500th Anniversary of the 95 Theses

Luther Theses by Ferdinand Pauwels
painting by Ferdinand Pauwels

I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh… When I want to do right, evil is at hand… Miserable one that I am! Who will deliver me from this mortal body? (Romans 7:18, 21, 24)

So lamented St. Paul. And so lamented Martin Luther.

Tuesday marks the 500th anniversary of Father Martin Luther’s letter to the Archbishop of Mainz, criticizing the preaching of indulgences. Luther may also have posted his criticisms, in the form of 95 theses for debate, on or around the same day.

The most interesting thing I have read about this is the Augustinian Prior General’s letter.

The Martinsville Bulletin published a somewhat far-fetched essay on the subject, which mis-characterized our Church. I wrote a reply, which you can read below. Not sure if the editor will publish it in the newspaper.

Pope Benedict visited Luther’s monastery six years ago. The pope said:

What constantly exercised Luther was the question of God. ‘How do I receive grace from God?’ This question struck him in the heart and lay the foundation of all his theological searching and inner struggle.

The pope went on to say, echoing the words of St. Paul we heard in our reading from Romans at Holy Mass today:

Evil is no small matter. Were we truly to place God at the center of our lives, evil could not be so powerful [in the world.] ‘Where do I stand before God?’ Luther’s burning question must once more become our question, too.

One thing we Lutherans and Catholics and pretty much all Christians have in common is this: We believe in God’s Word. We do not consider the information contained in the Bible to be something remote, merely ancient history. No. We count that information as the one and only key that can unlock the door of hope and true life.

Jesus as we know Him in the gospels—the babe born in Bethlehem, the teacher on the mountainside, the Lamb of God in Jerusalem: we know no life at all without Him. The Word that gives Christ to us is a living Word.

And Luther would agree with us Catholics on this: The Word lives in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Luther coined the slogan ‘sola Scriptura.’ But he knew enough about the Scriptura to recognize the undeniable fact that the Scriptura has no life in it at all, except in the bosom of the Church. Our Mother the Church gathered the holy books for us in the first place, and She has carried them through the centuries to us. The Church is the place where the living Word of God meets human faith.

So let’s give thanks for Luther’s courageous and awesomely faithful witness to the living Word of God. And let’s pray that the damage he did to the unity of the Church might get repaired. All of us Christians can help foster Church unity by striving to grow ever more faithful to God’s Word ourselves.



Dear Editor of the Martinsville Bulletin:


We Catholics of Martinsville and Henry County read with great interest Mr. Don Barnhart’s editorial commemorating the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 theses.

Alongside all our brother- and sister-Christians, we Catholics rejoice to share in the liberating Gospel of Christ. We study the Sacred Scriptures religiously. We recognize the equal dignity of all human beings. We believe in democracy.

We cannot altogether rejoice, however, on the anniversary of an occasion that has caused a great deal of harm as well as good. We pray for a united Church, the Church willed by Jesus. We respect Luther’s insight into individual liberty, not to mention his wisdom and piety. But we cannot endorse his intolerance towards his enemies.

The Protestant Reformers articulated insights into the perpetual need the Church has to reform Herself. We belong to a Church of sinners, so we always need to face our faults, confess them, and seek closer union with Christ through the Word of God and the sacraments.

Barnhart celebrates the Reformation as some kind of escape from “spiritual and moral darkness enveloping the civilized world” (an apparent contradiction in terms). But what about the dark side of the Reformation? Doesn’t Reformation theology exalt the individual to the detriment of fraternal communion? Hasn’t the Reformation broken many of the ties that should bind us together?

If everything were so perfect in Protestant America, why do we have so many desperately poor and hopeless people? Barnhart suggests that the answer lies in individual conversion to Christ. We Catholics would add that another crucial part of the answer is: repairing the broken unity of Christ’s Church. May the Lord find a way to gather together what we, His sinful children, have scattered.


Respectfully yours, Fr. Mark White, pastor, St. Joseph’s parish

7 thoughts on “500th Anniversary of the 95 Theses

  1. Good response, Father Mark, but let me add that we should also pray for the”fractures” in our own church and that there be unity (as we pray every Sunday).

  2. Fr. Mark, I am thankful that you sent a reply to the newspaper and I sincerely hope it will be published. I echo T. Biggs’ comment, “A perfect, well-crafted reply.” Also, thank you for including The Augustinian Prior General’s letter in your writing today. I appreciated the opportunity to read it and learn from it.
    Judy R.

  3. Good letter Fr Mark. Only wish it was dated so we could follow up on the Martimsville Bulletin to see if they have the fortitude to publish it.

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