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.

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