Today marks a departure for the Thursday post. I posted last week on a third-anniversary Café updating that Thursdays would be devoted for another year or two to a treatment of the Reformation. For those of you who visited the site for the Catechism update, the Catechism is incorporated into the Monday Morality stream and will be for quite some time. October 31 marks the 500th anniversary of the day Martin Luther, an Augustinian and Bible scholar, posted his ninety-five theses to the All Saints Church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Modern historians admit that the October 31, 1517 event was not quite as dramatic as portrayed in art and story-telling. But the date remains significant as history’s milepost for what would be major divisions in western Christendom that remain to this day—and seem no closer to reconciliation than at any point in my lifetime.
Marking a new venture for the Café, I wish I had a profound preface for this project, and I don’t. But I would like to make a few points, and then provide a preview. The first thing on my mind is that the Protestant Reformation of 1500 and beyond is not the only fissure in Christianity, nor is it even the largest. The major division of Christianity is East and West, the formal 1054 A.D. break of Christianity into the Orthodox (East) and the Roman (West). 1054 A.D. marks the date of the mutual excommunications of Pope Leo IX and the Constantinople Patriarch Michael Cerularius. This was an event a long time in coming, as Jaroslav Pelikan explains in his classic A History of the Development of Doctrine II: The Spirit of Eastern Christendom 600-1700 (1977). Five centuries later the Protestant Reformation would fragment the Catholic or Western Church. During his reign Pope John Paul II invested significant energies into better relations the East, but with very modest results, given the theological, liturgical, and cultural gulf between the Churches.
There was a second major division within the Western Catholic world, referred to as the Western Schism (or sometimes The Great Schism). This break began when French forces relocated the pope from Rome to the French city of Avignon, where future popes would rule for most of the 1300’s until various factions in France and Rome elected competing popes. There were saints of this time who lived their entire lives uncertain of the legitimacy of those claiming the pope. The Gordian knot was finally broken by the University of Paris and its masterful chancellor, Jean Gerson, who argued that a general council enjoyed the juridical power to declare and depose popes. At the Council of Constance (1414-1418) the Church fathers deposed three popes (including one named John XXIII!) and appointed a new Bishop of Rome.
Gerson and the Council of Constance solved one issue but inadvertently set up a chain of events that would make the Protestant Reformation a near inevitability. The Council of Constance, aware of a need of reform in Roman Catholicism, ruled that a sitting pope must call a reform council every five years to avoid a repeat of the previous century’s debacle. However, succeeding popes fought to recover their independence from councils, and the term “Conciliarism” became something of a heretical slur. Gerson, possibly the best Catholic medieval thinker never canonized, finished his life in exile. See Jean Gerson and the Last Medieval Reformation (2005). Thus, there were few checks and balances on abuses of papal power, such as the business of selling indulgences which Luther would decry in 1517.
It is hard not to notice that the word “Reformation” is built around the word “reform.” The declaration of Luther in 1517 that the Church must be semper reformanda…in capite et membris or “always in need of reform, in head and members” was not the first consciousness of this truth. One can argue that the early development of hermitages and primitive monasteries in the fourth century was a reform movement of sorts in response to the decadence of large Roman city churches.
The history books would probably mark the second half of the eleventh century as a “reform moment.” The term “Gregorian Reform” or “The Investiture Controversy” is often applied to the years 1050-1080 and beyond, and the First Crusade was called in 1095. The central figure of this era was a monk named Hildebrand, renowned for his moral leadership within the monastic walls. He was brought to Rome to effect a reform of the clergy, and he was elected pope under the name Gregory VII, hence “Gregorian reform.” He fought valiantly for the right of the Church to name its own bishops, as kings and princes were “investing” church officers. But most of his reforms were devoted to the “lower” clergy, many of whom were married or had concubines. The celibacy of the Roman clergy was firmly established as a discipline of the Church in Gregory’s time.
From Gregory’s time until Luther’s, there were bursts or waves of institutional reform in the Church. Among them were the arrival of the mendicant orders of friars, Franciscan and Dominican; the explosion of Catholic universities throughout Europe; the organization of Catholic theological thought as evidenced in the Summas of St. Thomas Aquinas; the codification of Church order in Canon Law; the rise in prestige of the papacy as evidenced in the reign of Innocent III (r. 1198-1216); several fruitful councils; enrichment of liturgy and church architecture.
At the same time, there were a number of grassroots movements beyond the reach or control of the institutional Church. Recent scholarship has focused on the role of women and their mystical experiences, which were deeply personal and like all religious-psychological events, beyond the easy classification of the structural life of the Church. A large amount of their literature has survived, the most famous being Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ. Mystics formed communities and fraternities, and my professors would speak of the “democratization of spirituality” which led to ecclesiastical investigations and the formation of the Inquisition.
A sense of regionalism or nationalism would impact Catholic believers in various ways. In England, for example, John Wycliffe called for a freedom of conscience and thought; Jan Hus in Czechoslovakia called for greater rights of the faithful, including access to the cup at communion. [Hus was burned at the stake during the Council of Constance.] The fifteenth century saw a renaissance of science and philosophy that contrasted with Aquinas’ Summas of reality. The Franciscan philosopher William of Ockham raised the question whether there was such a thing as objective reality, or whether language was symbolic. Moreover, the printing press was invented, leading to a democratization of information and a rapid dissemination of new ideas which made unity of thought and orthodoxy more difficult to achieve.
The historian Kevin Madigan, in Medieval Christianity: A New History (2015), describes the last years of the Middle Ages leading up to Luther as a kind of bipolar experience. European Christianity was divided between those working frantically to avoid hell fire by doing everything possible—including seeking out indulgences—and those who despaired of ever doing enough, or perhaps in the William of Ockham vein, questioning the reality of the entire enterprise. As the “perfect monk,” Luther had worked himself into a spiritual exhaustion in his attempt to gain salvation. Depressed, broken, and despondent, he (re)discovered in St. Paul an essential truth about redemption. Reaction to his preaching—and the chain reaction of events beyond his control—is the story of the Reformation. And what a narrative it will be!
As with our other blog streams, I try to include some basic texts for those who are interested in going deeper into the material. To understand the Reformation, it is very helpful to understand medieval life in the Church. I noted the Kevin Madigan book above as probably the best source, and I just received the classic The Age of Reform 1250-1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe (1980) by Stephen Ozment. As for the Reformation itself, the best-reviewed is Carlos M.N. Eire’s Reformations: The Early Modern World 1450-1650 (2016). National Review has a splendid review of Eire’s book that summarizes what I have been trying to do here all day.