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Martin Luther and Scrupulosity Sometimes the most penetrating insights into the workings of an institution come from those who have consciously disaffiliated themselves from it. Take the case of Martin Luther (1483–1546) and the sacrament of confession. Luther did not use “scrupulous” to describe his cauterized conscience (conscientia cauterisata) (Scheel, 1929: doc. 10, pp. 6–7), but his biographer, Erik Erikson, does: no less than 23 times in the course of 250 sympathetic pages (Erikson, 1958).1 Whatever term one prefers, Luther was unquestionably conscience stricken (and he had a murderous intolerance of disobedience by others as well). In one place Erikson writes of Luther as being “sensitive”; in another, of his being “precocious ”; and in still another, of being simply “negative” or of suffering from a “bad conscience.” Elsewhere, he describes Luther as “autocratic,” “tragic,” and “overweening.” For example, if moderns find it difficult to conceive of any truly deadly sins, Luther found it difficult to believe that any were not. He viewed the distinction between venial and mortal wrongs as “particularly impossible,” and called the merciful words of Jean Gerson’s penitential—”God does not want to demand anything beyond man’s power”—a “Jewish, Turkish, and Pelegian trick” (Erikson, 1958: 158; cf. Tentler, 1977: 97). (Luther publicly burned the tolerant and immensely popular penitential handbook authored by Franciscan friar, Angelus de Clavasio, in 1520 [Tentler, 1977: 35].) As a young priest, Luther once felt compelled to confess to having omitted the word enim (for) during his consecration of the host. In his mind this picayune oversight was as horrible as parent 95 Appendix murder, indolence, or divorce: acts he happily judged the right sins (die rechten Sunde) (Erikson, 1958: 144). His spiritual director felt moved to caution him against torturing himself with such trivia (Scheel, 1929: doc. 487, p. 176; cf. doc. 707, p. 276; Erikson, 1958: 156). It is not certain what occasioned Luther’s condition. Catholic apologists sometimes favor the idea of demonic possession; his rival, Erasmus, flippantly attributed it to drunkenness. In Luther’s defense, one Lutheran scholar claims that he was an exemplar of Teutonic mysticism. Modern psychoanalysts believe that he was “arrested” at the Oedipal stage of psychosexual development due to his father’s brutality. For his part, Erikson considers Luther to have suffered an identity crisis. This small sample from the library of Luther-commentary should serve as ample warning against attempts to interpret the character of such a complex individual by means of a single theory. Nevertheless, it is hard to avoid concluding that Luther’s experience with confession aggravated, even if it did not originally cause, his neurotic propensities. During his formative years, Luther partook in three modes of confession, any of which alone might have been sufficient to produce in sensitive souls like himself a degree of moral obsession. At his Latin school, as in cathedral schools elsewhere, Luther underwent a weekly casting of accounts to the headmaster concerning infractions of the community code, independently confirmed by specially delegated (undercover) class monitors. Delinquent pupils received one caning on the buttocks for each sin recorded in the ledger. “This temporal and relentless accumulation of known, half-known, or unrecognized sins was a sore subject in all of Luther’s later life” (Erikson, 1958: 79). Later in the monastery, the equivalent practice was known as Schuld capitel (literally, the account of one’s major debts). After jointly prostrating themselves in a circle , each monk in turn first acknowledged their own wrongs against the community and then denounced each of the others in these words, “May Brother X remember . . .” (Scheel, 1929: doc. 83, pp. 32–33; Erikson, 1958: 133). As for private non96 Appendix communal vices, weekly traditional confession was mandated. Here, Luther’s scrupulous predilections became fully and absurdly realized. In confession . . . he [Luther] was so meticulous in the attempt to be truthful that he spelled out every intention as well as every deed; he splintered relatively acceptable purities into smaller and smaller impurities; he reported temptations in historical sequence, starting back in childhood; and after having confessed for hours, would ask for special appointments in order to correct previous statements. (Erikson, 1958: 155–56; Scheel, 1929: doc. 277, p. 106, doc. 399, p. 146) So embittered did Luther become toward confession that in the end he excluded it altogether from the Church sacramentary in order to rid her of her so-called whorish Babylonianism (Luther, 1960a: 124). His disgust at commerce in indulgences is already well-known. It...


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