We often think of the Reformation as a purely religious/doctrinal event, or that the event is the sole invention or inspiration of one disgruntled monk, Martin Luther. Luther was the historical spark, to be sure, but it is better to look at the Reformation as a tectonic shift in Western European civilization which impacted every aspect of life, not simply “church matters.” Some aspects of the Reformation were dreadful, such as the 50,000,000 (est.) death toll of the “Religious Wars” which did not end until 1648. Continuing to our own time is the division of the Body of Christ, a scandal when one considers Jesus’ prayer that all may be one.
That said, the study of the Reformation provides us with an intimate immersion into the thoughts, spirituality, and ways of life of our forefathers. The Europe of 1517 was beholden to both the Medieval Age and the Renaissance Era, or as some might say, “the medieval and the modern.” This is why the events of the sixteenth century were so brutal in every sense of the word. As we will see later, Luther was deeply immersed in traditional Church wisdom as a Scripture scholar and teacher. Ironically it was his devotion to the Church’s past that led him to such radical proposals for its future; for example, his affinity for St. Paul and St. Augustine. He believed that the “innovative” medieval philosophy [scholasticism] introduced by St. Thomas Aquinas’ reading of the pagan Aristotle (which Thomas received from Moslems, no less!) was an exercise in sterile logic that distracted from the more venerable teachings of Paul and Augustine, who spoke to the essentials of salvation.
We tend to think of reform as “forward looking,” but if I read Church history correctly, much of what is called reform is undertaken under the theological term Ressourcement, a return to the original writings and teachings of ancient days. The idea here is that the past is key to the future. If there was malaise in the Church in 1517, or in 1962 for that matter, Church scholarship would ideally go back to historical roots for keys to solving present-day ills. Ressourcement was a common method employed by the theologians and bishops of Vatican II, sometimes under the name “new theology.” A portion of today’s post is devoted to an early Ressourcement gone awry.
The idea of returning to the sources as a method of renewing the Church dates to the first true self-conscious efforts of the Church to reform, specifically the eleventh century, famous for the Gregorian reform (of Pope Gregory VII). The eleventh century is probably the first time the Western European Church resembled something you or I would recognize today. The early pillars of the medieval era were visible—the growth of cities, universities, dioceses, systematic thought, philosophical/theological writings, a well-founded attempt at maintaining law and order in the secular and clerical order. The papacy had not reached the zenith of its power, but individual popes were stronger than in the ninth century, when the popes depended heavily upon Charlemagne and his kingdom for protection. Eleventh-century Europe was still plagued by Viking attacks, though another feature of the time was the development of sizeable kingdoms and states that we would later recognize as France, England, Spain, Germany, etc.
The moral condition of the Church became a matter of concern for thoughtful leaders in the second half of the eleventh century. Popes and other churchmen may have needed the help of kings a few centuries earlier simply to remain in office, but after 1000 A.D. the German royalty was virtually controlling papal elections and appointing bishops. In truth, many Catholics perceived King Henry III, for example, as an agent of reform. Despite the intrusion of a secular ruler into the business of the Church, there is considerable evidence today that Henry III was motivated in part by honest reforming instincts; he was hailed for his attempts to stamp out simony, the sale of church offices, particularly the office of bishop.
The first pope in Henry III’s time whose election was regarded as “untainted” was Leo IX (r. 1048-1054). Leo’s reputation was that of a reformer, and he was known for his strong opposition to simony and clerical marriage. He and his assistant, Cardinal Humbert, believed that a reformed papacy would take the lead in reforming the entire Church. Leo defined the papacy as “the earthly and kingly empire of the royal priesthood of the holy Roman see.” In 1054 Humbert journeyed to Constantinople and demanded that the Eastern Patriarch, Michael Cerularius, accept this universal reign of the Roman pope. Michael refused, and Humbert excommunicated him, a rather dramatic act given that Humbert was armed with nothing but his papers in hostile territory.
Leo could make majestic papal claims in part because he believed he had both the legal and spiritual right to do so. Reform popes from Leo IX forward depended heavily upon a written privilege known as the Donation of Constantine, one of history’s most famous forgeries. The Donation was written in the fifth century A.D., but only gained circulation in the eighth, and significant impact in the eleventh. It purported to be an award by the Emperor Constantine of power and land (much of Western Europe, in fact) to the See of Rome and its bishop. Constantine, you may remember, moved the capital of the Roman Empire east to Byzantium and renamed it after himself (modern Istanbul) in the fourth century. By 1400 the document was proven to be a forgery, but admittedly its earlier bestowal of power upon the papacy proved to be very helpful to Leo IX and his successors. Leo and the popes that followed him believed the Donation to be legitimate, as did Dante in the early fourteenth century, who wrote: "Ah, Constantine, how much evil was born, / not from your conversion, but from that donation / that the first wealthy Pope received from you!"
Dante, a late medievalist looking back, gives us his thumbnail critique of the relationship between the secular and the spiritual thrones that became cemented in the eleventh century. In the case of Henry III and Pope Leo IX, the relationship served both parties well, as king and pope shared reformist agendas. But what would happen if enmity broke out between the two? Leo’s successors would need the full provisions of the Donation to exercise authority. Such a circumstance occurred almost immediately after the passing of Leo and Henry, under the pope who gives the name to the Gregorian Era. Templates of reform and papal authority would become well entrenched in the eleventh century and would play significant roles in Luther’s thinking and the Catholic response.
For those going further into the library: I am indebted overall to Steven Ozment’s The Age of Reform, 1250-1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe (1981) and today in particular to the introduction by I.S. Robinson to The Papal Reform of the Eleventh Century: Lives of Pope Leo IX and Pope Gregory VII (2004).