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Women & the church - Part 3

When Catherine and Martin married, they changed the face of the church forever.
When Catherine and Martin married, they changed the face of the church forever.Digital Imagery

Martin Luther dishes on sexual reality
Third in a series

In our last report, we continued the story of how the seeds of a more enlightened view of women were planted back in the 1500s by a Catholic priest named Martin Luther. In this installment, we’ll see how Luther’s own views were a complicated mix of theology and practicality.

For starters, Luther offered this plain talk about human nature in “Against the Spiritual Estate”: Unless she is in a high and unusual state of grace, a young woman can do without a man as little as she can do without eating, drinking, sleeping, or other natural requirements. Nor can a man do without a woman. The reason for this is that to conceive children is as deeply implanted in nature as eating and drinking are. That is why God gave us and implanted into our body genitals, blood vessels, fluids, and everything else necessary to accomplish it. The person who wants to prevent this and keep nature from doing what it wants to do and must do is simply preventing nature from being nature, fire from burning, water from wetting, and man from eating, drinking, or sleeping.

So for Luther, sexual reality was as natural as eating and drinking.

But we should also note that Luther’s purpose was not to glorify or encourage unrestrained libidinous activity. Actually, he believed that the sacred institution of marriage was intended by God to be the permissible haven for the sexual act.

What about marriage for priests?
Luther felt very strongly that the idea of married priests was an idea whose time had come, or rather, returned. Whatever fears or misguided notions had originally created the papal rule of celibacy, history (and common sense) had proven the error of the church’s ways.

As Luther said, “Scripture and daily experience teach that chastity is a supernatural gift, very special and uncommon, given only to a few great saints.” It was not that chastity was impossible, but rather, something that few could really hope to achieve. The corruption and theological contortions it produced were not worth the dubious benefits, in his opinion.

Historians also tell us that Luther himself had no problem with chastity, as a monk. More than likely, he could have maintained his own vows of celibacy, had he so chosen. Why, then, did he decide to marry? Many reasons have been given.

One expert, Gerhard Brendler, said that it wasn’t laziness or negligence that brought about Luther’s dispute with the monastic life, and its insistence on celibacy, but a theology of how a person is saved, or gains salvation. Luther didn’t seem to think it was right to simply withdraw from earthly problems just to enjoy a modest amount of priestly security.

Luther also felt that celibacy shouldn’t be adopted simply for its own sake, but rather to help one minister better, with less distractions. Otherwise, it becomes an empty, meaningless gesture.

Some other reasons for Luther’s abandoning the idea of an unmarried priesthood included fulfilling his own father’s wish that he marry; defying the pope and the devil; underscoring his own teachings on marriage and celibacy by making himself a role model and example for others; and “sealing his witness” before his act of rebellion ultimately led to him becoming a martyr and losing his life (which, in those days, was a very real possibility, because of the power of the pope and the church hierarchy).

Some other commentators, namely Bernhard Lohse and Walter Von Loewenich, felt there were also practical concerns for Luther:

  • the need for someone to manage his household, and to see that Luther himself was taken care of
  • dissatisfaction with a lonely bachelor existence
  • a longing for familiarity and security

Von Loewenich even suggested that Luther’s “real motive” was what he called “compassion for the forsaken,” in other words, the rescue of his friend Catherine von Bora from her own lonely, forsaken existence.

By marrying Catherine, Luther no doubt achieved a number of things – some degree of comfort, security, and earthly pleasure for himself, but more importantly, turning the Christian church of his time on its ear, and standing up against what he considered a policy that no longer had worked very well in the real world.

Heiko Oberman adds, “Defiance of the Devil” is probably the worst reason for marriage ever recorded in the long history of the institution. Luther’s defiance did not originate in presumptuousness but in conviction: the excommunicated heretic understood his marriage to Catherine of Bora, the runaway nun, as a God-given answer to false diabolical holiness.

So, through his courageous act of defiance, Martin Luther dramatically changed the face of Christianity forever.

In the next article in this series, we’ll report on what impact Luther’s bold move had on the institution of marriage. Stay tuned…