Among the saddest chapters of church history lies a story more about an era than an event, the consequences of which divided Western Christianity into Catholicism and Protestantism (Eastern Christianity had already split from the West in the Great Schism of the 14th century). Who started the Reformation is a matter of opinion: Was it Martin Luther, who in 1517 nailed to a church door 95 theses against the practice of indulgences (a practice which amounted to paying for your sins in cash rather than in penances)? Or was it centuries of papal scandals, corrupt priests, bloated church bureaucracy, and the extraordinary greed of religious leaders that preceded him?
In the 15th and 16th centuries, few doubted church reform was necessary. But the will to make changes ran up against the power of kings and clerics who profited from abusive practices like selling church offices and indulgences. While Luther’s criticism of the church was originally confined to these indefensible practices, in time he rejected more fundamental items: papal authority, the teaching on sacraments and salvation, the Catholic priesthood and monasticism (he had once been both a priest and a monk), veneration of saints, and clerical control of biblical interpretation.
Luther wasn’t the first reformer to denounce the moral decline of church leaders, but he was the first to view the problem as a theological one, hinging on false doctrine. He provided the ammunition to take aim not simply at church personnel but the credibility of the institution itself. Fellow Germans embraced Luther’s ideas and seized church property, expelling clergy and religious who didn’t join their cleansing movement.
Meanwhile, Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin were evolving a competing reformation in Switzerland. While Lutherans wanted a reformed Eucharist and Baptism, the Calvinists wanted nothing to do with old sacramental forms. When a third “Radical Reformation” movement arose (Anabaptists, who later sired Baptists and Mennonites), both Catholics and Protestants saw them as heretics. The Church of England was founded in the same period but for reasons that were more political in nature.
The Reformation movement contained the fissures of its own future fault lines. When dissatisfaction with the church is resolved by leaving it, you legitimate every future departure as well. The chief goal of “reformation” is to modify, refashion, or reanimate your subject. Change would come to Catholicism in the long run—but without its separated sisters and brothers.
• John 17:1-26; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31; Romans 12:3-8; 14:1-15:13; Ephesians 1:22-23; 4:11-16; Philippians 2:1-4
• Texts about the Reformation and by Reformation figures
• A History of the Christian Tradition, Vol. II: Reformation to the Present by Thomas C. McGonigle and James F. Quigley (Paulist Press, 1996)
• The Great Catholic Reformers: From Gregory the Great to Dorothy Day by C. Colt Anderson (Paulist Press, 2007)