Sunday, December 25, 2016

One Faith

In this Christmas season, Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Christians celebrate the incarnation or coming to earth of God as a human baby, born like all of us, more humbly and marginal than many of us. Let’s pause the story of the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Revival to review the similarities between Protestants and Catholics, even in ideas hotly disputed in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Up to this point in our review of the 16th century, we have seen that more happened within this one century to change the circumstances of the Christian faith than in the preceding thousand years. There were a series of Protestant breaks in church allegiance in Germany, Switzerland, England and the Low Countries, along with a Catholic Revival that occurred mostly in Spain and the new Spanish colonies.

What we haven’t seen is how new theological positions were taken that echo to this day, nor how they affected practice. Even more important, looking only at how the breaks came about tells us little about the semantic and social misunderstandings that undergirded the religious disputes.

Justification: Faith versus Works

Few Catholic-Protestant quarrels better demonstrate how the battle royal between the two confessional camps was sparked by differences that weren’t all that significant after all than the split over whether we are saved by faith or works.

Stereotypically and a little simplistically, Catholics are thought to believe that Christians earn an eternal afterlife in heaven by doing good deeds, receiving the sacraments and abiding by Church law. Conversely, Protestants are popularly seen as proclaiming that heaven is given freely and unconditionally to anyone who assents to faith in Christ, regardless of deeds, rites or Church law.

Actually, there is more to it.

The Gospels introduce the idea of an afterlife as a matter of faith, an idea that was and is ambiguous in Judaism. Jesus speaks of punishment and eternal reward. The path to reward (or salvation) in the Gospels involves a turning toward belief—being born again (John 3:1-21). But conversion also means a new way of life (Matthew 25:31-46) that involves feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked and visiting those who are sick and in prison. Modern Protestants emphasize being born again, modern Catholics loving charity: faith versus works. Neither is necessarily more faithful or charitable than the other; what they profess, however, is different.

However, Catholicism does emphasize faith and Protestantism does demand good behavior.

Fully orthodox Catholic teaching and theological thought never denied that salvation is the work of God alone. God created us and saw us wander from the original creature-creator relationship. God then became a man and suffered on the cross in an effort to restore that bond. Faith is a gift that allows us to join in God’s creative and loving work; without it, we cannot be saved. Preparing for and accepting justification by personal consent is an effect of grace, not the product of exclusively human effort.

That’s the essence of Catholic teaching, and it doesn’t veer that far from at least the Lutheran understanding. And since Luther’s Sola Fide (only faith) is the foundational stone of Protestantism, it’s not so different from broad Protestant belief.

The problem arises not at the moment people become Christians, but after. Even the most sincere continue to sin after conversion, whether conversion is the moment of “accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior,” as some Protestants describe it, or at baptism, as Catholics do. Protestants and Catholics agree on this.

In the Protestant view, the enslaving power of sin is broken by the merit of Christ. Christians may commit acts that are sinful, or contrary to divine will and ordinance, but may return daily to conversion. Thus, new sin no longer brings damnation and eternal death.

Catholic teaching holds that when we voluntarily separate ourselves from God, by giving in to our natural tendency to sin, it is not enough to go back to following the commandments. Christians must receive pardon and peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) “through the word of forgiveness imparted to them in virtue of God’s reconciling work in Christ.”

However, when Catholic teachers and theologians are pushed to the wall with various examples, it always comes down to individual conscience and God. If you are in the wilds of Mongolia far from any opportunity to go to Confession, can you be pardoned? Of course you can; God is not limited by Church rules. It may not have the reassurance of the spoken words of absolution, but God forgives.

These are subtle and highly intellectual points about the moral state of humanity and the genuine demands of faith in Jesus Christ on sincere believers. Protestants do not believe that you can be “saved” by conversion and then live an orgiastic life; in fact, the usual Protestant response is to question whether there was a sincere conversion in the first place. Similarly, Catholics do not believe that, absent confession in a booth, all Protestants will go to hell.

In modern times the differences have been tackled by people more learned than I, in the official Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification approved by The Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church in 1999. It is available from the Vatican or from The Lutheran World Federation. The quote three paragraphs above, about the Sacrament of Reconciliation, is from this document, paragraph 30.

To my mind, the most inspiring treatment of this matter, which is recommended for all Christians, is The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famous and courageous Lutheran pastor killed by the Nazis. It would make a good gift for anyone during this Christmas season.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Barefoot in the Cloister

The junior partner in Teresa of Avila’s reformed Discalced Carmelite order was baptized Juan de Yepes y Álvarez (1542-1591). He was also of converted Jewish origins and from Avila, but he was 27 years younger, almost a son, and was far less high born.

John’s father, Gonzalo, had been an accountant to richer relatives who were silk merchants until 1529, when he married John's mother, Catalina, an orphan of a lower class. Gonzalo’s family rejected him as a result, and he had to go work with his wife as a weaver. Gonzalo died when John was about three years old, and things got worse for the family. His older brother Luis died two years after Gonzalo, probably of malnutrition given the family’s poverty.

The crisis led John, as the loss of her mother did Teresa, away from his likely path. He entered a school for poor children, mostly orphans, and got a basic education, mainly in Christian doctrine, as well as modest food, clothing and lodging. In return John had to work, first as an acolyte at a nearby monastery of Augustinian nuns, possibly the one in which Teresa lived briefly, then at a hospital, while he studied the humanities at a school run by the newly formed Jesuit order—which recognized the boy’s intellect.

In 1563, at about 19, he entered the Carmelite Order and took the name John of St. Matthias, professing final vows the following year, after which he was dispatched to Salamanca—Spain’s Oxford—where he studied theology and philosophy. John was ordained a priest in 1567, then indicated his intention to join the much stricter Carthusian Order, which stresses solitary and silent contemplation.

A journey from Salamanca to Medina del Campo, probably in September 1567, changed everything. He met the charismatic Carmelite nun Teresa of Jesus, as she was then known, who was in town trying to found the second Discalced Carmelite cloister, and she told him of her plans to reform the order.

She wanted to restore the purity of the Carmelites and the “Primitive Rule” of 1209 by St. Berthold, founder of order. The former Norman crusader had in 1185 established a hermit colony on Mount Carmel, near today’s Haifa, Israel. His rule was approved by the pope in 1226, but its observance had been relaxed by Pope Eugene IV in 1432.

The term “discalced” in the new order’s name was an essential element of the spirit of reform that animated Teresa, and later John. To be “discalced” means to be shoeless. The idea comes from Moses’ encounter with God speaking from what seemed to be a burning bush. In Exodus 3:5, God tells Moses, “Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Discalced orders go entirely shoeless or wear sandals, with or without socks, a custom introduced in the West by St. Francis of Assisi for men and St. Clare for women as a reminder to remain close to God.

Teresa’s plan included nearly constant choral recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours, official prayers marking and sanctifying the hours of each day. These prayers have been a public prayer of the Church since the 5th century. Embraced by many monastic orders and recalled in the Anglican service of Morning Prayer, they were prayed publicly throughout the Middle Ages and consist of psalms, hymns, readings and other prayers and antiphons, often chanted or recited responsively.

Her new rule called for the choir offices, study, devotional reading, Mass and long periods of solitude between Compline (night prayer, usually before retiring around 9 p.m.) and Prime (or “first hour,” early morning prayer, at about 6 a.m.). Total abstinence from meat was required, and a lengthy fast was observed, except Sundays, from the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (September 14) until Easter.

For the friars, time was to be spent evangelizing the population around the monastery.

Returning to our story in Medina del Campo, Teresa asked John to hold off joining the Carthusians and follow her. After completing his studies in Salamanca, John traveled from Medina to Valladolid with Teresa, who was founding a convent there. After spending some time in Valladolid with Teresa and learning more about this new form of Carmelite life, John left to found a monastery, following Teresa's principles. It was established in 1568 in a donated run-down house in Duruelo, about midway between Ávila and Salamanca. On the day it opened John took the monastic name John of the Cross.

After founding many cloisters for men and women, Teresa went into seclusion and turned to writing, but she and John still managed to set up seven reformed monasteries between 1567 and 1571. In the following seven years she founded four more.

John became the first master of novices and filled various posts elsewhere until Teresa called him to Avila to be director and confessor at the convent of the Incarnation, where she was prioress.

Sometime between 1574 and 1577, while praying in the Monastery of the Incarnation in Ávila, John had a vision of the crucified Christ, which led him to craft a famous drawing of Christ “from above.”

John was ordered by his provincial to return to the house of his profession (Medina). He refused and was taken against his will to Toledo, where he was imprisoned for nine months in a narrow, stifling cell and tortured. In the middle of his suffering he experienced what he described as heavenly consolation, and some of his best poetry dates from this period. Once his views were accepted, he spent most of his time in the years that followed founding and running monasteries.

In 1576, the Carmelite order began to persecute Teresa and her friends. Officials forbade her to found additional convents, and the general chapter ordered her to “voluntarily” retire in one of her institutions. She obeyed and chose St. Joseph’s in Toledo. Her friends and subordinates didn’t get off so easily.

Teresa also rebounded from confinement when King Philip II intervened, halting  Inquisition proceedings against her associates, and Pope Gregory XIII set her up as a special provincial for the new branch of discalced nuns. In the last three years of her life, Teresa founded four more convents.

Forty years after her death, she was canonized and later declared patroness of Spain. In 1970 Pope Paul VI named her a Doctor of the Church, along with Saint Catherine of Siena, the first women to be awarded the distinction. Teresa is revered as the Doctor of Prayer.

John learned of Teresa’s death while staying in the friars’ monastery of Los Martires, beside the Alhambra. Three years later he was elected Provincial Vicar of Andalusia and founded seven new monasteries in the region. In 1588, John was elected third Councillor to the Vicar General for the Discalced Carmelites, but that post ended after a dispute, and he was sent in 1591 to an isolated monastery in Andalusia. He fell ill and went to a nearby monastery for treatment, where he died at the end of that year, less than a decade after Teresa.

Close to a century later he was canonized; his feast day is December 14. The Church of England commemorates him on the same day as a “Teacher of the Faith.”

Teresa left a remarkable legacy in her spiritual writings, which include her autobiography, The Life of Teresa of Jesus, her seminal work The Interior Castle and The Way of Perfection.

St. John of the Cross is a leading poet in the Spanish language and authored some 2,500 poems. Two of them—the Spiritual Canticle and the Dark Night of the Soul—are deemed masterpieces for their style, symbolism and imagery.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

A Bad Night in a Bad Inn

The title words are how our earthly life was described by one of the foremost mystical theologians of the 16th century, a feisty yet devout saint who is also said to have complained to Jesus, who appeared to her in a vision, that considering the way he treated his followers, “It’s no wonder you have so few!”

Few of the central figures of the Catholic Revival of her day are at once as earth bound and spiritually high flying, so dyed-in-the-wool loyal to the Church yet so modern, as the woman baptized Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada (1515-1582), who founded the Discalced Carmelites, taking on as her junior partner another mystical giant of her time. Just as evangelical humanists in Europe were attempting to demolish the upward-worshipping arches of Europe’s medieval cathedral, Teresa of Ávila sought to reform the monastic life from within, to make it more prayerful.

Teresa was an unlikely Catholic mystic. Her paternal grandfather, Juan Sánchez de Toledo, was a marrano (a convert to Christianity who remained secretly Jewish), ultimately condemned by the Spanish Inquisition. However, her father, Alonso Sánchez de Cepeda, fully assimilated into Christian society and even acquired a knighthood to prove it.

Moreover, growing up in the tiny hamlet of Gotarrendura, Avila, a mostly mountainous central western province of Spain, Teresa was a callow youth who avidly read medieval tales of knights and primped to look the part of an attractive privileged young woman. She was delivered from a conventional path most likely by her mother’s death when Teresa was 14 and the marriage of her oldest sister, after which she was sent to be educated by the local Augustinian nuns. However, she returned home 18 months later when she became seriously ill. During this time she became devoted to the Virgin Mary and experienced the earliest instances of what she later described as religious ecstasy.

At home with her father, considered by biographers a saintly man and fond of serious books, she took up broad-based spiritual reading, including the letters of St. Jerome and other spiritual books similar to those Loyola read during his convalescence. Like Loyola, she included what she gathered from her reading in her own teaching about the spiritual life. Against her father’s wishes, however, and still in turmoil about taking the step, she left the family home to join the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation at Avila, in 1535, at the age of 20.

Reportedly in the next year she endured terrible inner struggles. Some say it was homesickness, others that it was something more. She was repeatedly beset by bouts of fever and fainting that some modern observers describe as “malaria,” although it probably wasn’t. She was taken to a healer whose cleansing treatment probably dehydrated Teresa and left her with pain, constant fever and ruined nerves and unable to eat or sleep. For three years she was never completely well, and instead of helping her spiritually, her sickness halted her private prayer; she wasn’t healthy enough to be alone.

She later wrote that she didn’t realize that “Prayer is an act of love; words are not needed. Even if sickness distracts from thoughts, all that is needed is the will to love.” She criticized herself for her sinful “guise of humility” that made her undeserving of divine favor. In her words, she was like “a baby turning from its mother’s breasts; what can be expected but death?”

Drawing on readings of the devotional work Third Spiritual Alphabet by Francisco de Osuna, she began to attempt examinations of conscience, spiritual concentration and inner contemplation, rising from what she called the lowest stage, “recollection,” (or gathering oneself) to “devotions of silence” and even to “devotions of ecstasy,” in which she experienced perfect union with God, which she described as a rich “blessing of tears.”

Still, prayer was difficult.

“I was more anxious for the hour of prayer to be over than I was to remain there. I don’t know what heavy penance I would not have gladly undertaken rather than practice prayer,” she writes. “This intellect is so wild that it doesn’t seem to be anything else than a frantic madman no one can tie down. All the trials we endure cannot be compared to these interior battles.”

She was eventually delivered to mental prayer, which she describes this way:

“For mental prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us. The important thing is not to think much but to love much and so do that which best stirs you to love. Love of God is not great delight but desire to please Him in everything.”

In time, in the prayer of quiet, God’s presence overwhelmed her senses. Rapture filled her with glorious foolishness, prayers of union when she felt the sun of God melt her soul away. Sometimes her whole body was raised from the ground, and she called her sister nuns to sit on her and hold her down. Troubled by these events, she “begged God very much not to give me any more favors in public.”

If her inner life was a struggle, so was her external environment. The convent was a shock. What at first was attributed to homesickness, became a longing for a much more ascetic, prayerful and simple life.

Part of the problem was her surroundings. The 150 nuns in her cloister lived a very comfortable and spiritually lax life. It was not uncommon for convents to be residences for well-born women who, for one reason or another, were unmarriageable yet who retained servants and luxuries, which they brought in tow to the cloister. They even got vacations from the convent to cut down on community expenses. They styled their veils and wore jewelry. A steady stream of people of high social and political rank, including young men and Teresa’s own worldly relatives, visited the convent parlors, which came to resemble the social courts of the nobility. What spiritual life there was, she remarked, involved hysteria, weeping and exaggerated penance.

Teresa suffered from being too charming and likable, and she wanted to be liked. The convent encouraged her to receive visitors and teach them mental prayer. Their financial gifts helped the community, but their attention often distracted her with what she described as flattery and lured her into vanity and gossip rather than spiritual conversation.

When all seemed lost, she got help in voicing her turmoil and finding a practical response by Fr. Peter of Alcantara, a Franciscan who was later canonized. He met her early in 1560 and became her spiritual director. She resolved to start a reformed Carmelite convent, correcting the laxity she had found in so many. She tapped her friend Guimara de Ulloa, a woman of wealth, who supplied the funds for a new cloister, where she was allowed to reside in a new order, the Discalced Carmelite Nuns of the Primitive Rule of St. Joseph, at Avila, founded in 1562. It was four years before the superior general of the Carmelites gave approval and granted permission to found monasteries for men as well.

This was the beginning of a new adventure, which we shall review in the next entry.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

For the Greater Glory of God

Just as an Augustinian friar was protesting the sale of indulgences and setting off a firestorm against the papacy in the northern reaches of Charles the Fifth’s European domain, in his southern realm, a Spanish knight’s religious conversion would give rise to a brotherhood of the pope’s most stalwart hosts.

For half a millennium, the religious order that springs to mind in response to Joseph Stalin’s question “How many divisions has the pope?” is the Jesuits. Their founder, Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), emerged as a religious leader during efforts to reverse the Protestant Reformation, and his devotion to the Catholic Church branded this group known for its absolute obedience to the pope.

Like Martin Luther, young Íñigo López de Loyola was not the kind anyone would call a saint. He loved medieval epics such as El Cid and the Song of Roland—the kind of thing contemporary novelist Miguel de Cervantes would mock in Don Quixote. Predictably, he joined the army at 17. Biographers describe him as “a fancy dresser, an expert dancer, a womanizer, sensitive to insult and a rough punkish swordsman who used his privileged status.” He is said to have challenged a Moor to a duel when the Muslim denied the divinity of Christ.

Diplomatic and a skilled leader, he was made a Gentilhombre, or officer at the service of the court. In defense of the Crown’s interests he fought in many battles, until in 1521, at the age of 30, a cannonball wounded his right leg and fractured his left. He returned to his father’s castle for medical care, including several surgeries (without anesthesia!), and ended up with one leg shorter than the other. He limped for the rest of his life.

During his long convalescence, he read the Vita Christi by Ludolph of Saxony, which changed his life. The result of 40 years of study, the work offers commentary on the Gospels and extracts from the many Church Fathers. Ludolph invites the reader to enter into the scene of the Gospel story and visualize the people and objects in a kind of prayer known as simple contemplation, the basis for Ignatius’ later spiritual teaching. He proceeded to read lives of saints and was particularly taken with Francis of Assisi and the idea of joining the Franciscans in the conversion of non-Christians in the Holy Land.

Once recovered, he visited the Benedictine monastery Santa Maria de Montserrat where, after a night in prayer, he placed his sword and dagger before a statue of the Virgin, forswearing his military life. He traveled on foot to the town of Manresa, Catalonia, where he worked with the Hospitaler monks in exchange for lodging. While praying in a nearby cave he experienced a series of visions. Then he set off on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but after a few weeks the Franciscans sent him home.

He went to the university in Madrid and was drawn to a group of women known as alumbrados or Illuminati (Enlightened Ones) who linked their zeal and spirituality to the Franciscan reforms and often experienced religious ecstasy. Their antics while in ecstasy caught the eye of the Inquisition, and Ignatius’ street corner preaching without a degree in theology got him arrested, but he was quickly released.

The next stop was the University of Paris, where he roomed with Peter Faber, a young man from Savoy, and Francis Xavier, a Basque nobleman. Both would loom large in the next and final enterprise, the Society of Jesus. Along with Ignatius they were the first members, Faber the first ordained. They called themselves the Company of Jesus, a name drawn from the military but also from the notion of discipleship as “companions” of Jesus and Amigos en El Señor (Friends in the Lord). They took vows of poverty and chastity and a third vow to go to the Holy Land when their studies were finished.

In 1534, Faber, now a priest, received the religious vows of Ignatius and five companions, and they all went to live in Montmartre until Loyola graduated with his master’s degree. Still set on preaching in the Holy Land, in 1537 the group got as far as Venice before war with the Turks blocked their way. Thwarted, Faber and Loyola set out for Rome to offer their services to the pope. They were all well-connected nobles, but the procedure still took time, and in 1544, by papal bull, the order was approved, with the Latin name Societas Jesu, to serve the pope as missionaries.

That year the term “Jesuit” was first used, but with reproach and scorn; it was a 15th century pejorative for people who constantly wove the name of Jesus into their speech; friends of the order took the sting out of the term when they began to use it in a positive way, although it was never used by Ignatius. Loyola became the superior general.

In 1548 he published the Spiritual Exercises, his major work, a manual for a retreat originally intended to last 30 days. It draws from his spiritual reading during convalescence from his war wounds and meditations at Manresa. It is a handbook for a priest directing or leading a retreat, to help people discover God’s will for them and summon the energy and courage to follow it. The guide covers four weeks of meditations: the first on sin and its consequences, the second on Christ’s life on earth, the third on his passion, the fourth on his risen life. It has instructions on how to pray, avoid undue self-reproach and choose a vocation in life without being swayed by love of self or of the world.

Ignatius originally thought of the exercises as a once or maybe twice in a lifetime experience, but eventually they came to be part of a yearly month-long retreat for all Jesuits and a modified version over many months for laypeople who cannot get away for 30 days. I took part in the shorter Ignatian retreat every year of high school and several times in my life.

Loyola rounded out his order with its constitutions and the motto Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam (“For the greater glory of God”), often written AMDG. The phrase is meant to convey the idea that any work that is not evil, even something trivial, can be spiritually worthy if undertaken with the intention to give glory to God. The full Ignatian phrase is Ad majorem Dei gloriam inque hominum salutem or “for the greater glory of God and the salvation of humanity.”

By the end of the 16th century, in the name of AMDG, Jesuits had covered the entire globe.

Francis Xavier, one of Loyola’s original companions, reached Goa, in Portuguese India, in 1541, and devoted himself to a decade of evangelization in southern India and then China.

One of my favorite anecdotes tells of his encounter with an ancient Jewish community in China, established shortly after the Babylonian captivity, about five centuries before Christ. These Jews had mistakenly traveled east instead of west and eventually stopped looking for the Promised Land when they reached China. Impressed with Francis’ knowledge of the Torah they asked him to be their rabbi; he politely declined, explaining that he followed a new prophet, Yeshua. He continued his travels and died in China.

Another early mission gained the Jesuits the feudal fiefdom of Nagasaki in 1580, a privilege withdrawn seven years later because they were seen as too influential. In 1594 they founded the first Roman-style academic institution in the East, St. Paul Jesuit College in Macao.

The 1986 film “The Mission” tells the story of one Jesuit effort about a century later, when their work became controversial for their advocacy and defense of native Americans—a story for another time.

From the beginning the Jesuits made their presence felt in the New World. For example, in what is today Brazil, Jesuit priests Manuel da Nóbrega and José de Anchieta founded São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, respectively, and were influential in peacemaking, religious conversion and education of Indian nations.

In Europe, the Jesuits became the pope’s shock troops against Protestantism in the late 16th century, under English Queen Elizabeth I, who persecuted Catholics and executed many Jesuits by drawing and quartering. That, too, is a story for later.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

A Man of Conscience


The name of one of the notable Anabaptist leaders in the Low Countries spawned a denomination known as the Mennonites, a small but hardy group persecuted fiercely by both Catholic and Protestant authorities for insistence on disengaging from the world and particularly from war. Mennonites have spread out to communities in at least 87 countries worldwide.

Their story begins in 1496, when a Dutch couple in Witmarsum, Friesland, named their infant son Menno. Since the child’s father was Simon, by custom in Holland his name was Menno Simonszoon, or  Simons for short.

Simons trained for the Catholic priesthood, among other things learning to read and write Latin and studying the Church Fathers. He was ordained in 1524 and assigned for seven years to a parish in the town of Pinjum, near his birthplace, where he was transferred in 1531 for five years. Some Anabaptist accounts assert that “Menno had feared to read the Bible,” but such a claim stems from ignorance of the fact that one of the duties of the priest is homilectics, to preach on the day’s biblical readings.

Simons’ theological change of heart is believed to have started in 1525, during his first year as a priest. He is said to have been celebrating Mass “when a doubt crept into his mind as to whether the bread and wine actually became divine.” He apparently originally thought this was a suggestion from the Devil and tried to get it out of his mind.

The Anabaptist account wrongly describes it as doubting “the truth of transubstantiation,” which is not the teaching that, in the Eucharist, bread and wine acquire the “Real Presence” of Christ and become his Body and Blood, but rather the theory adopted by Lateran IV to explain how the change occurs. Doubt concerning the Real Presence prompted deeper study of the New Testament, which led him toward a humanist evangelical view common in his day. Two events intervened to push Simons beyond what was, for a country priest, at most an eccentric Erasmian stance.

First, in 1531, he heard that a tailor named Sicke Freerks Snijder had been beheaded for being “rebaptized,” which was how Simons first heard of the rite. He said that it “sounded very strange to me.” Transferred to his hometown, he came into direct contact with Anabaptists, who preached and practiced “believer’s baptism,” just as Simons was coming to the conclusion that infant baptism had no biblical writ.

Next, in the nearby German city of Münster, radical Anabaptists led by John of Leiden seized power and set up a communal sectarian government in February 1534. The uprising at first denounced Catholicism from a radical Lutheran perspective, but soon proclaimed the absolute equality of all people in all matters, including wealth, and called on the poor of the region to join him in to share the wealth of the town and enjoy the spiritual benefits of being Heaven’s elect.

Meanwhile, some 300 Friesland Anabaptists, men and women, led by an emissary of their congregation in Münster, violently seized a Catholic monastery on March 30, 1535. On April 7 the monastery was stormed by troops led by the imperial stadtholder. Several hundred Anabaptists died, among them Simons’ brother, Pieter. Not long after, Münster’s expelled bishop came back with an army and did the same in his city.

Simons later recounted the crisis, saying he “prayed to God with sighs and tears that He would give to me, a sorrowing sinner, the gift of His grace, create within me a clean heart, and graciously through the merits of the crimson blood of Christ, He would graciously forgive my unclean walk and unprofitable life.”

Ultimately, Simons rejected Catholicism and the priesthood on January 12, 1536, was rebaptized and joined the Anabaptists. He was ordained around 1537 by Obbe Philips, a barber and a surgeon who was leading an Anabaptist community in Groningen. The association ended badly. The community felt that Simons, who devoted himself to quiet meditation and study, would be a better leader. Members pressed him twice before Simons agreed to become an elder, roughly equivalent to a bishop.

As an elder, Simons rejected the violence of the Münster movement, arguing that it was not scriptural, and offered a theology focused on separation from the world and baptism by repentance. In his 1539 work Why I Do Not Cease Teaching and Writing, he states:
True evangelical faith is of such a nature that it cannot lie dormant; but manifests itself in all righteousness and works of love; it dies unto flesh and blood; destroys all forbidden lusts and desires; cordially seeks, serves and fears God; clothes the naked; feeds the hungry; consoles the afflicted; shelters the miserable; aids and consoles all the oppressed; returns good for evil; serves those that injure it; prays for those that persecute it; teaches, admonishes and reproves with the Word of the Lord; seeks that which is lost; binds up that which is wounded; heals that which is diseased and saves that which is sound.

The term “Mennonite” or “Mennist” was first used in 1544 letter to refer to Dutch Anabaptists. Simons died January 31, 1561, at Wüstenfelde, Holstein, and was buried in his garden. He was married to a woman named Gertrude, and they had at least three children, two daughters and a son.

The Mennonite faith forbids swearing of an oath or serving as a soldier. It calls for a New Testament style assembly of voluntary converts baptized after confession of faith in Christ and bound to the group’s discipline. Mennonite mutual-aid organizations carry out the group’s spirit of carrying one another’s burdens. The faith sees the community of believers as a “suffering church, not a ruling political body which punished heresy with the power of the state.” As such, it must expect persecution. Simons wrote: “The persecution, suffering and anxiety which befalls it for the sake of the truth of the Lord, is to it a glorious joy and consolation.”

Simons spoke of guarding what we learn “in the little chest of the conscience” (Gewissen) as an inborn divine voice. “We have but one Lord and master of our conscience, Jesus Christ, whose word, will, commandment and ordinance we obey, as willing disciples, even as the bride is ready to obey her bridegroom's voice,” he wrote.

There were about 2.1 million Anabaptists worldwide as of 2015 (including Mennonites, Amish and Mennonite Brethren, formally part of the Mennonite World Conference). The largest groups are in Canada, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, India and the United States. There are German colonies in Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Mexico, Paraguay and Uruguay. There remains only a relatively small Mennonite presence in the Netherlands, where Simons was born.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Predestination’s Polemicist

The only major figure of the Reformation who started out as neither a cleric nor a monarch was French lawyer and polemicist John Calvin (1509-1564), best known for his work Institutes of the Christian Religion and his teaching of predestination. Like Zwingli, he was not the founder of a denomination; however, Calvinism as a set of theological ideas spread widely within Protestantism.

The man known from birth in Noyon, France, as Jehan Cauvin (he latinized his name to Ioannes Calvinus, a Renaissance fashion) led a relatively ordinary life as the son of an ecclesiastical notary who pulled Calvin away from studying for the priesthood in Paris and enrolled him to study law at the University of Orleans. By 1532, at the age of 23, Calvin had received his law degree, published his first book, a commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia, and returned to Paris.

There, two developments altered the course of his life.

First, he experienced in the fall of 1533 a religious conversion. He described it, in part, as an experience through which “God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame … Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness, I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress therein.” Later he described this as the beginning of his call to reform the Catholic Church.

Meanwhile, Calvin’s close friend Nicolas Cop was appointed rector of the Collège Royal, where he got caught up in the conflict between humanists and reform-minded faculty and more conservative senior professors. Cop devoted his inaugural address to the need for reform and renewal in the Catholic Church. Irate faculty members denounced the speech as heretical, forcing Cop to flee to Basel. Calvin was somehow implicated and also had to go into hiding until he managed to join his friend in Basel, then under the influence of Johannes Oecolampadius, a German religious reformer with close ties to both Erasmus and Zwingli.

In March 1536, Calvin published the first edition of his Institutio Christianae Religionis (Institutes of the Christian Religion), his central work, which underwent several almost wholesale changes until the definitive editions of 1559 (Latin) and 1560 (French).

The final version’s 80 chapters follow the structure of the Apostles’ Creed, already a traditional form of instruction in the faith. First, God is presented as Father, the creator, provider and sustainer; next, the Son reveals the Father, asserting that only God can reveal God. Third, the work describes the work of the Holy Spirit, including raising Christ from the dead. Finally, the work speaks about how the church should live the divine and scriptural truths, particularly through its sacraments, functions and ministries and about the connection between civil government and religion—the section includes a lengthy criticism of the papacy.

Although Calvin claims to rely only on biblical writ, much of what he states about God that is in accord with previous teaching draws from Nicaea and Chalcedon, not the Bible. Where Calvin first goes off the rails is with predestination.

Much like Luther and his sola gratia, Calvin doubts the human capacity to cooperate with God in the process of salvation, which is given rather than earned. Pre-Reformation Christianity never quite went so far as to affirm that human beings by their actions can earn or lose salvation, but it did propose that salvation offered by God can be rejected by human beings’ free moral acts.

Calvin denies moral freedom. In his view, God has already chosen those who will be saved. Even among Christians, who have heard the Gospel and received the sacraments, only a few are entitled to everlasting life; the rest are strangers and hypocrites. Calvin argues that God’s omnipotent grace makes up for the shortcomings of the elect, who are accounted for only when they convert. The existing pre-Reformation Church, Calvin argues, is merely an outward sign that might, or might not, be imbued by the Holy Spirit, and in any case cannot prepare a person to be worthy of grace.

The Calvinist view spawned the evangelical Protestant notion of conversion as an event that takes place in a particular moment (the famous committing one’s heart to Jesus). As a corollary, baptism is not to be administered to infants, the Eucharist is not a sacrifice nor are its ministers priests, nor is any idea of the Church traceable to Apostolic times valid. What clergy is left is only ministering “the Word,” meaning the printed Bible, and no other tradition or teaching is considered valid.

Nonetheless, in 1537, Calvin wrote the Articles on the Organization of the Church and its Worship at Geneva to the city’s Protestant-leaning council and effectively set up a theocracy there, although he frequently traveled back to Strasbourg, where he lived with his family, also under a Protestant theocratic order he established.

Voltaire later wrote about Calvin, Luther and Zwingli, “If they condemned celibacy in the priests, and opened the gates of the convents, it was only to turn all society into a convent. Shows and entertainments were expressly forbidden by their religion; and for more than two hundred years there was not a single musical instrument allowed in the city of Geneva. They condemned auricular confession, but they enjoined a public one; and in Switzerland, Scotland, and Geneva it was performed the same as penance.”

Calvin’s Geneva notably invented execution of the unfaithful or sinful by drowning; those convicted had stones tied to their necks, so they would sink in Lake Geneva and die from asphyxiation.

Calvinism’s influence on English and Scottish Protestantism stemmed from Geneva’s sheltering exiles who fled the reign of Catholic Mary Tudor starting in 1555. Among them, John Knox and others carried Calvin’s ideas back home. Calvinism arose in England and spread throughout the English-speaking world about a hundred years later, through the Puritans, whose Westminster Confession became the confessional document of Presbyterians.

Churches that now have “Reformed” in their name are heavily influenced by them and can be said to be Calvinist, deriving the name from a Reformed Constitutional Synod held in 1567 in Debrecen, Hungary, which set forth another important document in Continental Calvinism. The movement spread to other parts of the world, including North America, South Africa (where the Reformed Church was instrumental in supporting Apartheid) and Korea.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

True Commitment


Spanish missionaries are today held in contempt by people infected with prejudice. However, such belated critics misread the role of missionaries as benefactors of and advocates for American natives.

Columbus, who may not have been Christian at all, was desperate to pay off those who invested in his voyages; in his day there was no funding for purely scientific exploration. To raise money and interest in the lands he found, he overstated the presence of gold and set off a kind of gold rush.

Columbus established what was called the encomienda (commitment), a system bound by a writ issued whenever land was assigned to a newcomer from Spain. It committed the colonist to procure, with an assigned number of natives as unpaid laborers, specified amounts of gold, spices and other goods. The natives were not pleased, and the gold was nowhere as bountiful as Columbus claimed or the commitment required. Both factors contributed to a brutal situation: the natives were worked to death to procure impossible quantities of resources and the slightest disobedience was harshly punished.

Several missionaries complained about the treatment of the natives to Columbus, then to his son Diego, who succeeded him as governor, then to the Spanish Crown. Most notable was the Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas (1484-1566), son of an early colonist and the first priest ordained in the New World.

Las Casas was not a native rights’ firebrand from the start. He immigrated in 1502 to Hispaniola, where he became a rancher and slave owner, receiving a piece of land in the province of Cibao. Reputedly he participated in slave raids and attacks on the native Taíno population, who resisted conquest.

In 1510, a group of Dominican friars arrived in Santo Domingo led by Pedro de Córdoba. Appalled by the injustices they saw committed by slave owners, the friars decided to deny them the right to confession. Among those denied was Las Casas. In December 1511, a Dominican preacher, Fra Antonio de Montesinos, preached a fiery sermon that implicated the colonists in the genocide of the native peoples:

“Tell me by what right of justice do you hold these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude? On what authority have you waged such detestable wars against these people who dealt quietly and peacefully on their own lands? Wars in which you have destroyed such an infinite number of them by homicides and slaughters never heard of before. Why do you keep them so oppressed and exhausted, without giving them enough to eat or curing them of the sicknesses they incur from the excessive labor you give them, and they die, or rather you kill them, in order to extract and acquire gold every day.”

Las Casas originally argued against the Dominicans in favor of the encomienda. Then, in 1513 he participated, as a chaplain, in Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar’s and Pánfilo de Narváez’ conquest of Cuba. He witnessed atrocities committed by Spaniards against the native Ciboney and Guanahatabey peoples about which he later wrote: “I saw here cruelty on a scale no living being has ever seen or expects to see.”

His mountaintop conversion came in 1514 while studying a passage in Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 34:18–22 for a Pentecost sermon. Found in Catholic but not Protestant Bibles, it states in part: “If one sacrifices from what has been wrongfully obtained, the offering is blemished; the gifts of the lawless are not acceptable.” Las Casas came to understand that the actions of the Spanish in the New World had been illegal and constituted a great injustice. He decided to give up his slaves and the encomienda and admonished other colonists to do the same. When his words fell on deaf ears, he went to Spain to appeal to the king.

He arrived in 1515 and was able to get a letter of introduction to the king from the archbishop of Seville. On Christmas Eve, Las Casas met King Ferdinand briefly; the king agreed to hear him out in greater detail at a later date. He wrote a report for the king, but clerics who were also encomenderos blocked it. Ferdinand died on January 25, 1516, and the detailed discussion never occurred.

Undaunted, Las Casas resolved to meet instead with the successor, young King Carlos I, who appointed Las Casas and one of his powerful Flemish courtiers to write a new plan for reforming the government system of the Indies.

Las Casas recommended an end to the encomienda and organization of the natives into self-governing townships of tribute-paying vassals. When asked about the loss of Indian labor, he unwisely suggested replacing it with imported African labor. Las Casas could have set in motion a calamitous endeavor, but Spain never seriously engaged in the African slave trade—not for humanitarian or religious reasons, but because the rival kingdoms of Britain and Portugal swiftly took control of that peculiar commerce. In fact, the Spanish Crown banned the importation of slaves in 1776 in an order that also expelled Portuguese colonists.

The missionary advocate also proposed the migration of Spanish peasants to introduce small-scale farming and agriculture in a system of colonization that didn’t deplete resources or rely on native labor. He recruited a large number of peasants who were promised land to farm, cash advances and tools and resources. Unfortunately, his partner in planning, the powerful Flemish courtier, died leaving him without effective power to bring anything about. In the end, a much smaller number of peasant families were sent, but with insufficient provisions and no support on their arrival.

Next Las Casas obtained a land grant to establish a settlement in northern Venezuela at Cumaná, near two monasteries. To sell his proposal, Las Casas projected profits for the royal treasury, which he said could also fund 10 royal forts and a system of trade in gold and pearls. Those brought to live in these towns would become tribute-paying subjects of the king. He got much less than he proposed and left Spain in 1520 with a small group of peasants, paying for the venture with money borrowed from his brother-in-law. In 1522, while Las Casas was traveling in Hispaniola, the Caribs attacked the Cumaná settlement and burned it to the ground.

Devastated by the failure of this and other ventures, Las Casas entered the Dominican monastery of Santa Cruz in Santo Domingo as a novice in 1522 and took final vows in 1523. There he continued his theological studies. In 1527 he began working on his History of the Indies in order to report many of the experiences he had witnessed firsthand during the conquest and colonization of New Spain. He continued writing to various Spanish authorities complaining about the treatment of the natives.

In the 1530s, as a missionary in Guatemala, he learned Quiché, a Mayan language, and developed a new way of evangelizing that he described in De unico vocationis modo (On the Only Way of Conversion). It consisted of two principles: preach the Gospel to all people, treating them as equals, and insist that conversion be voluntary and based on knowledge and understanding of the faith.

To test his method more broadly and without interference from Spanish colonists or soldiers, Las Casas got permission to develop what was effectively a precursor of the mission establishment. He chose a colonized territory in Guatemala whose native people were deemed fierce and unconquerable. He got the governor of Guatemala to agree that if Las Casas succeeded no encomiendas would be established. His missionaries transformed the so-called Land of War into what came to be called “Verapaz” (True Peace).

Las Casas taught Christian songs to native merchants who ventured into the area and in this way reached native chiefs. He was recalled to Mexico and left for Spain in 1540.

In 1542 he obtained a hearing before Charles I, no longer a young man and now the very powerful Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire. Although legally abolished in 1523, the encomienda had been reinstituted in 1526, and in 1530 a general ordinance against slavery was reversed by the Crown.

Las Casas presented a narrative later published as Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias (A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies), which would support much of the criticism of Spanish colonization. It proposed removing all natives from supervision by secular Spaniards, abolishing the encomienda system and making natives royal tribute-paying subjects under the direct authority of the Crown. Later that year, Charles signed what were known as the New Laws, forbidding new encomiendas. Among other things, these prohibited the use of Indians as carriers or slaves. These laws gradually abolished existing encomiendas, which reverted to the king on the death of their holder.

Although he succeeded for a while politically, this made Las Casas many enemies. In 1544, he was appointed bishop of Chiapas, Mexico, where he refused absolution to slave owners and encomenderos even on their deathbed unless all their slaves had been set free and their property returned to them. He threatened to excommunicate anyone in his jurisdiction who mistreated Indians.

When the New Laws were enacted in 1545, riots broke out. Las Casas was shot at by angry colonists; he was so unpopular among the Spaniards that he had to leave. Summoned to a meeting of the bishops of New Spain in Mexico City in 1546, he left his diocese, never to return. He went back to Spain to face considerable criticism from newly powerful viceroys and their associates and died in Madrid in 1566.

His four notable works are Memorial de Remedios para las Indias (On Remedies for the Indies), a 1516 work proposing changes to the colonization system; A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (mentioned earlier), published in 1556; The History of the Indies, a three-volume, a mostly eye-witness account of the history of the Indies from 1492 to 1520, finished in 1561; and The Apologetic Summary History of the People of These Indies, originally a chapter of the History of the Indies, ethnographic accounts of the the Taíno, the Ciboney, and the Guanahatabey and other indigenous cultures.

Las Casas is widely regarded as an early international human rights activist and a predecessor of the Liberation Theology movement, whose founder, Gustavo Gutiérrez, acknowledged him as an inspiration. He is commemorated by the Church of England in the Calendar of Saints on July 20 and the Evangelical Lutheran Church on July 17. In the Catholic Church, the Dominicans introduced his cause for canonization in 1976; in 2000 the Church began the process for his beatification.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Evangelization of America


Much as the Renaissance, humanism and the Protestant Reformation were in part propelled by an urban revolution following the resurgence of trade in Europe, reopened land and sea routes to the East—giving Europeans access to Oriental luxuries such as gems, spices, perfume and silk—spread Christianity to a new continent across the Atlantic named after Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci, America.

The story of Catholic evangelization of America in the 16th century is really that of a religious undertaking that ran parallel to, and at loggerheads with, the military and political Spanish conquest of lands from part of what is today the United States to the tip of Argentina and Chile. In little more than a generation, thanks to courageous and remarkably visionary Augustinian, Dominican, Franciscan, Jesuit and Mercedarian missionaries, the effort nearly doubled the number of Christians worldwide at the time.

To get the context we must begin the story before the voyage of Christopher Columbus, as the two major naval powers of Europe—Portugal and Spain—were vying for control of the Atlantic, with the pope on the sidelines attempting to play United Nations. Spain was still seeking to unify under a single monarch and recover territory from the Moors—which finally occurred with the marriage in 1469 of the Catholic monarchs Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II and the fall of the last Moorish citadel, Granada, in 1492.

Spain stumbled onto an entirely new continent, and Columbus returned to the Spanish court with strange plants, animals, gold jewelry, the spice still called ají (chili pepper) and even seminaked natives. In response, the pope sent an enthusiastic message in the bull Inter caetera: “Among other works well pleasing to the Divine Majesty and cherished of our heart, this assuredly ranks highest, that in our times especially the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.”

Isabella and Ferdinand, both devout Christians, secured for Spain vicarial power to appoint missionaries traveling to the new territories with the responsibility of evangelization. The earliest of these were 12 missionaries who went with Columbus’ second expedition in 1493, under the orders of Friar Bernardo Buil, believed to have been a Benedictine. On January 6, 1494, Buil celebrated the first Mass in the New World, in a temporary church in what is today Haiti.

Buil was also the first of many missionaries to quarrel with Columbus over the treatment of the natives. In response, Columbus ordered that the food ration of the clerics be cut. Seeing that the situation for evangelization and catechizing was impossible, Buil left for Spain with eight others in late 1494, leaving behind the Franciscans Juan de la Deule and Juan Tizín and the hermit Jerónimo Ramón Pané, regarded as the first teacher, catechist and anthropologist of the New World.

The first missionary episode lays bare what would be the constant struggle between the Church and crown (actually, missionaries and conquistadores, the Spanish word for conquerors). Over time, however, the new societies gave rise to a distinct expression of the faith that could be called Hispanic-American Catholicism. It involved a mestizaje, or ethnic intermingling, of Spaniards and American natives that spawned a new people with its own perspective and later included Africans brought in as slaves.

Nonetheless, some did question whether the Americans were human—a very European attitude in the face of very different clothing and manners, although admittedly consonant with the idea of exploiting them. One argument against the Americans’ humanity hinged on the then-novel idea of the Earth as a globe: Americans walked upside down on the other side of the globe, some reasoned, which may have caused their souls to fall out.

The matter was resolved with finality in the papal bull of 1537 Sublimis deus. Pope Paul III declared that the natives were to be regarded as fully human and that their souls were as immortal as those of Europeans. It outlawed their enslavement in any form. The document prevented wholesale and massive slavery for all American natives, but it did not abolish the neofeudal economic system the Spaniards brought with them, nor prevent a social caste system based partly on ancestral origin.

The latecoming British regarded all intercourse—marital or not—with people of other ethnicities, particularly non-Europeans whom they deemed impure, as “miscegenation.” The Spanish had few ethnic biases of that sort. This was in large part due to the centuries of comingling in the Spanish peninsula of Arabs, Celts, Mediterranean Jews and Visigoths.

Fanatically Christian though Spaniards might be—their classic battle cry was “For Spain and St. James”— they had no qualms about intermarriage and sexual union with indigenous women, which was common in Spanish America. Spanish expeditions did not initially transplant Spanish society, but consisted of the men needed for military conquest, navigation and—due to royal interest in the faith—evangelization. Spanish women were scarce in America, especially in the earlier period.

The people that emerged from crossbreeding during colonial times, especially after a relatively small contingent of African slaves was introduced, led to the development of a new lexicon, whose beginning was in three Spanish words: mestizo (half-American, half Spanish), mulato (half-African, half-Spanish) and zambo (half-African, half-American). Colonial-era parish records are replete with a variety of subcategories that developed with time, after ethnicity became associated with socioeconomic caste and identity, in the 18th century. The development is also memorialized in Miguel Cabrera’s “Paintings of Castes” from the 1760s Mexico.

The faith response to the new society, as instilled by missionaries, is most notably evident in a new piety around miraculous apparitions and events. The first of these occurred on the morning of December 9, 1531.

According to the best accounts, that morning a native peasant named Juan Diego saw a vision of a maiden at the Hill of Tepeyac, outside Mexico City. Speaking in Nahuatl (the Aztec Empire’s language), the maiden identified herself as the Virgin Mary and said she was the “mother of the very true deity.” She asked for a church to be built at that site in her honor. Acting on the command, Juan Diego went to the archbishop of Mexico City to tell him what had happened; the archbishop did not accept the idea as possible: imagine, the Virgin Mary appearing to an Aztec young man!
Our Lady of Guadalupe
Juan Diego saw Mary for a second time the next day, and she told him to keep insisting, so he talked to the archbishop a second time. The cleric instructed him to return to Tepeyac Hill and ask the lady for a miraculous sign to prove her identity, which she agreed to in her third apparition at Tepeyac, promising it for the next day (December 11).

However, on Monday, December 11, Juan Diego’s uncle Juan Bernardino fell sick and the young man felt obliged to attend to him. In the very early hours of Tuesday, December 12, with the uncle’s condition much worse, Juan Diego set out for Tlatelolco to get a priest to hear Juan Bernardino's deathbed confession.

To avoid being delayed by the Virgin and ashamed of having missed the Monday meeting, Juan Diego chose a route around the hill, but the Virgin intercepted him and asked where he was going. When Juan Diego explained the situation, Mary gently chided him for not asking for her help, “Am I not, standing here, your mother?” She assured him that Juan Bernardino had now recovered and told him to gather flowers from the top of Tepeyac Hill, which was normally barren, especially in December.

Juan followed her instructions, and he found Castilian roses, not flowers native to Mexico, blooming there. Mary arranged the flowers in Juan’s cloak. When he opened his cloak before the archbishop on December 12, the flowers fell to the floor, and on the fabric was an image of the Virgin.

The next day, Juan Diego found his uncle fully recovered, and Juan Bernardino recounted that he too had seen her, at his bedside, and that she had instructed him to tell the bishop of the apparition and of his miraculous cure and that she wanted to be known as the Virgin of Guadalupe.

The choice of name has been puzzling. Guadalupe is originally the name of a river in the province of Extremadura, Spain, that was under Moorish control for centuries, thus is possibly an Arabic word, Wadi-al-luben (“hidden river”) or an Arabic/Latin compound Wadi Lupe, a compound of Andalusian Arabic for “river” and the Latin for “wolf.” Indeed, a 14th century Marian apparition associated with the town of Guadalupe, which lies on the banks of the river of the same name, had prompted the erection of a statue originally known as Our Lady of Guadalupe, today Our Lady of Extremadura.

Complicating matters, some linguists have pointed to the Nahuatl phrases Coatlaxopeuh (“the woman who defeated the snake,” sometimes interpreted as a reference to the serpent-Devil in Genesis), Tequatlanopeuh (“she who originated in the rocky summit”) and Tequantlaxopeuh (“she who banishes those who devoured us”) as possible origins of the Spanish-sounding Guadalupe.

Returning to our story, the bishop kept the mantle, first in his private chapel, then in the church on public display. Finally after a December 26 procession, it was placed in a small chapel at Tepeyac. On the way there, an Indian was accidentally mortally wounded in the neck by an arrow shot during a stylized martial display in honor of the Virgin. His companions carried him before the Virgin’s image and pleaded for his life; while the arrow was being withdrawn, the victim sat up fully recovered. This was yet another miracle attributed to the Virgin of Guadalupe, the first being the Spanish roses at Tepeyac in December.

Guadalupe was the first of many apparitions, including the Virgin of Copper in Cuba, the Virgin of Lujan in Argentina, Our Lady of Aparecida in Brazil, all expressing divine favor toward the lowliest of Iberoamerican society. Later they infused the new lands with an almost messianic sense of mission and identity, which was to be invoked in rebellion against Spain.

Juan Diego was canonized in 2002 as Saint Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Defender of the Faith

The beginning of the English Reformation is classically placed at the moment leadership of the Church in England was assumed by a monarch who wanted a divorce and beheaded several of his six wives. However, the break in England, originally not a theological dispute, can be traced to long-standing political and economic quarrels between Church and king.

These quarrels date at least to 1165 and Henry II’s Constitutions of Clarendon, which Thomas à Becket, then archbishop of Canterbury, declined to sign. The Constitutions were a legal declaration that restricted ecclesiastical privileges and curbed the power of ecclesiastical courts and the extent of papal authority in England.

To be fair to the king, it can be argued that during general anarchy and the civil war that broke out under Henry II’s predecessor, Stephen, grandson of William the Conqueror, the Church had taken on some roles of government that were properly secular. An English complaint of the time was that clergy charged with serious secular crimes were tried in ecclesiastical courts by “benefit of clergy,” then given a slap on the wrist.

On the Church’s behalf, ecclesiastical authorities assumed needed roles in England much as they had in the rest of Europe when the Roman Empire collapsed. Moreover, ecclesiastical courts were very limited as to the sentences they could mete out to a convicted felon—in particular, they could not sentence to death as royal courts could. Last, although the Constitutions were considered a restoration of the law, they actually expanded royal jurisdiction over the Church and civil law as a small step in a continued push by English kings to seize, control or tax Church land and revenue.

In the 16th century, the chasm between church and king broadened as feudalism declined while nationalism and the central authority of the monarchy rose, common law resurged, the printing press was invented and Bibles began to circulate among the upper and new urban middle classes.

Enter Henry Tudor (1491-1547), son of the first Tudor monarch, who—but for the untimely death of his older brother Arthur at the age of 15—might have become a clergyman, given his theological interests, rather than King Harry as the people called him, crowned Henry VIII in 1509.

Early in his reign, Henry was a devout and scholarly Catholic. In 1521 he wrote a theological treatise, Assertio Septem Sacramentorum (“Defense of the Seven Sacraments”) contesting some of Luther’s claims after his 95 Theses. The paper, still highly regarded among the first generation of anti-Protestant polemics, earned Henry the title Fidei Defensor (“Defender of the Faith”) from Pope Leo X.

Alas, Henry inherited not only the crown, but his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon, who had been Arthur’s wife for about five months. The marriage of Arthur, prince of Wales, to Catherine, the youngest child of King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile, had been arranged as the dynastic match of the century when Arthur was about two or three years old. Keep in mind that England was then a backwater island mired in the mind-set of the Middle Ages. Spain, meanwhile, was acquiring an empire of incalculable value—thanks to the voyage of its sponsored explorer Christopher Columbus to the continent soon to be known as America.

Indeed, Henry’s major political headache with Catherine was that her nephew was Charles I of Spain and V of the Holy Roman Empire. Charles, as monarch of Spain, Germany and the Low Countries, as well as territories in America and Asia, was the first European monarch whose domain—totaling about 1.5 million square miles—was described as “the empire on which the sun never sets.” However, rather than the politics of his marriage, it was the ecclesiastical rules around it that led to the break with Rome.

When he sought to marry his brother’s widow, by Henry’s account at the deathbed behest of his father, Henry VIII sought a papal dispensation (or special permission to overcome a canonical prohibition). This was to pose future problems for complicated canonical reasons.

Canonists agree that, since Catherine and her dueña claimed that the marriage to Arthur was never consummated, Henry should have requested to be dispensed of the impediment of “public honesty.” This prohibits the marriage of people closely linked by family, even though not related by blood; for example, marriage of a parent and stepchild, which could offend public morals even absent wrongdoing. The idea was to avoid scandal, or leading people into behavior that might be immoral.

However, Henry VIII and the Spanish ambassador went for broke and—just in case Arthur and Catherine had consummated their marriage—sought and obtained a dispensation from “affinity.” This is an impediment to matrimony mildly related to incest that was developed by the clergy to stop endless dynastic, but wholly insincere, marriages of the nobility in the Middle Ages. Affinity is a relationship arising from sexual intercourse—inside or outside of marriage—capable of yielding children, by which the man becomes related to the woman’s blood relatives and vice versa.

Henry and Catherine married in 1509, the groom 18 years old and the bride almost five years older. Catherine had two children, a stillborn girl and a boy who died within seven weeks, before she gave birth to a girl, Mary. Their marriage is reported as happy and it is not clear just why Henry wanted to get rid of Catherine.

One possibility was the very real worry that without a male heir, his dynasty might be challenged and removed from the throne or, worse, that civil war could break out. For several centuries the country had been subject to endless murderous plots and outbreaks of civil war (in particular the 1455-1487 War of the Roses) to a point that, politically, medieval Britain could be called a “banana monarchy.”

Maybe it was the amply documented philandering by Henry, a young man in his prime with enormous power surrounded by a court full of young women willing and able to cavort with him. His many mistresses may have included Elizabeth or Anne Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon; Catherine’s maid of honor Elizabeth Blount, the only one who bore him a son, Henry Fitzroy, made Duke of Richmond; and fatefully for Christianity in England, Mary Boleyn, Catherine’s lady in waiting.

Mary Boleyn’s sister, Anne, had served as a maid of honor in the French court. Anne, 25 when she came to Henry’s court as part of Catherine’s entourage, resisted Henry’s advances and refused to become his mistress. Her experience in France had made her a devout Christian in the new evangelical style of Renaissance humanism; she was a champion of the Bible in the vernacular but kept up devotion to the Virgin Mary. Later she would embrace the reformist position that the papacy was corrupting Christianity.

In 1527, Henry VIII became obsessed with passion for Anne, who not only had her charms but was young enough to produce an heir, and began to plot a way to get rid of Catherine. This came to be described at court as the King’s “great matter.” Playing the theologian, Henry convinced himself that in marrying Catherine, his brother's wife, he had violated Leviticus 20:21; moreover, he decided that the pope did not have the authority to dispense with such a sin.

First, Henry deployed Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York and the second most important cleric in England, who also served at court as Lord Chancellor and was one of the pope’s several legates. After conferring with his ecclesiastical peer at Canterbury, Wolsey appealed to the pope for an annulment, arguing that the original dispensation was worthless since the marriage clearly went against Leviticus and that in any case the dispensation was incorrectly worded (unfortunately for Wolsey a correctly worded version was found in Spain shortly after the allegation). To ensure the desired outcome Wolsey asked that the final decision be made in England; this would allow him to closely supervise it, as papal legate. All this did was tip Henry’s hand to Catherine and the Spanish ambassador.

Next, Henry sent his secretary to Pope Clement VII to seek a declaration that his union with Catherine was invalid because the dispensation had been obtained under false pretenses. The pope was not misled by either set of claims. Moreover, as a virtual prisoner of Charles V, whose troops had overrun Rome as part of other unrelated developments, the pope was not inclined to displease Catherine’s nephew.

The last attempt was a series of parleys with another papal legate, but after less than two months of hearing evidence, Clement called the case back to Rome in July 1529, fully intending to bury it.

Three rounds of political musical chairs in England changed the landscape. First, Wolsey fell from grace, and the king stripped him of his royal positions. Sir Thomas More, a devout Catholic and opponent of the annulment, became Lord Chancellor and chief minister. Second, Catherine was banished from court, and her rooms were given to Anne. Third, Archbishop of Canterbury William Warham died, and Henry proposed Thomas Cranmer, a trustworthy supporter of the annulment, to fill the vacancy.

In the winter of 1532, Henry, now 41, and Anne, now 32, were secretly wed in Dover. In May 1532 More resigned as Lord Chancellor, leaving Thomas Cromwell as Henry's chief minister. Anne soon became pregnant and there was a second wedding service in London in 1533. Shortly after, Cranmer, sitting in judgment at a special ecclesiastical court, declared the marriage of Henry and Catherine invalid and that of Henry and Anne valid. Catherine was formally stripped of her title as queen, and Anne was crowned queen consort; she gave birth to a daughter in September, who was christened Elizabeth.

Following the marriage came something known as the Reformation Parliament, which essentially legitimized what was a fait accompli. By the Act of Succession, Catherine’s daughter, Mary, was declared illegitimate; the marriage to Anne was declared legitimate and issue from that union declared next in the line of succession.

On July 11, 1533, Pope Clement VII excommunicated Thomas Cranmer and declared Henry expelled as well unless he “put away the woman he had taken to wife and take back his Queen.” In the Act of Supremacy of 1534, Parliament declared the King head of the church in England and abolished the right of appeal to Rome.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Revolt Spreads to Zurich


Even after Luther and the pope condemned each other irreversibly, there did not immediately emerge a Protestant church. Revolt spread episodically and locally, beginning with Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) of Zurich, the only Reformer whose movement did not evolve into a particular church. By accident, his disputations gave rise to the Anabaptist movement in Zurich, another non-church wave of change.

Let’s look first, as we did with Luther, at how the revolt broke out and under which banners.

Zwingli was born in Wildhaus, in an eastern and German-speaking canton of Switzerland, to a family of farmers. His primary schooling was provided by his uncle, Bartholomew, a cleric. When he was 10 he was sent to Basel for secondary education, where he learned Latin. His education completed, he remained a short time in Bern among humanist intellectuals; the Dominicans in Bern saw promise in Zwingli, and  he may have been briefly a novice. His father and uncle interfered, however, and enrolled him in the University of Vienna in 1498. He later transferred to the University of Basel, where he received a Master of Arts in 1506.

Zwingli was ordained a priest in Constance, celebrated his first Mass in his hometown in 1506, then became pastor, successively in the towns of Glarus and Einsiedeln, where he perfected his Greek, took up Hebrew, exchanged scholarly letters with a circle of Swiss humanists and began to study the writings of Erasmus. In fact, Zwingli met Erasmus in Basel in this period, and it is believed that his turn to mild pacifism and his focus on preaching were the result of that meeting.

His big break came in 1518, when he was appointed pastor of the Grossmünster (great minister) church in Zurich. This Romanesque church was said to have been founded by Charlemagne when his horse tripped on the spot where it was erected and where the city’s patron saints were buried.

From this lofty pulpit, Zwingli began a series of sermon-lectures, first on the Gospel According to Matthew and the Acts of the Apostles, then on various epistles and finally on the entire Old Testament. He preached against clerical corruption and laziness among monks, criticized certain forms of piety he thought lacked scriptural support and challenged the idea that unbaptized children were punished in the afterlife.

He verged on the controversial and ruffled a few feathers railing against the power to excommunicate and tithing. When the campaign to raise funds for St. Peter’s Basilica by selling indulgences came to Zurich, he joined the city fathers in denying it entry. His critical witticisms amused his bishop, however, and—barely a year after Luther’s Theses—officials in Rome were loath to enter into open conflict over the same matter. At this point Zwingli’s eclectic thinking betrayed some Erasmian and Lutheran influences. In 1519, he contracted the plague and wrote a prayerful and moving poem of preparation for death, his Pestlied, which happily concluded with joyful thanksgiving for recovery.

The Reformation in Zurich broke out in a highly politicized context. Locally, Zwingli contended with the City Council, which had pledged to the bishop of Constance to keep church order. More broadly, the Swiss Confederation was made up of 13 cantons that were nearly independent; although nominally the Confederation formed a part of the Holy Roman Empire, primarily a legal protection against French claims, Zurich had to face other cantons, some of which were more Catholic and some more reformed.

The first public controversy broke out in 1522 during Lent. On the first fasting Sunday, March 9, Zwingli and about a dozen others openly broke the fasting rule by cutting and distributing two smoked sausages. He defended the act in a sermon published about a month later, titled Regarding the Choice and Freedom of Foods. Known as the Affair of the Sausages, it is deemed the start of the Reformation in Switzerland.

The next step was a petition by Zwingli and other humanists asking the bishop to abolish celibacy for the clergy. It was not an academic exercise: Zwingli had been cohabiting with a widow, Anna Reinhard. In April 1524, he married her publicly, barely three months before the birth of their first child.

Having sated the belly and what is below, Zwingli began his reform full swing and gradually won over the council on many matters. By 1524 several feast days were no longer celebrated in Zurich and processions of robed clergy ceased. Worshippers no longer left church with palms or relics on Palm Sunday and images of saints were covered and most of the clergy rapidly married. When the bishop of Constance tried to intervene, Zwingli wrote an official response for the council, and all ties between the city and the diocese were severed. Effectively, Zwingli established the first of several Protestant theocracies.

Anabaptists


Nonetheless, Zwingli’s changes, driven by humanism and fueled by politics, did not satisfy a group of young men for whom reform was not moving fast enough. The City Council sponsored a debate in 1523 on several matters of religious order. When the matter of worship came up, Conrad Grebel stood up to demand, “What should be done about the Mass?” Zwingli said that the council would make that decision. Then, Simon Stumpf, a radical priest from a nearby locality, called out, “The decision has already been made by the Spirit of God.” This was the beginning of the Anabaptist movement.

Grebel (1498-1526), son of a prominent Swiss merchant and councilman, was essentially a learned university dropout who joined a group led by Zwingli that studied the Greek classics and various Latin, Hebrew and Greek biblical texts. In this group he became close friends with Felix Manz and also experienced a religious conversion.

After the incident about the Mass, about 15 men broke with Zwingli and began meeting regularly with Grebel for prayer, fellowship and Bible study. Grebel wrote to Martin Luther and his associate Andreas Karlstadt and to Thomas Müntzer, a German preacher and theologian opposed to both Luther and the Catholic Church. Nothing came of the correspondence.

What severed ties completely between Zwingli and the Grebel group, regarded as youthful radicals, was infant baptism. A public debate was held in 1525 in which Zwingli argued against Grebel, Manz and George Blaurock, a Leipzig University-educated priest, all three of whom asserted that infant baptism was not scriptural, and therefore not valid. The City Council, of course, decided in favor of Zwingli and infant baptism, ordered Grebel’s group to disband, and decreed that any unbaptized infants be baptized within eight days under penalty of exile from the canton.

Grebel had an infant daughter who had not been baptized and he resolutely stood his ground, intending not to have her baptized.

The group met illegally in the home of Manz. Blaurock asked Grebel to baptize him after making a profession of faith, and then Blaurock baptized the others who were present. They pledged as a group to hold the faith of the New Testament and live as fellow disciples separated from the world and left the gathering full of zeal to urge all people to follow their example.

The movement spread rapidly, reaching as far west as Holland, north into Germany and as far east as Moravia (today part of the Czech Republic), although some argue that it sprouted simultaneously elsewhere as part of an emerging evangelical consciousness in Europe.

Anabaptist means “one who baptizes again,” and it was a name given to them by their persecutors, who disapproved of the group’s practice of baptizing those who converted or declared their faith, even if they had been baptized as infants. Anabaptists argued that baptism should follow a free profession of faith of faith, which clearly infants cannot do.

Anabaptism spawned various denominations, including the Amish, Bruderhof, Hutterites, Mennonites, Schwarzenau Brethren and others. This denotes an intricate variety of beliefs, but the common beliefs and practices of 16th century Anabaptists were voluntary church membership and believers’ baptism, freedom of religion and liberty of conscience, separation of church and state, separation from or nonconformity to the world, nonresistance also interpreted as pacifism, and the priesthood of all believers.

Zwingli’s Zurich reformed theocracy persecuted the Anabaptists for at least another century. The last Anabaptist martyred for his faith in Zurich, and indeed in all of Europe, was Hans Heinrich Landes, beheaded in 1614.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

An Augustinian Friar Who Stood His Ground

The Reformation was probably bound to happen one way or another, but it actually was set in motion by a morally self-flagellating friar in the Order of St. Augustine who was offended by egregious and brazen Church corruption. This reformer was Martin Luther (1483-1546), from Eisleben, Saxony—monk, professor of moral theology and founder of the Evangelical (Lutheran) Church.

Rather than belabor the copious biographical material on Luther, let me just say that he grew up the son of a copper mining industrialist, was intended by his father to become a lawyer but drifted to philosophy and finally theology. There are several largely legendary stories of his development and more of his life once he became a public figure.

The first of these is that he chose to become a monk in 1505 while still a law student, when he was caught in a thunderstorm on his way to visit his parents, was thrown to the ground and at that moment called to Saint Anne, “I will become a monk!”

Other sources say that he suffered from depression, had been affected by the accidental death of close friends and after a going-away party with friends, he went away to a monastery, very much against his father’s will. In the monastery he became known as overly self-critical and was said to experience long bouts of bowel maladies during which he believed he had visions of the devil.

The second legend was until very recently regarded as fact. On the basis of testimony of Luther associate Philip Melanchton (1497-1560), the first Protestant systematic theologian, the story goes that as an ordained priest and a professor of moral theology at the University of Wittenberg, Luther nailed 95 theses on the door of All Saints Church on October 31, 1517, a date widely commemorated as Reformation Day.

The actual story—uncovered in 1961 by Luther researcher Erwin Iserloh, who proved that Melanchton was not at Wittenberg at the time—began with the 1516 arrival in Germany of one Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar commissioned by the pope to sell indulgences in order to raise money to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. A saying attributed to Tetzel was that “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs,” which was in no way representative of Catholic teaching on indulgences at the time (or ever); if Tetzel said such a thing it was a case of marketing gone wild.

Luther, who had visited Rome in 1511 on business related to his order and been thoroughly shocked at the moral decay of the metropolis, on October 31, 1517, wrote a letter to his bishop protesting the sale of indulgences. With the letter, he enclosed a copy of a paper titled “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” This document included a series of statements that came to be known as the 95 theses or holdings. Although there was no Internet at the time, the Latin version was printed in several places in Germany in 1517, then translated by friends in January 1518 into German. Within weeks, copies were circulating in Germany and soon after throughout Europe.

Cardinal Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz and Magdeburg, to whom the letter was addressed, did not reply to Luther. He was an interested party, as he needed the revenue from the indulgences to pay off the pope for a dispensation that allowed him to be bishop of two sees at the same time. This allowed Luther to charge later that not only had the fundraising been questionable but not all the money was for the purpose claimed. Thus, Albrecht passed the matter on to Pope Leo X, who ordered an investigation of Luther on charges of heresy.

Two attempts at reconciliation were made that could have prevented Luther from causing the Reformation.

First, the local Holy Roman Empire elector, Frederick the Wise of Saxony, persuaded the pope to have Luther examined at Augsburg, where an Imperial Diet was being held. Unfortunately, the three-day questioning of Luther in October 1518, by papal legate Cardinal Cajetan, degenerated into a shouting match. Cajetan had been instructed to arrest Luther if he failed to recant, but the legate failed to do so and Luther slipped out of the city at night.

Next, in January 1519, the papal nuncio Karl von Miltitz, a relative of the elector, adopted a more conciliatory approach. He managed to extract from Luther some concessions and the promise to remain silent if his opponents did.

Unfortunately, as always happens in these cases, Luther’s opponents did not go with the program. Theologian Johann Eck staged a disputation in June and July 1519 with Luther’s colleague Andreas Karlstadt at Leipzig and invited Luther to speak. There, Luther asserted that Matthew 16:18 does not confer on popes the exclusive right to interpret scripture and that neither popes nor church councils were infallible. In response, Eck branded Luther a new Jan Hus.

In June 1520, the pope himself warned Luther in a papal bull (or edict) that he risked excommunication unless he recanted 41 sentences drawn from his writings, including the Ninety-five Theses, within 60 days. Von Miltitz once again attempted to broker a solution but Luther, who had sent the pope a copy of new writings the previous October, publicly set fire to the bull and decrees in Wittenberg in December 1520 and distributed a written explanation for his act. In response, Luther was excommunicated by Pope Leo X on January 3, 1521, in the bull Decet Romanum Pontificem. The die was cast.

One more event was needed to turn the theological dispute into a political matter that set off conflict in Europe for a century and a half, and more. The enforcement of the ban fell to the secular authorities, and in April 1521 Luther was ordered to appear before the Diet of Worms, a general assembly of the estates of the Holy Roman Empire that took place in Worms, a town on the Rhine, with Emperor Charles V (who was also king of Spain) presiding and Eck, now assistant to the archbishop of Trier, playing the role of effective prosecutor. 

It was at this event, before the Diet, that reputedly, Luther exclaimed the epochal response to Eck’s demand for a recantation: “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me, Amen!” New research shows these actual words were not in witness accounts of the proceedings and were probably no more than a negative, followed by the recorded “May God help me.”

Over the next five days, private conferences were held to determine Luther’s fate. The emperor presented the final draft of the Edict of Worms on May 25, 1521, declaring Luther an outlaw, banning his writings and ordering his arrest and punishment as a “notorious heretic.” The ruling also made it a crime for anyone in Germany to give Luther food or shelter and permitted anyone to kill him without legal consequence.

Luther was protected by the elector and hidden in Wartburg castle. However, while Luther translated the New Testament and wrote other works, his followers embarked on radical reforms that led to disturbances, including revolts in monasteries, the smashing of church statues and images and public protests, as well as the German Peasant War. The tide began to turn in Luther’s favor with the recruitment of princes and merchants; then began Lutheranism, which we will discuss later.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Protestant Reformation: an Overview

The most decisive, profound and still unresolved major doctrinal and ecclesiastical splintering within Western Christianity began as a 16th- and 17th-century process known as the Protestant Reformation. The break between Catholicism and Protestantism went beyond a schism—a split over matters other than major doctrine—to a division in which each party regarded the other as holding fast to error, or heresy.

The Reformation started as a protest in 1517 by German Augustinian monk Martin Luther against perceived corruption in the Catholic Church. It snowballed, through the obduracy of reformers and popes alike, into an open-ended doctrinal quarrel about the very nature and practice of the Christian faith in its most essential elements.

The sparks set off by Luther’s protest ignited a conflagration in Europe spread by French polemicist Jean Calvin and Swiss cleric Ulrich Zwingli. Their fiery words, in turn, spawned the even more radical ideas of Dutch priest Menno Simons and Scottish clergyman John Knox and dragged into its vortex the accidental monarch of England, Henry VIII, a man who originally aimed to be a churchman.

For its part, the Catholic Church and the popes in Rome did not take the challengers sitting down. Princes and monarchs were mobilized, bulls and decrees (including excommunications by the bushel) were issued. A general council of the Church was called to respond to the charges and protestations, and entire new orders were founded to combat what was seen as rampant error.

Unfortunately, the medieval marriage of church and principalities transformed a war of words into judicial persecutions and caused splits within nations and outright war. The Protestant Reformation did not reach a point of settlement until the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which effectively put an end to the devastating Thirty Years’ War in Central Europe.

Five hundred years later, Protestantism has split like a cell undergoing mitosis, to the point that 1980s United Nations statistics counted over 23,000 competing and often contradictory denominations, predominantly in Northern Europe and North America and former British and Dutch colonies elsewhere. For its part, Catholicism effectively froze into a monolithic fortress in Southern Europe, South America and former Spanish, Portuguese, French and Belgian colonies in Asia and Africa, a stance that held fast for roughly 400 years, until the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s dared embrace the challenge to heal the rifts, a quest that after nearly half a century of largely symbolic gestures remains to be completed.

What Was It All About?


Before we go into the the bloody details—they will involve bloodshed—it might be well to understand some of the basic differences of opinion that arose, why they arose and, briefly, the chief issues of contention.

At heart, the divide between Catholic and Protestant Christianity is a matter of epistemology, the branch of philosophy that studies whether and how truth can be grasped, if at all. All Christians agree that God has revealed certain truths necessary for believers to live according to the divine will and mercy. Where they disagree is how the Christian comes to receive God’s revelation.

Before Luther, almost all Christians had agreed or submitted to the idea that God spoke to holy men in biblical times all the way to Jesus the Christ, who then delegated the task of telling the world the “good news” (or gospel) of divine mercy and love to his most trusted followers, the apostles. Even after the 1054 schism between Catholics in the West and Orthodox in the East, all Christians believed that truth comes from God to Christ to his apostles and their successors, the Bible being the Church’s anthology of holy writings, collected and passed on along with extrabiblical traditions to help transmit the true faith to all people.

After Luther, Protestant Christians began to believe that God speaks directly to the heart of each believer, who is entrusted with the responsibility of studying the Bible and drawing from it the divine truth necessary for salvation. The apostles’ successors—i.e., members of the Church hierarchy—were unceremoniously cut out of the process. Once that momentous change of thinking was formulated, no teaching of the faith was ever quite the same.

To begin with, Protestantism rejected the idea of papal or even episcopal supremacy over the Church, including also the whole ecclesiastical structure as it existed. In its place, the Reformers spoke of a priesthood of all believers, subject only to the authority of the Bible, or as Luther put it, sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone). Given this approach of individual biblical interpretation, Luther and other Reformers concluded that Christians are saved by faith alone (sola fide), not by their deeds. Moreover, salvation from punishment due as a result of the human fall into sin is only a gift (sola gratia) of God, totally unearned.

As a corollary, Protestants add two more solas. Solus Christus (only Christ) teaches that Christ is the only mediator between God and man; there is no need for priests or sacraments or rituals. Soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone) eliminates all veneration or “cult” of Mary the mother of Jesus, the saints or angels.

Over time, of course, each Reformer, and even Luther himself, developed these kernels of Protestantism with emphases and variants that eventually led to dissent and doctrinal splits between Protestants.

The Protestant Reformation was also a child of its era, the Renaissance, which opposed the theocratic and top-down notions of the Middle Ages with the more horizontal idea of humanism. The age featured also the introduction of the printing press, which made possible the affordable distribution of Bibles and other books. Modern banking launched in the Italian city-states brought about the accumulation of and trade in capital as a commodity of value in itself, which spurred urban commerce and eventually capitalism.

All of these developments in some way shaped Protestantism. This is most noticeable if one compares the fiery zealotry of Reformers to the Protestant churches of today, which have clerical bureaucracies, rituals of some sort and churches and statements of faith and in some ways became the handmaidens of the prevailing economic system. This is similar to the way the Catholic Church of 1517 reflected the political and socioeconomic realities of the Middle Ages.

In an age of ecumenism, when Western Christianity is attempting to heal itself, it is also important to note that many of the most serious disputes of the Reformation era were in some ways semantic and cultural misunderstandings that we are just beginning to recognize.

None is more notable than the very name “Protestant,” which evokes images of people holding signs and chanting slogans against some potentate; actually, the term comes from the Latin pro (“for”) and testari (“witness”) and protestatio (“declare”). The first people ever to be called “Protestants” were six princes of the Holy Roman Empire who, together with the rulers of 14 Imperial Free Cities, in 1529 issued a protest or dissent against an anti-Reformation measure by the Diet of Speyer. They were bearing witness to their beliefs and declaring the folly of the imperial assembly.