This week, Christendom begins to celebrate the start of the Protestant Reformation with the 500th anniversary of then-monk Martin Luther issuing the most famous debate challenge ever. The effects of the tornadoes of spiritual crisis that swept back and forth across Europe as a result for the next several hundred years are still being debated. That the Pope Francis and his various minions can make nice and offer polite congratulations shows, however, that the Reformation fundamentally failed.
For if it had succeeded, there shouldn’t even BE a Pope of Rome!
The Reformation was all about the papacy from the very start. The indulgence sales that sparked Luther’s wrath were authorized by Pope Leo X, intended to fund the rebuilding of St. Peter’s. This was nothing new; indulgences were used to finance the construction of cathedrals, bridges, and infrastructure all across Europe for hundreds of years. Theologians gulped at the theory that there was a treasury of merit – basically, of divine credit earned by the suffering of Jesus and the saints, that the Church could tap into – but they went along. They assured the faithful that however it worked, it was a good value for their ducats.
Nor were the abuses in the sale anything new. Indulgences, and all forms of monetizing grace, such as the lucrative trade in dispensations, had been a major source of income and corruption since the Papal Schism, when there were three popes busily excommunicating each other who needed funds badly. But if the Vatican had responded wisely, the problem could have been addressed and Luther’s overheated conscience soothed. But no; the papal response fell to the Pope’s chaplain, a theologian named Sylvestro Mazzolini, better known as Prierias. An arrogant, distinguished intellectual, he wrote a text on canon law used for centuries, and was even said to claim a pope could order the lifting of the seal of the confessional – but that’s a story for another day.
Prierias was not at all impressed by Luther; he publicly put him down as a renegade monk who didn’t know his theology and should shut up. This was like waving a red flag to Luther, by then a preacher and professor of theology at Wittenberg University; he responded in even worse language in his next pamphlet, and the flame war was on. It wouldn’t be too long before the warfare would become real.
So it was a mere twenty years later, that the pope had to flee for his life as Rome fell to largely Catholic troops of the Holy Roman Empire. But aside from some Protestants who saw this as their chance to kill the Antichrist, most were simply unpaid deserters looking for loot. Emperor Charles V was so embarrassed by this that he saved the papacy from destruction, while Pope Clement VII was so afraid that he did not dare cross the Emperor. Thus Henry VIII never got papal permission to divorce Charles’ auntie, Catherine of Aragon, and the English embarked on a Reformation of their own.
The worst effects of the failure of the Reformation arguably fell on those lands remaining loyal to the pope. In 1542, the Roman Inquisition was established as part of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. It was a form of thought-police far worse, and more efficient, than its medieval forerunner. The Inquisition established a reign of terror throughout Catholic Europe targeted largely at Protestants and other heretics – witchcraft was not its first concern. And it is a main part of the reason why, despite the geniuses of Leonardo and Galileo, the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions happened in Northern Europe. The south was trapped in an intellectual prison, and so it specialized in producing safe, but highly emotional art and architecture.
During the social revolution the Reformation sparked, Luther’s moderate conservatism was left in the dust, although alas, not his antisemiticism. While John Calvin set up a theocratic police state in Geneva, elsewhere libertine anarchists like the Brethren of the Free Spirit emerged into the light, and the violent radicalism of Thomas Münster pointed the way to communist revolution.
So Luther’s legacy was decidedly mixed. However, his greatest accomplishment was dying in bed, not at the stake. In so doing, he left an unrivaled legacy of freedom of conscience. That such an uncompromising man could successfully defy the self-proclaimed Vicar of Christ on Earth, and survive his Inquisition, is enough to give hope to all free-thinkers and rebels ever since. And that’s quite enough.