The Michigan Catholic
November 26, 2014
“Reformation Day” is celebrated by Protestant Christians on Oct. 31. As a former Protestant pastor, I use it to thank God for the disciplines of Scripture study, personal prayer and evangelism that I learned in Protestant circles. In time, however, questions forced upon me as a pastor made me reconsider the wisdom of the Catholic Church and the nature of the Protestant Reformation.
I asked myself: “Would Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, or Henry VIII now regard their ‘reformations’ a success?” Success, like beauty, one might say, is in the eye of the beholder. Some claim the West’s acceptance of liberty of conscience or congregational singing are fruits of the successful Reformation. The problem is, the first two generations of Protestant reformers were not aiming at endowing the West with liberty of conscience or better congregational singing. Ironically, they shared the same two goals with the many ordained and lay Catholic reformers of the day: renewal of Christ’s one Church and the spiritual growth of their fellow Christians. Sadly, using the criteria of the major reformers, Catholic and Protestant themselves, the Reformation was not a success.
First of all, there was no single Reformation; there were many reformations geographically distinct and theologically incompatible. Only a few years after Luther’s call for debate, the divided Protestant leadership conceded that they had failed to maintain the visible unity of the Church.
Calvin wrote to Lutheranism’s second greatest theologian, Philip Melanchthon: “It is indescribably ridiculous that we, who are in opposition to the whole world, should be at the very beginning of the Reformation at issue among ourselves.”
To which Melancthon replied: “All the waters of the Elb would not yield me tears sufficient to weep for the miseries caused by the Reformation.”
Disunity had so overtaken the reforming nations that, ultimately, only the police powers of the state could maintain peace and unity. The 1648 Peace Treaty of Westphalia, following the European “wars of religion,” imposed a simple but imperious formula to maintain the peace: the religion of the ruler would be recognized as the religion of the realm.
Secondly, they not only failed to purify Christ’s one Church, they failed at producing a superior Christian.
Luther himself wrote that “life is as evil among us as among the papists.” To which Bucer agreed: “With us in Strasburg there is scarcely any Church at all; there is no respect for the Word, no one receives the sacrament.”
The Catholic humanist, Erasmus, himself a reformer and a stern critic of the Church, voiced the common disappointment: “Just look at the Evangelical people, have they become any better? Do they yield less to luxury, lust and greed? Show me a man who that Gospel has changed from a toper to a temperate man, from a brute to a gentle creature … I will show you many who have become even worse than they were.” In all fairness, Catholics fell under the same severe condemnation.
God may one day bring great good out of the breakup of medieval Christendom. I think he already is. But it won’t happen as long as Oct. 31 is celebrated as a moment of great triumph or condemned as an irrational rebellion against a benevolent Church. Catholics can use the day to “invite one another to seek and find that unity for which Jesus Christ prayed so ardently to his heavenly Father.” Before the Second Vatican Council, the various Protestant groups were pioneering ecumenism. With the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church took up its responsibility to not only explain to others the Church’s teaching, but also to understand the outlook of non-Catholics.
In Lumen Gentium 8, the Council Fathers chose to say that the one Church of Christ “subsists in” (rather than simply saying “is identical with”) the Catholic Church. What does that mean? We also acknowledged that many elements of sanctification and truth are found outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church. Since these are gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, they are forces impelling toward Catholic unity.
What does that mean? In his encyclical on ecumenism, “Ut Unum Sint,” St. John Paul II asks the Christian communities throughout the world to pray and advise him on how the papacy, the charism of Peter, can best serve the entire Christian community in restoring the unity Christ wills for his Church. The papacy is open to a new situation, he wrote, not giving up anything which is essential to its mission but open to new ways of serving all Christians. This is how Catholics can celebrate “Reformation” day.
Following his advice, let’s listen to one another, always keeping before us the will of Christ for his Church and allowing ourselves to be deeply moved by his plea “that they may all be one … so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (Jn 17:21).
Al Kresta is president and CEO of Ave Maria Communications in Ann Arbor. His radio program, “Kresta in the Afternoon,” can be heard from 4-6 p.m. daily on 990 AM-WDEO and EWTN.