Most of you know my interest in the Catholic understanding of Martin Luther, and the way the "facts" are interpreted. One of the books I've been looking for for quite a while is Heinrich Denifle's work on Luther in English. It is available online in German, but as far as I've been able to search, an English translation is not yet on-line (though does exist). I'm trying to hold out buying this text. Typically, I find used copies of it on-line over $100 (yes, I've come close to buying it). I'm hoping Google Books or some other website saves me the money by posting it (If anyone finds it on-line, please let me know). It is funny how Google Books seems to know which books I'm looking for, and makes sure not to have them available!
Heinrich Denifle was an Austrian Catholic scholar in the 1880’s, and held in high esteem by Leo XIII and Pius X. He was also an accomplished scholar, with groundbreaking work on the relationship between scholastic theology and medieval mysticism. In the course of his research on medieval theology and the corruption of the Church, Denifle developed an interest in understanding Luther.
Denifle was no fan of Luther, and by and large, his writings on Luther have been disregarded by Catholics and Protestants. For him, Luther was a fallen-away monk with unbridled lust, a theological ignoramus, an evil man, and used immorality to begin the Reformation. Denifle accuses Luther of buffoonery, hypocrisy, pride, ignorance, forgery, slander, pornography, vice, debauchery, drunkenness, seduction, corruption, and more: he is a lecher, knave, liar, blackguard, sot, and worse: he was infected with the venereal disease syphilis. To read more about Denifle's approach to Luther, see my article, The Roman Catholic Perspective of Martin Luther (Part One). Now this is a book I want!
Recently I found an interesting old Catholic review of Denifle's work. The author gives a summary of Denifle's work, and one particular statement caught my attention. Above, note Denifle considered Luther a "fallen-away monk." The article summarizes Denifle's position on the early Luther, and I think those interested in this topic will be surprised at the position taken:
"The first general impression we get of Martin Luther by reading Denifle's book is that during the first decade of his monastic life from 1505 to 1515, he was a good, brilliant, zealous religious. When he joined the Augustinian Order he was not an ignorant, inexperienced youth ; he was twenty-two years old and was a doctor of philosophy. His intentions were unquestionably sincere and holy. Two years he remained in the novitiate to probe himself and to study the profound meaning and the sacred obligations of religious life. When the young doctor, therefore, made his profession at the age of twenty-four, we have all reasons to believe that he gave himself to God with his whole heart, of his own free will, with no other motive than to strive after perfection and work for the glory of God. We may even suppose that he excelled among his brethren in piety and learning. He was made superior, placed in authority over eleven convents, and as master of arts and theology he was sent to Wittenberg to teach at the university."
Granted, I don't have Denifle's book to check to see if he's been summarized correctly, but other reviews of Denifle's work state as much. Here we find Denifle describing Luther as an honest and sincere fellow with holy intentions. But, despite this, Denifle will argue Luther "fell away" from his calling, and became the awful person described above.
Now, compare this to Father O'Hare's opinion in his book, The Facts About Luther. Father O'Hare presents quite a different picture:
When we consider the motives that prompted Luther to abandon the world, we fear he knew little about the ways of God and was not well informed of the gravity and responsibilities of the step he was taking. The calling he aspired to is the highest given to man on earth and because it is a ministry of salvation, replete with solemn and sacred obligations, it should not be embraced without prayerful consideration and wise and prudent counsel. It is only when vocation is sufficiently pronounced and when one by one the different stages of the journey in which are acquired continually increasing helps towards reaching the appointed goal, are passed, that one should enter the sanctuary. "No man," says St. Paul, "takes the honor to himself, but he that is called by God." That Luther was not called by God to conventual life seems evident enough from all the circumstances. Every sign and mark one looks for in aspirants to the monastic life were apparently lacking in him. Parent and friend alike knew this and opposed his course, feeling it was merely the expression of a temporary attitude of mind and not a real vocation. Luther himself admits that he was driven by despair, rather than the love of higher perfection, into a religious career. He says: "I entered the monastery and renounced the world because I despaired of myself all the while." From his earliest days he was subject to fits of depression and melancholy. Emotional by temperament, he would pass suddenly from mirth and cheerfulness to a gloomy, despondent state of mind in which he was tormented by frightful searchings of conscience. The fear of God's judgments and the recollection of his own sins sorely tried him and caused unnecessary anxiety and dread as to his fate. He saw in himself nothing but sin and in God nothing but anger and revenge. He fell a victim to excessive scrupulousness, and, as he was self- opinionated and stubborn-minded, he relied altogether too much on his own righteousness and disregarded the remedies most effectual for his spiritual condition. Like all those who trust in themselves, he rushed from extreme timidity to excessive rashness. Had he consulted those who were skilled in the direction of conventual religious and made known the troubled waters beneath the smooth surface of his daily life, he might have been made to understand that, owing to his abnormal state of mind and his natural disposition, he was not fitted for the carrying out of the evangelical counsels and thus have been prevented from forcing himself into a mould for which he was manifestly un-suited. In the uneasy and serious state of his conscience the advice and counsel of the wise and prudent were ignored. Moved by his own feelings and relying on his own powers, he suddenly and secretly decided for himself a career in life vhich, as events proved, was not only a mistake as far as he was concerned, but one fraught with disaster to innumerable others, whom he afterwards influenced to join in his revolt against the Mother Church. Without advice and without full deliberation, even in spite of the opposition of those who knew him best, he determined to become a friar [The Facts About Luther (Tan Edition) pp.37-39].
Well, these are two very different approaches- I think it shows quite clearly that even Catholic interpreters of Luther can be quite at odds with each other, and this is yet another reason why I find this an interesting topic of study.