The Surprisingly Catholic Martin Luther: An Interview with Martin E. Marty

U.S. Catholic, September 2004 | Go to article overview

The Surprisingly Catholic Martin Luther: An Interview with Martin E. Marty


When he was in seminary Martin E. Marty and his classmates used to play a game: If your denomination were removed from the earth, what would you be? Marty always said Mennonite and Catholic. "Mennonites because they take seriously the disciplined life in Christ and because of their generosity. If there were a tornado, you know eight bearded guys are going to be there rebuilding the next day," he says. "But liturgically I'd want to be Catholic."

Of course Marty is neither--he is Lutheran through and through. As one of the country's foremost religious historians and commentators, an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, not to mention his namesake, Martin Marty was the perfect person to pen Martin Luther (Viking, 2004), a Penguin Lives biography of the leader of the Protestant Reformat ion.

The author of more than 50 books, Marty also has edited U.S. CATHOLIC's sister publication Context, a biweekly newsletter commenting on religion and culture, for 35 years. His many awards and commendations include the National Book Award and the National Humanities Medal.

Marty taught religious history for more than 35 years at the University of Chicago, where he is currently professor emeritus. Ever the teacher, he stopped by our office recently to discuss Luther and his impact on Christianity.

Why should Catholics care about Martin Luther?

I think the modern world is unimaginably different because of Luther, although he only accidentally helped produce that different world. Taking the Protestant Reformation along with the other reformations going on, including the birth of modern science and many Catholic reformations, a new world was born.

In the midst of it all was Luther, who was a genius at self-examination, a spiritual genius, as inexplicable as Mozart is to music. I don't mean he had everything figured out, I just mean he was attuned to things. Most people don't live with that intensity.

He could give voice to what a lot of other people were feeling in the 16th century. Once word got out that there was another means of having access to God and to heaven than venerating relics and buying indulgences, there were huge crowds everywhere. Luther wasn't the only one who cared about corruption. There was a Reformation apart from him and with him and beyond him. But I think nobody did more than he to sanctify attention to conscience.

Did he really set out to form his own church?

No. In fact, I think he had a very narrow vision of the future. He really believed that the end was near. He knew there was an America, but he didn't spend any time thinking about sending missionaries. Time was short.

He also didn't really know how to set up shop. He had a radical sense that with Baptism you're already a priest, a bishop, and a pope. But he could see that everybody setting up shop as their own priest would get chaotic, and he liked order.

Luther considered himself a Catholic all his life. He could criticize the papal system, but in his catechism he writes about "the holy Catholic Church." As long as you baptize in the name of the Trinity, as long as you receive the elements of Communion and hear the reading of the gospel, that's all it takes to have the church. But you have to have the church; he could never picture being alone.

Late in life Luther said, "Well, if they're going to call us Lutherans, I guess I won't fight that." But he knew it was the enemy's name for him, and he wasn't happy with that.

What was Luther like personally?

He was a sensitive young person who made a vow to St. Anne to become a monk after getting caught in a storm, and he took his vow desperately seriously. He had an amazing level of guilt, fear, and intensity. He says he could walk in the woods and the stirring of a leaf would send trembling into his heart. His confessor was bored silly by Luther's six-hour confessions. …

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