The push for subjectivity was one of Martin Luther’s arguments in his anti-Roman preaching. Angela Pellicciari writes: “With the elimination of the function of the magisterium, the denial of the priestly order, the exaltation of individual freedom and the rejection of the importance of works to achieve salvation, everyone makes his own decisions. Everyone reads the Bible and interprets it his own way, trusting in the Holy Spirit’s assistance.”
In the end, the risk of the institutionalization of “case by case discernment” is to arrive at the “by Scripture only” (sola fide) notion that Martin Luther promoted. The priest who discerns on a case by case basis puts aside the function of the magisterium and founds his activity on his personal interpretation of the Scriptures. He wields enormous discretionary power, but it is much more a human power than one derived from God.
In his encyclical Spe Salvi, Benedict XVI asks: “How could the idea have developed that Jesus’ message is narrowly individualistic and aimed only at each person singly? How did we arrive at this interpretation of the “salvation of the soul” as a flight from responsibility for the whole, and how did we come to conceive the Christian project as a selfish search for salvation which rejects the idea of serving others?”
Angela Pellicciari responds: “It did so because Luther has misinterpreted as slavery to Rome the universal charism of Peter and his function in defense of the whole Church. As a consequence, “the body has been abandoned”, it seems “in favor of souls, that is, of the most interior part of each of us, which corresponds to our conscience. It is as if soul and body are set one against the other, and each of them goes on its own. As if obedience to conscience is a substitute to obedience to Peter.”
These are still the main themes of our times. Unchaining the faithful from the authority of the Church, Luther gave to princes, the secular power, a fundamental role. He even claimed the authority of the secular power against the Pope, if the Pope makes mistakes. But the Pope’s authority, his sovereignty, is justified by the need for independence from secular power. Only this way – St. Leo the Great explained – can the Church be credible and really free.Those who read Luther in this way are taking his points out of context and also treating Luther with the radical reformers who neither intended nor appealed to the fathers or catholicity. Luther's appeal to conscience was NOT an appeal to individual conscience and reason and he did not seek to exchange one papacy for the papacy of every Christian to determine what Scripture says. No, indeed, Luther appealed to conscience in the classic manner of conscience captive to the Word of God, the catholic doctrine and practice that has always surrounded that Word. His condemnation was that Rome was the innovator -- drawing upon non-Scriptural sources to establish doctrine and govern practice in ways that violated the very catholicity that was claimed by the popes themselves.
It is certainly true that Luther was naive in his belief that accessibility to the Scriptures in their own tongue would result in orthodoxy and uniformity of doctrine and practice. Luther's hope and faith was that Scripture let loose from its constraints in Rome would encourage unanimity of faith and practice. Clearly Scripture was used as a step stool for those whose ultimate appeal was individual conscience alone and the primacy of reason and intellect. While Luther did not foresee such an abuse of the freedom to read and understand the Scriptures, Luther himself did not presume the individual conscience to be above the Word of God nor did Luther join his more radical contemporaries in rejecting church history, creedal formation, or the liturgical framework (and even texts) of the Mass.
There are those in Rome who love to blame Luther for everything Protestant but even Luther would be appalled at the way conscience and reason have become the masters of the Word instead of them being captive to that Word. That is the sour fruit of the Enlightenment and the development of humanism in which man and his potential are not seen against the backdrop of the Fall and original sin. Enamored with the potential of man's intellectual power, liberal Protestantism has evolved to the point where the clear word of Scripture no longer constrains anyone and the gospel has become a mere principle of love and toleration instead of the convincing voice of the cross addressing sinners captive to sin and death.
Luther believed that the Christian Gospel was aimed at every individual but neither subject to the individual's intellect or conscience to define or delineate but the Word that endures forever is the same from generation to generation. In rejecting Rome's exclusive claim to be Catholic because of the Pope, Luther sought a true catholicity that was the guarantee not of one individual or many but the fruits of faith captive to the Word of God and instructed by the Spirit who alone creates the unity of faith and is the final guarantor of its right understanding and catholicity.