Reformation 101: Who's Who in the Protestant Reformation
Catholics trying to understand the Reformation sometimes complain about the wide
range of Protestant churches, denominations and sects. "How can you keep them
all straight?" they ask. The challenge is not as great as it seems at first
glance because the tens of thousands of Protestant churches, denominations, and
sects trace their origins back, one way or another, either to the three major
founders of the Reformation or to the Radical Reformation movement known as the
Anabaptists. Understand them, and you’ll go a long way toward understanding the
complex reality called Protestantism.
But the various Protestant factions aren’t the only things confusing about the
Reformation era. The Catholic Reformation and the various figures associated
with it can also perplex. The various popes, prelates, and politicians can be
hard to keep track of. For this reason, I offer this essay as a kind of
introductory "who’s who" of the Reformation, Protestant and Catholic.
Three Reformers: Luther, Zwingli and Calvin
Most Catholics know the three main Protestant Reformers–Luther, Zwingli and
Calvin–even if they don’t know much about them. Martin Luther (1483-1546), they
usually know, was a priest who broke with Rome over indulgences. It used to be
said that Luther started "the Protestant revolt" in order to run off with a nun.
And he did–run off with a nun, that is, although "run off" is an inaccurate way
of putting it. According the Jesuit biographer Hartman Grisar, he initially
refrained from marriage precisely to avoid giving his opponents a weapon to use
against him. Eventually, though, Luther did marry Catherine von Bora, an ex-nun.
However, Luther didn’t start the Reformation in order to get married. In fact,
he didn’t really start a movement called "the Reformation." He objected to
certain ideas and practices prevalent in the Church of his day. One of those
ideas was the notion that one had to merit God’s grace through pious practices
in order to be saved. Another was that indulgences could be purchased in order
to benefit the dead in purgatory. Luther was right on both those points, yet
contrary to popular opinion, that doesn’t make the Catholic Church wrong. At
least not in the highest, official expression of her teaching. The trouble was,
due to a host of problems that plagued the late medieval Church, the vast
majority of Catholics were probably unsure of exactly what the Church had taught
about such things. Add to that Renaissance popes and other prelates who were
often greedy and power-hungry and therefore disinclined to consider the finer
points of Catholic doctrine and discipline, and you have a recipe for disaster.
Martin Luther was born of peasant stock in Eisleben, Germany, in 1483, son
of Hans and Margarete Luther. His father Hans, a miner, wanted to see his son
pursue a career in canon law, but alas that was not to happen. As a result of a
vow rashly made during a thunderstorm, Luther decided to become a monk. In 1505,
he joined the Augustinians, the strictest religious house in Erfurt. There,
Luther began an intense monastic life of prayer, study, and fasting. Two years
later, he was ordained a priest and continued his theological studies.
Unfortunately, Luther was trained in nominalist theology, a form of decadent
scholasticism that only plunged an already intense personality into despair. He
came to believe that he had to earn salvation by his own efforts. But the more
he tried–through prayer, fasting, and other good works–the more unacceptable to
God he felt himself to be.
Luther’s study of St. Paul, through the lens of St. Augustine and his
controversy with the Pelagians, changed all that. Luther came to understand that
the "righteousness of God" (iustitia Dei), of which Paul wrote in Romans
1:17, referred to the righteousness by which the sinner is graciously justified
by faith, not the standard of righteousness by which God would judge sinners
struggling to attain justification by their own efforts. This understanding
transformed the troubled monk, who now found peace with God through faith. He
saw his "discovery" or "recovery" of the ancient Pauline teaching as a radical
departure from the views of the medieval "doctors." And yet this was not so.
Unbeknownst to Luther, the leading medieval commentators held the same view of
the "righteousness of God."
Luther also came to understand faith as God’s merciful gift by which we receive
the further gift of justification, in contrast to all human efforts to merit or
earn God’s favor. As a way of insisting that human beings contribute nothing of
their own to justification, Luther insisted that man is justified by "faith
Luther’s "discovery" was more than a personal "breakthrough." He was by now a
professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg, where he preached this
understanding of the righteousness of God to students. Yet not until the
question of the "sale" of indulgences arose in Luther’s diocese did the issue
acquired "legs," as the journalists say.
The "selling" of indulgences occurred in the neighboring diocese of Mainz; it
was the spill-over into the Luther’s diocese and into his confessional that
brought the issue to his attention. The twenty-three year-old archbishop of
Mainz had allowed indulgences to be preached in his diocese in exchange for a
"cut" in the revenue raised. The money was supposed to go to rebuild St. Peter’s
Basilica in Rome. In fact, the archbishop needed the money to pay a fee to the
Roman Curia for a dispensation allowing him to hold three dioceses at once.
How did something spiritual–an indulgence is after all a remittance of temporal
punishment due to sin–come to be "sold"? The theory was that monetary offerings
could count as a form of penance, when the donor truly gave sacrificially from
his heart, with the proper motive. Unfortunately, the practice easily
degenerated into "buying" remittance of punishment for sin. Worst yet, "selling"
of indulgences got linked to a misapplication of the principle of praying for
the dead in purgatory. Catholic teaching was that one could offer one’s
penitential acts to God through Christ as a sort of "petition" on behalf of
those who had died and were being purified in purgatory. Such a "petition" was
supposed to be understood as efficacious per modem suffragi–to the extent
God hears the prayer of the Church. There was, in other words, nothing automatic
about it. Since "donating" to obtain an indulgence could be penitential, it was
concluded that one could "donate" to obtain an indulgence on behalf of a soul in
purgatory. In the popular mind, though, you "bought" an indulgence to get a soul
or souls out of purgatory, plain and simple. Johann Tetzel, the Dominican who
preached indulgences throughout the diocese of Mainz, had this "advertising
jiggle": "As soon as a coin in the coffer clinks, a soul from purgatory
Luther rightly protested this abuse. In late 1517, he published ninety-five
theses to dispute various things he regarded as abuses of the day. This was
standard academic practice at the time. But other factors–such as politics
(civil and ecclesiastical) and human egos (including Luther’s)–enter into the
calculus. Soon things were out of hand. Luther quickly went well beyond the
issues raised in his Ninety-Five Theses.
Rome initially ignored what Pope Leo X dismissed as a "monk’s squabble." Some of
Luther’s opponents argued that it was all or nothing when it came to
indulgences. You either accepted them as they were–including the practice of
trafficking in indulgences–or you rejected them altogether. Luther wasted no
time in jettisoning indulgences and a host of other beliefs. His justifiable
objections to abuses quickly mixed with unjustified doctrinal innovations, not
to mention his bullheadedness, to make compromise impossible. Initially, Luther
thought the pope merely uninformed and misguided about the situation in Germany.
But very quickly he was attacking the papacy itself as the Antichrist and
envisioning himself as raised up by God to restore the Church to the Gospel of
Luther’s opponents also dug in their heels. General confusion about what the
Church officially taught made things worse. Many of the German princes saw a
chance to strike at the Catholic Emperor and the Italian-dominated papacy, and
so they transformed an essentially religious debate into a political and
economic struggle. Luther didn’t agree with this but he had little choice but to
support those who supported him. The dividing of Christendom into warring
theological and political factions had begun.
Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), the Swiss Reformer, was quite different from
Luther. Luther had been a monk and a priest; Zwingli, a mercenary solider and
political activist. Luther was a biblical theologian by training; Zwingli was a
Christian humanist. Luther stressed justification by grace through faith and the
persistence of sin in the believer’s life, even after justification; Zwingli,
though never denying justification by grace through faith, stressed moral and
social transformation. Luther was pessimistic about Christianizing the state;
Zwingli sought to fuse Church and State in Zurich.
The major dividing line between Luther and Zwingli, however,
concerned the sacraments. Zwingli drew from his military experience to explain
the sacraments. He argued that the Latin term sacramentum meant "oath."
From this he concluded that the sacraments (he counted only Baptism and the
Eucharist as sacraments) are signs or pledges–oaths–of God’s faithfulness to his
people. Later, Zwingli began explaining the oath-nature of the sacraments in
terms of God’s people’s pledge of fidelity to the community of the Church. In
neither case, though, did Zwingli understand the sacraments as efficacious signs
or as really communicating what they signify. They were at best signs of our
association and identification with the Church. It was the Word of God
proclaimed that was the source of the Christian life; the sacraments merely
provided an opportunity publicly to demonstrate one’s faith.
Nowhere is the difference between Luther and Zwingli regarding the sacraments
clearer than in their views of the Eucharist. While Luther denied
transubstantiation, he nevertheless affirmed a form of the Real Presence of
Jesus in the Eucharist. Zwingli rejected such a notion. For him, the Eucharist
was a mere memorial of Jesus’ death, a ritual sign Jesus left his Church by
which to remember his act of self-surrender. The bread and wine of the Eucharist
did not change in their being; at best, they changed in their significance
because of the context in which they were received.
Luther and Zwingli disagreed vehemently regarding Jesus’ words at the Last
Supper. Luther understood "This is my body" to refer to the Real Presence. For
Luther, "is" meant "is," so that when Christ had said "This is my body," he
meant to affirm that something had happened to the Eucharistic elements.
Zwingli, on the other hand, understood "This is my body" to mean "This signifies
my body." He didn’t believe anything happened, other than a change of meaning in
the minds of the congregants.
The disagreement between Luther and Zwingli represented a first major division
among the various wings of the Reformation. Calvin would later disagree with
both Luther and Zwingli on the nature of the sacraments, especially the
Eucharist. But for Luther, it meant backing away somewhat from his idea that the
Bible was perspicuous to the average reader. Scripture, it seemed, was plain to
every man–provided he was a trained exegete and agreed with Luther.
Disagreement over the Eucharist posed a major problem for the Reformers, so much
so that notables such as Luther, Zwingli, Bucer, Melanchthon and Oeclampadius
met at Marburg in 1529 to iron out their differences. But the factions could not
reach final agreement and the division among them resulted in substantial
political setbacks, as the Catholic Emperor Charles V was able to exploit the
differences among the Reformers.
In the end, Zwingli’s contribution to the Reformation was cut short, as was his
life. He was killed at the Battle of Kappel (1531), with the army of Zurich’s
defeat due in large measure to German Lutheranism’s refusal to support it. And
that, partly the result of the disagreement between Luther and Zwingli at
In many respects, John Calvin (1509-1564) was the founder of world
Protestantism. He was the real brain-power of the Reformation, the synthesizer
and, to a certain extent, its theological systematizer, despite the fact that he
was a quarter-century the junior of Luther and Zwingli and of the second
generation of the Reformation.
Calvin was a French layman, who had studied theology in Paris with the intention
of the priesthood before changing to law. He also studied classical languages
and received a thorough humanist education.
About two years after Zwingli died (1533), Calvin publicly embraced the cause of
the Reformation. I say "publicly embraced" because no doubt for some time before
he had been privately ruminating over Reformation ideas–though he wrote little
about the process by which his religious views developed. In a sense, Calvin had
grown up on Reformation ideas–he was eleven years old when Luther was
France was hostile to the Reformation, so Calvin fled to Basel. There he made
his first major contribution to Protestantism with his Institutes of the
Christian Religion, the initial edition of which appeared in Latin in 1536
and which made Calvin famous. He would later translate it into French and revise
it many times. Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion isn’t a work of
systematic theology as much as an introduction to the Christian faith as Calvin
understood it. It became something of a theological compendium for later
generations of Reformed Protestants, with far reaching effects on the shape of
Calvin’s contribution to the Reformation was practical as well as theoretical.
As Zwingli had had Zurich, so Calvin had his base of operation–Geneva. Invited
by his friend Farel to help promote the Reform there, Calvin made the city his
home and sought to establish it as an authentic, model Christian community, as
the pattern to be followed throughout the Protestant world.
Calvin has been criticized for establishing a theocracy in Geneva, but that puts
it too strongly. The civil and ecclesiastical orders were, in his mind, not
identical, but parallel. Each had its immediate jurisdiction and ordinarily
would carry out its own business. On the other hand, it would be wrong to say
Geneva had a strict separation of Church and State. Calvin’s view was at best
one of interdependence, with the Church ultimately calling the shots and the
civil authority serving the community of the Church. Where Luther had
essentially given over the Church to the dominance of the State (provided the
State was controlled by those who shared his theological convictions), Calvin
sought to maintain the medieval institutional distinction between Church and
State, while essentially allowing the Church to dominate the State indirectly by
insisting it operate according to highly specific Christian legislation and
As the Institutes of the Christian Religion greatly influenced the
theology of the Reformation, Calvin’s Ecclesiastical Ordinances greatly
affected the structure of many Reformed churches and their relation to the
community. One major element of the Ecclesiastical Ordinances was the
Consistory, the central church governing apparatus, composed of ministers and
elders. Its purpose was to maintain ecclesiastical discipline and theological
orthodoxy, but when the social community of the city is identical to the church
community, the result is that ecclesiastical discipline and religious heterodoxy
have social implications. Very quickly church offenses become civil offenses or
at least offenses with civil consequences, as the medieval Church came to see.
The Consistory oversaw the conduct of the believers-citizens of Geneva down to
the minutest detail, intervening with disciplinary measures such as public
rebuke and excommunication. But because the civil and the ecclesiastical
authority were so closely intertwined, condemnation by the Consistory could lead
to civil punishments such as public fines and even exile and execution. People
were brought before the Consistory for every sort of offense, including petty
ones such as singing jingles critical of Calvin, card playing, dancing, and
laughing during a sermon. The Consistory also sent out members to each parish to
look for transgressors, who, if discovered, were tried by the Consistory. Every
household was visited annually, before Easter, to ascertain the status of
prospective communicants. If Geneva was the "Rome of the Reformation," the
Consistory was its Inquisition and Calvin its Pope. Geneva under Calvin’s
influence controlled its citizens’ lives, including their private lives, well
beyond what the medieval Church did. The individual Christian in the Church of
Geneva was "free" to interpret the Bible for himself, provided he interpreted it
exactly as Calvin did.
Was Calvin a "dictator"? Surely not in the conventional sense. He held no
elected office, nor did he exercise direct political power in Geneva. He was
mainly a pastor, not a politician. And yet we mustn’t go as far as some of
Calvin’s supporters, who say he was "simply" a pastor. He possessed tremendous
influence in the political community, well beyond that of a mere civic leader.
And that influence translated directly into civil law strictures and
punishments. Geneva was not an absolute State, in the modern sense, but neither
was it a free state, except perhaps for those who already accepted its rigid
norms of conduct.
A prime example of Calvin’s influence in Geneva is the case of Pierre Ameaux, a
member of the city council, who had criticized Calvin as a preacher of false
doctrine. The council told Ameaux to retract his statement, but Calvin wanted a
harsher punishment. Ameaux was forced to go through town dressed only in a
shirt, with a torch in hand.
Ameaux’ fate was a mere embarrassment; the embryonic freethinker Jacques Gruet
was executed for criticizing Calvin, for blasphemy and for protesting the
stringent demands of Calvin’s Geneva. He was torture and beheaded. Calvin also
got Jerome Bolsec banished for the Frenchman’s disagreement with Calvin
regarding predestination, thus proving that, while Geneva was a haven for
Protestants throughout Europe who agreed with Calvin, it could be oppressive for
those who did not.
But the most celebrated case is that of Michael Sevetus, who didn’t get off as
lightly as Bolsec. The Spanish physician-writer took it upon himself to
reformulate the doctrine of the Trinity in what were essentially Gnostic
categories. But Sevetus made the mistake of sending Calvin an advance copy,
which led, by a rather Byzantine route, to Calvin tipping off the Catholic
magistrates in Vienna that the heretical Sevetus was practicing medicine in
their city. That brought the apparatus of the Inquisition down on him. Sevetus
managed to escape and wound up, in all places, Geneva, en route to Naples.
Calvin had him arrested, tried and sentence to death. As an act of mercy, Calvin
requested that Sevetus be beheaded, instead of burned, but in this case Calvin’s
request was not honor.
Theologically speaking, Calvin took over Luther’s twin principles of
justification by faith and the supreme authority of the Bible, but he added
distinctive twists, especially to the former. Calvin made a systematic
distinction between justification and sanctification. Both were the work of
grace through faith, according to Calvin, and inseparable from one another.
Justification involved the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the
believer, which meant that God related to him differently but didn’t change him.
Sanctification, on the other hand, was the work of the Holy Spirit within man to
change him according to the pattern of Christ. In effect, what Catholics
considered justification, Calvin divided into justification and sanctification.
Predestination is often erroneously thought to have been Calvin’s central theme,
but in fact the glory and absolute sovereignty of God are at the center of his
theology. Nevertheless, predestination is closely related to these ideas and
consequently important to Calvin’s thinking, even if less so than subsequent
Calvinist theologians made it out to be. The issue concerns God’s sovereignty
and his graciousness. God’s sovereignty will not allow anyone to compel God to
save him and his graciousness saves people without regard for their deeds.
Similarly, God’s sovereignty requires that he decide in advance the fate of all,
even of the wicked, consigning them to damnation.
Occasionally, Catholic polemicists
have attacked the notion of predestination per se, as if it were the invention
of Calvin. But Catholic teaching also affirms a form of the doctrine, though not
Calvin’s version of it. Catholic teaching holds that God predestines certain
people to eternal life. It further teaches that God predestines certain people
to eternal damnation on account of their foreseen sins–that is, on account of
their actions that amount to either a direction rejection of God himself or a
choice of something incompatible with love of God. Catholic teaching differs
with Calvinism over whether God predestines or reprobates (to use the precise
theological term) people without reference to their sins. Calvin said yes;
Catholic teaching says no.
Calvin affirmed the unconditioned reprobation of some people to damnation. His
doctrine is sometimes called double predestination, since it holds that God
damns and saves equally without reference to a person’s merits or demerits.
Calvin’s view seems at odds with God’s universal salvific will, as expressed by
St. Paul in 1 Timothy 2:4: "God wills that all men be saved and come to the
knowledge of the truth." The universal salvific will is compatible with God’s
decision to allow men to be damned through the abuse of freedom, but it is hard
to see how it fits with God actively consigning people to damnation without
reference to their sins.
Regarding the sacraments, Calvin affirmed only Baptism and the Eucharist, which
he called the Lord’s Supper. Unlike his Baptist theological descendants today,
Calvin taught infant baptism, basing his reasoning on the analogy between the
covenantal sign of the Old Testament, circumcision, which was given to infant
males, and the covenantal sign of the New Testament, Baptism.
With respect to the Eucharist, he staked out a position between Luther’s belief
in the Real Presence on the one hand and Zwingli’s purely symbolic, memorial
view on the other. Christ’s Body and Blood were dynamically or virtually
"present" in the Eucharist and received through faith. In other words, the grace
of Christ was present, but not the substance of his Body and Blood. This view,
sometimes called the Dynamic or Virtual Presence, makes it difficult, if not
impossible, to distinguish Christ’s presence in the Eucharist from his presence
in Baptism or any other occasion of grace. For the "power" of Jesus’ Body and
Blood are present in other places as well. What distinguishes the Eucharistic
presence of Jesus, then, from his presence in, say, Scripture attended to with
faith or a sermon devoutly received?
Luther, Zwingli and Calvin were the "big three" of the Reformation, but others
such as John Knox in Scotland, Martin Bucer of Strassburg, Philip Melanchthon in
Germany (Luther’s associate and architect of the Augburg Confession) and Thomas
Cranmer in England formed something of a "second string" of Reformers that
nevertheless contributed significantly to the movement.
The Radical Reformation
Luther, Zwingli and Calvin led what is sometimes called the Magisterial
Reformation, so named because it used the civil authority of the magistrates to
further its agenda. But there was also the Radical Reformation, which was
rejected by the Magisterial Reformers no less than by the Catholic Church. The
Magisterial Reformers persecuted advocates of the Radical Reformation as much as
the Catholic Church did.
The Radical Reformation went beyond Luther, Zwingli and Calvin, rejecting
altogether any relationship between Christianity and the wider, secular society,
especially civil authority, as well as institutional expressions of
Christianity. The Radical Reformers saw themselves as returning to New Testament
Christianity and they rejected everything–including many elements of the
Magisterial Reformation–they deemed compromise of the pure gospel.
The Radical Reformation began in Zurich, in the early 1520s. In part, it was a
response to Zwingli’s reforms, which the Radical Reformers thought insufficient.
Zwingli disagreed, of course, and he dubbed the Radical Reformers Anabaptists ("rebaptizers")
because they insisted on the rebaptism of those baptized as infants.
The Radical Reformers pressed the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura
as far as they could. Where the Magisterial Reformation was, in principle,
generally content to allow practices not contrary to Scripture, even if not
explicitly affirmed by Scripture (infant baptism being a case in point), the
Radical Reformation demanded explicit Scriptural warrant for everything.
Furthermore, it tended to reject external authority, state churches or religious
affiliation and stressed pacifism. In some cases, Radical Reformers called for
common ownership of property. Elements of the Radical Reformation also inclined
toward enthusiasm, quietism and illuminism. Many people in the Radical
Reformation awaited the Second Coming of Christ to establish a millennial
Although the Radical Reformers believed in justification by faith alone, they
also insisted that those truly justified–and often they understood by this those
who could point to some experience of conversion–had to produce good works and
live according to a high moral standard. Those who failed to do so were often
exiled from the community.
Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz were among the early leaders of the Radical
Reformation or Anabaptist movement. Thomas Müntzer, the erstwhile colleague of
Luther and fomenter of revolution in Saxony, is sometimes considered an
Anabaptist, since he rejected infant baptism and affirmed on-going revelation.
But because many Anabaptists were also pacifists, Müntzer is hardly typical.
Menno Simons, an ex-Catholic priest and founder of the Mennonites, was also
among the early Anabaptists.
The Role of Geography
Real estate is everything, even in the Reformation. "Real estate" means
"territory" and the Reformers were not content merely to carve out a niche for
the exercise of their own right to believe and live according to their
interpretations of Scripture. They believed that the Gospel of Christ itself was
at stake and therefore they felt compelled to spread their movement far and
wide. That put them at odds with Catholics, who saw their efforts as heresy and
as a threat to the stability of the social order. Protestants sought to expand
and conquer; Catholics sought to contain them, if not convert them back.
The Reformation began in Germany, with Luther, but quickly spread throughout
Europe, thanks in large measure to the printing press. Soon Reformers sprang up
in Switzerland, France and England. And wherever Reformation ideas spread, so
did the contest for political control and territory. Eventually, Europe was more
or less divided between the Protestant North–England, Scandinavia, Denmark, the
Netherlands, northern Germany and Prussia–and the Catholic South–Spain,
Portugal, France, Italy, southern Germany, Hungry and Poland.
Success or failure often depends on leadership–what leaders do or fail to do.
When it comes to the Reformation, the lion’s share of the blame rests squarely
with the hierarchy, including the papacy. Or at least so said Pope Adrian VI,
who in 1523 sent his legate to confess the following before the German princes
gathered in Nuremberg:
freely acknowledge that God has allowed this chastisement to come upon
His Church because of the sins of men and especially because of the sins
of priests and prelates . . . We know well that for many years much that
must be regarded with horror has come to pass in this Holy See: abuses
in spiritual matters, transgressions against the Commandments; indeed,
that everything has been gravely perverted" (quoted in Karl Adam, One
and Holy, p. 97).
scandals, including the so-called Babylonian Captivity of the Church and the
Great Western Schism, in which there were first two, then three, claimants to
the papal office, brought derision upon the papacy, as did scandalous living and
nepotism. Furthermore, the popes themselves failed to reform the Church, even
when they were in a position to do so. And when the Reformation eventually broke
out, the papacy failed to understand the challenge to the Church and failed to
act quickly to address the problems that gave rise to it. At the same time, when
the Church finally did get around to reform, the papacy helped lead the way.
Pope Adrian VI (1522-1523) sought to reform and convert the Church, but his
short pontificate made that impossible. Adrian was thoroughly pious, even
something of an anti-Renaissance pope. On coming to Rome, he wouldn’t allow the
people to erect a triumphal arch in his honor on the grounds that it was a pagan
custom. But was the Church at large ready to undergo the rigorous conversion
called for by Adrian VI? It seems unlikely. It would take time for the papacy to
regain credibility with respect to reform and, even when popes began taking
seriously their apostolic responsibilities in that regard, the Reformers were
attacking the papacy as an institution inherently contrary to the gospel, not
merely the occupants of the office as personally unworthy. The doctrinal, not
merely the moral, problems of the papacy had to be cogently addressed.
Nevertheless, a reforming pope would have been better than a non-reforming one.
Thus, the premature death of Adrian VI was a tragedy with tremendous
Pope Clement VII (1523-1534). As far as reforming the
Church or responding to Protestantism is concerned, the pontificate of Clement
VII can be summed up in one word: disaster. This Medici pope followed the brief
pontificate of the fierce reformer Adrian VI and preceded Paul III, whom many
consider the first pope of the Catholic Reformation. If Clement had had half the
spiritual energies of either man, the history of the Reformation–indeed, of the
world–would have been drastically different.
Unfortunately, Clement VII was a throwback to the Renaissance papacy, although
he seems not to have been morally bankrupt as were some others of his breed. He
devoted much of his papal energies to enjoying art and culture, and involving
himself in political intrigue. A vacillating man, in over his head, he was
unable to bring order and discipline to the Church, much less be an instrument
of conversion. While Protestantism spread, he sat in prison in castle Sant’
Angelo, as a result of the Emperor’s sack and invasion of Rome in 1527, itself
due to Clement’s siding with Francis I of France against the Emperor. It was
Clement who dealt with Henry VIII of England and the issue of the validity of
his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, the Emperor Charles’ niece. While Italy was
dominated by Charles, there was little likelihood Clement would support Henry
against Catherine. What’s more, the Pope’s decision in the matter was bound to
seem politically motivated. In 1533, Henry broke with the Catholic Church over
Clement VII’s refusal to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine, with dire
consequences for English Catholicism and the Catholic cause against nascent
Protestantism on the continent.
Pope Paul III (1534-1549). Although God’s Spirit doesn’t indefinitely strive
with man, his promise always to be with his Church eventually kicks in, which is
what seems to have happened with Pope Paul III. At first glance, Alessandro
Franese appeared to be more of the same–if not worst. He was worldly and
unchaste–he fathered four illegitimate children–but seems to have undergone
something of a conversion after his ordination. As pope, he embarked on a series
of reforms, elevating to the cardinalate some of the chief Catholic reformers of
his age, including Reginald Pole, Gian Pietro Caraffa (later Pope Paul IV) and
Mercello Cervini (later Marcellus II). A commission of cardinals appointed by
Paul III issued a statement chastising four of his predecessors for their sins
and the evils they allowed the Church’s shepherds and people to fall into. They
called for the eradication of such evils and Paul III sought to oblige them. He
set about calling the Council of Trent (1545) and staunching supported the
renewal efforts of the new religious orders such as the Jesuits (which he
approved in 1540), the Theatines and the Capuchins.
It was Paul III’s ecumenical council, the Council of Trent (1545-1563), that
sent the Catholic Reformation into high gear. It simultaneously reformed the
Church and responded to Protestantism. Catholic teaching and practice were
clarified, despite constant interruptions of the Council and a succession of
popes. Seventeen of the twenty-five sessions of the Council concerned doctrine
and reform. The canon of the Bible and the authority of tradition were affirmed;
justification by grace and man’s grace-enabled role in cooperating with grace,
as well as the role of faith, hope and charity in justification were upheld,
while Protestant views on these issues were rejected; the reality and nature of
original sin and the distinction between mortal and venial sin were discussed;
the seven sacraments as efficacious signs of grace, transubstantiation, the Real
Presence and the sacrificial nature of the Mass were also affirmed. Theologians
debate the extent to which Trent condemned the views of the main Reformers
themselves, but it is certain that the ideas Trent rejected were widely
believed, regardless of whether they were proposed by the Reformers precisely as
condemned by Trent.
The Council also tackled discipline, insisting, among other things, that bishops
reside in their dioceses and visit the parishes therein; that pastors be
properly trained and qualified for office; that clandestine marriages be
forbidden; and that religious reside in their appropriate houses and remain
faithful to their vows. The willingness of Pope Pius V and his papal government
to insist on these disciplinary reforms revolutionized the Church.
Pope Pius V (1556-1572). It fell to Pope St. Pius V (Antonio Ghislieri) to
see to it that the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent didn’t become dead
letters. A pope of austere life, he managed–with the help of people such as St.
Charles Borromeo–to reshape the Catholic Church into its Tridentine mold, a
shape that was substantially to endure until the Second Vatican Council
(1962-1965). He issued the famous Catechism of the Council of Trent or Roman
Catechism (1566), revised the Roman Breviary (1568) and the Roman Missal (1568).
He also established a commission to revise the Vulgate (1568) and ordered the
publication of a new edition of the works of St. Thomas Aquinas (1570). With
Pius V, we find ourselves in the middle of the Catholic Reformation, about which
we should say a bit.
The Catholic Reformation
We speak of "the Reformation," but what we usually mean is the "Protestant
Reformation." Yet there is a sense in which the term "Reformation" can include
both the Protestant movements and the reform movement within the Catholic
Church. A hundred years or so ago, Catholic efforts at church reform in the
sixteenth century were usually dubbed "the Counter Reformation." But some
scholars objected to the term, on the grounds that it reduced Catholic reform to
a response to Protestantism. Many scholars argued that the sixteenth century was
an era of various reform efforts, with Protestantism being one particular
approach. There were, these scholars noted, Catholic efforts that amount to much
more than answering the Protestants or undercutting Protestant criticism.
Needless to say, the issue of terminology hasn’t been "officially" settled among
scholars, since no one can settle anything "officially" for academics. "Catholic
Reformation" is probably the dominant expression, although "Counter Reformation"
persists in some circles. A compromise usage has also emerged: for those aspects
of Catholic reform that weren’t in direct response to Protestantism, the term
"Catholic Reformation" is used. But when reforms made in response to
Protestantism are discussed, "Counter Reformation" is used. That’s neat but not
always helpful, since it isn’t always clear which reform is which.
In any case, the point is what the Catholic/Counter Reformation did, not so much
what we call it. What did it do? On the one hand, it limited the deleterious
impact of the Protestant Reformation, by limiting the extent to which things
needed reforming and the extent to which Protestants could influence things in a
non-Catholic direction. Even throughout the worst of the Renaissance papacy,
Catholic saints emerged, calling Catholics to repentance and modeling for them
the life of sanctity. Without them, things would have been much worse. On the
other hand, the Catholic/Counter Reformation assisted the Church in regaining
much of what was lost by the Reformation’s initial successes.
Who were the leading figures of the Catholic/Counter Reformation? We have
already mentioned some, such as St. Pius V and St. Charles Borromeo. Martyrs
Thomas More and John Fisher contributed to the beginnings of the Catholic
Reform. St. Ignatius Loyola and his Jesuits were majors instruments of Catholic
renewal, as was Loyola’s thin, but spiritually potent volume, The Spiritual
Exercises. Then there were the Spanish mystics and spiritual giants Teresa of
Avila and John of the Cross, as well as St. Philip Neri, St. Peter Canisius, and
St. Francis de Sales, whose apostolic work deeply penetrated the Catholic laity.
These saints changed the institutions of Church and society, to be sure. But
their real work was the transformation of hearts and minds, as they called
people back to God, to union with Jesus Christ, to living the Gospel in their
daily lives in the world. It has sometimes been claimed that medieval
Christianity was monastic and world-denying, in an almost Manichean sense.
Whatever can be said for that charge–and it seems problematic given that
medieval Christianity created a Christian culture very much in this world as
well as in the monastery–it would be utterly false to make such an accusation of
the Catholic Reformation. No aspect of daily life–whether of the cleric or of
the laymen–went unaffected by the spiritual revolution of the Catholic
Reformation. Consequently, while the Catholic-Protestant division of Europe had
by the time of the Catholic Reformation become established, the spiritual
vitality of the Catholic renewal won back many people to full communion with the
Belloc wrote a little book called Characters of the Reformation. The work
is marvelous, as Belloc’s books usually are, not because it provides the most
accurate history, but because it helps us see the big picture, to follow the
drama of the period or even, if you will, to know "the players in the game." The
purpose of this essay has been to provide something of a "scorecard" to that
"game." Of course it hasn’t been exhaustive–a scorecard can’t be. Even so, it’s
hard to tell the players apart without one.
[This article originally appeared in the September/October 2001 issue of