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Why the Reformation Was Necessary—But Protestantism Was Not

Reformation of Western Christianity was necessary and, in that sense, justified. At the same time, reformation was also sinful—something that should not have happened. How could it have been both?

Modern historians generally speak of the Reformations of the sixteenth century: the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Reformation. (The Protestant Reformation is divided into magisterial Protestantism, which employed the power of magistrates, and the radical Reformation, which at first ignored and then at times sought to overthrow the existing political order.)

The Catholic Reformation was the movement within the Catholic Church to renew the doctrinal, spiritual, moral, and institutional life of Western Christianity. That reform, sometimes called the Counter-Reformation, didn’t change doctrine, the sacraments, Christian morality, or church structures, although many Catholics had to change their lives.

Catholic Reformation was necessary and justified. Although Catholics contributed sins of their own, the “sin” of the Reformation, it seems to me, was the division among Christians brought about by Protestant changes of doctrine, practice, and church structures.

“Continual reformation”

Ecclesia semper reformanda est: “the Church always needs reform.” As Vatican II put it, “The Church, embracing in its bosom sinners, at the same time holy and always in need of being purified, always follows the way of penance and renewal” (Lumen Gentium 8). In its decree on ecumenism, the Council stated, “Christ summons the Church to continual reformation as she sojourns here on Earth. The Church is always in need of this, insofar as she is an institution of men here on Earth” (Unitatis Redintegratio 6).

What in early sixteenth-century Catholicism needed reform or purification? Popes, prelates, priests, and the people. Late medieval popes and their clergy were by no means all wicked. Still, they often ministered in ways harmful to the Church’s mission. Today, we might speak of “structural sin”—patterns of expected, accepted institutional behavior that foster sinful choices and attitudes. But of course behind structural sin is personal sin.

More than one pope

In the century before Luther, the Catholic Church emerged from one of its greatest crises, the Great Western Schism. From 1378 to 1417, due mainly to political struggles for control of the papacy, there were first two and then three claimants to the papal office simultaneously. Religious orders, dioceses, and other church institutions divided in their loyalties. Even saints came down on different sides of the question “Who is the real pope?”

“Both” popes excommunicated the other and his followers, which left the whole Catholic Church excommunicated by one or the other. And each claimants’ successor, duly elected by his respective cardinal electors, continued to insist he was the true pope.

After thirty years, a church council convened, at Pisa, in 1409 to address the problem. It only made things worse. Alexander V was elected the would-be successor of St. Peter. Now there were three “popes.” Eventually the schism ended with the election of Martin V, but only after grave harm to the credibility of the papacy. Churchmen rightly insisted there had ever been only one true pope, the others (whatever their intentions) being antipopes. But damage was done.

Clerical greed

Then there was the issue of money. Late medieval church bureaucracy was expensive, as were the lifestyles of some of its officeholders, especially certain popes and their curia. There were charges for this, church taxes for that. Although church law frowned on a bishop holding many benefices—income-related church offices—this legal obstacle could be surmounted. For a fee.

“The spirit of mammon,” wrote Catholic theologian Karl Adam, “had won such an ascendancy in the curia that Pope Clement VII, for example, at the very height of the Reformation storm, was trying to make money from the sale of cardinals’ hats.” He continued:

The pope’s yearly income was greater than that of any German Emperor. John XXII (r. 1316-1334), for instance, died leaving three-quarters of a million gold coins in his treasury: a figure so high, considering the value and conditions of the time, that it was bound to have a catastrophic effect on the believer when he pictured against this background the poor tentmaker Paul or the still poorer fisherman Peter coming with dusty sandals to Rome.

Moving from pontiffs to prelates, we see men, who, like the bishops of Rome, exercised considerable power in the secular world as well as the Church. Indeed, bishops were often temporal lords with political responsibilities. Their positions brought significant wealth, and the temptation to collect multiple income-bearing offices was enormous.

Catholic historian Philip Hughes, in his Popular History of the Reformation, noted how “only too often the bishop was an absentee; he might, at the same time, hold more than one see; and while he held two or even more sees, he might have the additional anxiety that he has been promised a fourth when it should become vacant; absenteeism, pluralities, expectatives are the triple scourge of the episcopate.”

Illegitimate families

Family, too, was often a problem—and not just in the form of nepotism. Some bishops were faithfully celibate, but many were not. Wrote Msgr. Hughes:

I pass over the matter of bishops who, in despite of all law, managed to have families of their own and to provide for them out of the wealth of the Church. No more need be said of this grave scandal than that it reached the very papacy, when, arrived in their later life at the supreme see, elderly men could be so little embarrassed by these relics of their jenunesse orageuse [turbulent youth] that they brought them forward, acknowledged them, ennobled them, married them well, and spent a not inconsiderable amount of their diplomatic energy in efforts to work them into the families of the reigning princes.

What of the people? Recent historians challenge the idea of a universal spiritual desert among the faithful at large, pointing to a number of dynamic lay movements. Yet things were far from ideal. There was also plenty of doctrinal ignorance, superstition, Pelagian self-justification, and worldliness among the people. “On the eve of the Protestant Reformation,” writes Catholic historian James Hitchcock, “the Catholic Church simultaneously manifested both deep piety and corruption; the religious environment was both rich and confusing.”

The “sale” of indulgences

Which brings us to the celebrated business of the “sale” of indulgences, which set off Augustinian priest Martin Luther in 1517. The indulgence controversy was sort of an ecclesiastical “perfect storm,” bringing together ecclesiastical greed, episcopal power-grubbing, and the spiritually hungry masses so often being “sold”—not given—indulgence “stones” when they asked for spiritual bread.

Pope Leo X need money to rebuild St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Albrecht of Brandenburg, Archbishop of Magdeburg and the bishop of Halbergstadt, and also, most recently, Archbishop of Mainz needed money, too—to pay Leo’s fees for allowing the twenty-three-year-old to possess his several dioceses at once. The solution: the Indulgence Campaign authorized by Leo for Albrecht to raise money for the both of them. They would split net revenues raised from the campaign. And then came Johann Tezel, the Dominican preacher who led the Indulgence Campaign.

Strictly speaking, indulgences were not “sold.” An indulgence involves a spiritual work of penance, and monetary donation can be such a work. Still, what would most people think from the fact such donations were assigned according to a “price list” linked to one’s socio-economic standing? What to make of Albrecht’s campaign offering plenary indulgences rather than the usual partial indulgences? A bargain?

What of Father Tetzel’s message? “God and St. Peter call you,” said the preacher. “Listen to the voices of your dead relatives and friends, beseeching you and saying, ‘Pity us, pity us. We are in dire torment from which you can redeem us for a pittance.’ Do you not wish to? . . . Remember, you are able to release them, for as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

What set Luther apart

Fr. Luther may or may not have posted his famous 95 Theses on the cathedral door at Wittenberg, on October 31, 1517. But he did call for debate. He was a theology professor as well as a pastor with parishioners who visited the neighboring territory where Tetzel preached. This was a pastoral matter, not just a theoretical one.

Many others beside Luther criticized the sale of indulgences, clerical greed, and misuse of office. There was critique of the mechanical do-this-and-get-that quality of the practice of indulgences, even apart from the issue of money. Many Augustinians and some Dominicans, not to mention other spiritual leaders, denounced the whole business. Literally.

Luther brought to the debate his recently acquired idea of how human beings are brought into right relationship with God: justification by faith alone (sola fide). Soon, he moved well beyond the issue of indulgences and wound up defending his ideas against Catholic theologians in such a way that he embraced a different notion of how Christians come to know what God asks them to believe: by Scripture alone (sola scriptura). Luther’s ideas spread to others unable or unwilling to distinguish Catholic reform of the Church from religious revolution. The Protestant Reformation was launched.

Protestantism posed various problems, but some of its core ideas were Catholic. Many Catholics sensed that Luther was onto something. The trouble was, sound doctrines were mixed up with false theories, which eventually put Luther and others at odds with the Catholic Church. What might have contributed to the Catholic Reformation of the time was distorted and exaggerated.

Councils call for reform

The Fifth Lateran Council (1512-1517) called for reform—Catholic reform—even before Luther challenged the sale of indulgences. Catholic figures such as Giles of Viterbo challenged the Church to repent and live according to the gospel. He criticized popes and prelates and called for the people to be transformed by study of Scripture. In Spain, the Franciscan Cardinal Francisco Jimenez de Cisneris denounced clerical corruption and stressed the importance of the Bible. Catholic reform movements transformed old religious orders and started new ones, such as the Jesuits. Great saints such as Ignatius of Loyola, Thomas More, Teresa of Avila, Francis de Sales, and Charles Borromeo reinvigorated Catholicism.

Eventually, after initial papal resistance, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) was called, which deeply reformed Catholic life and practice and clarified important questions of Catholic doctrine, especially, though not exclusively, in response to Protestant ideas. Tridentine reform, though not perfect, represented what today would be called the “hermeneutic of reform in continuity,” a reform based on a return to the authentic sources of faith.

“Often enough, men on both sides were to blame,” declared Vatican II regarding Christians separating from the Catholic Church. “The children who are born into these communities and who grow up believing in Christ cannot be accused of the sin involved in the separation, and the Catholic Church embraces them as brothers with respect and affection” (Unitatis Redintegratio 3).

Tragic, but not necessary

We shouldn’t, insisted Vatican II, blame today’s Protestants for the “sin involved in the separation.” But separation did involve sin—that is, a state of affairs contrary to God’s will and brought about by human action. Christ prayed that his followers would be one (John 17:21). The division among Christians is not God’s will.

Catholics, as Vatican II implies, contributed to the sin of separation. Yet Protestantism, in the name of reform, introduced mistaken ideas and practices that divided Protestants from full communion with the Catholic Church.

To put things bluntly, the Catholic Church needed reform, but it didn’t need Protestantism. “It was not ecclesiastical abuses that made him the opponent of the Catholic Church,” Karl Adam wrote of Luther, “but the conviction that she was teaching falsely.” Rejection of Catholic doctrine was at the heart of the separation between Catholics and Protestants, not the issue of reform.

The erstwhile Lutheran turned Orthodox Jaroslav Pelikan once called the Protestant Reformation a tragic necessity. From the Catholic perspective, it was tragic because it was not necessary. Things Luther rightly sought to correct did not require separation from the Catholic Church; what separated Luther and other Protestants from the Church were their theological theories and reinterpretations of Christian beliefs and practices.

The famous French Lutheran convert and Catholic theologian Fr. Louis Bouyer distinguished what he called the positive principles and the negative principles of Protestantism. Protestantism’s positive principles, he insisted, were essentially Catholic ideas, which was one reason they attracted many Catholics. Unfortunately, Luther and the other early Protestants interpreted these ideas in such a way that broke communion with the Catholic Church and fostered religious upheaval in Europe. These interpretations were the negative principles, as Bouyer saw it.

The gratuitousness of salvation

Consider the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Bouyer said its positive principle is the gratuitousness of salvation: we enter right relationship with God by his gift, not by any effort we can claim as our own apart from grace. The “alone” element in “justification by faith alone” originally distinguished the gracious activity of God in us—or the gift of faith—from what we might think to contribute to our standing before God. It was a way of stressing justification by grace alone, a Catholic dogma.

But Luther and later others introduced ideas that obscured this point. “The further Luther advanced in his conflict with other theologians,” Bouyer wrote, “then with Rome, then with the whole of contemporary Catholicism and finally with Catholicism of every age, the more closely we see him identifying affirmation about sola gratia with a particular theory known as extrinsic justification.”

Catholicism agrees that justification originates outside of man, because it’s God’s gift, not something man himself accomplishes. God effects change within man by making him righteous. God imparts the righteousness of Christ to him, transforming him interiorly by grace into a child of God.

According to Protestantism, in justification God declares the sinner legally righteous (forensic justification) because of his faith in Christ. Righteousness is imputed or credited to the sinner, not imparted in justification. Although both doctrines stress grace, Protestantism insists graciousness requires extrinsic justification and imputation, rather than interior justification, which is imparted or infused.

“Faith alone” came to mean faith is opposed to anything else, including grace-enabled love of God, or charity. Where “faith alone” could have been shorthand for the whole life of grace, of which faith is the beginning, in contrast to human efforts at self-justification, with Protestantism’s negative principle, it means denying a place for the love of God in justification, even though charity is itself as much a gift of God as faith.

An unnecessary negative principle

Or consider the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, or Scripture alone. According to Bouyer, Protestantism rightly insists that the Bible is the Word of God in a unique sense: only the Bible is the divinely inspired written word of God. Tradition and pronouncements of the magisterium may be “divinely assisted,” but the Church does not claim for them that God is their primary author as he is of the Bible.

Protestantism, argued Bouyer, unnecessarily associated Scripture with a negative principle: the denial that the Church can interpret the word of God in a binding, authoritative (yet non-inspired) form. Traditional ideas or confessional statements or creeds may aid the individual believer or church organization in understanding the Bible, but in the end what binds the believer or the church group, in the Protestant view, is the Bible alone, not the authority of Tradition or the magisterium to normatively interpret it.

Sola scriptura, in its negative formulation, generated the conflicting doctrines, sacramental practices, moral codes, and church structures that make up Protestantism. It also, as historian Brad Gregory has pointed out, contributed to the modern hyperpluralism, which in its extreme form conceives of civil society simply as an agreed upon political mechanism for the practical purpose of maximizing human autonomy rather than as a context in which at least some truth is attainable.

Greater Catholic-Protestant sympathy

Of course, the original Protestants would not have seen things that way. For them, they were recovering the gospel, the authentic meaning of the Bible lost by the Catholic Church. For them, what was required was a “hermeneutic of rupture,” a radical break from the late medieval Church, which they regarded as a corrupt rupture from the authentic gospel.

In recent years, ecumenical dialogue among Christians has yielded a less polemic judgment of late medieval Catholicism by some Protestants. And on the Catholic side, there is a willingness to see the positive elements of certain Reformers’ activities. More sympathetic evaluations of each others’ Reformations is, no doubt, a powerful aid in the search for deeper Christian unity.

Time and again Christians have turned away from the Lord and in so doing turned away from the unity of faith, worship, and community that God wills for his people. Reformation is the principle by which Christians return to God and to his will for the Church. And yet even while Christians pursue “reform,” they can succumb to the temptation to replace their own ideas, practices, and standards of community for those of Christ’s Church. The sixteenth-century Reformations represent two different directions Christians took. If, from the Catholic view, the Protestant Reformation was at best a problematic reform, creating new problems and not appropriately addressing old ones, we can nevertheless recognize in today’s Protestants genuine brothers and sisters who desire to follow the Lord.

When it comes to the search for full Christian unity, that is a place to begin, one that many Christians of the sixteenth century did not recognize. If that does not give Catholics a reason to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, at least it gives us a reason to mark it and to pray for the conversion of both Catholic and Protestant hearts and minds, so that by grace we may be one, as Jesus prayed.

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