Before what today we call The Protestant Reformation, there were many reform movements taking place within the Catholic Church. Catholic reform movements and Protestant reform movements were both influenced by a belief in the late Middle Age that the end of the world was imminent. Both reformation movements however were mainly fueled by deteriorating conditions within the Catholic Church’s authority systems. The big difference between the two reform movements was that some separated from the world community and others did not. The Catholic reform movements maintained Church unity, retained ancient forms of piety, and carried out the changes ordered by a Church Council (The Council of Trent). The reform movements that separated were more geographically based and were inspired by individual reformers; Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, John Knox.
The Protestant reformation theologies were generated by later middle age biblical research and Bible translations into vernacular languages. The Catholic reformation theologies were more influenced by medieval scholasticism, an emphasis on sacraments and by the directives of earlier Church Councils. Protestant reformers were especially critical of Catholic superstitions like the amassing of indulgences. They swept their communities clean of such practices and focused on preaching and scripture.
Both reform movements were energized by Popes who behaved like worldly princes, surrounded by pomp and wealth and sexual scandals. Not all Popes behaved in this way. Some were effective Church leaders and saintly persons. But there were periods when the papal office was defined by worldliness and corruption. There were even struggles which broke out between different clerics claiming to be Popes, competing with one another and excommunicating one another. Under the most failed Papacies there were sexual scandals, extensive nepotism, an expansion of papal powers, and increases in papal taxation. We know from politics today that tax increases make people unhappy. One well known financial scandal was the selling of indulgences to raise money to pay for the construction of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. All these public scandals energized reformers and strengthened their stands against an authority system which had originated with Constantine’s integration of the Christian Church with Roman culture in the early 4th century.
Constantine’s melting of early Christianity with Roman culture however was not all bad. This church-culture integration had many positive dimensions. Constantine built Churches and spread Christianity throughout the empire. A greatly strengthened Church then had positive influences on Roman society. From Church influence, human sacrifice which was pervasive in Roman culture became illegal and was gradually eliminated. The Church’s moral teaching about the sanctity of life made Roman society more civilized and more humane.
The Protestant reformation movements were supported by different political leaders in different European locations and they brought many positive changes to their communities. The present Pope recently called attention to the importance of reading sacred scripture and encouraged Catholic laypersons to do so. This is something the reformers championed 500 years ago. The Catholic reformation movement required the creation of seminaries for the education of parish priests. This change was adopted by Protestant churches and both communities profited from a more educated clergy.
Monasticism and monastic communities from the earliest period of Christianity had important and powerful influences on the surrounding culture. Think of the good, both material and spiritual, which continues to be done by male and female members of Catholic communities: Benedictine, Augustinian, Jesuit, Dominican, Mercy, St. Joseph, etc. Some monastic communities however, during the late medieval period, had amassed considerable wealth and control over vast land masses. More observant monastic communities took upon themselves responsibility for reforming the others. One observant community doing reformation work was Martin Luther’s monastery. There, he was inspired to reform and learned ways to make it happen. Most of what Luther brought to the Reformation movement, he received during his Catholic monastic formation. Lutheran Churches in some parts of the world still retain signs of their Catholic roots. Some celebrate the Eucharist for Sunday worship with the traditional Catholic liturgy. The Protestant reformation brought painful divisions to Christianity but it was not just about differences, criticism, opposition and competition.
The feast of Christmas is celebrated by Protestants and Catholics on the same day. The same hymns are sung in Protestant and Catholic services. The same scriptures are read and preached. When we begin 2011 on January 1, we will be entering the final decade of the 500 year old Protestant Reformation. The feast of Christmas and 500 years of history mark a special time for pause and reflection. Once the history is better understood and appreciated, could not Christian people on both sides of the Catholic/Protestant divide take some steps toward healing this painful division. Could not both Protestants and Catholics begin to look for and emphasize what they share rather than what separates them? What if lay persons on both sides of the divide begin to pressure their Church authorities to take steps to move us closer together?
Celebrating this 500th anniversary could become the start of a movement that will stop the slide away from religion, especially of young people, and strengthen all Christianity for interaction with today’s ever more aggressively atheistic American culture.
James F. Drane is Roth Professor of Bioethics (Emeritus) Edinboro University of PA