The Reformation

Info taken from "The History of the Church" (Didache Series)

First Things First: What is the Reformation?

The term "Protestant Reformation" typically refers to a movement in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries which, at first, sought to reform problems the Catholic Church, but later, broke from the Catholic Church and began to establish separate Christian Churches.


It may be more accurate to refer to the movement as a "revolt" rather than a "reformation", simply because it did not reform the Catholic Church but protested and then broke away from it.


It could still be accurate to refer to this whole time in the Church's history as the "Reformation" because there was true reformation of the Catholic Church that came a little later.

Causes

Going Deeper... What Caused the Revolt?

Major Socio-Political Changes in Europe
  • The Black Death- disease did not discriminate between rich and poor, powerful or lowly. Kings and peasants alike died in droves, and the whole social strata of Europe was altered significantly because of it.
  • The Hundred Years War- This long, on again, off again war between England and France caused a decline in education, poor relations between peasants and lords, and significant economic strain.
  • Rise of Nationalism- Because of the changing social, political, and economic landscape of Europe, autonomous nation-states started to form. National identity became important, and people started to trust their king, at times, even more than the universal Church based in Rome.
  • Decline of Education- the Black Death and the Hundred Years War contributed to a decline in education during this time period, which led to uneducated clergy and laity and a rise in superstition as a result. Scholasticism also saw decline at this time, partially because some were using it to argue about trivial theological thoughts rather than the great truths of the faith.


Distrust of the Papacy and of Clergy

  • Avignon Papacy- the sojourn of the popes in France caused a lot of negative influence of the French crown on Church officials.
  • Western Schism- the schism, caused in part by the Avignon Papacy caused a lot of distrust of and confusion surrounding the office of the papacy.
  • Renaissance popes- Many popes and clergymen during the Renaissance era were more focused on worldly goods than they were on the spiritual needs of the Church. This further caused a lot of disrespect and distrust of the Church's hierarchy. Simony, nepotism, superstition, unchastity, and more were present at this time; it was clear that the Church was in need of serious spiritual reform.


Decline of Scholasticism

  • Scholasticism devolving into bickering about trivial matters caused people like William of Ockham to embrace nominalism, a heresy which denies that philosophy and logic can be used to understand religious truth.


Pre-Protestant Thinking

  • John Wycliffe began to question the authority of the Magisterium of the Church, claiming that Scripture was the sole authority on matters of faith. He also denied free will and the need for the Sacraments and questioned the validity of indulgences.
  • Jan Hus tried to reform the Church in the same vein as Wycliffe. He preached private interpretation of Scripture over Magisterial pronouncements, denied the existence of purgatory, and argued that good works were not necessary for salvation.

The First Major Protestant Figures

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Martin Luther

Luther was an Augustinian friar in Germany who was highly educated but highly scrupulous in spirituality. This caused him problems trusting in the mercy of God to forgive a sinner such as himself. Luther also witnessed some of the clerical abuses taking place in his time, particularly the sale of indulgences. Frustrated and offended by these abuses, Luther called the Church to rectify them. In his zeal, however, Luther went a bit too far in his theology. Rather than simply correcting the action of selling indulgences, Luther attacked belief in indulgences themselves. As time went on, he began to preach the same things that William of Ockham, John Wycliffe, and Jan Hus had before him. He pronounced four "solas" as the foundational beliefs of Christianity: Christ alone, grace alone, Scripture alone, and faith alone.

After having his theology corrected by the Church's Magisterium in a papal bull, Luther decided to break completely from the Catholic Church, beginning a new form of Christianity which came to be called Lutheranism.

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Jean Calvin

Although he took inspiration from Luther to break away from the Church, Calvin was also very different from Luther in his theology and outlook. Calvin was extremely intellectual, a layman who took his ideas of reform and put them into clear treatises for people to live by. He was militant in his approach and rigorous in the implementation of his ideas, especially in Geneva, Switzerland, where he established a theocracy.


One of Calvin's major teachings was double predestination-- the belief that God has predestined some for heaven and others for hell. The theocracy that he established in Geneva forced residence to embrace his teachings. Serious sins even merited a death penalty under Calvin. Worship consisted of prayers, sermons, and singing psalms-- nothing more. And dancing, card playing, drinking, braiding hair, and falling asleep during sermons merited punishment.

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Ulrich Zwingli

Zwingli was a humanist and a priest in Zurich, Switzerland. He broke his vow of celibacy and preached anti-Catholic doctrines. He denied veneration of saints, embraced iconoclasm, denied the necessity of good works and the Sacraments for salvation.

His approach to worship was more like Calvin than Luther, removing all semblance of sacrament or liturgy from services.

Eventually, he became head of both the Church and the state in Zurich.

Major Beliefs

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Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide

  • Scripture Alone- the belief that all moral and religious truth comes from Scripture and nowhere else. It denies the necessity of the Magisterium and Tradition and makes each person his own private interpreter of Scripture.
  • Faith Alone- the belief that good works are not necessary for salvation; belief in Jesus is the only thing necessary.


These two beliefs are the pillars of Protestantism. Without them, Protestantism falls.

The Reformation in England

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King Henry VIII

King Henry's role in the English Reformation was much different than those of Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli. These were concerned more with theological differences. King Henry was only concerned with politics.


Henry VIII began life as a Catholic, but his wife did not bear him any male children. Desperate for an heir, Henry decided to divorce her and therefore sought an annulment for his first marriage from the Church. The local Church and then the universal Church both denied his request for annulment, stating that his reasons for divorce were not valid.


Henry, desperate for a legitimate male heir, established himself as supreme head of the Church of England, appealing to nationalism, which was on the rise in his time. In order to solidify his self-proclaimed title, he required all to sign the Act of Supremacy, establishing himself as the supreme religious authority in England, above the pope. Those who did not sign the act were punished, often with death. Many famous saints such as Henry's former friends and tutors (St. Thomas More, St. John Fischer, etc) met their martyrdom at Henry's hands.


Although there was some wavering between Catholicism and Anglicanism (Church of England) in the following century, England chose its Protestant path once and for all under Queen Elizabeth I. Churches and lands were confiscated, monasteries were destroyed, and clerics were forced to convert or die martyrs.

How did the Catholic Church Respond?

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Council of Trent

The Council of Trent was called by Pope Paul III in 1545. Its purpose was to refute Protestant errors with sound theology and address practices that stood in legitimate need of authentic reform. Trent lasted three years and gave sound, lengthy refutations to all of the theological issues raised by the protestant movement. Trent also gave very involved guidelines for clerical reform, educational reform, and liturgical reform. The seminary system was established by Trent.

Reformer Saints

Trent was not immediately implemented because, just as it goes with most councils, it takes a while for reforms to trickle down. During era following the council, however, many great saints rose to meet the challenge of implementing the reforms in the Church throughout the world. It was their witness of personal holiness and devotion to Christ which inspired others to follow their lead in authentic reform and revival of the spiritual life of the Church.


Pope St. Pius V was the first to seriously effect Trent's reforms in the Church from a papal platform. Pius was a Dominican monk who lived out his papacy in a monastic cell, fasting, praying, living in radical poverty, and serving the poor of Rome. His example inspired many, much like our Pope Francis today.


St. Peter Canisius was a Jesuit priest who successfully implemented Trent's reforms in Germany, the heartland of Lutheranism. He wrote three Catechisms to instruct the faithful in correct teaching, and is sometimes called the "Second Apostle of Germany" after St. Boniface.


St. Charles Borromeo was a Cardinal who took on the monstrous task of implementing the Tridentine reforms in the Archdiocese of Milan, Italy. He established three seminaries and founded the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, which instructed Milan's children in the faith. "CCD" programs still exist in the Church today.


St. Philip Neri implemented reform of the diocesan clergy in Rome. He founded a congregation of diocesan priests called the Oratorians which focused on the spiritual formation of the clergy, something that had been seriously lacking in recent centuries.


St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross reformed the Carmelite Order by returning it to its roots of poverty, chastity, obedience, and seclusion. Both were great mystics whose visions and ecstasies inspired spiritual writings that are still used in the Church today. St. Teresa is one of only four women Doctors of the Church because of her great spirituality and focus on the beauty and goodness of the human person, a rival idea to that of the Protestants.


St. Ignatius of Loyola founded the Society of Jesus, known as the Jesuits. He had been a soldier who was injured in battle. During his recovery, he read the life of Christ and several lives of the saints. He experienced a deep conversion and embraced a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience. His order was founded to combat the Protestant heresies, and its members became some of the greatest intellectuals, missionaries, and priests in history.

Conclusion

In Conclusion...

At the time of the Reformation, the Catholic Church stood in need of serious reform of spiritual life and education and a clarification of doctrine. The Church experienced a great crisis in the Protestant revolt, and the deep wounds of division that the revolt sowed are still in the process of being healed today.


However, just as in every age and moment of great crisis, the Holy Spirit never leaves the Church abandoned. Great saints from within the Church, those holy men and women who devote themselves entirely to living out her teachings, became the catalysts for authentic reform in the Church, and the revival that she experienced because of them was extremely effective and historically significant.