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Catholic in America: Was the Reformation good or bad for Christendom?

The Michigan Catholic

November 14, 2014

Al Kresta

What Americans do on Oct. 31” would make a fun documentary or feature comedy.

For most Americans, Oct. 31 is the playful “trick-or-treat” Halloween we all loved as children. A smaller number of observant Catholics still observe All Hallow’s Eve, or the vigil of All Saints Day. Some Protestant fundamentalists and Pentecostals warn against “Halloween” for fear of opening oneself up to demonic influence. Toward the end of the 20th century, a tiny number of Celtic neopagans and Wiccans decided to reinvent Oct. 31 as the allegedly pre-Christian pagan holiday of Samhain. But for a significant number of serious Protestants, it remains “Reformation Day.” 

The first Reformation Day was Oct. 31, 1517, when an earnest, complex and spiritually frustrated Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, nailed his 95 theses for academic debate on a Wittenberg, Germany, church door that doubled as a community bulletin board.

Luther, a keen, if passionate, scholar, was legitimately grieved over the pastorally abusive sale of indulgences. In time, he questioned the very theology of indulgences. Next, he came to reject purgatory, tied up as it was with indulgences. That led to doubts about any scheme of salvation that required purgatory. He finally railed against papal authority, which had propagated such a corrupt gospel in Christ’s name. By 1521, he had moved from faithful son of the Church to excommunicated apostate rebel. When the cultural, political, and theological dominos stopped falling, medieval Christendom’s structural unity had fallen like the walls of Jericho.

Personally, I owe much to those Christian communities that trace themselves back to Luther’s protest. There I learned to pray like an adult, share my faith naturally and love Scripture. From Protestants I learned St. Jerome’s principle: “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” Ironically, I also learned that Jerome’s Christ tied the truthfulness of his Gospel to the visible unity of his disciples.

The world, Jesus taught, has a right to judge whether the Father sent the Son by the degree of love and unity it witnesses on the part of his disciples (Jn 17:21). What we believe, how we behave, and the community to which we belong must radiate the same unity Christ and the Father exhibit.

As blessed as I had been to serve in various Protestant ministries for 18 years, it finally dawned on me that only the Catholic Church insists on visible, even institutional, unity as a mark of the Church. For most Protestants, unity of that sort was off the table.

As a pastor, I tried to portray our innumerable divisions and scandalous disunity as a mark of creative theological diversity, a thousand different flowers blooming. But, outside of my study, I didn’t see glorious difference but painful separation. All around me, even on the local level, I watched serious doctrinal disputes fester for years until an eruption leading to church splits and damaged relationships. How can we plausibly present ourselves as ambassadors of Christ, ministers of reconciliation, if we can’t even settle our own differences?

Even worse, visible unity was no longer held out as a plausible future outcome. It was as though Moses and the Hebrews decided that the national unity of the twelve tribes was an impossible ideal. Why limit ourselves to 12 tribes? Wouldn’t we better serve freedom if everyone is authorized to start his own newer, better, more enthusiastic tribe? We were up to about 23,478. The horses had long ago left the barn.

In contrast, the Catholic Church prizes both spiritual communion and institutional expression. They cannot be divided. Our interior communion with Christ and his people is imperfect and incomplete if it fails to find material, visible expression as a corporate institution. One, holy, catholic, apostolic Church begins with “one.”

Since St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians — especially chapters 1-3 and 12-14 — the Catholic Church has been navigating the troubled waters of spiritual enthusiasm and institutional apathy. She knows the indispensable need for wine. She also knows that to share that wine with others one needs appropriate wineskins (Mk 2:22). Fireplaces are just cold boxes without fires burning in them. Fires leaping around outside a fireplace can destroy many lives and create a legacy of spiritual burnout. From the start, Christ instituted a community that would be able to manage both spirit and structure, enthusiastic devotion and liturgical unity.

The pope, Peter’s successor, is the universal pastor of the Christian Church, our visible sign of unity (Mt 16:17-19). The Eucharist is our sacrament of unity. Re-baptizing Christians is forbidden, a failure to recognize “one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all” (Eph 4:5). For St. Paul, crooning “I did it my way” was cause for excommunication, not receiving a Grammy. Fomenting discord and division was an excommunicable offense (Rom 16:17). The very first Church council was called in 50 A.D. to ensure that Paul and Barnabas’ gospel was united with the Gospel proclaimed by the apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 15).

So if the success of Christian missions depend on the visible unity of Christ’s community, why did God permit the shattering of the Church’s institutional unity in the 16th century? Was this “Reformation” a success? What was so corrupt that it required divorcing the people of God from one another? If the Church was so corrupt on the eve of the Reformation, why did so many true saints and mystics remain in full communion with the pope?

Over the last 50 years, new research has been conducted into the formation of lay confraternities, tithing reports, minutes of church board meetings, printing statistics and the renovation and building of churches on the eve of the Reformation. My next column will see how that answers the question: “The Reformation: Why?”

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.



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