The Neumann Press [$20.95]

Excerpts, Part 4: Lutheranism Refuted

The Diocese of Rochester, established by St. Augustine of Canterbury himself was the smallest in England, comprising of ninety-nine parishes, almost all in the western part of the county of Kent It was a very poor diocese, with an income of only £350 a year, and was generally considered to be no more than a stepping stone to advancement in the hierarchy; but John Fisher was content to remain there for thirty years uritil his Martyrdom in 1535. His brother Robert acted as his steward, and had strict instructions to ensure that the bishop's household should live within its income, and never incur debt. The cathedral-church and bishop's palace occupied half the space within the walls of the city. There were no more than 148 houses inside the walls. Rochester had been an ancient British and then Roman fortress which occupied a strategic position on the River Medway where the high road between London and Canterbury crosses it. 10 The little, walled town, dominated by the massive block of the castle on its hill, lay beside a bridge over the Medway directly in the path of all who travelled from London to the coast and vice versa. This had a considerable and unwelcome effect upon John Fisher's life as Bishop of Rochester. Many persons of note rode that way, ranging from royal embassies and foreign merchants to poor scholars. The bishop was constantly called away from his large library, one of the finest in Europe, to offer hospitality to visiting strangers.

Many spoke to the Bishop of Rochester about the new ideas which were initiating a religious revolution upon the Continent, namely the heresy of Protestantism. Pope Julius II had decided to replace the existing St. Peter's Basilica with what would be the most magnificent church in the entire Christian world. To raise funds for this project the pope published an indulgence in Poland and Frante. His successor Leo X extended the indulgence to the northern provinces of Germany. The indulgence was preached by the Dominicans, in particular a friar named Tetzel, in a manner which gave the impression that sins could be forgiven or souls released from Purgatory simply by making a cash payment. Some Catholic apologists have claimed that criticisms of this indulgence and the manner in which it was preached have been exaggerated, but the facts are even more squalid than is generally realized. Father J. Lortz writes:

When the 25-year old Albert of Brandenburg, who already held two bishoprics and a convent, was elected Archbishop of Mainz, he desired to combine in his hand this archdiocese with the two dioceses he already held. This was what was called a cumulus, specifically forbidden by Church law. The ratification fees for the archepiscopal chair to be paid by Mainz to Rome amounted to 14,000 gold florins. The Roman Curia now offered Brandenburg to allow the desired cumulus for an additional payment of 10,000 gold florins. Albert, therefore, had to pay Rome, including the quite considerable gratuities, a sum of more than 25,000 gold florins. He borrowed the required amount from the banking house of Fugger. To enable him to repay this loan, the Roman Curia assigned to him for the lands of Mainz and Brandenbug the publication of the indulgence for the benefit of the rebuilding of St. Peter's in Rome. The terms provided that one-third of the receipts would go to the Curia, one-third to Albrecht, and one-third to the Fuggers. This was the occasion for the indulgence sermons of Tetzel which were soon to begin. They have gone down in history----weighted with the opprobium of the contemptible charlatan sales tactics used to offer so-called letters of indulgence for money, hardly different from selling merchandise. There is no doubt that Tetzel preached what amounted to the often-quoted popular jingle: "As soon as the coin clinks in the box, the soul leaps into Heaven." There is no doubt that the original bargain between the Curia and Albrecht, as well as the subsequent indulgence peddling, would have been condemnd by early Christianity as a grave case of simony.

It is not surprising that with such a Curia the care of souls, prayer, and the Sacraments did not carry very much weight, and that the oncoming Reformation was met with few religious weapons. 11

Luther responded to Tetzel by nailing his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg on 31st October 1517. His initial protest against what was an evident abuse of the doctrine of indulgences was far from unjustified, but he quickly progressed to a denial of the doctrine itself; then to a rejection of doctrines and practices such as the papal primacy, clerical celibacy, religious orders, pilgrimages, Masses for the dead, Communion under one kind, transubstantiation, the sacrifice of the Mass, and eventually affirmed that the only Sacraments instituted by Our Lord were Baptism and the Eucharist His fundamental heresy of Justification by Faith alone had been formulated in 1515, two years before nailing up his theses. [Emphasis in bold added.] In 1520 Luther formalized his heresies in three books the most important of which was The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (De Captivitate Babylonica Ecclesiæ) published in Latin and German. Henry VIII, who considered himself to be no mean theologian, found the principles ofLutheranism repugnant, and refuted them with his Defence of the Seven Sacraments (Assertio Septem Sacramentorum) 1521. The Dean of Windsor carried the book to Rome and in a full consistory presented it to Pope Leo X who, on 11 October of that year, bestowed upon Henry the title Defender of the Faith. 12 It has been suggested that the book was in reality written by Fisher, and it was included in his Latin Opera Omnia long after his death, but although he may have advised the king during its composition the Bishop denied emphatically that he was its author. In view of what was to transpire later in Henry's reign there is evident irony in the fact that three of his principal themes were his affirmation of the papal primacy, the condemnation of schism, and a defence of the indissolubility of marriage. Luther replied to Henry terming him, among other things, "a fool, an ass, a blasphemer, and a liar." Fisher came to the king's defence in 1525 with his book Defensio Regiæ Assertionis (A Defence of the Assertions of the King of England against Luthers "Babylonian Captivity"). Fisher's books refuting Lutheranism were written in Latin and placed him immediately among the leading theologians of Europe. He upheld Catholic teaching on the priesthood with his book Sacri Sacerdotii Defensio Contra Lutherum, 1525, and on the Real Presence and the Eucharistic Sacrifice in De Veritate Corporis et Sanguinis Christi in Eucharistia, against Oecolampadius, in 1527.

Fisher saw clearly that the teachings of the apostate friar were treason to the Faith and poison to the souls of simple men. 13 His duty as a bishop, and his inclination as an honest man, both impelled him to fight the spreading of such a plague. The books that he wrote in his library, the sermons he preached in his own diocese, in London at St. Paul's Cross, and in Cambridge, carried his challenge to Luther and his fellow Protestants, and made his name famous in continental Europe where he was soon recognized by Catholic scholars as the master theologian of England, even though he only set foot once outside the realm and rarely travelled further from home than to Cambridge, where he would watch the building of St. John's. A contemporary writer pays him this tribute:

He was also a very diligent preacher and the most notable in all this realm, both in his time or before or since, as well for his excellent learning as also for edifying audiences, and moving the affections of his hearers to cleave to God and goodness, to embrace virtue and to flee sin. So highly and profoundly was he learned in Divinity that he was, and is at this day, well known, esteemed, and reputed and allowed (and no less worthy) not only for one of the chiefest flowers of Divinity that lived in his time throughout all Christendom. Which hath appeared right and well by his works that he wrote in his maternal tongue, but much more by his learned and famous books written in the Latin tongue.


While unwavering in his fidelity to and defence of the Church, Fisher made no attempt to defend the indefensible behaviour of many churchmen from the pope downwards. The scandalous pontificate of Alexander VI (died 1503) was still fresh in men's minds. The manner in which Pope Leo X (1513-1521), Giovanni de Medici (son of Lorenzo the Magnificent) regarded his sacred office was made clear by his words: "Let us enjoy the papacy since God granted it to us." Leo X had one main aim in life, the aggrandizement of his family, which had long been the motivating force of the Medicis. "Had he remembered his office rather than his family and taken reform more seriously than politics, the Reformation might indeed have been a renewal of the Church instead or a terrible schism. As it was, one of the last chances of a truly Catholic reformation was lost." 14

In a book refuting Lutheran errors written in 1522, Fisher provided an accurate summary of the criticisms being made of Rome, particularly the life-style of the Curia. The Lutherans, wrote Fisher, claim that:

Nowhere else is the life of Christians more contrary to Christ than in Rome, and that, too, even among the prelates of the Church, whose conversation is diametrically opposed to the life of Christ Christ lived in poverty; they fly from poverty so far that their only study is to keep up riches. Christ shunned the glory of this world; they will do and suffer everything for glory. Christ afflicted himself by frequent fasts and continual prayers; they neither fast nor pray, but give themselves up to luxury and lust They are the greatest scandal to all who live sincere Christian lives, since their morals are so contrary to the doctrine of Christ, that through them the name of Christ is blasphemed throughout the world.

Fisher makes no attempt to deny the truth of these allegations, but with sound theological insight and masterly debating skill, he uses these scandalous facts to refute the Lutherans and demonstrate the Divine nature of the Church:

This is perhaps what an adversary might object, but all this merely confirms what I am proving. For since the Sees of other Apostles are everywhere occupied by infidels, and this one only that belonged to Peter yet remains under Christian rule, though for so many crimes and unspeakable wickedness, it has deserved like the rest to be destroyed, what must we conclude but that Christ is most faithful to His promises since He keeps them in favour of His greatest enemies, however grievous and many may be their insults to Him. 15

Fisher saw clearly that a distinction must be made between the Church and churchmen. The Church had been founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ Who would be with it all days until He comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead. His teaching has been preserved faithfully in the Church from the very beginning, above all in the teaching of the Fathers of the Church. In breaking away from this unbroken tradition Luther deprives himself of any credibility. Of all Luther's works, the bishop insisted, none was "more pestilential, senseless, or shameless" than The Abrogation of the Mass. In this book Luther "tries utterly to destroy the sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Christ, which the Church has ever held to be most salutary, and the chief object of devotion to all the faithful of Christ." Fisher quotes with indignation Luther's arrogant insistence that his three arguments against the sacred priesthood cannot be refuted:

I am convinced that by these three arguments every pious conscience will be persuaded that this priesthood of the Mass and the Papacy is nothing but a work of Satan, and will be sufficiently warned against imagining that by these priests anything pious or good is effected. All will now know that these sacrificial Masses have been proved to be injurious to our Lord's testament and that therefore nothing in the whole world is to be hated and loathed so much as the hypocritical shows of this priesthood, its Masses, its worship, its piety, its religion. It is better to be a public pander or robber than one of these priests. 16

The saintly bishop cannot contain his indignation at these blasphemies:

My God! How can one be calm when one hears such blasphemous lies uttered against the mysteries of Christ? How can one without resentment listen to such outrageous insults hurled against God's priests? Who can even read such blasphemies without weeping from sheer grief if he still retains in his heart even the smallest spark of Christian piety?

Trusting therefore in the goodness of our Lord we will in our turn try to launch three attacks against Luther by which as with a sponge we hope to wipe away all the filthy and blasphemous things that have proceeded from his mouth against priests.

Fisher's indignation here provides an invaluable insight into his character. When the time came for him to be insulted and subjected to outrageously unjust treatment he exercised what must be described as almost supernatural restraint and humility. When the Faith which he loved more than his life was attacked he could show no such restraint. In his reply to Luther the bishop displays the full extent of his scholarship, quoting profusely from the Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church. 18 Time and again he emphasizes that the argument from Tradition is unanswerable:

Whereas the truth of the priesthood is abundantly and unanimously witnessed to by all the Fathers through the whole history of the Church, and whereas there is no orthodox writer who is not in agreement, and no word of Scripture that can be qupted against it, therefore all must clearly see how justly, against Luther, we claim the truth of the priesthood as the prescriptive right of the Church.
It would indeed be incredible that when Christ had redeemed His Church at so great a price, the price of His Precious Blood, He should care for it so little as to leave it enveloped in so black an error. Nor is it any more credible that the Holy Ghost, Who was sent for the special purpose of leading the Church into all truth, should allow it for so long to be led astray.

Nor is it credible that the prelates of the Church, who were so numerous even in the earliest period of her history and who were appointed by the Holy Ghost to rule her, as we shall afterwards prove, should have been enveloped in such darkness through so many centuries as to teach publicly so foul a lie.

Finally, it is beyond belief that so many churches throughout the various parts of Christendom, hitherto governed with such careful solicitude by Christ and His Spirit and by the prelates appointed for the purpose, should now unanimously fall into an error so foul and a lie so ruinous, according to Luther, that it does an injustice to the very testament of our Lord. 19

In a subsequent book, De Veritate Corporis, Fisher refuted an attack on the Real Presence by the Lutheran theologian Joannes Oecolampadius who claimed that the words "This is My Body" are purely figurative, which did not correspond with Luther's doctrine of consubstantiation in which the true Body of Christ co-existed with bread after the consecration. This was but one example of the serious divisions that were already appearing within the Lutheran sect. Luther had replaced the infallible teaching authority of the Church by his self-bestowed personal infallibility in interpreting the Bible. In theory, he conceded the right of every believer to do this: "In matters of faith each Christian is for himself pope and Church, and nothing may be decreed or kept that could issue (result) in a threat to faith." 20 But in practice it was Luther's interpretation which must be accepted: "He who does not accept my doctrine cannot be saved. For it is God's and not mine." 21 Luther most certainly did not believe in universal freedom of opinion in religious matters. What he demanded was freedom for his own opinions. [Emphasis added.] Those who disagreed with him, whether Catholic or Protestant, were dismissed as "pig-dogs", "dolts", "fiends from Hell". His interpretation of the Bible was the saving truth, all else was lies and delusions. It is hardly surprising that some Reformers who disagreed with him remarked sardonically that it was small gain to have got rid of the pope of Rome if they were to have in his place the pope of Wittenberg. 22 Fisher did not simply take satisfaction in the divisions among Lutherans. He states specifically in his refutation of Oecolampadius that he exulted in it:

Yet it was not even on account of this vengeance of God abandoning them to a reprobate sense that I exulted. There is a still more evident proof of God's avenging hand. It is related in the Book of Genesis of certain men that they resolved to build a tower, whose top should reach to Heaven, so as to leave their names famous to posterity. The world was then of one tongue, but God so punished their pride as to confound their speech, so that one understood not the other. The same punishment has befallen these factious followers of Luther. They also had conceived in their minds that they would build a new Church, and get fame throughout the world. And in this endeavour it is wonderful how united they were and banded together, so that they seemed to be like one man, with one heart and mind. Nor would they have ceased from their work, had not God, pitying His Church, looked down from on high, and bridled their madness by strife of tongues. He has brought it about that those who seemed leaders and columns among them understand not each other's voices. They strive with one another, and no one deigns to listen to his neighbour. The followers of Carlstadt have separated from the Lutherans, and they are pouring out insults one against the other. It may be seen, from letters just printed in the name of Luther, how great a controversy rages. Even Melanchthon, as I have heard from trustworthy men, is not well agreed with Luther. And now at length another of these leaders comes to the front, named John Oecolampadius, who formerly followed Luther in everything, and now he most vehemently differs from him in many points . . . Who then does not see that God is fighting for His Church, since He has put confusion in their tongues and turned their arms one against the other.

10. The Roman name for Rochester was Durobrivæ or Durobrivis, contracted into Roibis, to which the Saxons added ceaster (from the Latin castrum---a fortified place). Thus it became Hroveceaster, or Rochester. The ecclesiastical name for the city is Roffa, and the Bishop of Rochester would sign himself as Roffensis. John Fisher signed himself as John Roffensis, abbreviated as JO. ROFFS.
11. J. Lortz, How the Reformation Came (New York, 1963), pp. 93-94.
12. The title was given to the king personally without any intention of making it hereditary, but Henry retained it after his breach with Rome, it was annexed to the Crown in 1543 by act of Parliament, made hereditary, and can still be found on British coins today, abbreviated as F.D. 
13. Luther was a member of the order of Augustinian Hermits or Friars. This order was founded under Pope Alexander IV in 1256 by banding together, in the interests of ecclesiastical efficiency, several Italian congregations of hermits. Their rule was that of St. Augustine with a constitution modelled on the Dominicans.
14. E. John, The Popes (London, 1964), p. 328.
15. Convulsio calumniarum Ulrichi Minhoniensis quibus Petrum numquam Romæ
16. J. Fisher, The Defence of the Priesthood, translated by Mgr. P. E. Hallett (London, 1935), p. 2.
17. Ibid., pp. 2-3.
18. In his controversies with Luther and other Protestants, particularly Oecolamapadius, there is scarcely a Greek or Latin writer from the first to the 13th century from whom he does not make apt citations.
19. Fisher, op. cit., pp. 18-19.
20. D. Martin Luthers Werke (Weimar, 1833), vol. V; p. 407.
21. Ibid., vol. x, p. 107.
22. A. Hilliard Atteridge, Martin Luther (London, 1940), p. 10.


HOME-----------------SAINTS------------------LITANY FOR THE CHURCH IN OUR TIME