Protestant Reformation and the radical schism of Christianity

Father John A. Kiley
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October 31 will mark the 499th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Pope Francis will be travelling to Sweden, once a Lutheran stronghold, to begin a year of inter-religious observances of those sixteenth century events that challenged and enriched the Roman Catholic Church. Although Martin Luther will be the name most often cited in talk of the Reformation, this Augustinian Friar had several predecessors. John Wycliffe in England, John Hus in Moravia and Giralomo Savonarola in Italy shared many of Luther’s later complaints. Frankly the Roman Catholic Church was ripe, if not for reformation, then definitely for renewal. The Catholic Church in the early Renaissance period evoked much controversial discussion, but corruption in high places was probably the immediate occasion for the revolt of Luther and his contemporaries, Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland and William Tyndale in England.

When the Popes returned to Rome from their seventy-year exile in Avignon, France, much of the Eternal City was in disrepair. In fact the Lateran Palace, the true diocesan home of the Popes, attached to the Church of St. John Lateran, the cathedral Church of Rome, was in such disrepair that the Popes had to live at St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican Hill. The renewal of these long neglected churches was the occasion for Pope Leo X to send fund raisers throughout Europe to gather the needed finances for the renovation of these historic buildings. The now infamous Dominican friar Johann Tetzel was actually a renowned preacher but also an aggressive salesman who is remembered, rightly or wrongly, for allegedly granting indulgences in exchange for money. Luther had already been disenchanted with the raising of funds in various dioceses through the veneration of relics. Pilgrims would journey to various holy sites to honor the relics of their patron saints and, of course, enrich the area churches and merchants with their donations and purchases. Relics were big business.

The largest collection of relics in Europe belonged to Cardinal Albert of Brandenburg, Elector and Archbishop of Mainz from 1514 to 1545, and Archbishop of Magdeburg from 1513 to 1545. He happened to be Martin Luther’s local ecclesiastical superior. Appropriately on the solemnity of All Saints each year, Cardinal Albert would open his relic collection to the public for veneration and, no doubt, in hope of many generous donations that would enrich his diocesan coffers. Between Tetzel and Cardinal Albert, Martin Luther’s patience with the Church of his day was exhausted and he legitimately tacked his celebrated ninety-five gripes to the door of All Saints Church at Wittenberg Castle. The rest is history.

Many of Luther’s ninety-five theses were certainly legitimate. The promotion of indulgences, regardless of their theological legitimacy, was shameless. Readily available indulgences could easily be a substitute for genuine interior repentance. Thus, popular religion became superficial, eluding any profound change of heart. The faithful would be better off spending their time and money on genuine good works for the poor and needy, thus winning God’s favor rather than dropping a mere coin into a basket to achieve some spiritual result. There was much discussion of the power of the Church and especially of the Pope regarding the dispersal of the spiritual treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints — a discussion that would only later be clarified by the Council of Trent and even lately by Pope Paul VI.

Luther certainly never envisioned the radical schism that occurred in sixteenth century Christianity. His somewhat legitimate observations became the occasion for others, especially northern European civil rulers, to break with the all-encompassing power of the Roman popes and exploit the wealth of the local churches and abbeys. Luther went on to translate the Bible into German, to emphasize preaching and congregational involvement in liturgy, and to stress religious life in the home — one of which he later made for himself by marrying. He was a master pamphleteer. The saddest result of Luther’s action was the merging of church and state: “Whose region, his religion” became the law throughout Europe, the south staying Catholic, the north going Protestant, leading to a century of persecution on both sides. Luther was not the cause of the Reformation; he was the occasion for regional political discontent and ecclesiastical misfeasance, already simmering, finally to come to a boil.