The best way for Catholics to mark the Reformation is to celebrate the papacy

By Father Alexander Lucie-Smith at the Catholic Herald:

The splintering of Protestantism is the best advert for a pope ever devised

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The reminder from the ever excellent Cardinal Müller that the Reformation is nothing to celebrate, while a statement of the obvious – after all, how can one celebrate disunity? – still leaves us with a question: just how are we to mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s revolt against Church doctrine?

Just ignoring it would not be right. The Reformation was a huge event and we are still living with its consequences, no one can deny. Much better that we should mark the anniversary in a way that deepens our understanding of it. Why did it happen? What can we learn from it? And what can we do, five centuries on, to heal the breaches created then?

The usual answer to the first question is that the Reformation came about as a movement of reform, as a specific reaction to the corruption of the Catholic Church. I doubt, though, that any serious historian could assert this today, or find any compelling evidence to back up this myth. If we look at the German lands, there is plenty of evidence that the Catholic Church was in many ways still a vital body. Indeed, the proof of this is that half of Germany did not follow Luther: the Catholic Church still retained much credibility. Again, in England, the advanced decay of the pre-Reformation Church, and in particular its monasteries, is a myth. The Tudor Church boasted men like John Fisher and Thomas More, and its monasteries were seized as part of the biggest landgrab in history, rather than for moral reasons. Many of the monks died for the faith, which is hardly a sign that the monasteries had failed as religious institutions.

So why did the Reformation come about? It was partly a political movement: the German princes and Henry VIII arrogating powers to themselves; a nationalist movement, anti-Roman and anti-Spanish, both in Germany and England; and of course a religious movement too. It has to be admitted that Luther asked questions to which the Catholic answer was judged by many to be no longer adequate. And the chief of these questions was: “How can I be saved?”

All this leads to a huge contemporary problem. How are we to mark the anniversary of the Reformation when the question about salvation is no longer at the forefront of the modern consciousness? As far as I can see, even in the traditional lands of the Reformation, no one is exactly agonising over the question of salvation. Indeed, in hugely advanced societies like Sweden, which the Pope will be visiting to mark the anniversary, the general feeling seems to be that one does not need salvation through Christ or anyone else for that matter. Religious statistics are notoriously unreliable, but it seems pretty obvious that Sweden is one of the least religious countries on earth. Luther would be horrified!

Given that the “How can I be saved?” question is not the one on everyone’s lips, there is a danger that the Reformation anniversary will turn out to be a celebration of its political aspects. Luther is, let us not forget, a German national hero. As for England, the other day I met an MP (let him be nameless) who told me that in supporting Brexit, he was simply aiming to do what Henry VIII and Cranmer did, taking back sovereignty from a foreign power. Actually, he is right: the Act in Restraint of Appeals, which separated England from Rome, contains the famous line “This England is an Empire”, meaning that England was sovereign and not subject to any other powers such as the papal one. Just as Luther is a hero in Germany, Henry VIII is to many here, still.

What then is to be done? I think the best way to mark the Reformation is to emphasise that the Church can only be universal, that is Catholic, in that Christ only brought one revelation, and only founded one Church. The idea of a national church is completely absurd. Coupled with this there needs to be a strong presupposition in favour of internationalism (which, as my Brexiteer MP and I agreed, was quite in keeping with leaving the EU, as that institution is not to be confused with Europe itself).

Finally, I think we need to make the Reformation anniversary into a celebration of the role and nature of the papacy as the focus of unity and guarantor of doctrinal truth, for the splintering of Protestantism (of which Luther would not have approved, I feel) is the best advert for the papacy ever devised. Instead of asking the question “How can I be saved?” we need to turn our attention to the question “What is the Church?”

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10 Responses to The best way for Catholics to mark the Reformation is to celebrate the papacy

  1. toadspittle says:

    “If we look at the German lands, there is plenty of evidence that the Catholic Church was in many ways still a vital body. “
    Who’s suggesting it wasn’t? If it was a dead body, there would be no point – nor indeed, any need – to bother to “reform” it.

    “..It has to be admitted that Luther asked questions to which the Catholic answer was judged by many to be no longer adequate.. “
    There’s a brave – if a trifle rash – admission on CP&S..

    “The idea of a national church is completely absurd. “
    Quite right. …But what sort of ‘universal’ church would the writer suggest for the countess billions (in Asia, the Americas, Australasia, even Antarctica – who never heard – or never will hear – the name ‘Christ’ spoken, in any coherent way?

  2. Robert says:

    I would recommend Belloc’s excellent Book on Heresy’s as a starting point for looking at the so called Reformation.
    The Papacy? Which version are we talking about? Pre 1958? or Post 1958? In England the Old Church suffered and hung on for centuries and it wasn’t really until late 18th and early 19th century that the Church enjoyed its Spring. The arrival of the Dominic Barberi (Passionists) and the likes of Faber, Manning, Newman etc.. Against this sadly we find that Vaughan was undermined by his English flock. He opposed the secular Universities for Catholics but the English Catholics went over his head to Rome to get acceptance of this secular education for their siblings.
    Which leads to the Naturalism and Humanism Sciences and secular worldy priorities. Masonry imprisoned the Popes in the Vatican, after seizing the papal Estates. The over throw of Christ’s Order through the remnant alleged Catholic Nations?
    Gods Justice? Two World Wars?
    So when we say Papacy do we mean Obedience to Christ on Earth? or are we saying a Constitutional figurehead without power and authority?
    Today anti Christian Laws are enacted commonly and globally. These will not be repealed! So the real question is does this world deserve a pre 1958 Pope?

  3. A friend of mine said, “What we need is a pope who will really fight heresy. For example, Cardinal Kasper says that God is mercy. No, God is love. Mercy implies guilt. If God is mercy, then the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have mercy on one another because they are burdened by some kind of guilt? I don’t think so. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit love one another. They are bound by love, not mercy. We need a pope who dares to condemn such heresy. Or maybe we simply need a real pope, period.”

  4. toadspittle says:

    “Mercy implies guilt. “
    No, it doesn’t.
    Not on behalf of whoever is dispensing it.

  5. kathleen says:

    I call it the Deformation, not the Reformation!

    Mystics recount how both Luther and Henry VIII (pride-filled, lascivious egomaniacs) who were the catalysts for the break-up of Western Christendom, have been seen writhing in the pits of Hell. Some strange sort of “heroes”!
    Are we really so crazy that we are going to “celebrate” their treacherous behaviour?

    Personally, I disagree with Father Alexander Lucie-Smith’s opinion that people in the time of Luther were asking themselves how they could be “saved” and whether the Church still had the “answer” to these questions. Why would they ask such feeble questions? Of course She did! The Church’s true mission has always been to reveal to men the Face of Jesus and the right path to Salvation… although we have never lacked our ‘judases’ among us who have given a bad example of the faith they profess. It is usually only those of weak or immature faith who are challenged by this hypocrisy.

    There have always been great and prominent saints and sinners in our midst from the time of Our Lord. And there always will be. We must just keep our eyes fixed on Him and on His True Church and remain faithful, however rough the going might get.
    And when we are betrayed by those who have been elected to guide us, it will grow horrifyingly “rough”!

  6. Tom Fisher says:

    Personally, I disagree with Father Alexander Lucie-Smith’s opinion that people in the time of Luther were asking themselves how they could be “saved” and whether the Church still had the “answer” to these questions. Why would they ask such feeble questions? Of course She did!

    There are two issues that should be kept distinct here. The first is the fact that you find such questions to be feeble, and are confident that the Church held the answer to them. — That’s fine, but it has no bearing on whether or not, as an historical fact, people did ask such questions. Father Alexander Lucie-Smith is simply speaking the truth when he acknowledges that people like Luther found fertile ground for their ideas. There were more people questioning Church authority in (say) 1500 than there were in 1300. For many reasons, Societal changes after the Black Death, the exodus of Greek scholars to the west after 1453, and the invention of the printing press all played their part. — But it simply won’t do to say that people didn’t ask such questions because you think they shouldn’t have

  7. Robert says:

    Mr Fisher. Who knew of Luther appart from the literate free thinkers (who like Henry VIII wore a PR Faith for the world to see whilst indulging in the Sin of Luxuria).
    England the Lust and Pride of that Iniquitious King and those Bishops who followed that King!
    England has been plagued with MASONRY . Masonic Kings, Lords governments and these Naturalist doctrines are the antithesis of Divine Revelation! There was the Loss of that Immortal England, Land of the Angels!
    How sickening to see Ireland throw off Christ!
    Same with Luther those Bishops and nobility who followed Luther.
    The first SHRINE attacked by Henry VIII was that of Becket!!! That is all that you need to know.
    The Reformation came from within the Church hierarchy! Just as since 1958 the Papal Authority has been negated from within the Church.
    The Church has to place Christ First else it becomes simply a secular Charity Organisation

  8. kathleen says:

    “There were more people questioning Church authority in (say) 1500 than there were in 1300.”

    Have you any proof of that, Tom?
    And how about our post-conciliar turmoil in the Church? Especially one could say from 2013 to our present 2016 with Pope Francis and the Modernist bishops “a la Kaspar” we are having to suffer under. What? No more uncertainty?
    Seems to me that very very many are asking questions nowadays about the shenanigans going on in Rome these days and bishops who do not behave like faithful representatives of the Apostles!

    The mistake of course is seeing the Church as synonymous with its leaders, its hierarchy: pope and bishops. (Even the Pope is only the protector and guardian of the Deposit of Faith handed down to him; he cannot change doctrine or invent new dogmas. We surely all agree on this.) Thanks to better and easier methods of communication and knowledge in our present age, many are able to distinguish between the two – i.e. the real Catholic Church, and those who distort Her teachings – and thus, through the Grace of God, avoid losing their Faith.

    But yes, you are right in pointing out that there were definitely certain factors* that led up to the Revolt (that the Protestants choose to call the ‘Reformation’) or Luther could never have succeeded as he did to delude so many. You mention some, but there were others that Hillaire Belloc describes brilliantly in his series of books on the Reformation (and that Robert has also referred to above). The “invention of the printing press” – a great invention in itself of course – was a tool the German Protestants used to their advantage to disseminate their errors and heresies.

    * Laxity and immoral behaviour amongst many members of the clergy had discredited the Church, with their widespread dishonourable selling of indulgences only making matters worse.

    However, by quoting only the first part of my paragraph you skip the point I was trying to make.
    I do not see why there should have been more people at this time asking “how can I be saved?” than at any other time in the history of Christendom. What about during the times of the Great Heresies of the early centuries? Or during the turbulent periods of the Avignon anti-popes of the 1300s? No-one asking this question then?

    There has always been strife and struggle in the Church; sin was not something new in the 1500s. The True Catholic Church did not “fall short” of the Eternal Truths Christ bestowed to Her alone at this time, or at any other time. Despite the failings of many of Her members. Great sinners and great saints have always been brushing shoulders side by side.

    If every Catholic had allowed doubts of Faith to cloud their minds and hearts by seeing the sins and failings of bad popes, bishops and other Catholics, the Church Our Lord founded on the rock of Peter would never have reached our day! We must keep our eyes fixed firmly on Christ Jesus Our Lord, and His One True Bride.

  9. Robert says:

    Well said Kathleen! St Thomas More criticised, what required to be criticised! But Never the Church! The Mystical Body of Christ.
    Faith moves mountains and Faith is superior to rationalism, naturalism. Faith requires Grace which requires virtue and a sacramental Life. Faith is supernatural and cannot be acquired in a secular education.
    Israel were looking for a worldly messiah/ruler a worldly Paradise. But Adam and Eve were expelled from Paradise! This world is a place of Penance. The proof is the Passion of Our :Lord and its perpetuation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. This is the wisdom of the saints.
    Jonah preached Penance as did Our lord. Penance will be done with our without Christ. The difference is without Christ this Penance will be in Eternity. The Penance of Hell grows for Luther and Henry because of the souls lost to Heaven following their Apostacy’s and Heresies. Satan’s Penance grows with each and ever soul Lost! As their suffering grows so does their hatred of God! But they chose Hell themselves.

  10. toadspittle says:

    “The Penance of Hell grows for Luther and Henry because of the souls lost to Heaven following their Apostacy’s and Heresies. Satan’s Penance grows with each and ever soul Lost! As their suffering grows so does their hatred of God! But they chose Hell themselves.”
    No point in asking you how it is that you know all this – or if you have any “proof,” Robert. But if there’s no redemption from Hell, as we are constantly told – what’s the use of “penance.”?

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