I took some time to see if and how the Protestant Churches in my town are observing Holy Thursday this evening. The local Episcopal Church observes a full schedule of the Triduum virtually parallel to the Roman Catholic rites, and refers to this day as Maundy Thursday, as did the Roman Catholic Church in my memory [though Holy Thursday was the more popular Catholic usage.] The term “Maundy” is derived from the Gospel of tonight’s Mass, where Jesus, after washing the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper, tells them that “I have given you a new commandment” [mandatum, Latin “mandate”] to wash the feet of one another. [John 13: 1-15] It is curious that after Vatican II, when the official title of this day was confirmed as Holy Thursday in the Catholic world, other Christian Churches retain the name “Maundy.”
The Presbyterian Church is observing “Maundy Thursday” with a 6 PM Worship followed by a dinner. The Church of the Nazarene is conducting a 7 PM service. The Nazarenes are descendants of the Wesleyan evangelical tradition of the 1700’s which began when John Wesley’s evangelical preaching and theology created a radical break from the strict Calvinists. [A reformation of a reformation, you might say.] The Methodist Church here in town, also descendants of Wesley, is observing a “Maundy Service” at 7 PM. The Methodist guidelines are very interesting in that they parallel much of the Roman Catholic Thursday practice except for the Eucharistic procession. The two largest Baptist Churches in town have no reference to any Triduum-like observance except that one church is closing its office on Good Friday.
I have to say that some of these churches, which used to be quite powerful in town, appear to be much smaller now from information gathered on their websites, which suggests to me that Catholicism is not alone in its difficulties retaining members. I had started my search with the Lutheran Church, given that Martin Luther’s theology of the Eucharist is rather intense. The church here does not have a website, and I moved over to the Missouri Synod data base in search of a possible link, only to discover that the official membership of my neighbor church is less than 60. The Evangelical Lutheran national webpage indicates that the reception of communion is part of the Maundy Thursday rite where it is celebrated.
Given that Martin Luther rejected the term “transubstantiation” and that interfaith communion is not permitted in most circumstances in Roman Catholic discipline, there is a temptation to play down the sanctity of communion shared in the Reformation Churches and to accentuate “deficiencies” in the bread and cup shared in other denominations. This is an unfortunate and often inaccurate misunderstanding of what the many Christian churches celebrate in good faith around the world, including on Maundy/Holy Thursday. Vatican II states that while all truth necessary of salvation subsists in the Catholic Church, it also recognized the holiness of churches with good will who worship Christ in ways and rites that Catholic theology might describe as incomplete. The Catholic Church recognizes the validity of baptism administered by any church that baptizes in the Trinitarian formula.
It may be of some help to understand how Luther and others came to differ in defining the meaning of Eucharistic Presence. Christians from earliest times understood that Christ was present in “the breaking of the bread” and that there was true reception of the Lord in the Eucharistic rite. Christians believed that Jesus remained in the sacred species, as we know from ancient accounts of Eucharistic bread brought to the sick and prisoners. Exactly how this process took place—in what we might call scientific or analytic ways--was never much debated; reception of the Eucharist was and remains an act of faith, which is why we say “Amen” upon reception, a statement of belief.
The first analytical description of the Eucharist appears to have come from St. Paschasius Radbertus, a ninth century abbot, who coined the term transubstantiation, “the change of substance by which the bread and the wine offered in the sacrifice of the sacrament of the Eucharist during the Mass, become, in reality, the physical Body and Blood of Jesus the Christ.” Later, Thomas Aquinas adapted the Aristotelian terms of substance and accidents to round this definition into logical completeness: the essence or reality of a thing might change, but its outward qualities could remain the same. Not everyone accepted the Paschasius definition; in the 1050’s the first great debate in the Church on Eucharistic presence was sparked by Berengar of Tours, who countered that the elements of the bread and wine became symbols of the Body and Blood of Christ during the Mass, and nothing more.
Berengar’s theory was condemned several times, but it persisted till the IV Lateran Council (1213-1215) which declared the process of change known as transubstantiation to be infallibly true. Eucharistic devotion was enhanced considerably through the high middle ages by the introduction of the Feast of Corpus Christi and the writings of Aquinas, whose work includes the majestic Pange Lingua sung during tonight’s Eucharistic Procession after communion. The next serious challenge to Eucharistic doctrine came with the reformers of the late medieval era, whose primary focus was not so much the idea of communion as the philosophical system which described it. I discussed on this stream a few weeks ago the writings of the Franciscan philosopher William of Ockham, who maintained among other things that the claims of Thomistic philosophy (known generically as scholasticism) were excessive and basically faulty. Ockham is remembered today for a competing philosophy of reality called nominalism which holds that the best we can know about anything is its name (from the Latin nomen, name.)
Martin Luther was well versed in philosophy, and his sympathies lay with Ockham. He found the Thomistic or scholastic approach to reality excessive in its hold on the Church. He turned to Sacred Scripture itself and did not find basis for the process of transubstantiation. He did not deny Real Presence and searched for another way of explaining it. He came to accept a term used by the earlier reformers the Lollards, consubstantiation, whereby the real body and blood of Christ is present alongside the substance of the bread and wine. This is essentially what Lutheran theology holds todays.
The first reformer to outright deny Real Presence was Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531). He broke relations with Luther on issues of the Mass and the Eucharist. Zwingli, whose radical thinking profoundly divided the Reformation, held that transubstantiation was impossible because the Mass itself was a presumptuous denial of Scripture. He argued that the Bible defined Christ’s death as a one-time event which was sufficient for all men in all times. To repeat it in worship was viewed by Zwingli as a blasphemy against the Bible. John Calvin, when he arrived on the scene, also denied transubstantiation and Real Presence, but he did hold that real communion with Christ could take place spiritually with an individual.
The development of the many sects and denominations of Protestantism and their respective stances on the meaning of communion would take days to elucidate. Many of the mainstream churches incorporate communion into their rites, at least periodically, which shows that even a purely symbolic gesture by Catholic standards has the impact upon believers of encountering Christ individually and in fellowship. While our differences in understanding do not permit full intercommunion, we can on this Holy Thursday rejoice with the idea that fellow Christians are with us spiritually on this holy night with equal hopes in their respective traditions of meeting Christ in the breaking of the bread.
Coming to you live from San Pedro Retreat Center near Orlando, Florida, with a fine parish staff for a day of recollection. Unfortunately, I’ll have to postpone the Reformation until next week.
One of my first reviews for Amazon was The Great Mortality (2005) by John Kelly, the story of the Black Plague that ravaged Europe from 1347 through 1352. This catastrophe which claimed about 50% of the European population had immense impact upon the Church in terms of contributing to events that would make the Reformation something of an inevitability.
I am going to switch the format today, suggesting that you read my review of the account of the plague, now thirteen years old. The link is here. What follows is my own recent take on the plague and its relation to the Reformation.
In my review, I did observe the loss of many of the best clergy, who remained to comfort, nurse, and bury their parishioners, and who did not flee to the rural mountains with other clergy and nobles. What I did not know then was the dating of the “Little Ice Age,” a meteorological shift toward generally wetter and cooler conditions, beginning around 1300, which impacted food supplies and farming in much of Europe. By the time of the arrival of the Great Plague in 1347, not only were there significant weaknesses in the economy, but also a general weakening of the collective immune system. It is doubtful that even the most robust medieval peasant or worker could have withstood the initial onslaught of this Y-Pestis bacteria unaffected, but the recurrence of the plague in waves over five years resulted in a human death toll akin to those related to earthquakes and aftershocks.
Every enterprise of European life was severely strained and interrupted, and it is not much of a stretch to speak anachronistically of a PTSD impact. Kelly’s description from medieval accounts emphasize (1) the grotesque impact of the infection at onset, and (2) the sudden onset of death. A man infected at noon might die by nightfall. Our term “bubonic plague” comes from “buboes” or ugly swellings in the body; the 1347 strain was particularly gruesome in this respect.
Medieval peoples were no strangers to plagues and sudden deaths, but the events of this magnitude led to apocalyptic fears and confusions. Even before the plague, bands of flagellants (i.e., those who whipped themselves in public) roamed the continent under no ecclesiastical supervision in an active moral crusade against sin. During and after the plague many pious and fearful souls took refuge in extremist forms of religious experience to save themselves. The intensive fear of death and punishment after the grave never receded, and by 1500 the quest for safety and certainty led to a hearty trade in relics and indulgences.
If some looked inside of themselves for a relation to what could only be described as a mighty reaction of the anger of God, a good many others looked to outside scapegoats. The Plague unleased a wave of anti-Semitism, already a grave sin in the Western Church. Christians had always held the Jews guilty for the death of Christ, but as Kelly records, violence against the Jews became more deadly and universal when some Christians expounded the theory that the plague was an organized plot by European Jews to destroy Christianity. Like Hitler’s era six centuries later, murder and other mayhem against Jews was condoned with little or no intervention of church and state.
In these circumstances the movement toward Church reform was significantly sidetracked. Of the few groups emotionally removed from the suffering, the cardinals and popes [then living in Avignon, France] continued their exertions relatively unimpeded. If they considered the plague a curse of God, there is no record in the several councils prior to Luther that the bishops established any substantive plan for their own reform. It would not be until 1563 that the Council of Trent would mandate exacting reforms of residential bishops, and this was prompted by Protestant rebellion, not Y-Pestis.
Universities continue to offer degrees in the interpretation of reality, and not simply in the realm of religion. We call such interpreters “philosophers” and the world cannot live without them. [I have a B.A. in Philosophy from Catholic University, but I never get invited to the philosophers' Christmas party.] Socrates taught us to question what we see and hear; Plato, to search for the highest absolute of beauty; Aristotle, to observe everything and draw our truths from experience, the scientific method. By the fourteenth century the Christian Church of the West had, for all practical purposes, designated the Philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas’s (1225-1274) world view as the official vision of how Christians think and articulate matters of life and thought vis-à-vis the revelation of God. Aquinas was so widely respected that his legacy of thought in the universities became the generic noun for medieval theological work, scholasticism.
Aquinas was a philosophical outlier who incorporated the ancient Greek thinkers into his theological/philosophical writing. That he borrowed heavily from the pagan Aristotle’s system was quite remarkable—and more than once questioned. That he received Greek philosophy from Islamic scholars is even more remarkable. To summarize his understanding of reality, he adopted Aristotle’s approach that every created thing is real in itself, and that from the similarities of things it is possible to deduct general principles and norms. For Aquinas, the end or ultimate purpose of all created matter was God, who was the perfect embodiment of all things. We utilize Aquinas’s system in Catholic schools, where everything—the arts and the sciences--taught under its roofs is a window on the wonder of God. Religion is not (or should not be) relegated to last period as a standalone subject of the day, unrelated to geometry, history, or Shakespeare.
The Church cherished Aquinas’s philosophy for at least two reasons. The first was the precision of its language involving the sacraments, and particularly the mystery of the consecration of the bread and wine, Transubstantiation. Aquinas and Aristotle agreed that all things have substance and accidents [or measurable externals.] Consequently, the words of the priest changed the substance of the food into the body and blood of Christ, without changing the accidents—the taste, texture, weight, etc. of unleavened bread and fermented wine.
The line between philosophy and theology was very thin in medieval times, and the second advantage of the Thomistic scholastic system of thought was its unity of authority: with the meaning of all reality summarized in Aquinas’s writing, the Western Church enjoyed a high level of certainty in its teachings and laws, enabled to declare them timeless and changeless for all eternity. Again, we see this claim of timeless and changeless authority asserted even as we speak; Pope Francis, in his encyclical on the family, was harshly criticized for his perceived reservation about denying Eucharist to those in second marriage without annulment. The criticism was and is the perception that Francis does not recognize the timeless, ageless, and absolute nature of the Church’s teaching on divorce, unchangeable because the essence of moral law is changeless.
Even in Aquinas’s time, though, there were hints that the Aristotle-Aquinas monolith was not foolproof. All thinkers of the fourteenth century were familiar with the principle of analogy: that we can never define God precisely, but only provide human ideas or explanations of what God might be like. A philosophical-theological system is not the exact same thing as the thing itself, in this case the mind and essence of God and his creation. Aquinas knew this well. In fact, toward the end of his life he began having divine visions while saying Mass, and shortly before he died, he referred to his body of work as “straw” in comparison to his mystical experiences of the Christ of the altar. Mysticism, a powerful force in late medieval times, defied systematization, and thus was regarded as a serious threat to Church order. [There will be several posts on medieval mystics down the road.]
To critique the thinking of Thomas Aquinas involved critiquing the official Church, a rather dangerous business in the fourteenth century when the Inquisition, staffed by Aquinas’s own Dominican order, was well established in its work of preserving academic and ethical order in the Church. A man needed “cover,” so to speak, and thus it is not surprising that such a counter-thinker would emerge from the other burgeoning medieval order, the Franciscans. William of Ockham (1287-1347) is best known today for “Ockham’s Razor,” the handy principle that states, in so many words, the simplest explanation is usually the best one. It is helpful to our purpose here to understand that Ockham and his Order were immersed in controversy with the Avignon popes over the issue of poverty. After the death of St. Francis of Assisi in 1226, various popes had softened the uncompromising position of St. Francis on the issue of ownership of property. One wing of the Order, the “Spiritualists,” had broken off and eventually dissolved, contending that not even a pope had the power to dissolve vows or contradict the words of Jesus in Scripture.
However, once the papacy moved to Avignon in 1309, the royal luxurious standard of the French papal court became a general matter of concern, and the Franciscan identity as poor men and beggars was renewed and intensified throughout the order. The friars in general contended that poverty must be real, not symbolic or spiritual, and their austere lifestyle and preaching were seen as a rebuke to the excesses of Avignon popes. Ockham and his superior Michael of Cesena found it necessary to flee to Bavaria and the protection of the Holy Roman Emperor. Ockham recommended that the emperor have supreme control over church and state; he was excommunicated for his trouble but was never in significant danger. He died, ironically, just before the arrival of the Black Plague in 1347.
Ockham viewed the world through different glasses than Thomas Aquinas, no doubt impacted by events swirling around him, and his philosophy and world view are considerably different. In the first instance, he believed that scholasticism was too ambitious in its claims and provided the Church with an unhealthy sense of never needing reform. But he went further and questioned the very idea of “universals.” Ockham stated that the only truth one could know about a thing was its name, hence his philosophy is known as nominalism (from the Latin, nomen, “name.”) He denied the ability to take observations to a higher plane, e.g., the establishment of universals and laws. Ockham did not deny God or religious observance, but he held that reasoned propositions like those used by St. Thomas could not speak with certainty about God.
Ockham was influential in his day, but more so after his death. He made a distinction in the ways we can know God. Aquinas had maintained that reason [the mind], properly informed and disciplined, could come to a knowledge of God. Ockham, on the other hand, held that free will brought access to God. For Ockham, experience of God was wedded to the subjective human situation of obedience to God’s law made known in Revelation. A baptized person could choose to obey or not to obey the revealed mind of God in the Scripture. The Spiritual Franciscans held similar views, arguing that the words of Jesus [“sell everything you have, and come follow me…”] trumped the exhaustive body of principles and laws formed by the Church over the centuries.
Ockham opened the door to a freedom of conscience and thought that would be branded as problematic by the Church [though, interestingly, never outright heretical.] He influenced a shift toward the supremacy of human conscience that Luther, well versed in philosophy, would utilize in his teaching on the priority of Scripture in the working of the human conscience. Luther believed that scholasticism was a negative force on the Church, an unjustified and unbiblical intrusion in much the same way as the Spiritual Franciscans had two centuries before.
Ockham has left one more impact upon us today: the separation of religious experience from science and the secular arts. Philosophers from the Renaissance till the present time have labored to find a system of thought that includes some way to integrate a divine being. In American culture, we seem to bracket religious data and experience as unrelated to secular life. The challenge of evangelization, it seems, must begin with some agreement on the nature of reality. We still need our interpreters to square circle.
During the 1300’s as the Avignon Papacy and the Great Schism were playing out on the continent, another crisis was brewing in England that directly prefigured the Reformation. Kevin Madigan called his treatment of this matter “’Morning Stars’ or Heretics?” in reference to an upheaval of thought centered around an English theologian, John Wyclif (1330-1384), and those who championed his cause, the “Lollards.” Looking back on thinkers such as Wycliffe from this age, it is critical to reflect upon the nature of heresy and reform, specifically the perennial problems of conveying eternal mystery within the limitations of language and human thought processes and bringing accountability to those entrusted with teaching faith and morals in the name of God.
The relationship of England and Rome is a peculiar historical study, and not simply in matters of religion. Before the birth of Christ, Julius Caesar became the first Roman general to cross the English Channel (60 B.C.), beginning an arduous and lengthy effort to subdue the outpost island, and Constantine was acclaimed emperor by his troops (306 A.D.) in York, of all places. Given the great military difficulties encountered by the Romans, it is not surprising that later the English would present governing difficulties for a Christian Church centered in Rome.
Christian missionaries were sent in concentrated numbers by Pope Gregory I (or St. Gregory the Great, r. 590-604 A.D.) and the history of the growth of Christianity in England is remarkable in many respects, including the emergence of scholars such as Bede the Venerable and Alcuin, the development of universities, most notably Oxford, and an energetic concept of the episcopacy. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, was the driving force in the composition and passage of the Magna Carta (1215 A.D.), today the icon of representative democratic government. A medieval history professor at Catholic University—specifically, the one who tossed me out of that discipline in college, no hard feelings—told me of how he earned his doctorate. He went to England, bought a bike, and spent a year or two visiting surviving medieval parishes, where he found in the records that a surprisingly large number of pastors had university degrees from Oxford and other notable schools, suggesting that Catholic laity were unusually well educated and informed in their local settings under the tutelage of their clergy.
It is into this setting that John Wyclif became a noted professor at Oxford, with ambitions to write a Summa along the lines of St. Thomas Aquinas a century earlier. However, he became involved in politics and attended sessions of parliament, where he witnessed two Dominican scholars debate the question “whether, in times of emergency, the state could legitimately seize the property of the Church.” (Madigan, p. 388) Wyclif sided hypothetically with the right of the king, explaining that only God “owns” property, and only righteous men have claim to rent it, so to speak.
Wyclif was headed down the same ideological road as the Spiritual Franciscans, still a force in his lifetime, who believed that absolute poverty was the mother all virtues. Wyclif viewed the Church as severely tainted by its significant holdings, but his words in parliament were also a commentary on Church “owners,” i.e., the clergy, as unworthy of serving as God’s landlords. “Any cleric living in a state of mortal sin would inescapably have forfeited his claims to ecclesiastical dominions or lands.” Wyclif wrote that a civil ruler would be within his rights to seize the holdings in question.
Taking Wyclif’s contentions to their logical conclusion, a sinful cleric cannot exercise his ministry, including administering the sacraments. This is a heretical contention from the fourth and fifth centuries, a movement called Donatism, which holds that the validity of sacraments depends upon the worthiness of the priest presiding over the rite. Catholic teaching to this day holds that sacraments are valid exclusive of the defects of the cleric. Wyclif had revived the Donatist sentiment in his disputations and writing, no small thing for a published Oxford professor.
Wyclif’s teachings put him at odds with Church authorities, and Pope Gregory XI issued a condemnation of eighteen errors in his teaching. Not surprisingly, the professor was ably protected by—naturally—civil rulers and princes, such that Wyclif never appeared before a tribunal or saw the inside of a prison cell. Curiously, his views and writings do not seem to have interfered with his work at Oxford, suggesting that his colleagues tacitly shared his critique of Church mores.
Wyclif, unfortunately, would take a valid concern for reform and holiness and run riot with an apocalyptic vision of his age as “the worst of times” compared to his imaginary concept of the purity of the early Church that he drew from the Bible. No historian questions his sincerity, but nearly all agree that he was a poor historian and quite naïve in his thinking and in appreciating the full dimensions of his work upon his contemporaries. In his quest for the “pure age” he began to adopt the concept of sola scriptura, “Scripture alone.” To purify the Church, he argued, all its non-biblical elements must be purged. He worked backward, starting with the institution of the papacy; if a pope was corrupt, believers are not bound to obey him. Monasticism would be castigated for its drift from the ancient discipline of hermitage in the desert. Religious orders, including the Franciscans, were “private religions.” Later he would deny the ranks of Holy Orders themselves as unbiblical.
His greatest mistake was his denial of Transubstantiation, the change of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. Wyclif maintained that this article of faith was non-Biblical. He might be forgiven many things by his Oxford friends and students, but devotion to the Mass and Real Presence was the third rail of personal and communal belief throughout Medieval Europe. Having alienated much of his following, his works fell under closer scrutiny by local bishops without civil intervention, though Wyclif himself continued his studies and writings until his death in 1384. He was the inspiration for the Wyclif Bible, the first translation of the sacred text into English.
In 1428 the bishop of Lincoln exhumed his body and had it burned publicly, an odd gesture of ecclesiastical censure for a man forty years in the grave. What this suggests is that Wyclif’s writings and teachings had an energetic life after his death. His followers came to be known as “Lollards” or “mumblers” (a slang term for heretical mystics). The Lollards continue to intrigue historians, and Madigan comments on the twentieth century debate about the composition and beliefs of the group.
In the 1960’s the Lollards were viewed as something of a social phenomenon, a collection of the disenfranchised poor who saw in Wyclif an agent of social reform. Madigan, writing from a contemporary perspective, states that “contrary to scholarly views expressed in the 1950’s and 1960’s, Wyclif’s followers were organized, powerful, learned, and linked by common appreciation of Wycliffite theological views and not, as had been argued, by economic or social factors.” (p. 393) Madigan’s description resonates with my Catholic University professor, Dr. Lytle, in his findings during doctoral research, that a strong educated laity was in place to discuss and promulgate theological issues. Although later persecuted, the Lollard movement survived until the Reformation where it morphed into the several reformed churches then developing under Henry VIII.
Wyclif’s England gives us an indication that the Protestant Reformation did not emerge ex nihilo (out of nothing). The span of his lifetime gives evidence to considerable sympathy for Church reform; enthusiasm for a return to the sources of the Church, notably the Bible; civil rulers who resisted various Vatican disciplinary interventions; and a well-versed laity who did not interpret reform as dissent or heresy. Moreover, the interest generated in the Wyclif affair was transported across the Channel and received in parts of the Continent. Around 1400 a Czechoslovakian reformer, Jan Hus, would appear in Eastern Europe, inspired in part by Wyclif’s theology. Hus was burned at the Council of Constance, giving the reform movement the inspiration of a martyr.