Cardinal Müller: Luther Had Disastrous Effect on the Church

The former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith criticizes some Catholics for being too enthusiastic about Luther whose “revolution” was “against the Holy Spirit.”

Cardinal Gerhard Muller.
Cardinal Gerhard Muller. (photo: Bohumil Petrik/CNA)

In the first of a series of regular columns for an Italian Catholic newspaper, Cardinal Gerhard Müller has said Martin Luther’s reform was “not an event of the Holy Spirit” but rather a “revolution” as it totally changed “the foundations of the Catholic faith.”

Writing in the Milan-based La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana Oct. 24, the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said there is “great confusion” in discussions today about Luther, who, he said, “abolished five sacraments and also denied the Eucharist.”

The movement he began had a “disastrous effect” on the Church, he said, and lamented how some Catholics today are enthusiastic about him.

The cardinal's comments come as Protestant ecclesial communities prepare to commemorate 500 years since Luther, an Augustinian Friar, posted his 95 thesis on Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, on Oct. 31, 1517, precipitating the Protestant schism from the Catholic Church.  

But the cardinal was chiefly responding to remarks made by Msgr. Nunzio Galantino, secretary general of the Italian bishops’ conference.

Last week, the number two of the episcopal conference told an audience at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome that the Reformation Luther began was an “event of the Holy Spirit,” adding: “The Reformation corresponds to the truth expressed in the saying ‘Ecclesia semper reformanda.’”

Cardinal Müller, however, said the Protestant Reformation was not a “reform” but a “total change of the foundations of the Catholic faith,” and that today’s Catholics often discuss Martin Luther “too enthusiastically,” mainly due to an ignorance of theology.

He reminded readers that Luther called the sacrament of Holy Orders “an invention of the Pope — whom he called the Antichrist — and not part of the Church of Jesus Christ.”

“That is why we cannot accept Luther’s reform being called a reform of the Church in a Catholic sense,” he said. “Catholic reform is a renewal of faith lived in grace, in the renewal of customs, of ethics, a spiritual and moral renewal of Christians; not a new foundation, not a new Church.”

The cardinal said it was therefore “unacceptable” to assert that Luther’s reform “was an event of the Holy Spirit.” On the contrary, he said, “it was against the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit helps the Church to maintain her continuity through the Church’s magisterium, above all in the service of the Petrine ministry.”

The Holy Spirit, he stressed, “does not contradict Himself.”

He went to say that Luther’s polemics and theology had a “disastrous effect” on the Church which “destroyed the unity of millions”. He also said it was incorrect to say that Luther “initially had good intentions” or that the Church refused to dialogue with him.

The cardinal said the Church cannot err in the transmission of salvation in the sacraments, even if people in the Church sin and make personal mistakes. But amid “today’s confusion,” he said many people have this the wrong way round, not least when it comes to their idea of the papacy.

“They believe the Pope is infallible when he speaks privately,” he said, “but then when the Popes throughout history have set forth the Catholic faith, they say it is fallible.”

He added that it is “one thing to want to have good relations with non-Catholic Christians today” but it is “quite another thing to misunderstand or falsify what happened 500 years ago and the disastrous effect it had.”

It was an effect, he said, “contrary to the will of God” who wishes that “all be one.”