Our fixation with the Catholic and Protestant segments within the census reminds us that the Reformation casts a long shadow over our politics and very identity. Hallowe’en (October 31st) is also known as All Hallows’ Eve (to many Catholics) and Reformation Day (to many Protestants). There was little love between the divided sons and daughters of the Western Rite Church in the 1500s. Do these old confessional battle lines still matter to us today?
On All Hallows’ Eve (31st October) 1517, the Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, forwarded his Ninety-five Theses to his religious superior. This seemingly unremarkable act, framed as a scholarly invitation to debate theological propositions, was later jazzed-up and identified as the start of the Protestant Reformation. Luther’s grievances went viral thanks to the invention of the printing press.
Luther was indeed incensed when he learned that some of his parishioners were brandishing Letters of Indulgence, purchased in good faith and with scarce coin, to spring tormented souls from Purgatory. Peasants were being fleeced to fund the building of Saint Peter’s Basilica and (locally) to pay off the debts of the Archbishop of Mainz. Dr Martin began to question indulgences – and by extension Purgatory, the Treasury of Merit, abusing the poor, Justification by Works and a worldly papacy.
The row quickly escalated. Rome reacted with a Papal Bull and went on to excommunicate its errant and irritant son. Luther responded by publicly burning said Bull and penning increasingly radical works such as ‘The Babylonian Captivity of the Church’ and ‘The Freedom of a Christian’. The language exchanged was far from Christian or temperate. The printing press and woodcut portraits turned Luther into Europe’s first celebrity, cheered on by many disaffected German princes and paupers.
This should have been the end of it. Heretics usually recanted or were incinerated. But the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, had conceded that suspected apostates be granted a hearing in their local polity, before they were handed over to imperial justice. Luther, on a technicality, had won a stay of execution.
Luther’s audacious stand at the Diet of Worms, before the Emperor and papal legates, struck an unwitting blow for religious freedom. Heresy was not welcome in an age when monarchs used religious conformity to buttress their control. And yet, Luther was neither a revolutionary nor an innovator. His beef was with medieval innovations and scholasticism, additions that he believed had taken the Church away from its original mission. He wanted more Paul and less Acquinas. He wanted more mariology and less mariolatry.
The timely ‘abduction’ by Frederick III saved Luther from the stake. Frederick was a committed Catholic with a fine collection of relics; but he had opposed Tetzel’s crass commercialisation of indulgences. Thus, ‘Frederick the Wise’ afforded the Augustinian Doctor of Theology the sanctuary of his Thuringin fortress. Once ensconced in Wartburg Castle, the resident outlaw translated the Bible into the German vernacular, preferring the original Greek and Hebrew sources to the imperfect Latin Vulgate.
Many Catholic monks, priests and nuns joined Luther’s revolt, often taking their parishioners with them; and many others did not. The schism was within the same Western European family, soon to be exported to the New World via colonialism and slavery. The ‘protestari’ flourished where local princes afforded them protection; and, as in France, struggled where this was not forthcoming.
The Bible was translated into the languages of the people; the long contested number of Sacraments was stripped back to two; transubstantiation jostled with consubstantiation and remembrance; a ‘sainthood of believers’ was proclaimed; and ‘Justification by Faith Alone’ became the clarion call.
The Latin Catholic Church responded with both Counter-Reformationary zeal and creative Reform. Quasi-religious wars, the Council of Trent, the Roman Inquisition, the Tridentine Mass, the Veneration of Mary and the saints, popular piety, improved seminaries, shades of Humanism, the conversion of the New World, magnificent art and monastic renewal – they were all harnessed in defence of Mother Church.
In the face of several centuries of persecution and Catholic Reform, the Protestant movement somehow survived. This was not least due to the protracted conflict between the Catholic heavyweights of France and Spain (House Valois versus House Habsburg) and a mesh of various local power struggles; but also because of the simultaneous threat posed by a resurgent Islam, knocking at the gates of Vienna and entering an unholy alliance with Catholic France against Catholic Spain.
Over time the Catholic Church accepted many of Luther’s demands. Rome returned more emphatically to its original position of Justification by Faith and it moved away from a medieval balance sheet of plenary indulgences. This might suggest that the second great schism – the Latin Church had already separated from the Church’s Eastern birthlands – could have been avoided. But emperors and pontiffs seldom cede ground to friars, especially when their protestations threaten the entire edifice.
Some Protestants took Luther’s reforms in a more fundamentalist direction, arguably throwing out the beautiful baby with the putrid bathwater. ‘Sola Scriptura’ became a dangerous weapon in the hands of vernacular literalists not well versed in Ancient Hebrew, Ancient Greek and the Classics – exegetes who were no longer checked by princes and prelates. Luther, however, was ostensibly ‘Augustinian to the core’. He believed in the Real Presence in the Eucharist, the necessity of bishops, and the Perpetual Virginity of Mary the Mother of God. He would have been appalled by the later direction of travel of many Puritans and Pentecostals.
Where does this leave us today? We should not underestimate the damage wrought by a 506-year rift. Significant differences remain over the Papacy, the number of Sacraments, female and married priests and the Mass (areas that have been contested since the formation of the Church). Committed Lutheran and Catholic married couples still may not receive communion together.
In Ireland, many Protestants have retreated into a narrow Biblical literalism that distorts their worldview into one of Euroscepticism, climate change denialism, Zionism and social conservatism; and many Catholics still believe in the creation mythology of an unbroken line of Roman Catholic popes, going back to Peter, that gives the Latin Catholic Church and its Magisterium exclusive ownership rights over the Apostles, the Bible, Church Tradition and the Keys to the Kingdom.
And yet, in recent years Pope Francis (to the chagrin of traditionalists) has accepted Luther as a ‘great reformer’, thanked the Protestant reformers for their focus on God’s Grace and the Bible, and supported calls for Luther to be canonised. Papa Francisco has even installed a statue of Martin Luther in the Vatican. This is indeed revolutionary (and wonderfully ironic given that Protestant discomfort with saintly casts).
I do not imagine that the recent rapprochement within the divided Western Rite family will be celebrated anytime soon on an Orange banner. Many of us, however, want the healing to continue and even to spread to entrenched redoubts like ‘the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone’.
Keith Williamson is a History and Politics teacher in County Down