Five hundred years after Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, the word “reformation” has become synonymous with Protestantism. When we speak of “the reformers,” we typically mean people like Luther, John Calvin, or Ulrich Zwingli. Yet too often we forget about another reformation, a Catholic Reformation, that helped to cure the Church of some of its late-medieval ills rather than amputate its limbs. And one of its great figures, St. Charles Borromeo, is commemorated November 4.
Many aspects of the Church in the year 1517 were not healthy. The clergy were generally ill-educated and often failed to live up to the moral standards their state in life requires. Prelates essentially bribed the papacy for appointments to plum dioceses, which they would then tax but not reside in or oversee in any meaningful way. And the understanding of the relation between money and indulgences had slipped down the slope from a form of almsgiving to, in some places, essentially buying one’s way into heaven. The faith of many of the laity bordered on superstition, but the clergy were too ill-equipped or too little interested to properly teach them.
The Protestants saw this situation and denounced the Church, first in its practices, then in its teachings, ultimately either leaving or being expelled, splintering the Church into factions. Far from a reform, this was a revolt, which only exacerbated rather than alleviated the Church’s problems.