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‘Theological masterpiece’: Bishop Schneider praises Henry VIII’s 1521 defense of sacraments

LifeSiteNews staff

September 23, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – Athanasius Schneider, Auxiliary Bishop of Astana, Kazakhstan, has written an afterword for the German translation of The Defense of the Seven Sacraments, a book published by King Henry VIII in 1521, prior to his own heresy and schism, to refute the errors of Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, particularly regarding his attacks on the sacraments of the Catholic Church.

Bishop Schneider praised the book as a “theological masterpiece,” noting that Martin Luther “overturned in a radical manner this Divinely instituted order of the Sacraments and who thus carried out a revolution against the tradition” of the Church.

He repeats a quote by Henry VIII of St. Bernard of Clairvaux as a “fitting” response to Luther’s doctrines: “The heretics are tearing apart with their poisonous teeth, according to their whims, and in a sort of competition, the Sacraments of the Church as their own mother's heart” (Assertio, cap. 11).

The King's book has been recently republished in German to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, an event that divided Christendom and represented one of the greatest blows to the Christian faith in the history of Europe. 

Henry VIII wrote the work before leaving the Catholic Church to become the "supreme head" of the Church of England on account of the pope refusing to grant him an annulment of his marriage. Henry would marry six times. Historians suspect that the king was aided in the work by theological scholars such as St. Thomas More.

Schneider writes that, contrary to Luther's claims to be a restorer of Biblical doctrine, “it was Martin Luther who overturned in a radical manner this Divinely instituted order of the Sacraments and who thus carried out a revolution against the tradition which was valid before his time for one thousand and five hundred years.” He holds that Luther's understanding of the Sacraments is “a man-made theory” that “gave the mortal blow to the Divine sacramental order by denying the true sacrificial character of the Eucharist.”

A full article on the publication of the book can be found here.

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Bishop Athanasius Schneider's afterword to German translation of Defense of the Seven Sacraments

God so loves to bring eternal salvation to mankind with the help of the weak and the small. He chose our weak human nature and connected it inseparably with His Divine Person, thus turning it into the sole instrument of salvation. The redemptive effect of Christ's humanity then was passed on to the Seven Sacraments, which in turn are bound to external, weak and small signs: water, oil, bread, wine, the laying on of hands, words.  In order to reach eternal salvation, man has to humble himself and accept such modest visible signs. Tertullian expressed this meaning in the sentence: “The flesh is the hinge of salvation” (“caro salutis est cardo: De resurrectione mortuorum 8, 2).

The Roman Catechism (see Part II, No. 14) mentions several reasons why God instituted the Sacraments that are dependent upon such external signs: 1) the nature of man, having a body and a soul; 2) the fidelity of God's promises: “Our Savior Jesus Christ has instituted certain sensible and visible signs by which He might oblige Himself, as it were, by pledges, and make it impossible to doubt that He would be true to His promises”; 3) the channel through which must flow into the soul the efficacy of the Passion of Christ; 4) that there may be certain marks and symbols to distinguish the faithful from non-Catholics and to unite the faithful by a sort of sacred bond; 5) public profession of our Faith; 6) kindling our charity toward one another as members of one single body; 7) to repress and subdue the pride of the human heart, and exercise us in the practice of humility; “for they oblige us to subject ourselves to sensible elements in obedience to God, against whom we had before impiously revolted in order to serve the elements of the world.”

In His Divine Wisdom, Jesus Christ, the Savior of Mankind, instituted the order of the life of Grace by means of the seven Sacraments; that is to say, in seven visibly recognizable channels of redeeming graces. The Apostles passed on this sacramental order as “faithful administers of God's mysteries” (1 Cor. 4:1), and the Church has preserved them at all times, with the same sense and with the same meaning (eodem sensu eademque sententia).

It was Martin Luther who overturned in a radical manner this Divinely instituted order of the Sacraments and who thus carried out a revolution against the tradition which was valid before his time for one thousand and five hundred years, and which pertained to the essential life of the Faith and of the Church. Luther made his own subjective interpretation of the written Word of God as the only criterion, thus rejecting Sacred Tradition, that is to say the unwritten Word of God to which one has to show the same honor and respect as toward the written Word of God (see Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum, 9).

When Luther speaks in his Great Catechism (Chapter 7) only of two Sacraments instituted by Christ, he insists, finally, not upon the number two as such. At one occasion, Luther speaks of two Sacraments, on another of three (Baptism, Communion, Penance), or even of four Sacraments (mutual administration of consolation). But then again Luther says that there is only one Sacrament, which is Christ. In his document “On the Councils and Churches” (“Von den Konziliis und Kirchen”), he then speaks about seven “signs of life”: the proclaimed Word of God, Baptism, Communion, Absolution, vocation and ordaining of servants, the public thanksgiving, the praise and the cross, that is to say the presence of suffering in the community.

Thus one can see that Luther's teaching on the Sacraments really is a man-made theory, and that his sacramental practice is an order arbitrarily established by man. Therefore, the Sacraments mentioned by Luther are not Divinely instituted means of the transmission of grace, but, rather, signs or symbols of God's promised grace.

Luther gave the mortal blow to the Divine sacramental order by denying the true sacrificial character of the Eucharist, which he reduced to a meal, which he called the “Last Supper.”  However, the whole life of the Church and of each of the faithful revolves around the sacramentally realized sacrifice at the Cross. The Eucharist contains therefore the whole spiritual good of the Church (see St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica III 73, 3c), because it represents Christ's sacrifice at the Cross. By abolishing the Sacrament of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, Luther removed the foundation for the true sacramental life, because the other Sacraments are all oriented toward the Eucharistic sacrifice as their source and as their culmination (see Second Vatican Council, Lumen gentium, 11).

Luther's revolution against essential parts of the life of the Church roused at the time a spontaneous protest of the sensus fidei on the part of many of his contemporaries. One of the first theologically well-founded and sustained voices of protest was King Henry VIII's treatise Assertio septem sacramentorum. It was, so to speak, a reaction of defense against a presumptuous attack against the Sacraments and especially against the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the greatest spiritual treasure of the Church. King Henry VIII said that the holiness of the other Sacraments flows out of the Eucharistic Body of Christ (see Assertio, Postfatio). The king characterized this attack of Luther in a fitting way with the words of St. Bernard of Clairvaux: “The heretics are tearing apart with their poisonous teeth, according to their whims, and in a sort of competition, the Sacraments of the Church as their own mother's heart” (Assertio, cap. 11).

In our time, we experience a new attack on the divine order of the Sacraments, for example with the help of the practice to admit unrepentant adulterers to Holy Communion, which has been in the meanwhile officially accepted by many dioceses and which is based upon the papal document Amoris Laetitia. The following concluding words of Henry VIII in his theological masterpiece remain relevant especially also for us today: “I implore all Christians and plead with them in the name of the Heart of Christ in Whom we believe: turn your ears away from these godless words [of Luther] and do not foster divisions and discord – especially at a time where the Christians should be the most united against the enemies of Christ.”

Translated to English by LifeSiteNews' Maike Hickson

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