Reformation Redux?

Korey D. Maas on Taking Heed of the Parallels Between the Crises of Yesterday & Today

In the aftermath of what has come to be called the "summer of shame" for the Catholic Church, commentators have increasingly referred to the scandal of sexual abuse and its cover-up as "the biggest crisis since the Reformation," leaving the church "at its most unstable moment since the Reformation." Whether this is entirely true or not, the perception has led at least one Catholic pundit to admit that, "for the first time, I understand how the Reformation happened."

Others, however, insist that "this is not like the Protestant Reformation; it's not," and that "you don't hear that from too many historians of the Reformation." But some historians of the Reformation, including this one, believe there is a sense in which the controversies of the Protestant Reformation might illuminate those of the Francis pontificate (and vice versa), but that the manner in which they do so is easily obscured if the focus remains solely on the abuse scandal. The reason, as Ross Douthat has noted, is that "the church's doctrinal conflict and its sex abuse scandal [are] converging in a single destabilizing crisis."

It is, nonetheless, worth beginning with the moral scandal by way of context. Indeed, it is those concerned that its implications are being exaggerated who most frequently draw attention to the sordid activities of pre-Reformation Rome, not least those of her "Renaissance popes." That the gates of hell did not prevail against the church even when headed by Alexander VI or Julius II is meant to provide some comfort amid ongoing revelations of moral turpitude throughout the current hierarchy. And of course it might do so, but only by drawing explicit attention to the historical parallels.

Abuse of Power & Privilege

There were, of course, influential and orthodox Catholics even in the sixteenth century who protested the corruptions all too evident within the church and sought her reform. Among them, for example, were those commissioned by Pope Paul III to identify the disease and suggest its cure. Their pointedly honest report of 1537, Advice Concerning the Reform of the Church, was quietly set aside (and subsequently placed on the Index of Prohibited Books). The American bishops meeting in Baltimore last November, whose own proposed remedies were unceremoniously rebuffed by the Vatican, might be consoled with the reminder that there's nothing new under the sun (and that the Index is no longer operative).

Whether or not Paul III's advisors deemed their report's suppression an instance of self-protective "clericalism," those today who identify this as the most problematic root of the contemporary crisis might recall that anti-clericalism was at least one of the many factors making the Protestant Reformation possible. Not that those advocating reform, whether Catholic or Protestant, objected to the clerical office itself; most were simply critical of the manner in which the men inhabiting that office so casually abused its power and privilege. If that power and privilege allowed clergy to resist calls for reform, they suggested, it might become necessary for the laity—and perhaps especially those holding the alternative but also divinely ordained power of the temporal sword—to act for the good of both the church and society.

Contemporary Catholics who identify the laity as key to resolving the long-running abuse crisis might therefore begin to understand Martin Luther's emphasis on the "priesthood of all believers" (even if he never used that precise phrase). Those who applaud and even encourage state grand jury investigations might similarly understand why Luther entertained the idea of princes intervening as "emergency bishops."

Widespread Doctrinal Confusion

But of course, the Reformation was never only, or even primarily, about clerical immorality. From the beginning, the controversies revolved around questions of theology. And some doctrinal questions were particularly acute on account of the widespread confusions and contentions of the late medieval era, which historians describe as one of "endemic doctrinal plurality," with a "lack of theological clarity." Recognizing that this was the context out of which the Reformation grew, the faithful might have even greater reason for concern about the confusions created already in Francis's short pontificate. This is the case not least because the source of recent confusions lies not only in a number of the pope's unguarded and informal remarks. Francis's more controversial judgments—about God willing religious pluralism, the impermissibility of capital punishment, or the possibility of communion for the divorced and remarried—are enshrined in official documents in which he ostensibly speaks for the church.

Moreover, such statements have provoked controversy not merely because they contribute to the confusion that might understandably exist in the absence of previous pronouncements. This was the sort of confusion that often reigned in the late Middle Ages, before the Council of Trent formally pronounced, for example, against Gabriel Biel's understanding of justification in favor of Thomas Aquinas's, or against Jerome's understanding of the canon in favor of Augustine's. The contentions of recent years arise instead from the belief that Francis and others are giving official sanction to wholly novel teachings—not merely doctrines the church has not previously proposed, but even those she has clearly and consistently spoken against.

Again, echoes from the Reformation era might be heard. At least in 1517, when his 95 Theses inaugurated what would eventually become a schism within the church, Luther was quite clear that he had no quarrel with indulgences per se, but with the dangerously confusing manner in which they were publicly offered and discussed, especially by those who could not claim ignorance as an excuse. (The indulgence preacher Johann Tetzel, for instance, was both a Dominican friar and soon-to-be Doctor of Theology.) To the Archbishop of Mainz, Luther explained, "I bewail the gross misunderstanding among the people which comes from these preachers. . . . Evidently the poor souls believe that when they have bought indulgence letters they are then assured of their salvation."

But Luther also raised the thornier question of whether the particular kind of indulgence offered by Tetzel was sufficiently warranted by the church's own tradition. Though grants of indulgences for the living could be traced back centuries, the first papal indulgence for the dead was offered less than a decade before Luther's own birth. And Pope Sixtus IV's judgment of 1476 not only appeared to be at odds with a substantial body of previous teaching, as Luther noted; it generated such controversy that he felt obligated to issue a formal clarification the following year. Even then, the indulgence doctrine that "must be held and preached by all" did not receive formal definition until the promulgation of Cum Postquam in 1518, after the Reformation was already in motion.

Studied Neglect & Wishful Thinking

Further still, the very normality of such contentions and confusions served to generate more. When Pope Leo X was made aware of the controversy brewing in Wittenberg, he initially dismissed it as mere "monkish squabbling"—entirely typical, not worth addressing, and so best ignored. One might be forgiven for thinking such a reaction bears some resemblance to Francis's own studied neglect of the important questions raised by the "dubia cardinals" and, more recently, by Archbishop Carlo Viganò. Or for thinking that Cardinal Cupich was reading from Leo's playbook when he said of Viganò's accusations, "The pope has a bigger agenda; he's got to get on with other things," and so would not "go down a rabbit hole on this." Because that has indeed been the case, intra-Catholic "squabbling" has only been amplified. "It's as if the Borgias and the Medicis had Twitter accounts," according to one historian of the Church.

But the lack of clarity went both ways then as much as it does now. Cardinal Gerhard Müller, former Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, has attempted to explain recent discord within the church by suggesting that, although Francis himself is an "orthodox Catholic," he has unhelpfully surrounded himself with an "exclusive circle" of sycophants with a "courtier mentality." In so doing, Müller sounds startlingly like Luther, who still in 1520 was insisting that the pope surely agreed with him, and that the real problem was therefore not to be found in Peter's chair, but in those surrounding it. "You, Leo, sit as a lamb in the midst of wolves," he could write to the pope, "and like Daniel in the midst of lions."

Luther was eventually forced to realize that this analysis was an exercise in wishful thinking. And, indeed, evidence of his naiveté was not lacking even before 1520. To the question of whether some mistake might have been made with Leo's allowance of the indulgences offered by Tetzel, he had already received the forceful reply of the pope's personal theologian. Writing two years earlier, Sylvester Prierias, Master of the Sacred Palace, bluntly explained that "whoever says that the Church of Rome may not do what it is actually doing is a heretic." That may not be the precise equivalent of Vatican advisor Thomas Rosica claiming that Pope Francis "breaks Catholic traditions whenever he wants," because the Church is "ruled by an individual rather than by the authority of Scripture alone or even its own dictates of tradition plus Scripture." But, again, the similarities are difficult to miss—perhaps especially if one is a concerned Catholic whose ouster or demotion came curiously quickly on the heels of public criticism of the pontiff.

The Hazards of Delaying Clarification

Though there are others, one final parallel, perhaps the most significant, deserves mention. Despite the pervasive moral scandals and theological confusions of the late medieval church, the council that would eventually effect both moral reform and doctrinal clarity was long delayed. Among the factors explaining the delay, there was a justified fear that a council might revive the only recently quieted debates between "conciliarist" and "papalist" understandings of primacy within the church. Given the controversy and confusion that have reigned since the close of Vatican II, it would likewise be understandable if some were to fret about the potential outcomes of another council.

But the Council of Trent was finally convened because other options had been exhausted. Persuasion, polemic, and pyres had all failed to prevent mass defections from a church that appeared unable to articulate its doctrines clearly and unwilling to enforce its disciplines consistently. If the judgments of Vatican II are correct, however, most of those who left the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century did so for what are recognized as authentically Christian "ecclesial communities." Today's disillusioned, at least according to Pew Center data, are just as likely to abandon Christianity altogether. Viewed in these terms, the "biggest crisis since the Reformation" is arguably bigger even than its predecessor. So long as decisive doctrinal clarifications and effective disciplinary reforms are avoided and delayed, it only threatens to grow worse.  

Korey D. Maas is an associate professor of history at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan.

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