommunication, Rome had to accept that Luther had spoken truths which had remained taboo for too long. They needed change. Many common Catholic practices which we see today are as a result of this ‘counter-reformation’. Ever gone to confess your sins? The reason you sit in a confessional box is due to Protestant accusations of sexual assault during confessional. Physically separating confessor and Priest reflects an attempt to dispel these accusations.