March 2017 Print

Catholic Reformation and the Never-Ending Battle Versus the

by Dr. John Rao

“Christ said, ‘I am the Truth’. He did not say, ‘I am custom’.” (Tertullian)

Martin Luther (1483-1546) claimed that the reforms made by the Roman Church in his day—all of them pathetic and doomed to failure as far as he was concerned—were due only to the storm that he personally had aroused. But as much as his appearance on the historical stage was undeniably crucial to the history of the Catholic Reformation, it was totally false for him to claim that this magnificent revival was nothing other than a response to his own revolutionary activity.

Everything that was truly substantive in what is popularly referred to as the “Tridentine Reform” had a pre-Lutheran origin, from the neo-Thomism that would figure significantly in its intellectual development, through the Observant Movement in the traditional religious orders and the zeal for a purified clergy displayed by the disciples of St. Catherine of Genoa, and up to and including the practical example of how to get things done on a broad scale offered in Spain by Queen Isabella and her ecclesiastical advisor, Cardinal Ximenez de Cisneros. All that was central to this pre-Lutheran movement of thought and action would have continued to exert its influence even if the founder of Protestantism had never opened his mouth. One prime indication of this fact: the work of St. Ignatius of Loyola, at the start of his spiritual journey from hospital-to Paris-to Rome, was done in total ignorance of Luther’s teachings and importance. Moreover, a Tridentine Reform that was truly triggered and obsessed by Luther alone would have tackled many challenges more fully than it actually did. Abandonment of some of these challenges entirely, and failure to follow up on others among them, was to a large degree due to long term problems regarding the role of pope, bishops, priests, religious, and laity both mighty and low, in the “constitution” of the Church, as well as complexities concerning the relationship of grace and free will; dilemmas with whose intricacies a number of Catholic activists of the pre-1517 era were familiar. Problems would also have continued to present difficulties for reformers even if Luther had never raised his sights outside of his Saxon classroom. Their stubborn nature is well indicated by the fact that the same problems continued troubling the life of the Church after Luther was supposedly “answered,” right up until our own unhappy time.

“Catholic Reformation”

What both of these truths point to is the fact that “Catholic Reformation” is a never-ending battle. Its perennial necessity gives the lie to any belief that the ecclesiastical polis runs smoothly unless some villain or outside catastrophic event comes along to disturb it, and that the ills caused by such woes can be brought to a conclusion through the thunderous proclamations and apostolic assaults against them on the part of a single heroic council or saintly ecclesiastical leader. Reform was required, and projects pursuing it conceived, not only before Luther and in response to Luther, but also after the last participant left Trent in 1563, and in 1663, 1763, and 1863 as well. And among the ever-present sins making this never-ending battle for reform a constant reality is the incalculably immense power exercised at all times and in all places by familiar but erroneous “customs” masquerading as or at least accepted as the traditional teaching, administrative procedures, and moral practices proper to the Roman Catholic Church.

False “traditions, ”by which were meant the “customary” practices of papal and diocesan courts and curiae, along with the ideas defending them, were the bugbear of fervent Catholic reformers long before Luther, including Pope Gregory VII, making reference to the quotation from Tertullian cited under the title of this article. All that men like Luther did, as far as reformers like Gian Piero Carafa, the future Pope Paul IV, was concerned, was to intensify their concern for a swift revamping of standard operating procedures and the corrupt canonical and erroneous theological justifications lying behind them. This and this alone could prepare the Church for the brutal war for the souls of men and the health of secular society that they saw the Protestant Reformation portended.

Doctrinal Importance

In the minds of the defenders of “custom-defined-as-tradition,” such Catholic critics of papal and episcopal courts and curiae were, at the very least, the sort of deluded, destructive, and even heretical zealots that centuries of papal bureaucratic prudence and pragmatism had sought to tame. At worst, they were themselves viewed as the true problem of the day, unnecessarily aggravating that Protestant tempest-in-a-teapot which could be quelled through the tried laws and methods of practical professionals, or through the rhetorical genius of Humanist word merchants. This latter line of argument rejected both a closer examination of Luther’s theological assault and the need for proper doctrine to defend a beleaguered Church, and a defense of both doctrine as well as the demands for moral administrative procedures which respected a proper hierarchy of values through which spiritual matters were placed above mere political and economic concerns. Instead, it literally verged on the point of treating the Protestant revolt as a non-event, and its consequences were particularly deadly. For nothing, says Hubert Jedin, the great historian of the Council of Trent, furthered the Reformation more than a widespread delusion about its actual lack of doctrinal and pastoral importance among people who conceived of themselves as dealing with the “real”—i.e., the customary, non-doctrinal, politically and economically relevant—problems of grown-ups.

One instance of just how thick the “defenders of customary traditions” were can be seen in their lack of reaction to the Sack of Rome of 1527. This had its origins in the French-Spanish struggle for hegemony in Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries. Its proximate cause was the clash between the political program of the harried Medici Pope, Clement VII (1523-1534), and the ambitions of Charles V (1516-1558), King of Spain, King of Germany, and Holy Roman Emperor [Charles was Charles I, King of Spain, from 1516, and Charles V, King/Emperor from 1519, both down to 1556, when he abdicated]. If its agents were actually mutinous, unpaid, imperial soldiers, these nevertheless could say that they were merely following the examples of their more illustrious clerical ally, the Cardinal Pompeo Colonna, who had plundered the Vatican side of the Tiber some eight months earlier. Whatever the specific responsibilities of pope, Catholic king-emperor, and prince of the Church might have been, the end result was indeed a nightmare. On May 6, 1527, Rome suffered the worst assault that it had ever known, far worse than anything at the time of the barbarian migrations. Nothing was spared, sacred, or profane. Clement VII’s escape to and confinement within the walls of Castel Sant’Angelo until December, listening to the taunting of German mercenaries calling for his death and replacement by “Pope Luther,” were the least of the indignities. Various cardinals and prelates, including one future pope, Julius III, were humiliated and tortured, altars were ransacked, the Sistine Chapel used as a stable, riches confiscated, patients in hospitals and children in orphanages gratuitously butchered. Rape and rapine, exacerbated by raids of hoodlums under the direction of the abbot of the nearby monastery of Farfa, were followed by the onset of plague. Rome and the stench of death became one.

One might have thought that the Sack would guarantee their great awakening. Nothing of the kind happened. Those whose eyes were open before the Sack may have had them opened wider still, but they were relatively few in number. With rare exceptions, men who were blind remained blind. An event of such magnitude, whose mere possibility in the abstract might have seemed apocalyptic beforehand, was digested when it finally did occur in reality as though it were simply another move on the chessboard of ordinary political life. Indeed, most Catholics, clerics and laymen alike, afterwards as before, went about their daily affairs, changing nothing, watching the collapse of the Church’s position in Germany, uninspired to lift a finger to arrest it, even when possessing the authority to do so.

Pastoral Committment

Fortunately for the survival of the Church, those treating doctrinal and spiritual matters as secondary in importance—so long as the power and political influence of the Papacy was protected—suffered at least a partial defeat at the hands of the heroes of the Catholic Reformation. As Trent, the Jesuits, St. Charles Borromeo, St. Pius V, St. Francis de Sales, and so many others progressed in influence, the “traditions” that these custom-obsessed conservatives supported were exposed for what they were: abuses fortified by many spurious, self-deceptive arguments, but used for so long as to have gained the appearance of being something sacred. Fortunately for Rome, an effort was made to rebuild its walls with something more suitable and more sturdy than whatever happened to be merely familiar: a reaffirmation of the authentic and eternal Catholic Tradition, a deeper understanding of whose doctrines alone revealed the pastoral flaws of the immediate past and indicated a surer path to a better future on both the theoretical and practical, pragmatic level. Rooted in concerns that pre-dated the Protestant revolt, Trent was deeply committed, probably more committed in a practical way than any previous council, to a thorough evangelization of a Christian world which was believed to be still all too rooted in superstitious pagan practices. Evangelization was to be accomplished by a reinvigorated clergy, episcopacy, and papacy. But already from the beginning of the Council’s first sitting, it recognized that any attempt to separate pastoral activity from zeal for doctrine was impossible. The minute one touched upon the first realm the second inexorably reared its head, the same being true when approached the other way around. The Christian evangelist had to accomplish his work with good doctrine behind him. He had to be able to teach and teach correctly.

Year by year, decade by decade, on every level, intellectual, moral and physical, we have witnessed all that we have considered to be valuable from our Christian-Greco-Roman past mercilessly attacked, torn to shreds, and mocked in its helplessness. And yet each new assault, which seems as though it ought to be the final eye-opening disaster, appears to do little to awaken us to the major cause of our impotent defense of our own heritage.

Our impotence stems from our continued support for certain supposedly practical, prudent, pragmatic “traditions”—those composed of ever more heretical interpretations of the meaning of Vatican II, marching in lock step with naturalist, pluralist, libertine, secular principles, and protected by a Stalinist understanding of the infallibility and practical wisdom of “a Pope who can do no wrong”—which, like the “traditions” of the corrupt papal and episcopal courts and curiae of the early sixteenth century, are actually not part of Catholic Tradition at all, but, rather, are errors and abuses. It emerges from our conviction that critics of such false traditions are wild-eyed and destructive zealots. It is fed by our insistence on so closing our minds to the full character of the problem that we face as to remind one of Hubert Jedin’s warning that nothing does more to abet a disaster than an unwillingness to recognize its real existence.

The proponents of false traditions in the first half of the 16th century did not see that their standard operating procedures were helpless to deal with the disaster of 1527. Thankfully, their influence was weakened—though not by any means entirely destroyed— by the doctrinally and pastorally solid heroes of the Catholic Reformation. Similarly, Catholics who have accepted the false traditions of our own time cannot understand that the standard operating procedures of this heritage—the spirit of Vatican II—render them helpless in fending off further collapse. Any defenders of Rome at the time of the Sack of 1527 who might have been guided by the kinds of “traditions” defended tooth and nail by contemporary modernist and conservative Catholic idol worshippers would have had to do their duty by joining the mutinous soldiers in breaching the Aurelian Walls. Let us hope that the Catholic reformers of our own day—courageous cardinals, bishops, priests, and laity who recognize the need for solid doctrine to back serious pastoral activity—will one day be celebrated justly along with those who made the reform of the 16th century possible.