Almost five centuries ago, on October 31, 1517, a German monk called Martin Luther reputedly nailed his Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg.
The initial cause of Luther’s protest was corruption in the Church, especially the misuse of indulgences, but the controversy soon escalated into criticism and opposition to whole swathes of Catholic doctrine, including the sacraments, purgatory, transubstantiation and devotion to the Virgin Mary.
Now the anniversary of this momentous social revolution is approaching and it is rumoured that in 2017 Pope Francis will visit the Saxon town as part of a plan to commemorate the event.
And last week the Pope’s preacher Fr Raniero Cantalamessa made a surprising remark in an address to the Queen and Church of England’s bishops in Westminster Abbey. Using language that will leave many Catholics scratching their heads, he referred to the “great theological and spiritual enrichment that came from the Reformation”.
The context of his message was that believers ought to unite over the “essence of the Christian message” – that is, “We preach Christ crucified”. But, he argued, “This does not mean ignoring the great theological and spiritual enrichment that came from the Reformation or desiring to go back to the time before it. It means instead allowing all of Christianity to benefit from its achievements, once they are freed from certain distortions due to the heated atmosphere of the time and of later controversies.”
Heated atmosphere indeed: the Thirty Years’ War killed a third of Germany’s population, the climax of more than a century of bloodshed across Europe. Relations between Christians have markedly improved since Vatican II, but can Catholics accept that the Reformation brought “theological and spiritual enrichment” without being dishonest in the interests of diplomacy?
Historians can point to plenty of evidence to suggest the Reformation brought only devastation and disaster. In England the most lasting physical legacy was the Dissolution of the Monasteries, which led to the ruin of numerous treasures, among them Furness, Battle and Bolton.
Then there was the destruction of Catholic art; according to the historian Dominic Selwood, about “97 per cent of the English art then in existence” was eradicated, with statues destroyed and frescoes smashed, along with shrines and mosaics.
Culturally the Reformation was a disaster, too, says the Tudor historian Professor Jack Scarisbrick. “There was the destruction of libraries, musical instruments. England was on the brink of becoming a Renaissance country, but all that comes to an end. In terms of English art there is nothing in the second half of the 16th century, except William Byrd, who is a Catholic, and Shakespeare, who is a crypto-Catholic. The Elizabethan era was a dull period, with little achievement.”
Prof Scarisbrick argues that the Reformation did not help literacy either. There was a “great splurge of colleges from 1450s”, he says, and “a lot of schools refounded” in the 16th century, but educational growth slowed down after Henry VIII because “there was a disincentive to found anything for fear the Crown would grab it”.
Political liberty, economic prosperity and literacy are all seen as being linked to Protestantism. Yet most recent research has shown most of the products attributed to Protestantism were already in place. According to the Our World in Data group, rates of literacy in Britain and Germany were already increasing by the time of the Reformation and did not speed up afterwards.
On the other hand, they did rapidly increase in Protestant Netherlands and Sweden. But the Low Countries’ capitalist revolution was also well in place by Luther’s time and almost certainly would have happened without the Reformation.
Despite the myth of the Glorious Revolution, most English liberal institutions were well established before Henry VIII, including Magna Carta, habeas corpus, Parliament and the trial by jury. Indeed, Parliament was heavily influenced by the Church and Magna Carta was largely put together by Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
All this wouldn’t go down well in ecumenical circles. Perhaps to take a more favourable interpretation of Fr Cantalamessa’s remark, one might consider the long development of Anglican traditions in the centuries since the Reformation. No doubt there is enrichment there, in the patrimony that the members of the ordinariate wanted to bring to the Catholic Church and that is appreciated by, among others, Benedict XVI.
Fr Mark Elliott-Smith, an ordinariate priest at Our Lady of Hal Church, Camden, says: “There are elements of sanctification of truth that are always going to be found outside of the Catholic Church. There is so much [in the Protestant tradition] that is rich and beautiful – after all, would we have JS Bach without the Reformation?”
As the anniversary approaches the Church should, of course, use it to strengthen Christian unity, especially as the faithful face such persecution today. But we should not confuse the “enrichment” that might have developed in the centuries after 1517 with the traumatic rupture of the Reformation itself.
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