As we discussed in class on Thursday, most of the problems Protestant Reformers found with Catholic veneration of Mary were for the most part non-issues, misunderstandings of devotional practice and concern over the same sorts of problems that had been discussed and settled centuries before by the likes of Cyril and Nestorius. The “outbreak of common sense” Luther claims to be leading seems to come out of left field, as if he were unacquainted with Marian tradition and drawing his conclusions from very superficial understanding of contemporary practice. However, as we discussed in class, there were several specific changes to theological inquiry and focus prior to and during the Protestant Reformation that make Luther’s frustrations with Marian veneration more understandable. For one, the re-translation of scripture by the humanists allows for and even encourages re-interpretation of texts that had been for centuries interpreted a different way, and as we learned in class, the Hebrew sources they consulted were often in disagreement with the accepted Catholic interpretation of Old Testament passages that may or may not refer to Mary. Furthermore, by the sixteenth century the apocryphal Gospels have fallen out of use and, seemingly, of memory, for none of the Reformation authors we read even bothered to dispute their authenticity as sources of information about Mary.
Another contemporary source of tension that seems to inform Luther’s dissatisfaction with veneration of Mary seems to be more an issue of economics. Obviously the flow of money through the Church was a matter of pivotal importance to Luther, as the sale of indulgences was one of the chief abuses he decried in his 95 Theses: in fact over 40 of the theses refer to indulgences specifically. To Luther the distribution of papal absolution as reward for monetary donation was a corruption of God’s justice and mercy. It is very significant to the problem of Mary that Luther’s original complaint, the issue that catalyzed all the other diverse theological and organizational changes of the Reformation was this issue of the monetary exchange of grace on behalf of the Catholic Church.
Throughout Medieval Marian veneration, donations or offerings to Mary have been an essential element of devotion. Pretty much every miracle experienced at Rocamadour was followed by an offering made to the chapel which was often specifically chosen to match the miracle in a very quantitative way: sometimes a wax model corresponding to the nature of the miracle is presented, in one case a man to whom four teeth were restored by the Virgin presented the chapel with four identical teeth made out of silver (The Miracles of Our Lady of Rocamadour, p. 113), and concerned father William Ulric is told to present the Virgin with a wax effigy of his ailing son weighing as much as the child (p. 165). In fact the explanation given in the prologue to The Miracles of Our Lady of Rocamadour is that it is being written to explain the stories behind the many effigies and wax models in the chapel, which we soon learn are many and diverse. It is significant, too, that these are not mere donations, but often effigies of a person or object involved or else donations of wax correspondent in weight to some element of the miracle. It’s almost as if Mary is being paid a fee for her services, and the recipients are careful to make sure the cost matches the services.
I don’t think anyone would argue that devotion to Mary was in any way restricted to the wealthy; throughout the miracle stories we see examples of poor men and women who are just as dedicated to Mary as are the knights and monks that offer her wax effigies, and she blesses them with miracles just as generously as their wealthier counterparts. For Luther, the problem isn’t so much that the offerings people made to Mary differed based on their economic means, but rather that vast amounts of resources that could have been going to aid the poor were instead being displayed in Marian shrines in the form of silly wax or silver effigies of obscure miracle events, or spent on lengthy and expensive pilgrimages across Europe, or in reliquaries to artifacts from Mary’s life. Even the time spent by priests and monks in observing the Marian liturgy could be better spent praying directly to God, rather to an intermediary with the intercessory power of a mere human. Luther says fairly directly “The second harm that occurs because of the deep honoring of the Mother of God concerns poor needy Christians. People lift their eyes to heaven and yammer, forgetting about the saints that are here on earth” (Luther on Women, p. 36).
So perhaps this is why Luther’s grievances with Mary seem to come almost out of nowhere, largely uninformed by the centuries-old tradition of the theology of Mary. Though he draws on elements of Marian theology he finds problematic, the impetus for his rejection of her veneration was likely as related to the misappropriation of resources into symbolic devotion rather than alleviation of actual social ills.
I think this reading of Luther scans particularly well in the context of indulgences and the 95 Theses. Though the Protestant Reformation grew to include sweeping theological revision of Christian doctrine, it started as a protest by a German monk against the exchange of spiritual indulgence for money and, in more general terms, the materialism that had become rampant in the Catholic Church throughout the Middle Ages. Mary is problematic not only because prayer to her distracts from God, but because the care and devotion that was being offered to Mary could easily have gone to help suffering “saints” amongst the living.
Ultimately this is the purpose to which Luther puts Marian devotion. Previous devotees had seen the Blessed Virgin as not only an object of devotion herself but also as an example of devotion. To Bernard, the image of Mary contemplating Scripture or praying at the time of the Annunciation was the epitome of the monastic calling, the perfect example of how monks ought to dedicate themselves to God. Luther takes the Marian example away from the monastery and gives it to the common people, portraying Mary not as the perfect devotee but as the perfect wife and mother, and moreover the perfect poor wife and mother, as his Mary was neither rich nor noble as the traditional medieval Mary. To Luther, whose entire theology revolved around salvation by grace alone, Marian devotion was a problem because it mired the typical believer in rituals and sacrifices to a human saint in heaven, to the detriment of the suffering on earth. For him the noblest expression of devotion to the Mother of God is not to travel to Rocamadour bearing wax effigies, but to live quietly and simply in assistance to the poor.