Opinion Columns & Blogs

Reformation or revolution?

Five hundred years ago, the Western Christian world exploded. For the prior 1,500 years, the church had been “Roman Catholic,” (except for the Great Schism in 1054 that separated the Eastern Catholic church from Rome.) Then all of a sudden, it seems, in 1517, a theology professor/priest/monk, named Martin Luther, rips apart this unified Western church and spreads its tattered remains all over Europe. How could one man do this? He couldn’t.

Luther was not alone. By the time he had hung his 95 Theses on the door of his church in Wittenberg, there were more than 9,500 opposing opinions ready to slide up alongside his. The “insidious indulgences” were just the tip of the iceberg. The Protestant Reformation was needed because Catholics knew they had a lot of reforming to do. Here are just three examples from the many I could choose.

1. The Papacy: Besides the Borgia Popes, Google these: Paul III (a murderer) and John XII who was murdered by the man who caught the pope in bed with his wife. Those popes, and many more like them, were not like Francis. Instead of opting for a poor one bedroom apartment as Francis did, these princes of the church lived high off the papal hog, hosting lavish parties for their political counterparts and collecting revenue from the laity with so-called indulgences to “free their loved ones from Purgatory.”

2. The Roman Curia: This is the law making body of the Vatican, much like our own Congress. This is the group who initiated the bloody Inquisition to quell the onslaught of heresies, and the group who felt justified in torturing a person “back to the faith.”

3. The Faith itself: The money making indulgence scheme was only one of the many secretions of the faith. Catholics had watched their faith battered by one heresy after another. From the Pauline split (Gal. 2) to Luther, I count 41 interpretations of the faith, each one condemned by a church council, but each one spawning the next.

There is no doubt reform was needed and thousands of thinking, believing Catholics wanted to “clean the swamp.” But here’s the catch: Matt. 16:18 quotes Jesus as saying to Peter:

“You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church. And the forces of Hades will not overpower it. etc.” (HCSB)

The Catholic church has always upheld her belief in the papacy based on this text and on tradition. Even a Catholic first-grader will tell you, “Jesus gave his church into the frail but loyal hands of Peter who served as the head of the church in Rome, and Jesus never intended his church to be split open.” Therefore, even though much reform was needed, what happened was revolt not reform. Growing up in an Irish Catholic neighborhood, I was always taught to call it the “Protestant Revolution.”

The reformers walked away. You cannot reform a church or a club or family by walking away. You must be an insider to accomplish anything. I learned that the hard way when I tried to integrate an all-white civic club by resigning. Our Protestant reformers correctly identified the problems deep within their Catholic church, but their resignations earned them excommunication, and all communication and negotiation ended.

How about today? If you’re a progressive Christian who can’t understand your fundamentalist neighbors when they read the Bible literally, or you’re a fundamentalist who feels all progressives are “on the road to hell,” is there any chance of discussion? Are we like Republicans and Democrats who will always be on the other side of every issue? I know this is how the reformers felt in 1517 and who can blame them for walking away?

Contact me: drc@billcummings.org.