The Reformation: 500 years later

Historians sometimes say the Protestant Reformation would have happened anyway, even if there had been no Martin Luther. Five hundred years later, it’s an open question whether that is so. But the historical fact is that the vast upheaval in Christianity that actually occurred bears the lasting imprint of this most unusual man.

At least partly in recognition of that, Pope Francis will travel to Lund, Sweden, on Oct. 31 for a Lutheran World Federation event launching the anniversary observance of what Luther began.

Thousands upon thousands of words have been devoted to Luther. He has been psychoanalyzed, praised to the skies and roundly condemned. Catholic historian Christopher Dawson’s description sums him up as well as any: “a man of titanic power and energy, who combined … the vernacular eloquence of the demagogue with the religious conviction of the prophet.”

One of his convictions, shared with many others, was that “in head and members” the Catholic Church of the early 16th century was badly in need of reform.

To an alarming extent, popes had adopted the interests and style of Italian princes and become embroiled in the game of secular politics and intrigue. The diocesan clergy numbered many good men but also many who were poorly educated and living in concubinage. And with few exceptions, laypeople were even more ignorant than their priests.

Worst of all perhaps were the bishops. Many held title to several sees but seldom or never visited any of them while drawing revenue from them all.

When Cardinal Charles Borromeo, later declared a saint, settled in Milan in 1565, it was the first time in a century its bishop had lived there.

On the other hand, the abuses undoubtedly existing in the Church in those days can be — and often are — exaggerated.

Efforts at reform had begun before the Reformation. These included the Fifth Lateran Council (1512-1517), a gathering of limited but real achievement; a steady drumbeat of criticism by reform-minded intellectuals like Erasmus of Rotterdam; the emergence of new, deeply committed religious groups and movements; and — as historian Eamon Duffy of Cambridge University has shown in the case of rural England — the lively devotional life of many ordinary Catholics focused especially on the Eucharist and veneration of Mary and the saints.

In short, there was a complex mix of good and bad in the Church when Martin Luther arrived on the scene.

Luther’s theses

Martin Luther was born Nov. 10, 1483, in a small German town in what was then called Electoral Saxony. After a stern upbringing, he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in preparation for studying law.

But at the age of 22, having vowed to become a monk if he survived a violent electrical storm that had burst over his head as he rode in open country, he entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt. Remarkable to say, he was ordained a priest just two years later and only then undertook formal theological studies.

Pieces of Luther's Theses
According to tradition, on Oct. 31, 1517, Martin Luther, a 35-year-old Augustinian friar and professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg, Germany, nailed 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg, thus announcing his willingness to uphold them in public debate with any and all comers. The abuse of indulgences was his special target. Five hundred years later, Luther’s action is observed as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Following is a sample of Luther’s 95 theses.

In 1513, Luther began teaching theology at the University of Wittenberg. There he was scandalized and infuriated by a patent abuse involving the sale of indulgences, or something close to it, so as to raise money to be divided between the local bishop and the pope — the latter in constant need of funds to build the new St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

The turning point came on the eve of All Saints Day in 1517 when, according to the traditional account, Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of a local church, thus inviting public theological dispute with whomever cared to debate him. Did this actually happen? Perhaps so. This was a common practice in academic circles at the time, rather like publishing an article in a scholarly journal these days. Whatever happened, its anniversary is celebrated annually as Reformation Day by Lutherans and other Protestants throughout the world.

The theses make instructive reading. Luther repeatedly and to good effect skewers the abuse of indulgences in sarcastic and often violent terms. He also does much more — and it foreshadows the break with Rome soon to comeGrowing divide

The break was clear by the time of Luther’s “Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation” less than three years later. Here, he declares the pope to be subject to the authority of a general council; strictly limits the remaining authority of the Holy See; teaches a doctrine of the priesthood of the faithful according to which laypeople are priests just as the ordained clergy are; argues that the Bible is the ultimate authority in the Church, and every Christian can interpret the meaning of Scripture for himself.

Those who teach otherwise, he says — notably including popes and their minions — are “the communion of Antichrist and of the devil.”

But not a few readers come away from such texts with a different impression. For Martin Luther, the true ultimate authority in matters of faith is neither a general council nor even the Bible, but Martin Luther himself.

After fruitless efforts to reach agreement with him, Pope Leo X, condemning Luther’s key doctrines as “either heretical, scandalous, false, offensive to pious ears or seductive of simple minds,” excommunicated him in 1521.

Central to Luther’s thinking is his doctrine of justification — how God freely chooses to save fallen human beings from their sin. As Luther sees it, justification is altogether God’s work; human beings bring nothing to it but their state of sin and, if they are fortunate, their faith in Christ’s redeeming power. Good works do not count.

The sacraments are reduced to two in the new thinking — baptism and the Eucharist. Luther believed in the Real Presence, after a fashion, but Lutheranism rejected the sacrificial nature of the Mass, seeing it only as a ritual meal. The pope was condemned as Antichrist, as was any form of allegiance to him.

In the document declaring Luther excommunicated, Pope Leo expressed hope “that he will experience a change of heart,” but there was no chance of that happening as his movement grew. Many priests either went over to Lutheranism or quit the ministry. Monks and nuns in large numbers abandoned their monasteries and convents and many married, as did Luther, who in 1525 married a former nun.

More than a reform

A powerful and often remarkably coarse writer, Luther spread his new teachings in an outpouring of highly polemical texts. Vastly assisting him was the new technology of printing by which he broadcast his ideas to a growing audience of followers. A recent writer calls him “the world’s first mass-media figure.”

Still more helpful to Luther than the printing press were the protection and patronage of the powerful ruler of Saxony, Frederick III, and, in time, other German princes who took up the Lutheran cause as part of their political — and eventually military — campaign to throw off the authority of the Catholic emperor, Charles V.

Francis in Sweden
Pope Francis speaks during an Oct. 13 audience with a pilgrimage of Catholics and Lutherans from Germany at the Vatican. CNS photo via Girogio Onorati, EPA
During his two-day trip to Sweden on Oct. 31-Nov. 1, Pope Francis will focus much of his efforts on ecumenism, specifically the Catholic Church’s relationship with the Lutheran Church, which is marking the start of a yearlong commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.

The oft-told told story of this conflict is too complex to summarize here. Suffice it to say that Charles V was spread too thin and too distracted by the ominous military threat of Islam to the East. After 35 years of war, a treaty between the Protestant princes and the emperor signaled something very like a draw, with Germany divided between the Protestants of the north and the Catholics in the south.

Luther was long dead by then, having passed from the scene in 1546. Of the settlement of 1555, Dawson remarks that it was “often regarded as a triumph for German Protestantism.”

But Dawson notes: “Actually it was a defeat, no doubt of the traditional Catholic order in Church and State, but no less of Luther’s ideals of Christian Reformation. The cause that triumphed was that of the Revolution of the Princes.” The winner, in other words, was the military and political power of the newly rising nation-state.

The movement launched by Martin Luther first began to be called Protestant in 1529. By then it was clear to almost everyone that it envisaged far more than a “reform” of the Catholic Church. The object was the overthrow of Catholicism and its replacement with something new and radically different.

A new reformer

Other new religious groups and leaders had begun to appear by then — groups like the anarchic and disorganized body of zealots known as Anabaptists, and individuals like the theologically innovative Ulrich Zwingli of Switzerland, who died young in Catholic-Protestant fighting in 1531. (Upon learning of Zwingli’s death, Luther called it a “triumph” and thanked God for removing a rival from the scene.)

Meanwhile, the same potent intermingling of Protestant religious forces with political interests appeared repeatedly in places besides Germany. Nowhere was that more the case than it was in Switzerland, where the chief Protestant figure was John Calvin.

With Luther, Calvin was one of the two main figures of the Reformation, and the rise to prominence of a man who was a quarter-century younger than Luther signaled the second major phase of the Reformation.

Born in 1509 in northeastern France, Calvin studied law and classics. For reasons not entirely clear, he had quit the Catholic Church by 1534. In March 1536, he published the first version of a treatise that was to make him famous: the “Institutes of the Christian Religion.” The years that followed brought three more versions of the Institutes, with the massive final text of 1560 having grown to four times the length of the first.

To a great extent, Calvin followed Luther’s teaching, stressing things like the total corruption of human nature and predestination, together with the somewhat reassuring corollary that, once saved, a person cannot be lost. His special contribution lay in the area of ecclesiology — the structure, governance and authority of the Church. Dawson calls him “the great organizing genius of the Reformation.”

Rise of Calvinism

Calvin’s vision of society was deeply theocratic.

He writes that the duty of “princes and magistrates” is to “keep in true purity the public form of religion.” Needless to say, authority to determine the content of religion rested firmly in the hands of its ministers, whose power in turn came to them directly from the word of God as found in Scripture.

Calvin followed his theocratic prescription in his own life and career. He arrived in Geneva in 1536, remaining there — with some conflicts and interruptions — until his death in 1564 and becoming, in the words of Catholic historian Philip Hughes, a “kind of pope in the Reformation world.” The nature of the Calvinist regime is suggested by this from Hughes:

“Playing cards were forbidden, and dice, light songs, dancing; the taverns were closed. ... There were, of course, the five weekly sermons which all must attend. ... The fashion of dress, for men and for women, was regulated, and the women’s hairstyles also.”

And of course, any hint of the old religion — Catholicism, that is — was strictly forbidden, including the celebration of Mass and the use of Latin.

As Calvin’s reputation flourished and his teaching spread, religious groups and churches of Calvinist inspiration sprang up elsewhere. The Huguenots of France were Calvinists, as were the Presbyterians of Scotland and the Puritans of England, Scotland and Wales, and in due course the Puritans of New England as well. The pervasive influence of John Calvin led Catholic apologist Hilaire Belloc to conclude that “wherever the Protestant type of mind exists, it is Calvin at work.”

England breaks away

In England and in France, the Reformation in its origins was not a popular uprising but a wedge used by the monarchy to create a national church under its control.

The process was incomplete in France, where even the movement called “Gallicanism” stopped short of claiming to be a separate church. With the passing of time, however, it became near-total in England. It began with Henry VIII.

Pope Clement VII (left) refused to annul King Henry Vill's marriage with Catherine of Aragon, which would allow him to marry Anne Boleyn (right). Henry Vlll then appointed himself head of the Church in England. Shutterstock
The movement launched by Martin Luther rapidly became a general revolt against the authority, doctrine and structure of the Catholic Church and enlisted the support of secular rulers. Having sought reconciliation with the German friar, Pope Leo X condemned Luther’s “pernicious errors” and declared him excommunicated from the Church.

The irony is that, since early in his reign, Henry had been a determined critic of Lutheranism. So much so that Pope Leo X bestowed on him the title the Defender of the Faith in recognition of his tract “A Defence of the Seven Sacraments,” a vigorous refutation of Luther published in 1521. Even after his break with Rome, Henry’s aim is described as being “to keep England Catholic without the pope.”

But the break with Rome was real and lasting. It had two principal causes: the King’s desire for a male heir, whom his marriage with Catherine of Aragon failed to produce, and his infatuation with a woman of the royal court named Anne Boleyn.

Henry’s campaign to win Pope Clement’s approval for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine — “the King’s divorce” it was called at the time — began in 1527.

In 1533, having set aside Catherine, Henry married Anne, with his hand-picked Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, obligingly holding the marriage to Catherine to be null. In the end, Pope Clement ruled against the king on the annulment question and declared him and his collaborators excommunicated.

Henry then had Parliament recognize him as Supreme Head of the Church in England and required his subjects to take an oath affirming recognition of him as such. Those who refused paid for it.

Among the victims of this bloody persecution: St. John Fisher, bishop of Rochester and the lone member of the English hierarchy to stand up against the king, and St. Thomas More, Henry’s former lord chancellor. The two martyrs were executed within a few days of each other in 1535. Their joint feast day is celebrated yearly on June 22.

Christendom’s modern era

Accompanying the executions was the suppression of convents and monasteries, together with the seizure of their property and its distribution to members of the nobility as a reward for supporting the king’s policies. The process was supervised by Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s chief minister and for years the most powerful man in England after him.

Alas for Cromwell, like many another royal favorites, he eventually fell from favor and was executed in 1540. Archbishop Cranmer, author of the Anglican Church’s much-loved and highly influential “Book of Common Prayer,” survived until 1556, when he was executed for treason during the brief Catholic restoration under Queen Mary.

As for Henry VIII, having “married” and dispatched five women after Catherine of Aragon, he died in 1547. By the end, Belloc writes, he was “something of a monster.”

Monster or not, though, he set British Christianity forever on a path that would end with an established Anglican Church and the Protestantization of the nation.

The process was definitively completed during the long reign (1558-1603) of the daughter of King Henry and Anne Boleyn, Queen Elizabeth I, and was largely directed by Elizabeth’s powerful chief minister William Cecil (Lord Burghley), known to history as “the author of Protestant England.”

By the early 17th century, the results of the upheaval begun by Martin Luther were visible all through Europe. The cultural unity of Christendom grounded in Catholic faith that had existed for a millennium lay shattered. New national states, sometimes Protestant, sometimes Catholic, had sprung up and put down roots.

The seeds of secularization were planted. A new age — the modern age — had begun.

Next: Read Part 2 of our look at the Protestant Reformation, which explores how the Catholic Church responded with its counter-reformation.

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.