Luther Was Critical of Monasticism: A Catholic Theologian Weighs In — An Excerpt from Was the Reformation a Mistake?
Jesus proclaims that voluntary poverty and chaste celibacy will be the vocation of some of his followers, but not all of them. Jesus also makes clear the centrality of obedience. It makes sense, then, that the church should possess ways of living a distinctive religious life of radical poverty, chaste celibacy, and obedience—so long as the motivation for religious life is love and faith-filled desire to imitate Christ.
Martin Luther rightfully voiced his disapproval of the financial corruption, focus on works, and sexual incontinence in monasteries during his lifetime. In today’s excerpt from Was the Reformation a Mistake? Matthew Levering–though he would agree on the corruption–addresses some of the reasoning behind the formation of monasteries as a legitimate biblical communities.
Numerous monasteries continue to flourish today within the Catholic Church, but the question is whether this befits the Christian gospel. Readers unfamiliar with the Catholic Church’s teaching on monasticism should consult paragraphs 914–945 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as well as paragraphs 43–47 of Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium. In my biblical reflection, I focus on Jesus’s commendation of voluntary poverty and chaste celibacy (or singleness) for the sake of the kingdom, as well as on the significance of obedience for both Jesus and Paul. In laying out some biblical foundations of Catholic doctrine about monastic communities of believers who encourage each other in living out this vocation of poverty, chaste celibacy, and obedience for the sake of the kingdom, I cannot here recapitulate the experience of the living liturgical community in which, over the centuries, this path of discipleship emerged and received the church’s approval. But I hope to show that the monastic life continues today in large part due to biblical reasoning.
…In his Treatise…Luther undermines the viability of monastic religious life by suggesting that the religious orders contribute to a spiritually dangerous focus on works; by his critique of the vows of obedience, stability, and continence; by his emphasis that religious begging should be outlawed; and by his view that monks and friars should not be able to preach or hear confessions.
When Jesus is discussing marriage (and forbidding divorce and remarriage), he remarks in response to a challenge from his disciples: “Not all men can receive this precept, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it” (Matt 19:11–12). It is easy to understand what eunuchs from birth and from the hands of men are, but what does it mean to make oneself a eunuch “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven”?
It does not appear to mean literal castration; rather, it seems that Jesus is proposing voluntary chaste celibacy—abstinence from marriage and sexual intercourse—for some of his followers. Since he has just praised marriage, it is clear that he does not mean that all of his followers will take this path of voluntary celibacy “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” Some will do so, however: namely, those who are “able to receive this.”
Almost immediately thereafter in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus has a conversation with a young man who wants to know “What good deed must I do, to have eternal life” (Matt 19:16). In response, Jesus tells him to “keep the commandments” (Matt 19:17), specifying that he means the Decalogue. The young man replies that he has kept the commandments. Yet, the young man feels that something is lacking, since he adds, “What do I still lack?” (Matt 19:20). Jesus then gives him an instruction for attaining Christian perfection. Jesus states, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matt 19:21).
Earlier in the Gospel of Matthew, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus emphasizes the need for perfection: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). Does this mean that all Christians must sell all our possessions and follow Jesus without any property of our own? It might seem so, since Jesus proceeds to warn his disciples that “it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matt 19:23–24). Furthermore, Jesus’s twelve disciples emphasize that they themselves have abandoned their property and homes in order to follow him. As Peter says, “We have left everything and followed you. What then shall we have?” (Matt 19:27).
Just as Jesus praises marriage but says that some people will be called to be “eunuchs” for the kingdom’s sake, so also Jesus calls some, though not all, to give away all their property and live in accordance with voluntary poverty.15 In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches that “when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt 6:3–4). Once one has given away all one’s property—an act that can hardly be kept secret—it logically follows that one can no longer give alms but must receive them. By contrast, Jesus anticipates that in general his followers will have sufficient property or wealth so as to be able to give alms. Yet some will be called to voluntarily renounce all their property.
As Jesus prepares his disciples and his other followers for his approaching crucifixion, he instructs them about the need to deny their own desires. In the Gospel of Mark, we read that Jesus “called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it’ ” (Mark 8:34–35). It is difficult, however, to “deny” oneself. The one who denies himself does not do his own will, but instead consents to experiencing some kind of suffering that otherwise he would seek to avoid. We are all tempted to do only what we wish to do. At Gethsemane, on the night before his crucifixion, Jesus models for us the attitude that we must have: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matt 26:39).
Jesus intends for his church to be marked by obedience. Consider the path by which he instructs believers to handle wrongdoing by fellow believers. The first two steps involve asking for an apology and substantiating one’s claim: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (Matt 18:15–16). The third step adds a striking note of obedience: “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matt 18:17). Jesus thereby mandates that we listen to and obey the decision of the church. The point for my purposes here is simply that obedience—consent to do what, if left on one’s own, one would not necessarily will to do—is a constitutive element of Christian faith for all believers.
Allowing for different paths of self-renunciation, Jesus tells his twelve disciples that “every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life” (Matt 19:29). All are called to some form of self-renunciation, but some are called to a more radical self-renunciation. It is true that, as Jesus says, “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Matt 12:50), but this certainly does not mean that all do the Father’s will in the same way. Regarding the period between the inauguration of the kingdom and its consummation, Jesus teaches that “a man’s foes will be those of his own household” and “he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt 10:36–37).
Thus, some people will take up their cross and follow Jesus within the context of their family or household. But in the Christian community there can also be people who form intentional households, not related by blood-ties, in which they relinquish their wills to their religious superiors so long as these superiors do not command them to do evil. Monasticism involves voluntary poverty, chaste celibacy, and obedience, formalized in a vow to the Lord taken within a particular community whose purpose is to live in accord with this threefold way of radical discipleship.