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Don’t Blame the Reformation

The seeds of Western religious and philosophical unraveling were planted centuries earlier

A reader sent me a copy of a slashing essay by Carl Trueman, taking apart Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation, which (mostly) blames Protestantism for the secularization of society. It makes some very good points that must be considered in our attempt to understand How We Got Here. Note well that I am not a historian, and I’m not taking sides on this issue (read: I don’t want to get dragged into Catholic vs. Protestant polemics). I offer this for the sake of understanding. If we want to get out of this place, we have to know how we got into it.

Trueman begins by stating his respect for Catholicism, but saying that Gregory and his defenders are whitewashing medieval and Renaissance Catholic history, particularly the things that led to the Reformation. He concedes that Protestantism has a huge problem settling on the correct interpretation of Scripture because it lacks a central authority. But this didn’t come from nowhere. Excerpt:

Yes, it is true that Protestant interpretive diversity is an empirical fact; but when it comes to selectivity in historical reading as a means of creating a false impression of stability, Roman Catholic approaches to the Papacy provide some excellent examples of such fallacious method.  The ability to ignore or simply dismiss as irrelevant the empirical facts of papal history is quite an impressive feat of historical and theological selectivity. Thus, as all sides need to face empirical facts and the challenges they raise, here are a few we might want to consider, along with what seem to me (as a Protestant outsider) to be the usual Roman Catholic responses:

Empirical fact: The Papacy as an authoritative institution was not there in the early centuries. 

Never mind.  Put together a doctrine of development whereby Christians – or at least some of them, those of whom we choose to approve in retrospect on the grounds we agree with what they say  – eventually come to see the Pope as uniquely authoritative.

Empirical fact: The Papacy was corrupt in the later Middle Ages, building its power and status on political antics, forged documents and other similar scams. 

Ignore it, excuse it as a momentary aberration and perhaps, if pressed, even offer a quick apology. Then move swiftly on to assure everyone it is all sorted out now and start talking about John Paul II or Benedict XVI.  Whatever you do, there is no need to allow this fact to have any significance for how one understands the theory of papal power in the abstract or in the present.

Empirical fact: The Papacy was in such a mess at the beginning of the fifteenth century that it needed a council to decide who of the multiple claimants to Peter’s seat was the legitimate pope.

Again, this was merely a momentary aberration but it has no significance for the understanding of papal authority.  After all, it was so long ago and so far away.

Empirical fact: The church failed (once again) to put its administrative, pastoral, moral and doctrinal house in order at the Fifth Lateran Council at the start of the sixteenth century.  

Forget it.  Emphasise instead the vibrant piety of the late medieval church and then blame the ungodly Protestants for their inexplicable protests and thus for the collapse of the medieval social, political and theological structure of Europe.

Perhaps it is somewhat aggressive to pose these points in such a blunt form. Again, I intend no disrespect but am simply responding with the same forthrightness with which certain writers speak of Protestantism. The problem here is that the context for the Reformation – the failure of the papal system to reform itself, a failure in itself lethal to notions of papal power and authority – seems to have been forgotten in all of the recent aggressive attacks on scriptural perspicuity.  These are all empirical facts and they are all routinely excused, dismissed or simply ignored by Roman Catholic writers. Perspicuity was not the original problem; it was intended as the answer.   One can believe it to be an incorrect, incoherent, inadequate answer; but then one must come up with something better – not simply act as if shouting the original problem louder will make everything all right. Such an approach to history and theology is what I call the Emerald City protocol: when defending the great and powerful Oz, one must simply pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

Trueman points out that it’s simply not true that Catholicism today offers a unified doctrinal front in the face of Protestant disarray. That really is true, and something that Protestants who despair of the messes in their own churches don’t see when they idealize Rome. As Trueman points out, the Roman Catholic Church is enormous, and contains within it believers — even priests and theologians — who believe and teach things completely opposed to each other, and even to authoritative Catholic teaching. I have spoken to Catholics in Catholic educational institutions who are afraid to voice public support for Roman Catholic teaching on homosexuality for fear of being punished by the Roman Catholic authorities who run those institutions. The institution of the papacy has done little or nothing to arrest this. Maybe there’s not much it can do. The point is, though, that having a Catechism and having a Magisterium presided over by a Pope is no guarantee that your church won’t fall into de facto disarray. Roman Catholicism on the ground in the United States is effectively a Mainline Protestant church.

That is not an argument against Catholic ecclesiology, strictly speaking. But it’s something that Catholics who defend it against Protestantism must account for. And it’s fair to ask why it is that having such a strong hierarchical and doctrinal system has produced at least two generations of American Catholics who don’t know their faith, and who are no different from non-Evangelical Protestants, or non-believers. From a review of Catholic sociologist Christian Smith’s 2014 book Young Catholic America:

The good news in Young Catholic America is that, for all the talk about the Church’s decline, today’s American Catholics between ages 18 and 25 are not so different from their predecessors of the 1970s and 80s. That’s also the bad news. As in decades past, only a minority of Catholic young adults attend Mass most or all Sundays (34 percent in the 1970s, 20 percent in the 2000s), pray daily (36 percent in the 80s, 45 percent now), and rate their religious affiliation as strong (26 percent in both the 1970s and the 2000s).

Disagreement with the Church’s most controversial moral teachings is also common: 33 percent of young Catholics consider abortion OK for any reason, 43 percent consider homosexual sex not wrong at all (one of few numbers that has changed markedly), and more than 90 percent reject the Church’s ban on premarital sex. As the authors conclude, “whatever religious decline that may have happened must have taken place before the 1970s,” most likely during the upheaval following the Second Vatican Council and the 1968 release of Humanae Vitae, the encyclical reiterating the Church’s longstanding ban on artificial birth control.

Since that time, Catholics’ religious practices and moral views have hardly differed from those of their non-Catholic peers. In other life outcomes, from mental health and family relationships to educational attainment and volunteer activities, the same story broadly applies. Today, even young adults who were raised unequivocally Catholic—as teens they had Catholic parents, attended Mass regularly, and self-identified as Catholic—say that you don’t need the Church to be religious (74 percent) and that it’s OK to pick and choose your beliefs (64 percent). They do not accept the Church as an authoritative teacher of Christian doctrine and do not consider the Church necessary to their spiritual lives at all: by baptism they are Catholic but by belief, they are effectively Protestant.

(Note this too, when we talk about the Benedict Option:

The factors from the teenage years that predict Catholics’ high religiosity later are largely what one would expect: considering faith important, having highly religious Catholic parents and knowing other supportive religious adults, praying alone frequently, reporting personal religious experiences, attending Mass, having religious friends, etc.

You have to have a family and a community that takes the faith seriously, have to worship, have to engage in disciplined habits that inculcate the faith. You have to have some form of the Benedict Option. If you read on in that review, the reviewer says that Smith’s analysis finds that lackadaisical affiliation with church, or just going to Catholic school or college, does nothing for you.)

Back to the Trueman essay. He identifies what he calls “the ironic, tragic, perplexing flaw of this brilliant and learned book:

Dr. Gregory sets out to prove that Protestantism is the source of all, or at least many, of the modern world’s ills; but what he actually does is demonstrate in painstaking and compelling detail that medieval Catholicism and the Papacy with which it was inextricably bound up were ultimately inadequate to the task which they set – which they claimed! – for themselves.  Reformation Protestantism, if I can use the singular, was one response to this failure, as conciliarism had been a hundred years before.  One can dispute the adequacy of such responses; but only by an act of historical denial can one dispute the fact that it was the Papacy which failed.

Thanks to the death of medieval Christendom and to the havoc caused by the Reformation and beyond, Dr Gregory is today free to believe (or not) that Protestantism is an utter failure.  Thanks to the printing press, he is also free to express this in a public form. Thanks to the modern world which grew as a response to the failure of Roman Catholicism, he is also free to choose his own solution to the problems of modernity without fear of rack or rope. Yet, having said all that, I for one find it strange indeed that someone would choose as the solution that which was actually the problem in the first place.

Read the whole thing.

It must also be remembered that the victory of Nominalism was something that happened within the Catholic Church, a couple of centuries before the Reformation. I believe that the Reformation was a tragedy for the universal church, as was the Great Schism before it. Every Christian church has a lot to answer for, and at this point in our common history, triumphalist pride is unwarranted. Orthodoxy has serious problems too. Nothing I say here should be read as chest-beating on behalf of Orthodoxy. Again, I’m exploring these ideas too, and want to know how we got to this place, and how we might reverse course.

In his book Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry, theologian Hans Boersma discusses the forces in medieval theology that let to the unweaving of that tapestry in the West. He cites the work of the 20th century Catholic nouvelle theologians in identifying how the West lost the strong sense of the sacramental that the “Great Tradition” had upheld until the Middle Ages (in the West). In brief, Boersma says the nouvelle theologians cited the vastly increased power of the papacy in the late 11th century, as a result of Gregorian reforms and a clash with the Holy Roman Emperor, as having a lot to do with the loss of sacramental consciousness among Christians. The gist of the claim is that the more totalizing and “juridical” the medieval Church became, the less sacred, set apart, its work seemed to be.

Plus, the discovery by Western theologians of Aristotle brought a new way of thinking into Latin Christianity, one that overturned the “Platonist-Christian” view of the tradition till that point, and that emphasized the difference between the natural and the supernatural (this is not a distinction recognized in Eastern Christian thought, it must be said).

There’s more to it than that, of course, but the bottom line, according to Boersma, is that these Catholic theologians, writing in the 1930s and 1940s, recognized that the loss of sacramental consciousness began long before the Reformation — and moreover, is today a problem for both Catholics and Protestants.

Boersma goes on to discuss how Nominalists severed the tenuous link between God and Creation by teaching the “univocity” of God, and the denial of universals — the result of which was to make God one being among others (though the supreme one) and to sever the ontological link between Creator and Creation.

Over time, this philosophical leap led to where we are today: in a disenchanted, atomized, post-virtue world in which we cannot bear the burden of constructing our own truths.

The point in this post is simply to acknowledge Trueman’s point: that you cannot blame it all, or even mostly, on the Reformation. I do wonder, though, what role Orthodox Christianity has to play in re-introducing the Western Church to a robust sacramentalism…

UPDATE: A Catholic theologian reader writes:

I think that review you quoted about the Reformation wasn’t quite fair in its summary of Brad Gregory’s argument. Having actually read Gregory, Gregory is clear and honest about that the medieval Church was corrupt, and he’s more nuanced than the reviewer allows about how to solve it. Here’s Archbishop Chaput’s review of that book, which hints at Gregory’s real argument. Excerpt:

Gregory also shows that while the Reformers lit the fuse, medieval Catholics laid the dynamite. Late medieval laity were, quite often, profoundly pious. And because they were pious, they minded when their leaders weren’t. Pious laypeople had an appetite for reform precisely because of their devotion. Late medieval clergy too often preached one thing and did another. Greed, simony, nepotism, luxury, sexual license, and schism in the hierarchy created an intolerable gap between Christian preaching and practice.

Many Catholics worked for reform from within. Some had success. Franciscans, Dominicans, and Cistercians owe their origins to medieval reform. Humanists such as Erasmus and Thomas More were part of an international community of letters determined to renew Christian life from the inside. Saints such as Catherine of Siena and Bernard of Clairvaux spoke truth to ecclesiastical power.

But one key difference separated these Catholic voices from the Protestant Reformers: The Catholics believed that the Church had her teachings right. She just needed to actually live them. The Catholics believed that Christ’s presence in the Eucharist and other sacraments, in the Scriptures, in the saints, and in the Church’s historic doctrines offered an authentic, all-encompassing Christian way of life sufficient to sanctify human existence—if it was actually embraced and shorn of its abuses.

The Protestants, preaching sola scriptura, threw much of it away.

Talk amongst yourselves.