Who´s Who in the Reformation
Nearly 500 years ago this week, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door at Wittenberg, bringing about the start of the Reformation. Luther, however, didn´t act alone. Geoffrey Saint-Clair takes a look at the "Reformation´s" principle characters.
by Geoffrey Saint-Clair | Source:
Catholics trying to understand the Reformation sometimes complain about the wide range of Protestant churches, denominations and sects. “How can you keep them all straight?” they ask. The challenge is not as great as it seems at first glance because the tens of thousands of Protestant churches, denominations and sects trace their origins back, one way or another, either to the three major founders of the Reformation or to the Radical Reformation movement known as the Anabaptists. Understand them, and you’ll go a long way toward understanding the complex reality called Protestantism.
But the various Protestant factions aren’t the only things confusing about the Reformation era. The Catholic Reformation and the various figures associated with it can also perplex. The various popes, prelates and politicians can be hard to keep track of. For this reason, I offer this essay as a kind of introductory “who’s who” of the Reformation, Protestant and Catholic.
Three Reformers: Luther, Zwingli and Calvin
Most Catholics know the three main Protestant Reformers—Luther, Zwingli and Calvin—even if they don’t know much about them. Martin Luther (1483-1546), they usually know, was a priest who broke with Rome over indulgences. It used to be said that Luther started “the Protestant revolt” in order to run off with a nun. And he did—run off with a nun, that is, although “run off” is an inaccurate way of putting it. According the Jesuit biographer Hartman Grisar, he initially refrained from marriage precisely to avoid giving his opponents a weapon to use against him. Eventually, though, Luther did marry Catherine von Bora, an ex-nun.
However, Luther didn’t start the Reformation in order to get married. In fact, he didn’t really start a movement called “the Reformation.” He objected to certain ideas and practices prevalent in the Church of his day. One of those ideas was the notion that one had to merit God’s grace through pious practices in order to be saved. Another was that indulgences could be purchased in order to benefit the dead in purgatory. Luther was right on both those points, yet contrary to popular opinion, that doesn’t make the Catholic Church wrong. At least not in the highest, official expression of her teaching.
The trouble was, due to a host of problems that plagued the late medieval Church, the vast majority of Catholics were probably unsure of exactly what the Church had taught about such things. Add to that Renaissance popes and other prelates who were often greedy and power-hungry and therefore disinclined to consider the finer points of Catholic doctrine and discipline, and you have a recipe for disaster.
Martin Luther was born of peasant stock in Eisleben, Germany, in 1483, son of Hans and Margarete Luther. His father Hans, a miner, wanted to see his son pursue a career in canon law, but alas that was not to happen. As a result of a vow rashly made during a thunderstorm, Luther decided to become a monk. In 1505, he joined the Augustinians, the strictest religious house in Erfurt. There, Luther began an intense monastic life of prayer, study and fasting. Two years later, he was ordained a priest and continued his theological studies.
Unfortunately, Luther was trained in nominalist theology, a form of decadent scholasticism that only plunged an already intense personality into despair. He came to believe that he had to earn salvation by his own efforts. But the more he tried—through prayer, fasting and other good works—the more unacceptable to God he felt himself to be.
Luther’s study of St. Paul, through the lens of St. Augustine and his controversy with the Pelagians, changed all that. Luther came to understand that the “righteousness of God” (iustitia Dei), of which Paul wrote in Romans 1:17, referred to the righteousness by which the sinner is graciously justified by faith, not the standard of righteousness by which God would judge sinners struggling to attain justification by their own efforts. This understanding transformed the troubled monk, who now found peace with God through faith. He saw his “discovery” or “recovery” of the ancient Pauline teaching as a radical departure from the views of the medieval “doctors.” And yet this was not so. Unbeknownst to Luther, the leading medieval commentators held the same view of the “righteousness of God.”
Luther also came to understand faith as God’s merciful gift by which we receive the further gift of justification, in contrast to all human efforts to merit or earn God’s favor. As a way of insisting that human beings contribute nothing of their own to justification, Luther insisted that man is justified by “faith alone.”
Luther’s “discovery” was more than a personal “breakthrough.” He was by now a professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg, where he preached this understanding of the righteousness of God to students. Yet not until the question of the “sale” of indulgences arose in Luther’s diocese did the issue acquire “legs,” as the journalists say.
The “selling” of indulgences occurred in the neighboring diocese of Mainz; it was the spill-over into the Luther’s diocese and into his confessional that brought the issue to his attention. The twenty-three year-old archbishop of Mainz had allowed indulgences to be preached in his diocese in exchange for a “cut” in the revenue raised. The money was supposed to go to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In fact, the archbishop needed the money to pay a fee to the Roman Curia for a dispensation allowing him to hold three dioceses at once.
How did something spiritual—an indulgence is after all a remittance of temporal punishment due to sin—come to be “sold”? The theory was that monetary offerings could count as a form of penance, when the donor truly gave sacrificially from his heart, with the proper motive. Unfortunately, the practice easily degenerated into “buying” remittance of punishment for sin. Worst yet, “selling” of indulgences got linked to a misapplication of the principle of praying for the dead in purgatory. Catholic teaching was that one could offer one’s penitential acts to God through Christ as a sort of “petition” on behalf of those who had died and were being purified in purgatory.
Such a “petition” was supposed to be understood as efficacious per modem suffragi—to the extent God hears the prayer of the Church. There was, in other words, nothing automatic about it. Since “donating” to obtain an indulgence could be penitential, it was concluded that one could “donate” to obtain an indulgence on behalf of a soul in purgatory. In the popular mind, though, you “bought” an indulgence to get a soul or souls out of purgatory, plain and simple. Johann Tetzel, the Dominican who preached indulgences throughout the diocese of Mainz, had this “advertising jiggle”: “As soon as a coin in the coffer clinks, a soul from purgatory springs.”
Luther rightly protested this abuse. In late 1517, he published ninety-five theses to dispute various things he regarded as abuses of the day. This was standard academic practice at the time. But other factors—such as politics (civil and ecclesiastical) and human egos (including Luther’s)—enter into the calculus. Soon things were out of hand. Luther quickly went well beyond the issues raised in his Ninety-Five Theses.
Rome initially ignored what Pope Leo X dismissed as a “monk’s squabble.” Some of Luther’s opponents argued that it was all or nothing when it came to indulgences. You either accepted them as they were—including the practice of trafficking in indulgences—or you rejected them altogether. Luther wasted no time in jettisoning indulgences and a host of other beliefs. His justifiable objections to abuses quickly mixed with unjustified doctrinal innovations, not to mention his bullheadedness, to make compromise impossible.
Initially, Luther thought the pope merely uninformed and misguided about the situation in Germany. But very quickly he was attacking the papacy itself as the Antichrist and envisioning himself as raised up by God to restore the Church to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Luther’s opponents also dug in their heels. General confusion about what the Church officially taught made things worse. Many of the German princes saw a chance to strike at the Catholic Emperor and the Italian-dominated papacy, and so they transformed an essentially religious debate into a political and economic struggle. Luther didn’t agree with this but he had little choice but to support those who supported him. The dividing of Christendom into warring theological and political factions had begun.
Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), the Swiss Reformer, was quite different from Luther. Luther had been a monk and a priest; Zwingli, a mercenary solider and political activitist. Luther was a biblical theologian by training; Zwingli was a Christian humanist. Luther stressed justification by grace through faith and the persistence of sin in the believer’s life, even after justification; Zwingli, though never denying justification by grace through faith, stressed moral and social transformation. Luther was pessimistic about Christianizing the state; Zwingli sought to fuse Church and State in Zurich.
The major dividing line between Luther and Zwingli, however, concerned the sacraments. Zwingli drew from his military experience to explain the sacraments. He argued that the Latin term sacramentum meant “oath.” From this he concluded that the sacraments (he counted only Baptism and the Eucharist as sacraments) are signs or pledges—oaths—of God’s faithfulness to his people. Later, Zwingli began explaining the oath-nature of the sacraments in terms of God’s people’s pledge of fidelity to the community of the Church. In neither case, though, did Zwingli understand the sacraments as efficacious signs or as really communicating what they signify. They were at best signs of our association and identification with the Church. It was the Word of God proclaimed that was the source of the Christian life; the sacraments merely provided an opportunity publicly to demonstrate one’s faith.
Nowhere is the difference between Luther and Zwingli regarding the sacraments clearer than in their views of the Eucharist. While Luther denied transubstantiation, he nevertheless affirmed a form of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Zwingli rejected such a notion. For him, the Eucharist was a mere memorial of Jesus’ death, a ritual sign Jesus left his Church by which to remember his act of self-surrender. The bread and wine of the Eucharist did not change in their being; at best, they changed in their significance because of the context in which they were received.
Luther and Zwingli disagreed vehemently regarding Jesus’ words at the Last Supper. Luther understood “This is my body” to refer to the Real Presence. For Luther, “is” meant “is,” so that when Christ had said “This is my body,” he meant to affirm that something had happened to the Eucharistic elements. Zwingli, on the other hand, understood “This is my body” to mean “This signifies my body.” He didn’t believe anything happened, other than a change of meaning in the minds of the congregants.
The disagreement between Luther and Zwingli represented a first major division among the various wings of the Reformation. Calvin would later disagree with both Luther and Zwingli on the nature of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. But for Luther, it meant backing away somewhat from his idea that the Bible was perspicuous to the average reader. Scripture, it seemed, was plain to every man—provided he was a trained exegete and agreed with Luther.
Disagreement over the Eucharist posed a major problem for the Reformers, so much so that notables such as Luther, Zwingli, Bucer, Melanchthon and Oeclampadius met at Marburg in 1529 to iron out their differences. But the factions could not reach final agreement and the division among them resulted in substantial political setbacks, as the Catholic Emperor Charles V was able to exploit the differences among the Reformers.
In the end, Zwingli’s contribution to the Reformation was cut short, as was his life. He was killed at the Battle of Kappel (1531), with the army of Zurich’s defeat due in large measure to German Lutheranism’s refusal to support it. And that, partly the result of the disagreement between Luther and Zwingli at Marburg.
In many respects, John Calvin (1509-1564) was the founder of world Protestantism. He was the real brain-power of the Reformation, the synthesizer and, to a certain extent, its theological systematizer, despite the fact that he was a quarter-century the junior of Luther and Zwingli and of the second generation of the Reformation.
Calvin was a French layman, who had studied theology in Paris with the intention of the priesthood before changing to law. He also studied classical languages and received a thorough humanist education.
About two years after Zwingli died (1533), Calvin publicly embraced the cause of the Reformation. I say “publicly embraced” because no doubt for some time before he had been privately ruminating over Reformation ideas—though he wrote little about the process by which his religious views developed. In a sense, Calvin had grown up on Reformation ideas—he was eleven years old when Luther was excommunicated.
France was hostile to the Reformation, so Calvin fled to Basel. There he made his first major contribution to Protestantism with his Institutes of the Christian Religion, the initial edition of which appeared in Latin in 1536 and which made Calvin famous. He would later translate it into French and revise it many times. Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion isn’t a work of systematic theology as much as an introduction to the Christian faith as Calvin understood it. It became something of a theological compendium for later generations of Reformed Protestants, with far reaching effects on the shape of Western culture.
Calvin’s contribution to the Reformation was practical as well as theoretical. As Zwingli had had Zurich, so Calvin had his base of operation—Geneva. Invited by his friend Farel to help promote the Reform there, Calvin made the city his home and sought to establish it as an authentic, model Christian community, as the pattern to be followed throughout the Protestant world.
Calvin has been criticized for establishing a theocracy in Geneva, but that puts it too strongly. The civil and ecclesiastical orders were, in his mind, not identical, but parallel. Each had its immediate jurisdiction and ordinarily would carry out its own business. On the other hand, it would be wrong to say Geneva had a strict separation of Church and State. Calvin’s view was at best one of interdependence, with the Church ultimately calling the shots and the civil authority serving the community of the Church. Where Luther had essentially given over the Church to the dominance of the State (provided the State was controlled by those who shared his theological convictions), Calvin sought to maintain the medieval institutional distinction between Church and State, while essentially allowing the Church to dominate the State indirectly by insisting it operate according to highly specific Christian legislation and norms.
As the Institutes of the Christian Religion greatly influenced the theology of the Reformation, Calvin’s Ecclesiastical Ordinances greatly affected the structure of many Reformed churches and their relation to the community. One major element of the Ecclesiastical Ordinances was the Consistory, the central church governing apparatus, composed of ministers and elders. Its purpose was to maintain ecclesiastical discipline and theological orthodoxy, but when the social community of the city is identical to the church community, the result is that ecclesiastical discipline and religious heterodoxy have social implications. Very quickly church offenses become civil offenses or at least offenses with civil consequences, as the medieval Church came to see.
The Consistory oversaw the conduct of the believers-citizens of Geneva down to the minutest detail, intervening with disciplinary measures such as public rebuke and excommunication. But because the civil and the ecclesiastical authority were so closely intertwined, condemnation by the Consistory could lead to civil punishments such as public fines and even exile and execution. People were brought before the Consistory for every sort of offense, including petty ones such as singing jingles critical of Calvin, card playing, dancing, and laughing during a sermon. The Consistory also sent out members to each parish to look for transgressors, who, if discovered, were tried by the Consistory. Every household was visited annually, before Easter, to ascertain the status of prospective communicants. If Geneva was the “Rome of the Reformation,” the Consistory was its Inquisition and Calvin its Pope.
Geneva under Calvin’s influence controlled its citizens’ lives, including their private lives, well beyond what the medieval Church did. The individual Christian in the Church of Geneva was “free” to interpret the Bible for himself, provided he interpreted it exactly as Calvin did.
Was Calvin a “dictator”? Surely not in the conventional sense. He held no elected office, nor did he exercise direct political power in Geneva. He was mainly a pastor, not a politician. And yet we mustn’t go as far as some of Calvin’s supporters, who say he was “simply” a pastor. He possessed tremendous influence in the political community, well beyond that of a mere civic leader. And that influence translated directly into civil law strictures and punishments. Geneva was not an absolute State, in the modern sense, but neither was it a free state, except perhaps for those who already accepted its rigid norms of conduct.
A prime example of Calvin’s influence in Geneva is the case of Pierre Ameaux, a member of the city council, who had criticized Calvin as a preacher of false doctrine. The council told Ameaux to retract his statement, but Calvin wanted a harsher punishment. Ameaux was forced to go through town dressed only in a shirt, with a torch in hand.
Ameaux’ fate was a mere embarrassment; the embryonic freethinker Jacques Gruet was executed for criticizing Calvin, for blasphemy and for protesting the stringent demands of Calvin’s Geneva. He was tortured and beheaded. Calvin also got Jerome Bolsec banished for the Frenchman’s disagreement with Calvin regarding predestination, thus proving that, while Geneva was a haven for Protestants throughout Europe who agreed with Calvin, it could be oppressive for those who did not.
But the most celebrated case is that of Michael Sevetus, who didn’t get off as lightly as Bolsec. The Spanish physician-writer took it upon himself to reformulate the doctrine of the Trinity in what were essentially Gnostic categories. But Sevetus made the mistake of sending Calvin an advance copy, which led, by a rather Byzantine route, to Calvin tipping off the Catholic magistrates in Vienna that the heretical Sevetus was practicing medicine in their city. That brought the apparatus of the Inquisition down on him. Sevetus managed to escape and wound up, in all places, Geneva, en route to Naples. Calvin had him arrested, tried and sentenced to death. As an act of mercy, Calvin requested that Sevetus be beheaded, instead of burned, but in this case Calvin’s request was not honored.
Theologically speaking, Calvin took over Luther’s twin principles of justification by faith and the supreme authority of the Bible, but he added distinctive twists, especially to the former. Calvin made a systematic distinction between justification and sanctification. Both were the work of grace through faith, according to Calvin, and inseparable from one another. Justification involved the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the believer, which meant that God related to him differently but didn’t change him. Sanctification, on the other hand, was the work of the Holy Spirit within man to change him according to the pattern of Christ. In effect, what Catholics considered justification, Calvin divided into justification and sanctification.
Predestination is often erroneously thought to have been Calvin’s central theme, but in fact the glory and absolute sovereignty of God are at the center of his theology. Nevertheless, predestination is closely related to these ideas and consequently important to Calvin’s thinking, even if less so than subsequent Calvinist theologians made it out to be. The issue concerns God’s sovereignty and his graciousness. God’s sovereignty will not allow anyone to compel God to save him and his graciousness saves people without regard for their deeds. Similarly, God’s sovereignty requires that he decide in advance the fate of all, even of the wicked, consigning them to damnation.
Occasionally, Catholic polemicists have attacked the notion of predestination per se, as if it were the invention of Calvin. But Catholic teaching also affirms a form of the doctrine, though not Calvin’s version of it. Catholic teaching holds that God predestines certain people to eternal life. It further teaches that God predestines certain people to eternal damnation on account of their foreseen sins–that is, on account of their actions that amount to either a direct rejection of God himself or a choice of something incompatible with love of God. Catholic teaching differs with Calvinism over whether God predestines or reprobates (to use the precise theological term) people without reference to their sins. Calvin said yes; Catholic teaching says no.
Calvin affirmed the unconditioned reprobation of some people to damnation. His doctrine is sometimes called double predestination, since it holds that God damns and saves equally without reference to a person’s merits or demerits. Calvin’s view seems at odds with God’s universal salvific will, as expressed by St. Paul in 1 Timothy 2:4: “God wills that all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.” The universal salvific will is compatible with God’s decision to allow men to be damned through the abuse of freedom, but it is hard to see how it fits with God actively consigning people to damnation without reference to their sins.
Regarding the sacraments, Calvin affirmed only Baptism and the Eucharist, which he called the Lord’s Supper. Unlike his Baptist theological descendants today, Calvin taught infant baptism, basing his reasoning on the analogy between the covenantal sign of the Old Testament, circumcision, which was given to infant males, and the covenantal sign of the New Testament, Baptism.
With respect to the Eucharist, he staked out a position between Luther’s belief in the Real Presence on the one hand and Zwingli’s purely symbolic, memorial view on the other. Christ’s Body and Blood were dynamically or virtually “present” in the Eucharist and received through faith. In other words, the grace of Christ was present, but not the substance of his Body and Blood. This view, sometimes called the Dynamic or Virtual Presence, makes it difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish Christ’s presence in the Eucharist from his presence in Baptism or any other occasion of grace. For the “power” of Jesus’ Body and Blood are present in other places as well. What distinguishes the Eucharistic presence of Jesus, then, from his presence in, say, Scripture attended to with faith or a sermon devoutly received?
Luther, Zwingli and Calvin were the “big three” of the Reformation, but others such as John Knox in Scotland, Martin Bucer of Strassburg, Philip Melanchthon in Germany (Luther’s associate and architect of the Augburg Confession) and Thomas Cranmer in England formed something of a “second string” of Reformers that nevertheless contributed significantly to the movement.
The Radical Reformation
Luther, Zwingli and Calvin led what is sometimes called the Magisterial Reformation, so named because it used the civil authority of the magistrates to further its agenda. But there was also the Radical Reformation, which was rejected by the Magisterial Reformers no less than by the Catholic Church. The Magisterial Reformers persecuted advocates of the Radical Reformation as much as the Catholic Church did.
The Radical Reformation went beyond Luther, Zwingli and Calvin, rejecting altogether any relationship between Christianity and the wider, secular society, especially civil authority, as well as institutional expressions of Christianity. The Radical Reformers saw themselves as returning to New Testament Christianity and they rejected everything—including many elements of the Magisterial Reformation—they deemed compromise of the pure gospel.
The Radical Reformation began in Zurich, in the early 1520s. In part, it was a response to Zwingli’s reforms, which the Radical Reformers thought insufficient. Zwingli disagreed, of course, and he dubbed the Radical Reformers Anabaptists (“rebaptizers”) because they insisted on the rebaptism of those baptized as infants.
The Radical Reformers pressed the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura as far as they could. Where the Magisterial Reformation was, in principle, generally content to allow practices not contrary to Scripture, even if not explicitly affirmed by Scripture (infant baptism being a case in point), the Radical Reformation demanded explicit Scriptural warrant for everything. Furthermore, it tended to reject external authority, state churches or religious affiliation and stressed pacifism. In some cases, Radical Reformers called for common ownership of property. Elements of the Radical Reformation also inclined toward enthusiasm, quietism and illuminism. Many people in the Radical Reformation awaited the Second Coming of Christ to establish a millennial kingdom.
Although the Radical Reformers believed in justification by faith alone, they also insisted that those truly justified—and often they understood by this those who could point to some experience of conversion—had to produce good works and live according to a high moral standard. Those who failed to do so were often exiled from the community.
Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz were among the early leaders of the Radical Reformation or Anabaptist movement. Thomas Müntzer, the erstwhile colleague of Luther and fomenter of revolution in Saxony, is sometimes considered an Anabaptist, since he rejected infant baptism and affirmed on-going revelation. But because many Anabaptists were also pacifists, Müntzer is hardly typical. Menno Simons, an ex-Catholic priest and founder of the Mennonites, was also among the early Anabaptists.
Real estate is everything, even in the Reformation. “Real estate” means “territory” and the Reformers were not content merely to carve out a niche for the exercise of their own right to believe and live according to their interpretations of Scripture. They believed that the Gospel of Christ itself was at stake and therefore they felt compelled to spread their movement far and wide. That put them at odds with Catholics, who saw their efforts as heresy and as a threat to the stability of the social order. Protestants sought to expand and conquer; Catholics sought to contain them, if not convert them back.
The Reformation began in Germany, with Luther, but quickly spread throughout Europe, thanks in large measure to the printing press. Soon Reformers sprang up in Switzerland, France and England. And wherever Reformation ideas spread, so did the contest for political control and territory. Eventually, Europe was more or less divided between the Protestant North—England, Scandinavia, Denmark, the Netherlands, northern Germany and Prussia—and the Catholic South—Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, southern Germany, Hungry and Poland.
Success or failure often depends on leadership—what leaders do or fail to do. When it comes to the Reformation, the lion’s share of the blame rests squarely with the hierarchy, including the papacy. Or at least so said Pope Adrian VI, who in 1523 sent his legate to confess the following before the German princes gathered in Nuremberg:
“We freely acknowledge that God has allowed this chastisement to come upon His Church because of the sins of men and especially because of the sins of priests and prelates . . . We know well that for many years much that must be regarded with horror has come to pass in this Holy See: abuses in spiritual matters, transgressions against the Commandments; indeed, that everything has been gravely perverted” (quoted in K. Adam, One and Holy, p. 97).
Medieval papal scandals, including the so-called Babylonian Captivity of the Church and the Great Western Schism, in which there were first two, then three, claimants to the papal office, brought derision upon the papacy, as did scandalous living and nepotism. Furthermore, the popes themselves failed to reform the Church, even when they were in a position to do so. And when the Reformation eventually broke out, the papacy failed to understand the challenge to the Church and failed to act quickly to address the problems that gave rise to it. At the same time, when the Church finally did get around to reform, the papacy helped lead the way.
Pope Adrian VI (1522-1523) sought to reform and convert the Church, but his short pontificate made that impossible. Adrian was thoroughly pious, even something of an anti-Renaissance pope. On coming to Rome, he wouldn’t allow the people to erect a triumphal arch in his honor on the grounds that it was a pagan custom. But was the Church at large ready to undergo the rigorous conversion called for by Adrian VI? It seems unlikely. It would take time for the papacy to regain credibility with respect to reform and, even when popes began taking seriously their apostolic responsibilities in that regard, the Reformers were attacking the papacy as an institution inherently contrary to the gospel, not merely the occupants of the office as personally unworthy. The doctrinal, not merely the moral, problems of the papacy had to be cogently addressed.
Nevertheless, a reforming pope would have been better than a non-reforming one. Thus, the premature death of Adrian VI was a tragedy with tremendous consequences.
Pope Clement VII (1523-1534). As far as reforming the Church or responding to Protestantism is concerned, the pontificate of Clement VII can be summed up in one word: disaster. This Medici pope followed the brief pontificate of the fierce reformer Adrian VI and preceded Paul III, whom many consider the first pope of the Catholic Reformation. If Clement had had half the spiritual energies of either man, the history of the Reformation—indeed, of the world—would have been drastically different.
Unfortunately, Clement VII was a throw-back to the Renaissance papacy, although he seems not to have been morally bankrupt as were some others of his breed. He devoted much of his papal energies to enjoying art and culture, and involving himself in political intrigue. A vacillating man, in over his head, he was unable to bring order and discipline to the Church, much less be an instrument of conversion. While Protestantism spread, he sat in prison in castle Sant’ Angelo, as a result of the Emperor’s sack and invasion of Rome in 1527, itself due to Clement’s siding with Francis I of France against the Emperor. It was Clement who dealt with Henry VIII of England and the issue of the validity of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, the Emperor Charles’ niece. While Italy was dominated by Charles, there was little likelihood Clement would support Henry against Catherine. What’s more, the Pope’s decision in the matter was bound to seem politically motivated. In 1533, Henry broke with the Catholic Church over Clement VII’s refusal to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine, with dire consequences for English Catholicism and the Catholic cause against nascent Protestantism on the continent.
Pope Paul III (1534-1549). Although God’s Spirit doesn’t indefinitely strive with man, his promise always to be with his Church eventually kicks in, which is what seems to have happened with Pope Paul III. At first glance, Alessandro Franese appeared to be more of the same—if not worst. He was worldly and unchaste—he fathered four illegitimate children—but seems to have undergone something of a conversion after his ordination. As pope, he embarked on a series of reforms, elevating to the cardinalate some of the chief Catholic reformers of his age, including Reginald Pole, Gian Pietro Caraffa (later Pope Paul IV) and Mercello Cervini (later Marcellus II). A commission of cardinals appointed by Paul III issued a statement chastising four of his predecessors for their sins and the evils they allowed the Church’s shepherds and people to fall into. They called for the eradication of such evils and Paul III sought to oblige them. He set about calling the Council of Trent (1545) and staunchingly supported the renewal efforts of the new religious orders such as the Jesuits (which he approved in 1540), the Theatines and the Capuchins.
It was Paul III’s ecumenical council, the Council of Trent (1545-1563), that sent the Catholic Reformation into high gear. It simultaneously reformed the Church and responded to Protestantism. Catholic teaching and practice were clarified, despite constant interruptions of the Council and a succession of popes. Seventeen of the twenty-five sessions of the Council concerned doctrine and reform. The canon of the Bible and the authority of tradition were affirmed; justification by grace and man’s grace-enabled role in cooperating with grace, as well as the role of faith, hope and charity in justification were upheld, while Protestant views on these issues were rejected; the reality and nature of original sin and the distinction between mortal and venial sin were discussed; the seven sacraments as efficacious signs of grace, transubstantiation, the Real Presence and the sacrificial nature of the Mass were also affirmed. Theologians debate the extent to which Trent condemned the views of the main Reformers themselves, but it is certain that the ideas Trent rejected were widely believed, regardless of whether they were proposed by the Reformers precisely as condemned by Trent.
The Council also tackled discipline, insisting, among other things, that bishops reside in their dioceses and visit the parishes therein; that pastors be properly trained and qualified for office; that clandestine marriages be forbidden; and that religious reside in their appropriate houses and remain faithful to their vows. The willingness of Pope Pius V and his papal government to insist on these disciplinary reforms revolutionized the Church.
Pope Pius V (1556-1572). It fell to Pope St. Pius V (Antonio Ghislieri) to see to it that the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent didn’t become dead letters. A pope of austere life, he managed—with the help of people such as St. Charles Borromeo—to reshape the Catholic Church into its Tridentine mold, a shape that was substantially to endure until the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). He issued the famous Catechism of the Council of Trent or Roman Catechism (1566), revised the Roman Breviary (1568) and the Roman Missal (1568). He also established a commission to revise the Vulgate (1568) and ordered the publication of a new edition of the works of St. Thomas Aquinas (1570). With Pius V, we find ourselves in the middle of the Catholic Reformation, about which we should say a bit.
The Catholic Reformation
We speak of “the Reformation,” but what we usually mean is the “Protestant Reformation.” Yet there is a sense in which the term “Reformation” can include both the Protestant movements and the reform movement within the Catholic Church. A hundred years or so ago, Catholic efforts at church reform in the sixteenth century were usually dubbed “the Counter Reformation.” But some scholars objected to the term, on the grounds that it reduced Catholic reform to a response to Protestantism. Many scholars argued that the sixteenth century was an era of various reform efforts, with Protestantism being one particular approach. There were, these scholars noted, Catholic efforts that amount to much more than answering the Protestants or undercutting Protestant criticism.
Needless to say, the issue of terminology hasn’t been “officially” settled among scholars, since no one can settle anything “officially” for academics. “Catholic Reformation” is probably the dominant expression, although “Counter Reformation” persists in some circles. A compromise usage has also emerged: for those aspects of Catholic reform that weren’t in direct response to Protestantism, the term “Catholic Reformation” is used. But when reforms made in response to Protestantism are discussed, “Counter Reformation” is used. That’s neat but not always helpful, since it isn’t always clear which reform is which.
In any case, the point is what the Catholic/Counter Reformation did, not so much what we call it. What did it do? On the one hand, it limited the deleterious impact of the Protestant Reformation, by limiting the extent to which things needed reforming and the extent to which Protestants could influence things in a non-Catholic direction. Even throughout the worst of the Renaissance papacy, Catholic saints emerged, calling Catholics to repentance and modeling for them the life of sanctity. Without them, things would have been much worse. On the other hand, the Catholic/Counter Reformation assisted the Church in regaining much of what was lost by the Reformation’s initial successes.
Who were the leading figures of the Catholic/Counter Reformation? We have already mentioned some, such as St. Pius V and St. Charles Borromeo. Martyrs Thomas More and John Fisher contributed to the beginnings of the Catholic Reform. St. Ignatius Loyola and his Jesuits were majors instruments of Catholic renewal, as was Loyola’s thin, but spiritually potent volume, The Spiritual Exercises. Then there were the Spanish mystics and spiritual giants Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, as well as St. Philip Neri, St. Peter Canisius, and St. Francis de Sales, whose apostolic work deeply penetrated the Catholic laity.
These saints changed the institutions of Church and society, to be sure. But their real work was the transformation of hearts and minds, as they called people back to God, to union with Jesus Christ, to living the Gospel in their daily lives in the world. It has sometimes been claimed that medieval Christianity was monastic and world-denying, in an almost Manichean sense. Whatever can be said for that charge—and it seems problematic given that medieval Christianity created a Christian culture very much in this world as well as in the monastery—it would be utterly false to make such an accusation of the Catholic Reformation. No aspect of daily life—whether of the cleric or of the laymen—went unaffected by the spiritual revolution of the Catholic Reformation. Consequently, while the Catholic-Protestant division of Europe had by the time of the Catholic Reformation become established, the spiritual vitality of the Catholic renewal won back many people to full communion with the Catholic Church.
Belloc wrote a little book called Characters of the Reformation. The work is marvelous, as Belloc’s books usually are, not because it provides the most accurate history, but because it helps us see the big picture, to follow the drama of the period or even, if you will, to know “the players in the game.” The purpose of this essay has been to provide something of a “scorecard” to that “game.” Of course it hasn’t been exhaustive—a scorecard can’t be. Even so, it’s hard to tell the players apart without one.
Geoffrey Saint-Clair writes from the Bay Area. Reprinted with permission from Catholic Dossier Magazine (September/October 2001). All rights reserved.