While the Reformation divided the Church, it must be said that it was brought on by her own inability and unwillingness to repent and turn to the Gospel. We can see some of the same trends today in our society and Church.
As a conservative and a Catholic it is all too easy to look back on the destruction wrought by the Reformation and clamber into one’s Catholic bunker, take pot shots over the barricades, and blame Martin Luther and his team for just about everything terrible in the modern world.
It can’t be denied that the Reformation was an earthquake that broke Western Christendom not just in two, but into smithereens. One strand of argument says that the Reformation not only divided Christendom, but it also enshrined the principle of violent division as a method of achieving change. Instead of development there was destruction. Instead of evolution there was revolution. The five hundred years after the Protestant rupture plunged Europe into one bitter war after another, culminating in the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and two horrible world wars.
It is an argument that can be made, but what intrigues me more is the sad state of affairs before the Reformation. While there were real signs of renewal from within the Catholic Church in the late Middle Ages, it must admitted that the original complaints of the Reformers were often all too true. Superstition and corruption were widespread. If the Catholic Church did not officially teach salvation by works, the ordinary person felt like she did. The burden of guilt and the pressure for perfection through priestcraft, pilgrimages, and penances did engender a mentality of working ones’s way to heaven.
The immorality and decadence that accompanies wealth weighed down church and society. Along with the open immorality, clerical pluralism and simony were rife, with the sons of the aristocracy going into holy orders and bribing their way to the plump abbacies, bishoprics, and parishes so they could be enriched by the enforced tithe system. The sale of indulgences did encourage simony and superstition. It was greedy and grotesque.
Early reform initiatives sparked by the Waldensians, John Wycliffe, and Jan Hus faltered and fell under persecution, while the members of the hierarchy, in hand with the aristocrats, either ignored the need for reform or resisted it bitterly. Fifteenth-century Florence was a prime example of the decadence of late medieval society and total resistance to reform. Known for extravagance, prostitution, sodomy, immodesty and drunkenness, Florence fell under the spell of the fiery Dominican, Girolamo Savonarola. Often portrayed as a wild-eyed fanatic, Savonarola was actually one of the proto-reformers. Preaching against the vice and wickedness in Florence, he incurred the wrath of the obnoxious Borgia Pope Alexander VI, finally paying for his daring preaching at the stake.
While the Reformation divided the Church, it must be said that it was brought on by her own inability and unwillingness to repent and turn to the Gospel. The voices calling for renewal and reform were met with violence and suppression until reform became irresistible, and, unfortunately, the pressure for reform finally ended in revolution, and the desire for renewal ended in rupture.
What compels me most on this commemoration of the Reformation is the need for a new reformation today. When we consider the causes of the Reformation, we can see some of the same trends today in our society and Church. However, these trends are not particularly Protestant or Catholic. The decadence and doctrinal drift are at epidemic proportions in the progressive arms of both the Protestant and Catholic Churches. Furthermore, they are the same problems that faced the late medieval Church albeit, in a different incarnation.
There are four main causes of this decline of the Church in the West. The first is the weakness and decadence that comes from wealth and an easy life. Christians in the West, like the ruling elite Catholics of the late medieval period, are blinded by wealth, pleasure and power. Furthermore, they do not see that they are blinded by their wealth, but pride themselves on their possessions and wealth.
Secondly, like the late medieval Church, we do not preach salvation by works explicitly, but in fact that is what progressive Christianity has become. No more do we hear the old, old story of a fallen humanity in need of redemption. No more do we hear the call to repentance and the appeal for faith so that we might be saved. Instead our religion has become one long litany of ways to make the world a better place. We save whales now, not souls. We are concerned with global warming, no longer fearing that greater and more intense heat below. We spend all our time on political campaigns and efforts to relieve poverty, fight oppression, and help the needy. This is a religion of salvation by works. In fact it is no more than good works because the progressive Christian is a universalist and does not believe salvation is necessary and to speak about such things is an error in taste.
Thirdly, Christians of our age, like those of the fifteenth century are too often ignorant of the power and glory of Sacred Scripture. The Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura was born in the ignorance and disregard of the Bible in the late Middle Ages. In our modern age we are just as ignorant of the Bible, and we disregard it not out of ignorance or illiteracy, but because of the devastating results of a century of destructive Biblical criticism. We know the Bible but we don’t believe it. We know it, but believe it to be a hodge podge, a badly edited human construct rather than the Word of God.
Finally, like the Church of the late Middle Ages, modern Christianity in the West is not only grossly immoral, but justifies the immorality and blames anyone, like Savonarola, who dares to point out the sin and corruption. With same-sex marriages celebrated in Protestant churches, with church leaders allowing divorce and remarriage, condoning abortion and cozying up to wealthy benefactors, the corruption and decadence is rife, and most Western Christians can’t see it and erupt in anger like a Borgia pope should anyone have the nerve to confront it. However, unlike the Borgia pope, they control their anger and with mock piety say, “This saddens me that someone should preach about sin. It’s sooo divisive!”
For this Reformation Day, therefore, I would call for a new reformation in the Church. Progressive Christians in all denominations need to look again at the basic message of the reformers, stop the idea of salvation by works, turn back to the Scriptures, turn away from the worship of wealth and power, and repent of gross sexual immorality and corruption, which is not only tolerated but celebrated in mainstream Protestantism and in too many Catholic institutions, chanceries, rectories, Vatican consistories, and colleges.
Call me Savonarola, but instead of more theological, ecumenical happy meals, Catholics and Protestants alike need to throw their vanities on the bonfire.
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The featured image is a portrait of Girolamo Savonarola (circa 1497-1498) by Fra Bartolomeo and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.