Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Ultramontanist Debt to Luther

Martin Luther Publicly Burning the Papal Bull
“So one is the Abraham who believes, one is the Abraham who works; one is the Christ who redeems, one is the Christ who works… distinguish between these two things as between heaven and earth.” —Fr. Martin Luther
It’s not a well publicized fact that Martin Luther hated St. Augustine and his theology. Those who study Fr. Luther’s personal copies of Augustine’s works against the Manichees have discovered that the mad Augustinian monk wrote glosses in the margins defending that ancient heretical sect against their defector’s attacks. Luther the dualist believed there were deep divisions within the life of the Trinity itself—especially during the suffering of the Crucifixion—but he also ascribed similar divisions to the human person.

How did these manifest? Mostly in the distinction between Man the Sinner and Man the Justified. Every fallen man was, to use his own word image, a pile of feces. Justification fell from Heaven upon said pile of feces like a thick layer of snow, lying over but never transforming the filth beneath. The “saved” man thus has two identities: Sinner and Justified, and never the two will merge. This is in contrast to the metaphorical Old Man and New Man of St. Paul’s theology, who represent one’s worldly and spiritual natures, and who both wish to make the Christian into the image of himself.

It is an identity crisis not unlike that posited by the ancient Greek myth of Heracles, for the son of Zeus was also the son of the mortal woman Alcmene, and he possessed two natures. When he died, burned alive on his own funeral pyre, his divine part flew upwards to Olympus, while his human part sunk down into Hades. His human soul, or shade, yearned forever for its divine counterpart; his divine self, one assumes, happily could not have cared less about the human.

Odysseus Meeting the Shade of Heracles
In like manner, Luther saw the human person as a sort of vessel for hellish and heavenly parts, neither of which could truly transform the other. Since justification sits upon the sinner like a blanket of snow, is it only the snow that is saved? One wonders what happens to Man the Sinner at the moment of death while Man the Justified is swept up into Heaven. Is the former annihilated? Used as compost? Damned, and forever yearning for the cool snow?

Dualist that he was, Fr. Luther was comfortable accepting this contradiction. Quasi-Lutherans that they are, ultramontanists are comfortable accepting a sharp, irrational dualism in the papacy.

This expresses itself especially in their attitudes towards the Bishop of Rome. Believing him (quite rightly) to be the Vicar of Christ and head of the visible Church, the Catholic ultramontanist habitually holds a sharp division between, say, John Paul the Pope and John Paul the Man. John Paul the Pope can do no wrong, and every word and action must be piously praised as coming from the Holy Ghost himself. John Paul the Man is either non-existent (having been destroyed by his elevation to the papacy) or a kind of doppelgänger that emerges when John Paul the Pope slumbers. When a papal Mass is adorned with topless natives or the man in white kisses a Koran in full view of a camera, those faults are either maniacally ignored, or they actually insist that these evil actions are praiseworthy, and that we are simply too sinful to see their merits.

Similar breaks with reality occur concerning other members of the clerical class: laymen defending pederastic priests, priests defending heretical bishops, bishops defending mad cardinals, and so forth. Clericalism is a form of dualism in which Fr. Sinner is covered in the snowy mantle of Fr. Justified—and who are you to judge when he falls?

The Sacrament of Holy Orders imprints an indelible spiritual mark on the soul, bestowing the powers to consecrate, offer sacrifice, and forgive sins. This sacrament is not, however, a magical fluffy layer of snow that makes a priest’s feces stop stinking.

Luther himself was a clericalist, returning from Rome scandalized by the excesses of the Roman clergy and full of zeal to denounce them. He was scrupulous about his own sins after he was ordained a priest, since he did not think himself worthy of the priesthood. He was so obsessed by his own unworthiness that he was nearly unable to finish saying his first Mass, much to the embarrassment of his father.

The general attitude of pre-Reformation Catholics can best be described as one of holy resignation to clerical vice. Whether they had to suffer the keeping of concubines, the buying and selling of offices, the thieving of tithes to live in exorbitance, or even outright perversities, the laity’s reaction to wicked priests was to express their disgust and move on with life. They understood and readily admitted that bishops who murdered others for their own gain were on a steep slope to Hell, and this understanding granted them a measure of peace.

Surely it can do the same for us.


  1. that illustration from the baltimore catechism is heretical. it shows the priest not wearing baroque vestments and doing the dominican orans positiion, not the roman one.
    if you have a copy, you should burn it.

    all jokes aside, and off topic.
    there is an album of balt. cat. illustration on facebook. my, are those tacky LOL

    1. I love flipping through the Baltimore Catechism for the illustrations. They often oversimplify the doctrines in question, but they present things in a concrete way that a young mind can really grapple with.

    2. Yes. The oversimplification is my issue with the illustrations. But, yeah, they're meant for children.

  2. that illustration from the baltimore catechism is heretical. it shows the priest not wearing baroque vestments and doing the dominican orans positiion, not the roman one.

    Actually, it's heretical because the priest wears no maniple: that invalidates the entire Mass.

    1. And what's more, there's no elbow long lace on the alb sleeves.

    2. It is rather surprising that they left that out.