Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Dialectic of Reformation

Since the 1300s, a conversation had been ensuing in the Roman Catholic Church concerning the need for change, for a reformation of the institutional Church and a purgation of the worldliness that had become the hallmark of the Church during the Renaissance.1 Long before Luther left his calling card on the door of a church in Wittenberg, pious men and women such as St. Catherine of Sienna and Girolama Savonarola2 had earnestly sought spiritual and moral renewal. However, with economic situations creating additional stressors and with simony still running rampant at all levels of the Church hierarchy, a crisis was fasting approaching. When Luther finally struck flint in the dry brush of Renaissance Europe, religious dissent and dissatisfaction provided the fuel Luther's spark needed to become a conflagration.


Fr. Marvin O'Connell notes that the sixteenth century brought a religious revival to all of Europe.3 However, the character of reform differed considerably depending on the locale, the individuals or groups behind the movement, and the interplay of personal or political interest with religious motive. Whereas Protestant reform tended toward individual interpretation, a consolidation of religious authority in the state or regional government, and a purging of ritual and practice deemed "popery," Catholic reform relied on historical consistency, continuity, and preservation of magisterial authority. Jaroslav Pelikan, in Reformation of Church and Dogma, volume 4 of The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, points out this tendency on the part of many Protestant reformers to dispense with the very substance of Christian doctrine rather than the distorted teachings that led to abuse:
By "boldly passing judgment" on such abuses, the Reformation had performed a useful service, but its demand for "pure doctrine and uncorrupted morals" was no justification for "overthrowing all the authority of all the ages of history." The removal of an abuse must not involve removal of "the substance of the matter" that had been subject to abuse.4
In both the German and English reformations, the notion of reform inclded both a rejection of so-called bad doctrine and a rejection of centralized authority. In the Catholic reformation, the notion of reform included a refinement of doctrine and a reassertion of authority with an attempt to purge the worldly influences that had encouraged and supported abuse. As Pelikan states, Protestant scholars eschewed Sacred Tradition and magisterial authority and rather "reversed the long established order and interpreted the creeds and confessions of the Reformation in the light of the teaching of the Reformers, instead of adapting the dynamic faith of the Reformation to the doctrines of the creeds."5

While Lutherans and Anglicans ended up with very similar outcomes, the reform movements in each country originated from different perspectives. In Germany, a rejection of Catholic doctrine eventually led to a denial in the authority of the Papacy. As Pelikan notes, Luther initially seemed to be riding the waves of reform from within:
It had not been his "will or intention" to elevate his own private theological concerns to the status of doctrinal issues affecting the entire church, and he had long professed the conviction that what he had "discovered" was something that the best theologians of the church must have known all along.6

The original subject of his dispute centered not upon what would become a pillar of Protestantism, justification by faith alone, but on the sacrament of confession and the abuse of indulgences. However, within the next year, Luther's attacks on doctrine clearly set his opinions outside of orthodox teaching. The false assumption that led to this attack on doctrine was, according to Marvin O'Connell, the idea that abuses were due to bad doctrine rather than simple human sinfulness, or as Pelikan phrased, "`wrong teaching' in the church, from which the `wrong conduct' proceeded."7

Luther redefined commonly used theological terms to suit his evolving ideology. As O'Connell notes, "He did reform, he did reshape, he redefined words like justification, predestination, sacrament, church, all of those things were reshaped as following from the insight that he thought he had to the process of justification."8 Other reformers on the continent may have disputed many of Luther's claims, but on the matter of justification by faith alone, all agreed. As Pelikan notes concerning the seventeenth-century followers of Calvin, "[A]ll of them agreed on this doctrine as the foundation of the entire Reformation, in fact, the chief doctrine of Christianity and the chief point of difference separating Protestantism from Roman Catholicism."9 From this shift in meaning of the term justification came a denial of the value of auricular confession, free will, priestly ordination, and eventually, for many Protestants, the Real Presence in the Eucharist. The bulk of Catholic sacramental doctrine was cast off based on the acceptance of this change in meaning.

Although Protestant reformers frequently invoked the name and the words of St. Augustine in their cause, defenders of the faith pointed out that both Cyprian10 and Augustine11 condemned the narrow Protestant position (albeit centuries beforehand). While Luther claimed to represent the Pauline line on the doctrine of justification, Catholic defenders used Paul's words to refute him, as Pelikan notes:
Love "does not permit anything to be preferred to it," not even faith. It was a mark of these "newfangled Christians" to speak of "faith alone," and in so doing to ignore the variety of meanings the word "faith" had in Scripture, where it did not refer only to "trust."12

None other than the pre-schismatic King Henry VIII referred to Luther's use of the great doctor's ideas as "lacerating the words of Augustine."13 Luther's understanding of Augustine put him at odds with the greater body of the doctor's work, particularly where Luther denied free will.

The doctrine of justification by faith alone was only part of the problem. As Pelikan notes, implicit in the affirmation of doctrines outside of Catholic orthodoxy was a denial of the doctrine of authority.14 If the Protestant reformers felt free to dispute the teachings, they clearly had no use for the teacher. By claiming scripture to be the sole basis for doctrinal truth, reformers did away with two more pillars of Catholic doctrine, leaving the basis for Protestant faith teetering on two untried legs: sola fide and sola scriptura.15 With no Sacred Tradition and no magesterium on which to rely, there was no need for a central authority on matters of faith and doctrine. The Lutheran reform, then, redefined what it kept and cut away all that it could not justify by its own chosen means. In Germany, the denial of what was taught led to the denial of the teacher. In England, the opposite would take place.

In the early sixteenth century, England seemed to be the most unlikely place for the Reformation to take hold. In 1521, Pope Leo X had endowed King Henry VIII with the title Fidei Defensor for his defense of the sacraments against Luther's attack.16 The period just prior to the break with Rome saw extensive combat against heresies, both Lutheran and Lollard:
Specifically, the heretics of the late 1520s were pursued for their attacks on the traditional cultus - the observation of fasts and holidays, the invocation of saints, the veneration of images and relics, pilgrimages, and the cult of intercession on behalf of the dead in Purgatory.17

Even as the king initiated his attempt to gain an annulment in 1526, he still considered himself a faithful Catholic.18 Not until the Holy See denied his request for an annulment did the king begin down the road to schism. In 1534, Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy, which officially transferred all control over ecclesial matters to the king as Supreme Head of the Church in England.19 At this point, Henry VIII made no attempt to change the basic doctrines of the faith. The only other significant change that took place during Henry's time was the suppression of religious orders, and this due more to the desire for the property owned by the various orders rather than any doctrinal disagreement with their existence.

The Act of Six Articles stemmed, for a time, the Lutheran and Calvinist influences on the English church under Henry Tudor. This period is marked by conflict between the desire of the king to maintain doctrine and tradition and the reforming tendencies of the Regency Council.20 However, when the king died and left the young, sickly Edward as his heir, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, and the other Protestant sympathizers on the Regency Council asserted their influence on the developing schismatic church.21 After a brief respite during the reign of Mary, the onslaught continued with a new Act of Supremacy (which designated the monarch as the governor rather than the head of the church), the Act of Uniformity (which established a consistent liturgical form for the Church of England), and the Thirty-Nine Articles (which set down, albeit ambiguously, the doctrine of the church).22 The Virgin Queen demonstrated her perspicacity in these enactments. Eschewing the iconoclastic extremes of the Puritans, she retained those external elements of ritual, those "`dregs of popery'"23 that bound the English people in a common worship experience. However, Elizabeth knew she could make no concessions to the Catholic Church. To do so would undermine the "legitimacy" of her claim to the throne. While the Act of Uniformity offended the sensibilities of the hardcore Calvinists, the Act of Supremacy and the Thirty-Nine Articles, heavily influenced by the Augsburg Confession,24 were enough to satisfy all but the more extreme Protestant reformers.

While the term "reform" from the Protestant perspective took on a deconstructive cast, it took on very different tones in the Roman church. The Church owed something to the efforts of the Protestant reformers: despite the appearance that they performed more like battlefield physicians than skilled surgeons (hacking off limbs rather than carefully excising infections), they had charted out a course for reform. As Pelikan writes,
What the Protestant Reformation had done with its doctrine of justification by faith alone, as the debates at the Council of Trent were to make clear, was to bring into the open some of the unresolved questions about justification in late medieval theology.25

Shortly following Luther's posting of the 95 Theses, Pope Leo X had responded by clarifying the doctrine of indulgences in his papal bull of November 9, 1518.26 When Luther refused to submit to the Pope's authority, his teachings were condemned in the June 15, 1520 papal bull, Exsurge Domine. However, to view the Catholic reformation simply as a reaction to Protestant attacks would be a mistake, and the Church undertook the process of reform with earnestness and penitence. Cardinal Reginald Pole struck this penitential tone in his opening address to the Council of Trent. He put the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the shepherds of the Church, the bishops, and he invoked precisely that note of contrition that Luther failed to recognize in Catholic doctrine as a condition for forgiveness: "`[U]nless we place our own sinful responsibility in front of our minds it is useless to call upon the Holy Spirit for help.'"27

While the Protestant reform seemed to take place as a battle of pamphlets and a marketplace exchange of proof texts, the work of the council proceeded in a far different fashion. The council took place in three sessions over a period of eighteen years. The council fathers (that is, all those who had voting rights at the council) took into account current theological opinion, the continuous historical understanding of doctrine from the apostolic era, the writings of the early Church fathers, scripture-in short, all of the resources by which the Church currently defines matters of faith and morals. Unlike the more democratic approach of the Protestant reformers, the council required moral unanimity for all conciliar decrees. As O'Connell explains, "A simple majority could not express the mind of the council, because, as the fathers firmly believed, the Holy Spirit did not manifest his will in that fashion."28 In addition to the work of the council, the Pope also initiated changes within the Roman curia. In 1563, the presiding Papal legate, Cardinal Morone, presented a program of clerical reform that proved acceptable to the Holy See and the secular rulers alike.29

The reforms of the Church were not matters deemed appropriate for the moment or settled upon by a wholesale rejection of things past. O'Connell sums up nicely the distinction between the Protestant reforms and those of the Catholic Church:
The Council of Trent provides a striking example of a valid distinction between the conservative and the reactionary. On both the doctrinal and the practical levels the solutions reached at Trent had their roots deep in the past, and yet took into account the specifically contemporary questions Protestantism had raised.30

While Protestant reforms set the various young factions on paths of ever increasing factionalism that continues to this day, the Roman Catholic Church chose a preservative reform, one that recognized the frailty of human wisdom and strove to maintain the Church's apostolic character. While the Protestant reformers condemned the Church as corrupt beyond redemption and abandoned the barque of St. Peter, the Catholic Church took responsibility for its own failings, repented, and put its trust in God in whom all things are possible.

Works Cited

"Counter Reformation: Origins of the Counter Reformation." The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. © 1994, 2000-2005, on Infoplease. © 2000-2006 Pearson Education, publishing as Infoplease. http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/society/A0857614.html. August 14, 2006.

Duffy, Eamon. Stripping the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580. 2nd ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.

"Girolamo Savonarola." The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. © 1994, 2000-2005, on Infoplease. © 2000-2006 Pearson Education, publishing as Infoplease. http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/people/A0843808.html. August 14, 2006.

Moyes, J. "Anglicanism." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company, 1907. Online Edition. K. Knight, 2006. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01498a.htm. August 18, 2006.

O'Connell, Marvin. The Counter Reformation 1560-1610. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1974.
----. "Lecture 5: Tudor Dynasty and Reformation in England." Two Critical Moments in Catholic History. http://home.comcast.net/~icuweb/c00905.htm. July 17, 2006.

----. "Lecture 6: Counter Reformation-Council of Trent." Two Critical Moments in Catholic History. http://home.comcast.net/~icuweb/c00906.htm. August 14, 2006.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Volume 4: Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300-1700). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Thurston, Herbert. "Henry VIII." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company, 1907. Online Edition. K. Knight, 2006. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07222a.htm. July 18, 2006.

1"Counter Reformation: Origins of the Counter Reformation," The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, © 1994, 2000-2005, on Infoplease, © 2000-2006 Pearson Education, publishing as Infoplease, http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/society/A0857614.html, August 14, 2006.

2"Girolamo Savonarola." The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, © 1994, 2000-2005, on Infoplease, © 2000-2006 Pearson Education, publishing as Infoplease, http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/society/A0857614.html, August 14, 2006.

3Marvin O'Connell, "Lecture 5: Counter Reformation-Council of Trent," Two Critical Moments in Catholic History, http://home.comcast.net/~icuweb/c00906.htm, August 14, 2006.

4Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Volume 4: Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300-1700), (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984) 248.

5Ibid., 127.

6Pelikan, 127.

7Ibid., 247.

8Marvin O'Connell, "Lecture 6: Counter Reformation-Council of Trent," Two Critical Moments in Catholic History, http://home.comcast.net/~icuweb/c00906.htm, August 14, 2006.

9Pelikan, 138-139.

10Ibid., 250.

11Ibid., 252.

12Ibid., 252.

13Ibid., 251.

14Ibid., 262.

15Marvin O'Connell, "Lecture 5: Tudor Dynasty and Reformation in England," Two Critical Moments in Catholic History, http://home.comcast.net/~icuweb/c00905.htm.

16Herbert Thurston, "Henry VIII," The Catholic Encyclopedia, Robert Appleton Company, 1907, Online Edition, K. Knight, 2006, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07222a.htm.

17Eamon Duffy, Stripping the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580, 2nd ed, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005) 379.

18O'Connell, http://home.comcast.net/~icuweb/c00905.htm.

19J. Moyes, "Anglicanism," The Catholic Encyclopedia, Robert Appleton Company, 1907, Online Edition, K. Knight, 2006, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01498a.htm. August 18, 2006.

20Duffy, 424-435.

21O'Connell, http://home.comcast.net/~icuweb/c00905.htm.

22Ibid., http://home.comcast.net/~icuweb/c00905.htm.

23Marvin O'Connell, The Counter Reformation 1560-1610 (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1974) 154.

24J. Moyes, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01498a.htm.

25Pelikan, 253.

26Pelikan, 135-136.

27O'Connell, "Lecture 6: Counter Reformation-Council of Trent," Two Critical Moments in Catholic History, http://home.comcast.net/~icuweb/c00906.htm, August 14, 2006.

28O'Connell, The Counter Reformation 1560-1610 (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1974) 97.

29Ibid., 101.

30O'Connell, 103.

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