Rutler on Luther and Islam

lutherAs  a former Lutheran, I won’t look forward to Catholic-Lutheran hoopla in 2017.  I, for one, won’t celebrate theological revolt and the shredding of the fabric of Christendom.

A must read is to be found at Crisis from the keyboard of Fr. George Rutler.  Today he makes observations about Martin Luther.

Luther Looks at Islam

Martin Luther cut a figure of such massive importance that reflections on him are a Rorschach test for theologians and historians alike. In few instances have personality and principle been so melded. If the Dominican Aquinas argued contra and sed contra, the former Augustinian would settle his case by slapping the table: “Dr. Martin Luther will have it so!” Aquinas spoke syllogisms while Luther shouted slurs. Interpreting the Rorschach blots his own way, Chesterton, no lightweight himself, resented that though Luther’s intellect was negligible in comparison with that of the Angelic Doctor, “his broad and burly figure has been big enough to block out for four centuries the distant human mountain of Aquinas.” With new attention focusing on Luther for the fifth centenary of his revolution, he still looms in Chesterton’s summary as “one of those great elemental barbarians, to whom it is indeed given to change the world.”

This barbarism consists in a proto-modern confusion of conscience with ego which, as Maritain wrote in his “Three Reformers,” is “something much subtler, much deeper, and much more serious, than egoism; a metaphysical egoism. Luther’s self becomes practically the center of gravity of everything, especially in the spiritual order.” Those sparring partners, Calvin and Luther, were both young when they made their mark: Calvin wrote his Institutes at the age of 25 and Luther was 33 when he advertised his 95 theses. And the emperor Charles V was 21 when he faced Luther at the Diet of Worms. But the personality of Calvin does not loom over his works as in the case of Luther. The difference shapes hasty caricatures of Calvin as a Pecksniffian ectomorph and Luther a Rabelaisian endomorph. [niiiiice] Saint Thomas More parodied Luther’s scatological diction when he called him a “buffoon … (who will) carry nothing in his mouth other than cesspools, sewers, latrines…” But on the whole, the Catholic humanist reformers distinguished themselves from Luther by the astringency of their Aristotelian disdain, More’s friend Erasmus being a prime example of this protocol, along with such as Cajetan, Caisius, and Giberti.  [When I read lots of Latin with Fr. Reginald Foster, we spent time on the works of Erasmus and St. Thomas More and we looked at the correspondence between the three.  Guess which one’s Latin was inelegant.]

One of Luther’s Ninety-Five denunciations of Rome was, “Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because they have letters of indulgence will be eternally damned, along with their teachers.” Obviously Luther was not the sort to ask, “Who am I to judge?” [Heh.] But his judgment courted an equation of the authentic teaching of the Church on indulgences with the corruption of those who crassly sold indulgences. The theses, many of which were reasonable in themselves, risked faulting not just the disease of the limb, but the limb itself. This is awkward as the 500th commemoration of Luther’s movement follows upon the Holy Year of Mercy for which Pope Francis announced various ways to receive indulgences. Francis has said with measured diplomacy: “I think that the intentions of Martin Luther were not mistaken. He was a reformer. Perhaps some methods were not correct.”  [Perhaps, indeed.]

If the intentions were honest, it is a fact that, even apart from psychoanalysis of Luther’s immoderate temperament, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” That aphorism is a variant of Vergil: facilis descensus Averno. According to Johannes Aurifaber, the last words penned by Luther on February 17 in 1546, the day before he died, were in praise of Vergil’s Aeneid. Luther wrote his lines in the same dactylic hexameters Vergil used; but more poignantly, the warning about good intentions paving the road to Hell was given by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux who was a moral hero and spiritual giant in Luther’s estimation. As a profound scholar of the Wittenberg reformer, Pope Benedict XVI gave Luther his due especially for parts of the German catechisms, but, he also held, as Father Aidan Nichols has written in his


The Theology of Joseph Ratzinger,

that Luther was a “radical theologian and polemicist whose particular version of the doctrine of justification by faith is incompatible with a Catholic understanding of faith as co-believing with the whole Church, within a Christian existence composed equally of faith, hope, and charity.” 


In various ways, Islam and the Protestant schools had some affinities. Recognizing Islam as an Arian heresy, Luther thought that any Pope of Rome was worse than the Prophet of Medina. Theologically, Allah as pure will had a certain cogency for Luther who called Reason “that pretty whore.” After Luther, once marriage was described as a non-sacramental civil union, divorce could be a reasonable solution, albeit with more strictures than in Islam. Luther saw no problem with Henry VIII taking a second wife, just as he had advised Philip of Hesse. There was something of a scandal when it was found out that Luther had told Philip to lie about his bigamy, but the logic was consistent with the Shi’a practice of “taqiyya,” or lying to promote the faith.


There is more to this Must Read™.

You might also want to read about Benedict XVI’s amazing Regensburg Address.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Benedict XVI, Hard-Identity Catholicism, Mail from priests, The Drill, The Religion of Peace and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Mariana2 says:

    “As a former Lutheran, I won’t look forward to Catholic-Lutheran hoopla in 2017. ”

    Same here.

    And when I think of all the silly stuff we were told in school of Luther’s wonderfulness, specially the incident when he threw a bottle of ink at the devil, I should much appreciate information on where I could read about what actually happened and what he actually was like. I mean, why would the devil have appeared to him, surely he must in fact have been delusional?

  2. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Mariana2 — Dave Armstrong, an extremely thorough Catholic apologist who used to be a Protestant, has written a lot of extremely thorough posts and some extremely thorough books/ebooks about Luther and his works. (Calvin, too.) He’s an even-handed guy, and talks about the good and bad of Luther’s opinions. (Including the times when Luther was a lot more Catholic than those who followed him.)

    And you might want to look him up on Facebook, etc. for suggestions on further reading, beyond the bibliographies in the posts and ebooks. Mr. Armstrong seems to read everything!

  3. JabbaPapa says:

    What a great article you’ve quoted !!

    I was a Seizièmiste at the Sorbonne, at the same time that I was in the midst of my Journey of Conversion to the Christian Faith — and whilst I’d object that Islam is more Gnostic, Pagan, and Pelagian than Arian, it’s certainly delightful to see this long quotation from such manifestly fine Renaissance erudition.

    St Thomas’ Latin is BTW a little forced, albeit quite correct — the Latin of Erasmus is delightfully elegant.

  4. lmgilbert says:

    In discussing Purgatory in his Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life Ratzinger begins by noting its ecumenically problematic character, a problematic ultimately deriving from “customs . . .and above all in the celebration of requiem Masses, [in which] the Reformers saw an attack on the complete sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work on the Cross.” Ratzinger was of course writing as a theologian and not as a cultural historian, but one suspects with reason that the Reformers’ objections were not first of all doctrinal, but visceral, aesthetic, and originating possibly in a revulsion of Holy Spirit Himself who indwelt them.

    When the holy doctrine of Purgatory had eventuated in a purgatorial culture, when it was being used as the theological driver for a huge fund-raising effort to build the basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome, when one encountered purgatory on all sides, then one can understand why at some point the baptized and Holy Spirit-filled people of God would become suspicious of it and want to throw it off. But to throw off the doctrine as well as the culture was a catastrophic mistake, of course.

    Mistaken and heretical as the Reformation certainly was, nevertheless, one could hope that we will go into 2017 very far from having our Counter-Reformation daggers drawn. What good has it done? The Catholic humanist reformers may have “distinguished themselves from Luther by the astringency of their Aristotelian disdain” and together with Trent stopped the further spread of the heresy, but they did not restore Christendom, they did not win the Lutherans back, nor the Calvinists etc.

    Winning them back is the official goal and policy of the Catholic Church of our times. It is difficult to see how Fr Rutler’s recalling the scatological language of St. Thomas More toward Luther, his reference to Luther as a buffoon, purporting Islam/Protestant affinities and noting whatever other theological and moral delicts Luther may have committed is going to contribute to that goal, nor noting his inelegant Latin, for that matter. Triumphalism and astringent disdain is going to get us nowhere.

  5. JabbaPapa says:

    Mariana2 :

    I mean, why would the devil have appeared to him, surely he must in fact have been delusional?

    No, I’ve met the Devil, or if you prefer a man possessed by him.

    Throwing a bottle of ink at him is a fundamentally unchristian reaction to Satan’s evil provocations and his lies and his insidious attempts at manipulation.

    crikey, this possessed man’s whole body was covered in ink as tattoos, including the face …

    The Devil appears to men in order to tempt them away from the Spirituality of the True Faith in and from God. The proper reaction is pity, understanding, and firmness — not to send him an extra supply of weaponry to use against Faith in the Lord our God.

  6. lmgilbert says:

    FWIW, your mention of Reginald Foster prompted me to check the status of his book Ossa Latinitatis Sola. Amazon says it will be available for shipping October 3rd.

  7. Geoffrey says:

    The only reason to be grateful to the late Martin Luther would be for the Counter Reformation that followed.

  8. Pingback: Rutler on Luther and Islam | Fr. Z’s Blog | Deaconjohn1987's Blog

  9. (X)MCCLXIII says:

    I, for one, stand with Chesterton and Aquinas (and Christ, of course) and against Luther. I’m sorry that Francis doesn’t seem to stand with us.

    I have long thought that Protestantism and Mohammedanism have much in common.

  10. THREEHEARTS says:

    I once read in the foyer of the Lutheran university south east of Seattle two items of interest. First at that time they had ancient and large biographies on Luther. I read that when Luther was asked about the illiterate translation on St Paul’s words on Faith alone answered I put it in because it sounded stronger in German. another book commented on the fact Luther was scared that if he made peace with the Church he would be killed out of hand by the stadtholders and electors that ruled the Germanic peoples. He united them as no one else could and as a force could not resist the Papal Swiss army which they could not do before. Third point Luther also knew very well his religion did not have the apostolic tradition so he asked the Patriarch of Constantinople to anoint him as a bishop. There is a book on the subject the name I believe was crossing the Bosporus. Letters containing the discussions with the patriarch

  11. Suburbanbanshee says:

    lmgilbert – Actually, St. Francis de Sales did win back a good chunk of the Calvinists. Of course, he was notoriously good at using honey instead of vinegar while still arguing the Church’s case, so maybe that goes along with your idea.

    OTOH, there were other Counter-Reformation stars who were quite good at winning back Lutherans and other kinds of Protestants, but we seldom hear about them or their tactics. And some of them are saints and blesseds, so we should hear about them more! Blessed Nicholas Steno (aka Niels Stensen), founder of modern geology as well as pious bishop and friend of the poor, for instance.

  12. robtbrown says:


    Certainly, the state of the Church in Luther’s time was not good, but his problem wasn’t with the “purgatorial culture”. He began as an advocate of strict observance in the religious life, but ended as someone who forgot about observance altogether.

    Luther was a man who didn’t believe that grace perfects nature–thus any notion of spiritual progress in this life or the one after is rejected. No need for Purgatory in that scenario. And the Sacraments no longer would be causes of grace.

    As an unreconstructed Thomist, I am not crazy about the Theology of Grace in Trent, which, IMHO, puts too much emphasis on the human act and not enough on the initative of God. In that sense I agree with the Document on Justification. On the other hand, even though Protestantism emphasizes the Divine Initiative in Justification, it rejects any notion of merit after Justification (cf grace does not perfect nature). Purgatory, therefore, doesn’t fit in such an approach.

    Not believing in Purgatory, however, produces Presumption in a believer, which is a sin against Hope.

    Winning Calvinists and Lutherans back? As a convert who has known many other converts, I am unaware of anyone who swam the Tiber because of any Ecumenical project sponsored by the hierarchy.

    How about winning Catholics back? The churches in Western Europe are empty.

  13. Fr. Reader says:

    @Geoffrey. “The only reason to be grateful to the late Martin Luther would be for the Counter Reformation that followed.”
    I don’t think he is the one to be thanked for. Not at all. Not even a bit. Is like thanking heretics of recent times of all the good things that might eventually happen in the Church in the 21th century. The concept of felix culpa cannot be applied in that way. In any case, we can thank God that, in spite of the sin of men (in this case, of that man, leaving the judgment on His hands) He is able to obtain some good out of it.

  14. robtbrown says:

    Also: If Triumphalism is rejoicing in the Truth, then count me a Triumphalist.

  15. Ben Kenobi says:

    Wow. Great article, Father Z! One thing that folks forget is that Luther had men hanged and executed – for the crime of being heretics. There is little love lost between Luther and the Anabaptists of all stripes.

  16. KateD says:


    Could “throwing ink at the devil” be a metaphor for the writings of Luther against the Church and the Pope, from 1521 to 1522 while he hid out at Wartbhrg after his excommunication?

    I tend to concur, that one man could create such disfigurement to the Body of Christ would seem to imply his relationship to Satan was one of complicity rather than antagonism.

    BTW. There are some really funny other renditions of that story online about who was involved with the throwing of the ‘ink’….I particularly like the one where an arthritic monk who gets ticked off, wings the ink pot at Luther and leaves behind the odor of his displeasure….in Luther’s general direction…lol….”the stink of which nasty smell continued in the room for some days after”…ROFL

  17. Andreas says:

    As always, Father Rutler weaves an informative, timely and most eloquent discussion. “Pecksniffian ectomorph” and “Rabelaisian endomorph”…I may beg to purloin these as there are a few miscreants of my acquaintance to whom I would love to direct these wonderful barbs.

  18. Sonshine135 says:

    Saint Peter Canisius, pray for us. I certainly think the focus next year should be on the 100th anniversary of Fatima, not the heretical, anti-Catholic Martin Luther.

Comments are closed.