It seems a little weird to be posting about Reformation Day, but Tim Challies' invitation set me to thinking. What, exactly, can a Catholic say about the Reformation? After all, it was a rebellion against the Catholic Church. We were, at least in the popular eye, on the losing side of it. And yet, I'm not all that sure either of those is really true.
No event in the history of western Christendom gets people as worked up as the Protestant Reformation. Catholics think of it as a tragedy, when whole countries departed the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church into schism, if not outright apostasy. Protestants treat it almost as the real founding of Christianity, as seminal as the First Vision is to Mormons. Both of them make a bigger deal out of it, I think, than is necessary.
It's not as though there was any shortage of heresies and schisms before Luther nailed his thoughts to the door. The Great Schism of 1054 leaps to mind. The Monophysites were still around, and are going strong today. The Nestorians are still there, too, albeit in lesser numbers. In the west, there had been the Albigenses and the Waldenses. All of them had split off from the mother Church, and some of them had stayed that way. (And that so many of those survived belies the myth that the Catholic church exercised total dominance and destroyed all dissenters. The Albigenses were wiped out militarily, but all the others were mostly left alone. And if you read what-all the Albigenses believed and did, I don't think anyone missed them when they were gone.)
What makes the Protestant Reformation different? Well, more than anything, I think it's because it happened to us. Not personally, but in our backyard, and it still affects us today. The schism following Chalcedon is only a matter for history books in America; the Protestant schism is still very much in evidence here. (I suppose the situation is the opposite in Egypt, but maybe not. Churches being oppressed by Islam don't have a lot of time to fight between themselves.) It also coincided with the advent of the printing press, which made it much more a commoners' revolt. Literacy spread quickly with the cheap availability of books, which made the ordinary man more of an ecclesiastical force than he had been.
But the main difference is that the Protestant Reformation wasn't all about doctrine. Yes, that's right. It was less doctrinal than any other schism had been except the East-West split in 1054. The Reformation was as much a political struggle as a religious one, and really, I don't think doctrine would have entered into it had Luther's attempted reforms been more quickly implemented. Trouble was, nobody listened to him. It didn't help that the pope was attempting to unite European leaders to fend off Muslim armies, which took a lot of precedence over some German backwater. But because he went unheard, Luther had to get louder and more offensive, claiming that the Church didn't have any real authority over him anyway. If one of his assertions was shown to be contrary to scripture, he simply edited scripture. The Council of Trent eventually vindicated him on a lot of things, but by that time the damage was done.
It's hard to blame Luther. Simony and political intrigue were as much a part of Church life in his part of Germany as the sacraments. Priests were ill-trained, bishoprics were bought and sold, and the piety and gullibility of ordinary people were being played on by sharks like Tetzel. Luther was, I think, an honest man who really grieved for the Church he loved, as children will grieve for an alcoholic mother. If you look at his writings, he started out expressing devotion to the Church and to the pope; it was only as his cries for reform went unheeded that he headed off into heresy and eventual schism.
I rather believe that had the Church done the necessary housecleaning in Saxony, today St. Martin of Wittenberg would be called a Doctor of the Church and ranked alongside Aquinas and Augustine. (If nothing else, his hymns should have gotten him canonized.) Since it didn't happen that way, we have his legacy to deal with, and it's a dilly.
After he established the precedent of schism based on individual interpretation, others began to imitate him: Calvin, Zwingli, Menno, Servetus. And over in England, Horny Henry made use of the new doctrines to tell the pope where to get off. (It's not a coincidence that Ann Boleyn had strong Lutheran leanings.) Widespread discussion of theology was a good thing, overall, but one side effect was that one schism begat another. Hundreds of years later, Charles Taze Russell would discover that the Bible didn't really mean what everyone had been saying it meant, and would retranslate to suit. John Calvin's ideas on predestination would eventually lead to Fred Phelps and David Koresh. Both Reformers would be appalled to have spawned such things, but once the bottle is opened, it's mighty hard to stuff the genie back in.
So far, so bad. But the legacy of Luther doesn't stop at disaster. As a result of his actions at Wittenberg Cathedral, the Church was forced to make some major changes. The Council of Trent is maligned by Protestants because it didn't affirm their view of justification, but what it did do was root out the simony and corruption that had brought the schism on in the first place. Seminaries were established, liturgy was made uniform, and strict rules were put in place to prevent the sale of Church offices and benefits. (The full documentation of the Council is here. It's usually quoted badly out of context; oddly enough, the apologists that use it as a bludgeon against Catholics seem never to have read it.)
The ongoing conflict has also acted as a spur to both sides of the debate. I'm sure most Protestants would deny it, but the existence of the Catholic Church establishes a standard for Christian tradition that Protestants adhere to. Interpretations of scripture on issues like the Trinity and the Incarnation are by default the ones established by the Catholic Church before the Reformation, and it's the New Testament canon laid out at Hippo, Carthage and Trent that is still used today. Protestant churches that have liturgical worship use variations on the Roman Mass. Even in contemporary issues like abortion and homosexuality, when proof-texts for both sides get thrown around, it's the ancient tradition of the Church that's the fallback position. Protestants don't like to think of those standards as Catholic ones, but they learned 'em from us.
At the same time, the Catholic Church has been forced by the existence of other sects to keep its own house in order. We don't sell indulgences, we don't have popes begetting children, and we don't have priests making up dogmas because they don't know for certain what's official and what's not. Our parochial schools were until recently a jewel among educational systems; they were originally founded because the public schools taught a default Protestantism. (Today, Protestant Christian schools are founded to keep kids from being spoon-fed secularism. So it goes.) We fight on the same side in a culture that increasingly despises Christ no matter what church His followers belong to. Protestants are finding themselves more and more aligning with Catholics where they can, as their own denominations abandon orthodoxy bit by bit. All this makes us hold ourselves accountable, where we might not if we were the only game in town.
As Pope Benedict has pointed out on several occasions, ours is a Mother Church with a number of daughters. Those daughters, after a tumultuous beginning, have grown up to be strong, beautiful and a credit to their mother. Like grown children, they may not be a mirror of the parent, but they also have virtues that their parent is lacking. Where we are sometimes complacent in our traditions, they are vibrant and enthusiastic. Where we lapse into cultural Christianity, they stress study and scholarship. In the past those virtues and lacks were reversed; they may be again someday. We'll always be different, but always from the same root.
We may mourn for their departure, but on this 490th birthday of the eldest daughter, let's also honor them for what they've become. Not children to be spanked, but peers to be loved and respected. Daughters in origin, perhaps, but sisters in fact.
Happy birthday. You've done Mom proud.