October 17, 2017 will be marked as the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. As the Protestant population within the diocesan boundary is more than six times the Catholic population (606,212 vs. 97,597), this anniversary is bound to lead to conversations that trend toward the Protestant perspective on this historic event in Christianity.
To equip Catholics with a thorough understanding of the Catholic perspective on the Reformation, this Coffee House Series will provide historic facts, introduce the various Catholic and Protestant people who influenced the movement, clear up many myths, and examine the long-ranging effects of the Reformation on Christianity.
Msgr. Timothy Thorburn, vicar general, will be the guest speaker at the first coffee house event Sept. 10. He will provide a thorough historical perspective. On Oct. 8, Bud Marr will look at the Reformation from a contemporary angle.
Vern Steiner will speak at the Nov. 12 Coffee House. His talk will focus on the faith and morals questions of the Reformation. Bob Sullivan will follow Dec. 10 with a session on apologetics, and on Jan. 12, Chad Steiner and Jake Mousel will team up to discuss the Reformation from an ecumenical perspective.
The Protestant Reformation was a reaction to years of poor leadership in the Catholic Church. Not only were clergy often poorly trained – which in turn resulted in a great deal of ignorance, superstition and lack of devotion among the laity – the papacy itself was at times held by men who were at best uninspiring, and at worst flagrantly secular.
Pope Adrian VI (1522-1523) came into office at the height of the Protestant movement. He said, “We freely acknowledge that God has allowed this chastisement to come upon His Church because of the sins of men and especially because of the sins of priests and prelates… We know well that for many years much that must be regarded with horror has come to pass in this Holy See: abuses in spiritual matters, transgressions against the Commandments; indeed, that everything has been gravely perverted.”
Most people attribute the Protestant Reformation to Martin Luther in Germany, but he was one of a number of people who led vast numbers of Catholics out of the Church and into new forms of Christianity: Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland, and Frenchman John Calvin, who moved to Geneva and started another branch of the Reformed tradition.
However, it was Luther who faced the pope head on. He developed a long list of grievances over time called the 95 Theses, which were published on October 17, 1517.
Some of Luther’s complaints were legitimate. For example, the “sale” of indulgences should never have been allowed. This was a disastrous abuse of almsgiving.
Elsewhere in his 95 Theses, Luther was in error. His representation of Catholic teaching on justification was inaccurate, and his views on the papacy – colored by years of corruption among the popes who ruled during his lifetime – were misguided.
Bishop Robert Barron, auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles and popular Catholic author and speaker, takes an objective look at Protestant complaints of that era.
“Sadly,” he wrote in a March 17 article in Christianity Today, “things got out of hand: exaggerations, over-reactions, impugning of motives, awkward formulations, etc. on both sides. The result was that a reform movement within the church gave rise to a divided church.”
In the 500 years that have passed since the Protestants successfully removed themselves from the Church, denominationalism has been rampant. Luther and Zwingli argued about the Real Presence and parted ways almost immediately, leading to the formation of Lutheran and Reformed denominations.
Meanwhile, the “Radical Reformers,” who would only accept doctrine explicitly stated in Scripture, launched the Anabaptist line. John Calvin branched off of the Reformed denomination to start Presbyterianism because he differed with both Luther and Zwingli. King Henry VIII, initially a staunch opponent of Protestants, started the Church of England in order to set aside his first wife and marry another.
As the centuries passed, Luther’s denomination split into Evangelical Lutheran, Free Lutheran, Missouri Synod, Wisconsin Synod and others. The Anabaptists fathered Mennonites, Amish and Evangelical Free denominations, to name a few.
Out of the Church of England came Episcopalians, Methodists, Congregationalism, and Baptists. Each of those has split numerous times. The Methodist line alone includes the Salvation Army, the Assemblies of God, Nazarenes, Foursquare, Calvary Chapel, and the so-called Church of Christ.
Today, non-denominationalism and “home-churching” are the trends, where itinerant preachers draft their own theological stances with little or no accountability.
Protestants may celebrate this 500th anniversary as a triumph. Some Catholics may have a “good riddance” mindset.
In light of Christ’s own words in Matthew 12:25 – “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand” – and the Lord’s ardent prayer that the Church would remain one (John 17:20-23), the Protestant movement is perhaps best identified as a tragedy, while recalling the need for true conversion and reforms that were within the Church.
The Reformation Catholic Coffee House series will clear up all these conflicting ideas and give attendees a clearer understanding of this important time in Christian history. Catholics are encouraged to bring their non-Catholic relatives and friends who are interested in this topic.
The Office of Evangelization hosts this free Coffee House series every autumn and winter. A question-and-answer session will follow each 90-minute talk, and attendees are encouraged to stay and socialize. All are welcome; no need to pre-register. For more information, call (402) 473-0615.
The Catholic Reformation
(SNR) - The Protestant movement began as a call for necessary reforms due to rampant corruption in the Catholic Church during the Renaissance.
“I have long been sympathetic with Father Yves Congar’s famous remark that if figures on both sides of the Reformation divide had been a bit more open-minded and open-hearted, there might be a Lutheran order in the Catholic Church today, just as there are Dominicans, Franciscans, Benedictines…” said Bishop Robert Barron. “If he had limited himself to saying gratia prima, (“Grace first”), Luther might have effected a needed reform within Catholicism.”
However, by parting ways with the Holy See, Luther and the other Protestants didn’t actually succeed in reforming anything. In time, the Church was truly reformed during what is commonly called the Counter Reformation, though many scholars prefer the term Catholic Reformation.
The goals of the Catholic Reformation were to address the things that truly needed reforming, and the harm that the Protestant movement had caused the Church.
Even during the Renaissance, when good Christian leadership was often lacking in the Church, there were saints among priests and religious who exhibited lives of true devotion to the Lord, and who called Catholics to repentance.
By 1566, Pope Saint Pius V (1566-1572) and Saint Charles Borromeo were applying the decisions of the Council of Trent with pronounced success. Pope Gregory XIII ( 1572-1585) continued these efforts with a zeal for education and piety. He supported Jesuit missions and funded seminaries and colleges, and led the laity in serving the poor by his own hands-on example.
In a sense, the Catholic Reformation has never ended. Conversion is an ongoing process within the Church. The phrase Ecclesia semper reformanda (Latin for “the church must always be reformed”) is attributed to St. Augustine (who lived 354 – 430), who said the Church must constantly strive be what Jesus Christ founded her to be.
As Pope Francis delivered a homily for an ecumenical prayer service in Sweden marking the anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, he said, “We too must look with love and honesty at our past, recognizing error and seeking forgiveness, for God alone is our judge… With gratitude we acknowledge that the Reformation helped give greater centrality to sacred Scripture in the Church’s life.”
Myths of the Reformation
(SNR) - Both Catholic and Protestant Christians tend to tell the story of the Reformation differently. This is partly due to different perspectives on the events of history, but there are also many myths that persist.
Myths Catholics may believe:
MYTH:“The Church did not need to be reformed.”
The Church was most certainly in need of reform before the Protestants spoke out. A series of self-indulgent popes had left the Church without good leadership. At one point, there were three men claiming to be pope simultaneously. Clergy were often poorly trained in theology and pastoral care. Corruption was rampant. Diocesan appointments had become political in nature, as the Church relied on good relationships with kings and dukes for protection from marauders.
MYTH:“Martin Luther started the Reformation in the 16th century.”
Luther was not the first to call for reformation. The Dutch Lollards rejected the authority of the pope around the turn of the 14th century. In 1387, John Wycliffe in England created a similar group. King Henry IV charged them with heresy and executed many of them, effectively ending the movement. Meanwhile, there were devout saints who were striving to reform the Church from within.
MYTH:“Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany.”
The account of Luther defiantly nailing his complaints against Catholicism to a church door has been told so often, Catholics and Protestants alike accept it as truth. However, there is no evidence that such an event ever occurred. Luther himself never commented on nailing anything to any surface, let alone a church door.
MYTH:“Luther just wanted to elope with a nun.”
While Luther did indeed eventually marry Catherine von Bora, a former religious sister, he was primarily concerned with theological matters. He initially resisted marrying Catherine so that their relationship would not be considered the cause of his rejection of the Church. They were not married until three years after Luther had been excommunicated.
MYTH:“The Reformers reject the Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist.”
The Reformers had different views about the Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist. Ulrich Zwingli rejected it outright, reducing the Eucharist to a mere symbol. Luther, a former Catholic priest, only rejected the concept of transubstantiation, believing the True Body and Blood of Christ was “under” the bread and wine. John Calvin staked a claim somewhere in the middle of these two theories, agreeing with Zwingli that Communion is only a memorial, while concurring with Luther that Christ is present.
MYTH:“The Reformers rejected the Blessed Virgin Mary.”
Luther vehemently defended the Blessed Mother’s virginity and referred to her as the “highest woman and the noblest gem in Christianity after Christ,” adding, “We can never honor her enough.” Zwingli agreed, stating, “I firmly believe that Mary, according to the words of the gospel as a pure Virgin brought forth for us the Son of God and in childbirth and after childbirth forever remained a pure, intact Virgin.” Calvin said the Blessed Mother, “preserves us and keeps us under her guidance and government.” Many modern non-Catholic Christians who today criticize how Catholics view Mary differ from their founders’ views.
Myths Protestants may believe:
MYTH:“Catholics believe in salvation by works instead of grace.”
Luther’s misconception about the Church teaching on justification stemmed from inaccurate education about Catholic doctrine and an emphasis on the nominalism philosophy. In truth, the Church has always taught salvation by grace through faith (Ephesians 2: 8,9).
MYTH:“The papacy is a corrupt institution invented by power mongers.”
When one looks honestly at the popes who served in the centuries before the Reformation, it’s easy to see how one might conclude that something was wrong with the office itself. However, the particular sins of individual men who have held that role do not mean that the papacy is evil. After all, the very first pope, St. Peter, publicly denied Christ three times.
MYTH:“The Church objected to the Bible being translated into vernacular languages.”
In truth, there were Catholic translations of Scriptures centuries before Protestants made that claim. The earliest Germanic version of the Bible is the fourth century translation of Wulfila, bishop to the Goths. The first English Bible was available in the seventh century. Charlemagne promoted Frankish Bible translations in the ninth century, and the first machine-printed German Bible was published 17 years before Luther’s birth. The Bible was also translated into other languages by the Church.
MYTH:“The Church required (some would say still requires!) Catholics to pay money to get their loved ones out of purgatory.”
This misconception started in 1517, when the 23-year-old Archbishop of Mainz (Germany), authorized indulgences granted in exchange for sacrificial monetary gifts to a building fund for Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The practice quickly devolved into untrained laity believing they could “buy” remittance for sin or rescue a loved one from purgatory with cash. One traveling Dominican even used to preach a little ditty that, roughly translated, said, “As soon as a coin in the coffer clinks, a soul from purgatory springs.” This practice was clearly wrong and soon ended during the Catholic Reformation.
MYTH:“The Catholic Church wasn’t interested in Reform.”
Various clergy and laity during the centuries leading up to the Reformation recognized the need for reform, including several popes. In 1512, Pope Julius II convoked the Fifth Council of the Lateran to address issues of Church discipline, five years before Luther published his 95 Theses. Unfortunately, this council didn’t go far enough, and problems persisted.
MYTH:“Catholics added seven books to the Bible during the Council of Trent.”
The Council of Trent did not add any books to the Bible. It reaffirmed the Canon of Scripture that had already been settled in the fourth century. This misunderstanding stems from Luther’s decision to remove the deuterocanonical from the Old Testament and regulate them to a section he called “Apocrypha,” which he erroneously did not consider part of either the Old or New Testaments.
MYTH: “The Council of Trent says that all Protestants are condemned to hell.”
The Catholic Church has never had the ability to condemn any soul to hell. This rumor is based on a misunderstanding of the Greek word “anathema.” The word literally means “suspended” or “set aside,” not “damned.” The “anathemas” of the Council of Trent identify those who have – by their own choosing – separated from the Church, and that is all.
Key figures during the Reformation
Martin Luther (1483-1546) Martin Luther is arguably the most well known of the Protestant Reformers. While studying to become a Catholic priest in Germany, he had been taught nominalism, a philosophy that led him to despair. He thought he had to earn his own salvation through pious practices.
After an intense study of the St. Paul’s epistles, Luther discovered the concept of justification by grace. He believed he had “recovered” the lost teaching of St. Paul, though in reality, the Church has always taught this.
Luther then created the concept of Sola Fide (“Faith Alone”) and other key Protestant philosophies. By 1517, he was openly contesting the Church and the papacy itself, believing himself to be called by God to “restore” the Church.
Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) Ulrich Zwingli was a Swiss mercenary solider and political activist. He eliminated every Sacrament except Baptism and Eucharist. He believed Sacraments were merely signs of God’s faithfulness, or opportunities to publicly testify as to one’s faith
Zwingli launched the notion that the Eucharist was only a ritual symbol of Christ’s death. Luther, who retained belief in the Real Presence while rejecting transubstantiation, vehemently opposed Zwingli on this score, resulting in the first major disagreement within the Protestant movement.
Zwingli was killed at the Battle of Kappel in 1531. Many attribute his army’s defeat to the fact that German Lutherans refused to support them in war.
John Calvin (1509-1564) John Calvin was a “second generation” Protestant. He was a French layman who had briefly studied for the priesthood before changing to law.
Calvin’s first major contribution to the Reformation was his book, Institutes of the Christian Religion, which introduced his concepts of Christianity. Operating in Geneva (because Switzerland was far friendlier to Protestants than France), Calvin greatly influenced civil authorities. Those caught dancing, laughing during a sermon, or criticizing him were subjected to public rebuke, fines, exile or even execution.
Calvin taught that righteousness was something “imputed,” and not an indwelling of the soul that is received as a gift.
He also taught that Christ’s Body and Blood were virtually present in the “Lord’s Supper,” though the substance remained bread and wine.
Grebel, Manz, Müntzer, and Simmons In the early 1520s, Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, Thomas Müntzer, and Menno Simmons were creating their own form of Christianity, defying Luther, Zwingli and Calvin as well as the Catholic Church. These “Radical Reformers” believed they were returning to the “original” New Testament Christianity, They would only accept a teaching that was explicitly stated in Scripture.
Zwingli referred to them as Anabaptists (literally “rebaptizers”) because they taught that infant baptism was invalid and required a second baptism. They also required “true believers” to be able to recount a moment of conversion, show high moral standards and exhibit good works.
Pope Adrian VI (1459-1523) Had Adrian VI remained in office longer than 1522-1523, he might have succeeded in reforming and converting the Church.
Conscious of the need to undo the damage wrought by centuries of stubborn leadership by a number of his predecessors, Adrian VI freely admitted the Church needed reform and was earnest in his attempts and exemplary in piety. However, the Reformers were on the attack, declaring the very office of the papacy as opposed to the gospel, not merely the occupants of the office as personally unworthy.
Adrian VI made reform a secondary focus because Ottoman Turks were threatening to invade from the east. Much of his short tenure was spent in trying to unite Christian nations in preparation for war.
Pope Clement VII (1478-1534) Succeeding Adrian VI in 1523, Pope Clement VII spent more time enjoying art and culture and stirring the pots of political intrigue than leading any sort of reform within the Church. Clement VII proved himself inept at restoring order and discipline. He made many political mistakes as well. He sided with France against the Empire, which resulted in the latter’s 1527 invasion of Rome. He was pope when Henry VIII requested he annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, which resulted in Henry VIII creating the Church of England in 1533.
A positive contribution he made to the Church occurred just days before his death in 1533. He commissioned Michelangelo to paint “The Last Judgment” on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Pope Paul III (1468-1549) Before Alessandro Franese was elected pope, he was a worldly mess of a cleric who had fathered four illegitimate children. However, after being ordained Pope Paul III in 1534, he apparently went through a profound conversion of heart.
Paul III instituted a series of reforms. He elevated some locally successful Catholic reformers to cardinal, appointed a commission of cardinals who called for the purge of many evils in the Church, and supported renewal efforts of various religious orders.
Paul III also called the Council of Trent in 1545, which accelerated the Catholic Reformation while responding to Protestant statements. Seventeen of the 25 sessions of the Council concerned doctrine and reform. The Council also addressed discipline in all levels of clergy.
Pope Saint Pius V (1504-1572) Serving from 1566 to 1572, Pope Saint Pius V was largely responsible for ensuring that the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent were enforced. A serious, disciplined and holy man, he enlisted the help of others, including Saint Charles Borromeo in reforming the Catholic Church.
Among St. Pius V’s accomplishments were issuing the first Catechism of Roman Catholicism, which was published in 1566. This not only clarified Catholic teaching but assisted clergy around the world in providing correct teaching.
Two years later, St. Pius V revised the Roman Breviary and the Roman Missal 1568. He also established a commission to revise the Vulgate, the Latin Bible.