The Reformation

At least since the Council of Vienne (1311-12) a cry for 'reform in head and members' was heard in the Church, as her life at various levels had become marked by many grave abuses. The situation was aggravated by the 'Babylonian Captivity' of the papacy in Avignon (1309-77), the Great Western Schism (1378-1417, a period when eight popes and antipopes divided Western Christianity), and the Black Death or bubonic plague which suddenly arrived in 1346 and killed at least a quarter of the European population. It is estimated, for example, that one-third to one-half of the population of England died in 1348-9. Across Europe the Black Death killed up to twenty million people; Europe did not reach its pre-1348 level again until the sixteenth century began.49 The most

See A. Hastings, The Church in Africa 1450—1950 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994); B. Sundkler and C. Steed, A History of the Church in Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

See N. F. Cantor, In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made (New York: Free Press, 2001).

generous priests, monks, and friars suffered disproportionately, since they tried to help the sick and dying. This loss of the best religious leadership also played its part in demoralizing church and society. The scandalous lives of such Renaissance popes as Alexander VI, who secured his own election largely through bribes and devoted much of his papal energies to furthering the position of his children, made reformation a crying need.50

Judgements over the health or sickness of the Catholic Church in various countries still vary enormously. What, for example, was the situation like in England on the eve of the Reformation? Was the official church there well organized and meeting the spiritual needs of ordinary people? Eamon Duffy and others have drastically revised the conventional picture of a dysfunctional Catholicism in radical need of reform. But the debate still continues about the state of English faith before Henry VIII (king of England 1509—47) triggered the break with the papacy.51 The vigour of sixteenth-century Catholicism in Spain has come to be more widely recognized. Cardinal Ximenez de Cisneros (1436—1517) reformed the religious orders and encouraged learning. Among other contributions to the new learning, he commissioned the first polyglot bible of modern times, a six-volume work with parallel texts in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. The monarchy controlled ecclesiastical affairs, insisted on a uniform religious-political orthodoxy, and helped make Spain an intensely religious society. Scholarship flourished, with Dominican theologians and philosophers leading the way. One of them, Francisco de Vitoria (¿•.1485—1546) developed a theory of international law that has proved lastingly important. Dominicans, Franciscans, and Jesuits provided an army of missionaries for the evangelization of the New World. Mystics such as St John of the Cross (1542-91), St Teresa of Avila (1515-82), and St Ignatius

50 See H. J. Hillerbrand (ed.), The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996). For an overview see S. F. Hughes, 'Sixteenth Century: An Overview', in A. Hastings et al . (eds.), The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 668—74.

51 E. Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992); id., The Voices ofMorebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001). See also E. J. Carlson (ed.), Religion and the English People 1500—1640: New Voices, New Perspectives , Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies, 45 (Kirksville, Mo.: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1998); T. Cooper, Last Generation of Catholic Clergy (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 1999); K. Hylson-Smith, Christianity in England from Roman Times to the Reformation , ii. From 1066—1384 (London: SCM Press, 2000); C. Marsh, Popular Religion in Sixteenth-Century England: Holding Their Peace (New York: St Martin's Press, 1998); J. Shinners and W J. Dohar, Pastors and the Care of Souls in Medieval England (South Bend, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998).

Loyola (1491—1556) left their enduring mark on the world through their work and writings.

The start of the Protestant Reformation, often simply and better called the Reformation, is traditionally dated to 1517, when Martin Luther (1483—1546) produced his ninety-five theses in protest against the scandalous sale of indulgences and other abuses of papal and clerical power. The official church granted 'indulgences' or remissions of punishment in purgatory for sinners who had repented of their sins but who not yet fully satisfied for the harm they had caused. In 1517, on the authority of Pope Leo X, indulgences were being sold to raise money from the German faithful to help pay for the building of the new St Peter's Basilica in Rome. Luther felt outraged not only at this squalid practice but also at the whole idea that church leaders could exercise control over the fate of human beings in the afterlife. Intensely concerned with our being justified through Christ ('Where do I find a gracious God who will heal the wounds of guilt-stricken conscience?'), Luther argued for justification through divine grace alone (solagratia), by faith alone (sola ifide), and not by good works. He understood the Bible (and not human traditions) to be the only authoritative rule of faith (sola scriptura), and spread knowledge of the scriptures by translating the Bible into German. He also introduced the vernacular for the celebration of the Eucharist, demanded that lay people should receive Communion under both kinds, defended the right of the clergy to marry, and opposed papal authority. Luther spread his ideas through preaching, pamphlets, and hymns in German, some of which (e.g. 'A mighty fortress is our God') are sung today by many different Christians, including Catholics.

Among the plethora of Protestant groups that emerged at the Reformation some were extreme, even anarchical, but others were committed to clear ideas and precise ecclesiastical order. Jean Calvin (1509—64) promoted this style of Reformation in France, Switzerland, and elsewhere. In his commentaries on the scriptures and even more in his Institutes (first edition 1536), he showed himself a more rigorous theologian than Luther and more aware of the importance of organization.52 Presbyterianism, the form of church government initiated by Calvin, is distinguished, on the one hand, from episcopalianism or the rule of bishops and, on the other hand, from congregationalism or the rule of the local congregation, which

52 See B. Cottret, Calvin: a Biography (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 2000).

one finds, for instance, among Baptist Christians. Presbyterianism involves rule through a series of courts, up to the General Assembly—with the representative ministers and elders participating after being elected.

Undoubtedly nationalism and economic interests helped the cause of the Reformation. But it was often a deeply felt religious movement that aimed to purify church life and base Christian existence on the scriptures. Luther and Calvin expressed complementary emphases of perennial theological importance. If Luther's call for reform was more oriented towards human beings who hear and believe God's word, Calvin looked to the majesty of God who elects the predestined and gives them the grace of obedient faith. In the twentieth century the Second Vatican Council was to acknowledge frankly 'that continued reformation' to which Christ always calls his Church (Unitatis Redintegratio, 6)—a confession that converged with the Reformers' sense of the enduring power of sin that constantly threatens our communion with God.

Nevertheless, despite a Catholic respect for Calvin, Luther, and other leading Reformers that grew through the twentieth century, some lines must be drawn: for instance, against Luther's notion of the human will being simply 'captive' to evil. In DeLibero Arbitrio of 1524, Erasmus of Rotterdam (¿.1469—1536), while respecting the sovereignty of God's grace and action, defended the free will of human beings. Erasmus's 1509 work, Laus Stultitiae (The Praise of Folly), had fiercely satirized the scandalous abuses he saw in the life of monasteries and of the Church at large. His edition of the NT in Greek (1516) proved not only a landmark for biblical scholarship but also witnessed to his desire to base Christian life on the scriptures. But like the bishops at the reforming Council of Trent (1545—63), Erasmus did not agree that sin had so corrupted human beings that they could not freely exercise their wills in response to the initiative of God's gifts. Nor did he accept division in Christendom as the price of badly needed reform.

Meeting over three periods for a total of eighteen years, the Council of Trent remains the longest council in the history of the Church. Held in the Northern Italian city of Trent, this council can in many ways be seen as the culmination of a movement of Catholic renewal that predated Luther rather than simply responded to the Protestant Reformation.53 The first

53 See R. Bireley, The Refashioning of Catholicism 1450-1700 (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1999); M. A. Mullett, The Catholic Reformation (London: Routledge, 1999); J. W. O'Malley, Trent and All That: Renaming Catholicism and the Early Modern Age (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000); R. Po-Chia Hsia (ed.), The German People and the Reformation (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988); id., The World of Catholic Renewal 1540-1770 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

eight sessions (1545—7) did, however, treat such major themes raised by the Reformers as the relationship between scripture and tradition, original sin, justification, and the sacraments. Tensions between Emperor Charles V and the Pope led to a suspension of the Council, which eventually resumed for a second period (1551—2). The achievements of sessions nine to fourteen included decrees on the Eucharist and on the sacraments of penance and extreme unction (now called the anointing of the sick). After the new French king, Henry II, joined forces with some German princes who defeated Charles V and even threatened to overrun Trent, the Council was once again adjourned; it finally met again for a third period (1562—3). Its sessions fifteen to twenty-five defined doctrines about the Eucharist, the sacraments of orders and matrimony, and purgatory. Disciplinary measures covered such items as the 'form' of marriage, indulgences, the need for an index of prohibited books, and a range of Church reforms. Trent brought a certain uniformity to Western or Latin Catholics, with the standard missal for Mass, the standard breviary (or book for daily prayer by priests and others), and (eventually with the Sixto-Clementine Bible of 1592) the standard (Latin) text of the scriptures. Through its careful restatement and/or reformation of a whole range of beliefs and practices, the Council of Trent reshaped Catholicism certainly up to the end of the eighteenth century and even into the twentieth century.

The Council symbolized and sealed a parting of the ways between Catholics and Protestants. In a prophetic mode Protestants had denounced the worldliness and downright corruptions of Catholicism, but at the cost of reducing the sacramental mediation (of God's grace and the Holy Spirit) to baptism and the Eucharist. By maintaining a full sacramental system, the Catholic Church continued to touch and bless with the divine presence all dimensions of life. In the eighteenth century Dr Samuel Johnson (1709—84) expressed this difference. Old, ill, and saddened by the thought of dying, he declared in the last summer of his life: 'A good man of a timorous disposition, in great doubt of his acceptance with God, and pretty credulous, may be glad to be of a church where there are so many helps to get to heaven. I would be a Papist, if I could.

I have fear enough; but an obstinate rationality prevents me.'54 In Paul Tillich's terms, Dr Johnson yearned for 'the Catholic substance'.

Even before the Council of Trent closed in 1563, the religious map of Europe was being redrawn. When Elizabeth I (1533—1603) succeeded to the throne in 1558, England definitively ceased to be in communion with the bishop of Rome. The Church of England emerged as an attractive 'middle way' between Catholicism and Protestantism (especially in its Calvinist form). Through St Peter Canisius (1521—97) and others, Jesuits became deeply involved in the struggle to save Austria, England, Germany, Poland, Scotland, and other countries for the one Catholic Church.55 The political and military dimensions of religious differences culminated in the Thirty Years War (1618—48), which weakened Spain, enormously strengthened France, and devastated Germany. Hostilities ended in 1648 with two treaties constituting the Peace of Westphalia that endorsed the principle of 'cuius regio eius religio', which could be roughly translated as 'the government of a state determines its religious adherence'. At the same time, this peace settlement extended protection to most religious minorities (whether Protestant in Catholic states or vice versa) already in existence. Innocent X (pope 1644—55) denounced the treaties of Westphalia in a papal bull, but was universally ignored.

Was this article helpful?

0 0
Study Aid

Study Aid

This Book Is One Of The Most Valuable Resources In The World When It Comes To Getting A Scholarship And Financial Support For Your Studies.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment