The Tragic 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation

October 31 will mark the 500th anniversary of the event that has come to mark the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church.

The subject of the 95 theses was the doctrine and practice of ‘Indulgences’ and whatever else might have been the case, the actual preaching and the practice at the time was indeed giving rise to scandal at the time. People were easily left with the impression that the mere fact of giving money to a worthy cause would get their departed family members into heaven, regardless of the internal state of soul of the donor. That in turn would imply that sin could be forgiven without repentance and salvation attained without grace. That was certainly never the teaching of the Catholic Church. Martin Luther was reacting to a real distortion of teaching and practice, but his reaction went far beyond the realm of necessary correction.

Jared Staudt gives two apt perspectives on Protestantism. He writes: “We can look at Protestantism from two sides. First, its rejection of the central role of mediation in Christianity—the mediation of the authority of the Magisterium, the physical mediation of the sacraments, the mediation of the prayer of the saints and Our Lady, and even the role of our own nature and free will in salvation. This aspect of Protestantism we must reject, even as Catholics have been tempted to follow these trends the last five hundred years. Second, on the positive side there have been devotional practices and theological insights that can enrich our understanding and practice of our common Christian faith.” (Catholic World Report , 10/11/2017, http://www.catholicworldreport.com/2017/10/11/protestantism-in-the-catholic-church-the-emergence-of-a-shared-tradition/)

As the world celebrates this tragic anniversary I intend to focus rather on some of the negative aspects of the Reformation that have come to shape our way of thinking in profound ways, in particular the doctrines of Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) and Sola Fides (faith alone) that characterize Protestantism to this day.

First, though I want to make a general observation about the vast unintended consequences of the Reformation that lie behind much of what is going on in the world today. (cf. Brad Gregory, “The Unintended Reformation”) In a word, the Reformation ruptured the lived unity of the Catholic Church and undermined the principle of authority. That has led directly to the unraveling of social cohesion on every level of the western world reaching to the extreme degree of fragmentation that characterizes today’s world.

St. Augustine defined ‘peace’ as the tranquility of order, order meaning right order beneath God. Key to that right order is Jesus Christ and his Church and the visible principle of unity and order in the Church is the institution of the Papacy. The Popes are sinful human beings like the rest of us. Some have been transformed by grace so as to become great saints, while others have indeed been great sinners. Nevertheless, Jesus Christ is able to work through even weak and sinful Popes to guide and govern his Church. Martin Luther, by rejecting the authority of the Pope in particular, struck at the heart of Christian order. He did not thereby destroy the Church, but he did undermine the human social and political order of ‘Christendom’ that the Church has been sustaining through the course of the Middle Ages.

When October 31, 1517 dawned in Wittenberg the seat of the Elector of Saxony, currently in the state of Saxony-Anhalt in Germany, the various kingdoms and principalities of Europe from Poland to Ireland and from Norway to Spain formed a sort of Christian commonwealth bound together by the Catholic Church, under the leadership of the Pope. Through the discoveries of Christopher Columbus that commonwealth was in the process of being extended to the American continent.

There were at the time some major rifts already existing in Christianity. The Latin Church of Rome was separated from the Greek Church of Constantinople and both of them were separated from the ancient apostolic Churches of Egypt and Asia. Nevertheless, despite the divisions, from India to Ireland the Church’s DNA was intact in the hierarchy of bishop, priest, and deacon and the celebration of the sacred liturgy revolving around the seven sacraments with the Eucharist at the center.

The unity of Christendom in the realm of the Roman Church was certainly under a great strain, burdened by conflict, confusion, and corruption, but that unity was still intact. Though it was little recognized at the time, the intact unity of Christendom was like a damaged dam holding back a flood tide of evils. What was needed was that the dam be strengthened and renewed. What Martin Luther did was level a blow at its weakest point, leading to the collapse of the dam altogether.

That was not Martin Luther’s intention. His intention was certainly to renew the Christian faith, but misguided intentions cause much harm and have many unintended consequences. Indeed, by misplacing the principle of unity and of peace on faith in the Bible, rather than on adherence to the Rock of Peter, Martin Luther put the whole modern world we could say under the rule of the law of unintended consequences.

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.