I write this on the day known to most Americans as Halloween but to some American Protestants as Reformation Day. A year from today will mark the five-hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting his 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg. Between now and then we’ll see a ramp up of conferences, meetings, and seminars concerning the anniversary, beginning with the pope’s visit to Sweden.
Many people—mostly Protestants, of course, but also not a few Catholics—are talking of “celebrating” the Protestant Reformation. I am not one of them, because there is nothing to celebrate, though there is much to commemorate. Working from the Latin, to commemorate (“with memory”) means to keep something in memory or not to lose memory of it.
We commemorate 9/11 because we want to keep in mind the wickedness of the terrorism and the heroism of so many victims, police, and firefighters—but we don’t celebrate what happened on that day. We gladly would give up the heroism if we could have been spared the terror.
We commemorate to not forget
We commemorate December 7, the “day that will live in infamy,” because it was the prelude to a long and costly war. Again, there was heroism, but we wish that heroism had never needed to be called up.
We commemorate Bastille Day and the October Revolution not because what came from them, the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution, were good but precisely because they were evil, and we want to remember that evil so that it won’t return in another guise.
We celebrate none of these unhappy events, but we commemorate them. Not to do so would be to become blind to human currents, to the greatest, if most tragic, events of history. We celebrate events that have uplifted the human spirit and the human condition: secular events such as Independence Day and sacred events such as saints’ feast days. We commemorate events we wish had never happened but from which we can learn lessons.
I see nothing to celebrate in the Protestant Reformation. It was the greatest disaster the West suffered over the last millennium. It brought theological confusion, political turmoil, and decades of war. The religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries killed about three percent of the world’s population, the same proportion that died in World War II. The religious wars would not have occurred had the Reformation not occurred.
Earlier, a reform
Much was wrong in the Catholic Church of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Personal morality was lax (though not matching today’s laxity), and corruption was widespread among the clergy and was particularly scandalous the higher one’s gaze went up the hierarchical ladder. One should keep in mind, though, that, however bad things were in the decades before Luther took out his hammer, they had been worse in the tenth century. If there were a few “bad popes” in Luther’s era, there were worse popes, and more of them, five or six centuries earlier.
The Church of the tenth century desperately needed reform, not revolution, though it might have fallen into the latter if reform hadn’t come about. But reform did come about, and the Church not only soldiered on but prospered. The result was the High Middle Ages, the era in which Catholic principles most effectively (but still inadequately) undergirded Western society.
By the turn of the 1500s a once-again-complacent Christendom was in trouble. It again needed reform, but what it got was the Reformation. Luther, who was not much of a theologian, rejected some long-taught beliefs and offered a few novelties of his own fashioning. His counterparts elsewhere in Europe, such as Calvin and the English Reformers, did likewise. The result was a fissiparous Protestantism, the members of which were unable to agree among themselves on many doctrines and practices but could agree to oppose “the Pope of Rome.”
False principles lead to false principles
Protestantism was grounded on false principles, among them the private interpretation of Scripture, but private interpretation didn’t stop there. Once you accept the principle that there is no human-connected authority to which you must give obedience of mind and not just of action (the divinely protected but all-so-human magisterium), you’re free to use private interpretation at will. It isn’t limited to Scripture. It extends to the whole of religion.
One man’s private interpretation gets reinterpreted by another man, who thinks he has achieved the final and pure understanding, only to be confounded by his successors, who claim that he claimed too much or too little. There is no stopping point, but there is a kind of law of religious entropy at work, and the tendency is toward simplification. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob becomes the God of the Deists and then the God of the philosophers.
It is no accident that a straight line can be drawn from Protestantism through the Enlightenment to today’s secularism. (The ancestor of secular humanism isn’t a vague paganism; it’s Puritanism.) By its inner nature, Protestantism is unstable. It was and is a hodgepodge. Much in it is true, but that truth preexisted in Catholicism. To that truth were superadded partial truths and even untruths, and that made the construct unstable.
Silver linings have dark clouds
By the end of the wars of religion Protestantism seemed to have stabilized in several variants, but the stability was an illusion. The return of external peace unleashed centripetal forces within Protestantism, and the result was a long succession of offshoots.
The Anglican Church had broken off from the Catholic Church. The Methodist Church broke off from the Anglican. The Holiness churches broke off from the Methodist, and those churches have seen further splits. Such splits will not end, because there is a logic to further splitting. “That they all may be one” (John 17:21) has become “That they all may be multitudinous—and often at each other’s throats.” The acrimony directed at Rome also, with a few modifications, can be directed at Westminster or Geneva or Wittenberg.
None of this is to deny that many good and even holy people have come from or remain in Protestantism, nor is it to deny the invaluable work done by Protestant scholars, theologians, social thinkers, and everyday lay people. Most clouds have silver linings, but some eyes are capable of seeing only the silver linings, not the clouds.
A Reformation was never needed
Richard John Neuhaus, the founding editor of First Things, had been a Lutheran pastor. He converted to the Catholic faith in 1990 and a year later was ordained a priest. He once was asked the reason for his conversion, and he replied he came into the Church because the Reformation no longer was needed. His comment diminished him in my eyes, because the comment was fatuous.
There never was a need for the Reformation. There was a need for reform, and the Reformation—despite its name—was not a reform but a revolt. It did not make the Church more of what it should have been. It made the Church into something else by making new churches.
One should celebrate Neuhaus’s entry into the Church, as one celebrates the entry of so many learned people who have become Catholics over the last three decades or so, but he offered a poor reason, even a false reason. I presume he proffered substantial and convincing reasons that I missed hearing about, yet it is this comment of his that has stuck in my mind.
It brings to mind a line from T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.” (I don’t accuse Neuhaus, a good man, of treason; it’s just that the second half of this quotation is more than apt.)
It won’t do to say that, at some point, the Reformation ceased to be needed. It never was needed, and, like bad movements throughout history, it brought more grief than good. It was, and to a certain extent remains, a powerful historical force, one that we should keep in memory by commemorating it—but not by celebrating it. The difference is crucial.