I had laid out the format for two remaining posts prior to addressing Luther and the Protestant Reformation directly. Next week will look at the last Councils of the Church prior to 1517 and how they failed to produce the reforms necessary to keep the Western Church together. Today’s post is one last look at the religious orders of Catholicism prior to the emergence of Luther.
In looking at my own growth curve regarding the Reformation, I was brought up in my Buffalo Catholic enclave to believe that Luther was an assault on the sinless Catholic Church. In my neighborhood no one was ever baptized with the names Luther or Calvin, and people named Cal were suspect. [Thankfully, Cal Ripken, Jr. came along much later in my life.] My youthful sense of history embraced a terrible upheaval with Luther, and the Church fought back, and was continuing to fight back even as I was growing up. Then I went to college and graduate school and discovered that some of the “Protestant ideas” weren’t so crazy after all, and the Church had not done such a good job in policing its excesses. I learned that I had been correct about the “fighting back” part and came to understand that I had been raised in the post-Tridentine era [i.e., after the Catholic reform Council of Trent, 1545-1563].
Today I am more attuned to the common problems of all the Christian Churches, including mine: the abandonment of all Churches which incorporate faith, tradition, and teaching authority. This trend away from “organized religion” is not new, though when the heat of the Reformation died down, there was greater freedom of expression for intellectuals to write and voice doubts about the churches. [I have not included Evangelicals in this post because I sense that at the present time Evangelicals in the U.S. are deeply divided among themselves as to whether they are a religious entity or a social/political one.]
At this juncture of our Reformation posts, I hope that we all have a better sense of the complexity of the Church in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance Era. The Church stood in grave need of reform in 1500, but the need was one of leadership. Last week we visited the many varied forms of grass-roots piety that demonstrate how the Church never lost its mission of holiness. Today I am looking back at a remarkable burst of Catholic energy before the Reformation which spilled into the Catholic Counter-Reformation after Trent, the religious orders. Beginning around 1450 the existing orders began wholesale renew of spirituality and apostolic energy. What is more surprising is the number of new religious communities which sprung forth during the Renaissance, nearly all of them created to serve in the marketplace of human service and education. Their appearance around the time of the Reformation upheaval put them at the vanguard of Church reform, eager to carry forth the renewal spirit of the Council of Trent.
Robert Bireley’s The Refashioning of Catholicism, 1450-1700: A Reassessment of the Counter Reformation  explores how the renewal and establishment of religious life developed before the Reformation and became a vital force in the centuries immediately following the rupture, putting forward the model of the Catholic Church as a servant Church in contrast to the monarchical papacies of the 1500’s. Bireley’s work was very helpful to me, and 15 years ago I wrote a review which sums up the life of the Renaissance Church as well as anything I can add today.
[The Refashioning of Catholicism] is an interesting introduction to an era that traditionally bears the name “Counter Reformation.” Bireley, a Jesuit Professor of History at Loyola University of Chicago, argues persuasively in his opening remarks that the term “Counter Reformation” has outlived its usefulness in the study of Catholic history. In fact, he observes, nearly all of what we would call today post-Tridentine reform not only has roots in the fifteenth century but in many cases was in full bloom and inspired the Council of Trent to do what it did. Trent, in his view of things, was the institutional crest of a wave that had been building for a century. Moreover, Bireley’s global view—geographic, political, scientific, theological—invites the reader to view the Church against the backdrop of forces it could not control and critique the many accommodations made by the Church to the world of the seventeenth century.
Why 1450? One reason was geographic exploration. The exploits of DeGama and Columbus reflected a growing sense of the cosmos, later amplified by Galileo and others; a new economic world order, so to speak; and the increasing sense of nationalism and centralization of governments, later abetted by formalized “confessions” of religious doctrine and worship after Luther. Another reason for this new delineation of Catholic epochs was the Renaissance and the humanistic philosophy it nurtured, which the author maintains had significant impact upon many major Catholic leaders of the time, including Ignatius Loyola and Francis de Sales. At the other end of the chronological spectrum, Bireley designates 1700 as a marker because of the impact of Cartesian rationalism upon official Catholic thought in the bigger context of the Enlightenment itself
Without ignoring the contemporary problems of the “Catholic confession”—papal excesses, poor training of priests, etc.—Bireley is remarkably upbeat about the condition of the Catholic Church at the time of the Reformation and the Council of Trent in the sense that the need for reform was widely recognized and in many places being addressed already. Popular piety throughout Europe was strong in pockets, and the printing press, so often termed a tool of Protestant reformers, was cranking out thousands of copies of “The Imitation of Christ.” The author notes that in the late fifteenth century the existing religious orders, or at least many of them, were distinguishing themselves by excellent preaching, pastoral practice, and adaptation.
After 1500, however, the combined challenges of Protestant confessions, humanist demands of higher education, and missionary work, not to mention ecclesiastical reform itself, led to a veritable explosion of new religious orders. Not surprisingly, the Jesuit phenomenon is extensively chronicled. But to his credit, Bireley gives significant attention to Francis de Sales and the Salesian efforts to address the spiritual needs of the new humanized Catholic. Joined with the efforts of the new Capuchins, Ursulines, Oratorians, Hospitalers, Theatines, Oratorians, Visitandines, Piarists, Barnabites, Sulpicians, and the Christian Brothers, to cite several, these movements addressed the above cited needs in ways that have sculpted the Catholic experience to the present day.
It is probably obvious that none of the above-named orders is, strictly speaking, contemplative. Bireley contends that the paradigmatic shift in Catholic thinking in this era was toward the world, not away from it. Educators, confessors, and spiritual directors and writers consciously or subconsciously picked up the gauntlet set down by Machiavelli, whose thesis broadly read argues that the marketplace is the arena of practicality, not faith. It is no accident that the curriculum of Catholic schools at every level broadened to include the best of classical thought, that Aquinas and the idea of synthesis came back into style, and the Jesuits added drama and the fine arts to their standard cursus studiorum. Theologically speaking, it was an age of “doing.” Loyola himself did not impose choir upon his men to free them for mission. The case study or manualist method of moral theology was born.
Certainly, no collective group was doing more than the missionaries. The work of the Church in the new worlds is complex and not without controversy on many levels. Bireley is somewhat limited by this complexity in his attempt to give an overview of the missionary situation, but in general no one can deny that it was not large scale and heroic. The argument is often made that Catholic missionary efforts were part of a larger colonization effort. Bireley implies in his overview that this accusation is probably more appropriate to those missionaries whose monarchs exercised state control of the Church in their kingdoms, such as Spain and Portugal. By contrast, missionaries working more directly with the papacy and the newly formed Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, such as the Jesuits in the East, worked with remarkably less baggage, the Malabar Rites Controversy notwithstanding.
Although only two hundred pages, this is a thought provoking work that overall depicts a Roman Catholicism of considerably more vigor and spirituality than is generally attributed to the Reformation era. The author’s thoughts on the importance of the new religious orders, humanism, and ecclesiastical globalization call for further reading and reflection. Curiously, this work, published by The Catholic University of America, was printed in China. One way or another, Francis Xavier was going to get there. It was only a matter of time.
One of the major focuses of modern day medieval Church history is the mystical life of its members. There have been countless histories of the “institutional” Church, e.g., studies of popes, administrative machinery, interactions with secular kings and prices, and the like. There are numerous works in academia translating and exploring the writings from medieval Church scholars and universities of that time, what history would call the pillars of scholasticism and foundational theology. Medieval mysticism, on the other hand, until recent times has gotten at best a short shrift and at worst wholesale condemnation. Today I checked my review of Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (1970) by the venerable Englishman R.W. Southern, and in a concluding remark I said that
Southern's penultimate chapters are devoted to what he called the fringe orders; today we would think of these in part as the Beguines and the multitude of spontaneous mystical and devotional movements associated with the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. His final chapter, "A Confusion of Tongues," continues his account of spiritual diversification leading to early Protestant thought and practice.
I happen to be an admirer of Dr. Southern, who was knighted by the Queen in 1975, but were he alive today he would have access to better documentation and translations, not to mention the greater appreciation among scholars for the vitality and influence of grassroots movements of spirituality. In speaking of mysticism, we are addressing the intense internal experiences of individuals and their communications to a following of people disposed to embrace an accompanying lifestyle. The first question, naturally, is whether the religious experience of a mystic is real or “valid.” Here, the traditional criterion for credibility is Biblical, “by their fruits ye shall know them.” Even today the Church is very slow to offer a pastoral opinion on the origins of devotional religious movements or reported visions, unless its proponents stray from Church Tradition and practice.
The “fruits” would be identified as maintaining an organic connection to the teaching Church and a holy way of life. Mystics. Francis of Assisi at his heart was a conservative and loyal son of the Church who sought the permission of a sitting pope (Innocent III) for his little band, its mission of preaching penance, and the austerity of his primitive rule. On the other hand, in the fourteenth century the Spiritual Franciscans—an extreme branch of the entire Order—were condemned as heretical for maintaining that no pope could change the Order’s rule as written by Francis, who had died a century earlier. The Spirituals, with their austerity, devotion, and unbreakable respect of Bible and founder, served as catalysts and spiritual directors or chaplains for many like-minded Catholics of the age in many parts of Europe.
Another question is the relationship of mystics and spiritual movements to religious founders and established religious orders. Here the answer is more complex. Not every religious order was founded by a mystic, but the template of the order’s lifestyle became an inspiration and eventually a way of life for laity who witnessed the communities in their midst. It is little surprise that monasteries were magnets for laity seeking a closer relationship with God with an intense experience of prayer. There is frequent reference in medieval paperwork regarding lay persons building huts and residences next to monasteries, and the same Innocent III who blessed Francis of Assisi issued a prohibition against lay women entering the Premonstratensian Order of monks itself!
Mysticism and mystical communities took shape throughout Western Europe, and in some places with notable intensity. Moreover, the focus of local spirituality and the type of religious intensity varied from place to place. Medieval Irish mysticism included intensely penitential focus, austerity, and missionary fervor, certainly colored in part by Celtic culture, landscape, the weather, and the rough seas. (One of our faithful readers told me once that there would be no Irish folk music had Prozac been developed centuries ago.) It is no accident that individual repeatable confession originated in Ireland in the later part of the first millennium. One of the lesser-known qualities of the Franciscan movement was advocacy of pacifism, which disturbed civil authorities to no end when they attempted to raise forces for the many medieval clashes.
On the other end of the spectrum from the friars were the controversial Knights Templar. I have not yet read Dan Jones’ The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God's Holy Warriors (2017, New York Times best seller), but this controversial movement of warrior spirituality developed as a response to the atrocities of the First Crusade (1095-1099) and the spiritual encouragement of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, whose own biography is a study in medieval spiritual identity. The Knights, “fighting monks,” began as a religiously structured military protection force for pilgrims in the Holy Land, developed into a fighting elite or flagship army in successive Crusades in union with King Richard the Lion Hearted, and later into something of a medieval House of Rothschild financial empire, until the Church—for complicated reasons—signed off on their execution, disbanding, and confiscation of goods in the early 1300’s.
The overarching piety of motivated lay Catholics in much of continental Europe was a movement called Devotio Moderna, which overlapped and integrated many local spiritual movements. DM was a move toward simpler and uncomplicated religious life, with emphasis upon the interior life over external manifestations. It originated in the Low Countries and much of its best literature comes to us in Dutch. Devotio impacted religious orders as well as lay clusters, and its roots seem to have sprung from disenchantment with institutional Church life and the conduct of the clergy, though sources differ on the point. It is safe to say that religious enthusiasm probably did not find many parochial channels in the routine of life in the centuries leading up to the Reformation.
The spirituality of Devotio Moderna had the advantage of outstanding authors—whose translation into English continues to this day—and the newly expanded printing and binding industry. One product of this spirituality may be the most published devotional of all time, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis. I am posting a link here to the Mercer University edition, which provides a scholarly description of the work and a good sampling of the text itself. [When I attended a high school boarding seminary in the 1960’s, The Imitation of Christ was the one work that helped me get through some hard times.] Translator William Creasy explains the attraction of this work, and by extension the Devotio movement itself: that everyone has the choice to capitulate to the fear and chaos of his time or seek security within the depths of his soul of eternal truths.
By 1500 the Catholic Church was experiencing massive internal difficulties in reforming diocesan and parochial life to the point where its most venerable rites and leaders were able to feed the longings of its baptized members for that safe harbor in the turbulence of what we now call the beginnings of the modern age.The outcroppings of spiritual movements and devotions to fill this void had met this need for many and probably postponed a Reformation-scale rupture for a time. The last hope for the spirit of medieval spiritual reform to save the unity of the Church was the Council Lateran V (1512-1517). Summoned by a Borgia pope and badly attended by bishops, it dissipated early in the same year that Luther posted his 95 Theses.
The preparation for our next post is going slowly, but I hope to have the next installment up by April 19.
In looking over our Reformation stream I note that, chronologically speaking, I left us burying the dead in the Great Plague (1347-1353) with the aftermath of a more affective, apocalyptic, and fear-driven popular spirituality. I commented last Thursday that the high middle ages were a time of significant Eucharistic piety, but the late middle ages saw the development of a division in Christian life that Kevin Madigan describes so well in his Medieval Christianity (2015). In my review of this work I concluded with this observation:
Madigan brings his overview of the age to a climax of sorts by highlighting the increasing intensity and volatility of the spirituality of the fifteenth century. In many respects I found this the most impressive sequence of the entire work. Contrary to popular belief, the Church was not moribund on the eve of the Reformation. Religious orders on the whole were energetically revitalizing themselves. If anything, the fifteenth century spiritual life of the Catholic Church might best be described as bipolar. On the one hand were those who worked day and night, to the point of mania, to assure themselves escape from hell fire. It is little surprise that the concept and practice of gaining indulgences would take hold among sellers and buyers alike.
On the other hand were those who regarded the efforts to save one's self by “doing” (what Madigan calls the "Facere" Doctrine) with fatalism, particularly in Germany. Just how many indulgences, rosaries, Masses, confessions and the like were necessary to be saved? In truth, no one could say, and anxious souls like Martin Luther would despair of salvation altogether until a new collective mood of passivity and absolute trust in God, "justification by faith, not works," would effectively end the age of the Medieval Synthesis.
Three years later I stand with that assessment, but the fifteenth century is complex on so many levels that one might do better to call it the age of the Renaissance. Madigan’s history follows the Church closely, and he integrates matters of church and culture fairly well. I spent a good part of yesterday reading the opening of The History of the Renaissance World: From the Rediscovery of Aristotle to the Conquest of Constantinople (2013) by Sara Wise Bauer. Bauer covers a period of roughly 1100-1450 A.D. She does not take the reader all the way to the Declaration of Luther in 1517, but in her analysis of European life it becomes clear that much of what we call the Renaissance (or cultural rebirth) emerged much earlier than the dates we found in our school day history texts and was responsible for the religious upheavals of Luther’s day.
A Renaissance historian is more likely to look at the Reformation as a product of all the factors of the time, not strictly the religious ones. A good example of this is a pair of events in the 1400’s in the arena of secular history that would both impact Catholic life. The first was the work of the famous Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator. His mapmaking and other studies enabled Portuguese sailors to work their way down the west coast of Africa for purposes of trade and exploration. His seminal work led to the discovery of new Western European trade routes in all directions, including eventually the Americas, while bypassing the Moslem military strength of the Middle East. [The proliferation of the Portuguese African slave trade by 1500 created a moral dilemma for the Church.]
Sea-faring oceanic trade exploration—coupled with the invention of printing around 1455—led to a change in the daily life of Europeans that equals the twentieth century’s atomic and computer-driven technological breakthroughs. Consider the impact of the printing press on the Church alone. Volumes of the Bible were now attainable for regular reading of the laity, who prior to Gutenberg’s invention had limited exposure to Biblical content aside from sermons, morality plays, and observances of feasts. Even with the Inquisition investigating the writings of late medieval mystics, their written proliferated, along with reform-minded followers of men like Jan Hus and John Wycliffe. What resulted was a “democratization” of religious practice and thought that the Church was finding harder to police.
A second major marker of the fifteenth century was the conquest of Constantinople by the Moslem Turks of the Ottoman Empire in 1453. [Sir Steven Runciman’s work on the catastrophe remains a classic.] It is my understanding that news of the fall took two weeks to reach Rome, and the impact of the great city now in the hands of infidels is hard to describe today. For one thing, people of the time—certainly in Rome--still thought of Constantinople as the enduring legacy of the original Roman Empire. Constantine had moved the headquarters of the empire in the fourth century to Byzantium and renamed it after himself. [Today it is Istanbul, Turkey.]
In 1493 Constantinople was a shadow of its earlier glory, but Western Christendom throughout the middle ages had seen Constantinople as a bulwark against invaders of the East, even though Rome had excommunicated Constantinople and vice-versa in the 1000’s. The defeat in 1453 insured that Eastern Europe and Western Asia would become permanent members of the Ottoman Empire until World War I (1914-1918). Western Christians viewed this event apocalyptically, as the end of the world then perceived.
Indeed, one world was ending, but another was beginning, for the great minds of Eastern Christendom had been immigrating west for many years before the final fall of Constantinople. They brought with them texts that the West was barely aware of, in all disciplines, and they found employment and eager audiences in the approximately 200 universities across Western Europe. It is no accident that the Renaissance is remembered today for its renewed interests in the ancient writings of Greece and Rome.
These two events--the development of Portuguese navigation/trade and the fall of Constantinople--were not directly related to matters religious. But their impacts would profoundly change the pre-Luther landscape of religious ideas and thoughts. With the discovery of the Americas and the first contacts with the Asian East, the Church would need to revisit a definition of its essential worship rites, particularly in India and in China. And with centuries of Roman and Greek writers and themes now available, late medieval and Renaissance Christians were now able to push the envelope of thought further than the prescribed certainties of Aquinas and the high medieval scholasticism.
Obviously, there is much more to say about the last years before the Reformation, but I am winding down to just four more pre-Luther posts: the European mystics, the Council of Constance (1414-1417), Conciliarism [i.e., the collective power of bishops], and the state of religious orders when Luther entered the monastery.