“We firmly believe that God is master of the world and of its history. But the ways of His providence are often unknown to us. Only at the end, when our partial knowledge ceases, when we see God ‘face to face’, will we fully know the ways by which – even through the dramas of evil and sin – God has guided His creation to that definitive Sabbath rest for which He created heaven and earth.” (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, #314)
The Protestant Catastrophe – 1517 AD
Early in the thirteenth century, St. Francis of Assisi realized that something was wrong. He observed that “charity has gone cold.” By charity, he meant the love of God.
The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 made it an obligation to receive Holy Communion at least once a year under pain of mortal sin. This was necessitated by the fact that people had become so indifferent that they no longer desired to receive the Holy Eucharist.
By the time of the later Middle Ages, commercialism was prospering. “Merchant and craft guilds operated on Christian principles, providing social services to their members, regulating quality of work, paying just wages, and charging just prices. Gradually, however, business was becoming more complex and businessmen more individualistic; moneymaking began to pre-occupy them far more during the thirteenth century than it had previously.”
The love of money became more prevalent as prosperity grew. “Catholic hearts were increasingly divided between God and the world.” The pursuit of wealth overshadowed religous fervour and the importance of developing one’s spirituality.
At the same time, many intellectuals began following William of Ockham’s philosophy of Nominalism which contributed to the “loss of confidence in reason’s ability to demonstrate the existence of God.” Nominalism was a pessimistic, existentialist school of thought that believed that reason didn’t have the ability to know what is True. It was popular in the Reformation movement. Martin Luther wrote that “reason is the devil’s whore. It must be drowned at baptism.” Nominalism separated the relationship between faith and reason and supported the idea of sola fide, by faith alone are we saved.
In the late fifteenth and sixteenth century, booming commercialism gave rise to individualism which glorified the individual’s pursuit of position and power, however ruthless and immoral. “The end justifies the means,” Machiavelli famously declared. The individual became the hero. This opposed medieval thought “which valued community over individualism, humility over pride, and Catholic morality in every sphere.”
Those elements – individualism, loss of spiritual fervour, various heresies, the separation of faith and reason, pursuit of money – all combined to make the perfect storm that underlined the rise of the Reformation movement.
The popular reason for the emergence of the Reformation is inaccurate. The “myth” is that of an immoral Catholic clergy, a corrupt Church, monasteries that were dens of iniquity, a worldly Church that had lost its simplicity and did not preach the Gospel and the problem of buying and selling indulgences.
However, the truth was that most of the errant clergy had been dealt with before 1500. The Fifth General Council of the Lateran, 1512 – 1517, addressed many needed reforms. And the Reformation didn’t succeed in all of Europe. The movement only thrived in places where dogma was opened up to public debate. “People were asked to choose what they wanted to believe.” Inevitably, religion became mixed with politics and resulted in nationalist churches.
The sale of indulgences is often referred to as one cause of the Reformation. This practice was started by Pope Leo X who wanted to raise money for construction. He joined forces with a German archbishop who wanted to repay gambling debts. It was wrong and many dioceses wouldn’t allow it. Buying an indulgence was a way to appease the guilt of the businessman who was so busy making money that he didn’t take the time and effort to gain indulgences through spiritual and corporal works of mercy. So he bought them.
The main leaders of the Reformation were Martin Luther, John Calvin and Henry VIII. The reasons they succeeded were the same: “diminished in tender devotion to God, our Lady, and the Holy Eucharist, preoccupied with making money, and increasingly individualistic.”
Luther’s Reformist ideas included the thinking that “faith alone” saves. He de-emphasized the need of contemplation and a spiritual life. He believed in sola scriptura – that “Scripture alone was the rule of faith and that every individual could interpret it for himself.” This appealed to the individualistic mindset of the time.
Calvin believed in predestination – that God created us either for heaven or hell and nothing we did could change where our souls would end up. Calvinists relied on a sign to determine where they were going in the afterlife. To the businessman – and the most successful in the business world were often Calvinists – working hard and becoming successful were the signs of heavenly predestination. If you had money, it meant that God favoured you.
Henry VIII wanted a divorce from Catharine of Aragon. The Pope said no. So Henry proclaimed himself the Head of the Church in England. What he started was a schism, not a new religion. Henry still considered himself Catholic. It was his Protestant-minded associates who started introducing changes into Catholic liturgy.
As the Reformation movement marched on, new religions formed that were loyal to the monarchs of the countries where they emerged. They were “hostile to Rome.” Christendom was no longer unified. Large parts of Europe won by the Church during the Dark Ages were lost.
But indeed, all was not lost. The Counter-Reformation Church “led by saintly popes, spearheaded by the Council of Trent and blessed with the aid of numerous saints in all walks of life, would reform abuses and do great things.” In the New World, the Catholic Church converted millions of people.
The Catholic Church continues to be hopeful. The idea of “every man his own pope” which was the thinking of the Reformation, has given way to “every man his own god.” The remedy, our course instructor reminded us, is a heart and mind of personal conversion and a personal devotion to God and to the Sacraments of the Church.