Sunday, January 29, 2017

Two Sisters

Mary Tudor (1516-1558) was crowned in 1553, immensely popular after the excesses under her father and those who controlled things under her stepbrother. Her coronation two months after Edward VI’s death took place with great pomp at Westminster, presided by Catholic bishop Stephen Gardiner, whom she freed from the Tower of London as her first act as ruler—all despite the papal interdict, or national excommunication of England.

Unlike her stepbrother, who was only a child when eager courtiers placed the crown on his head, Mary was a woman of 37 who brought her own perspective to the throne and, most important to this narrative, to the future of Christianity in England.

Born in Greenwich, London, the only child of King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon to survive infancy, she was a bright and precocious child. At the age of four and a half she entertained a visiting delegation with a performance on the harpsichord. By the time she was nine, Mary could read and write Latin. She studied French, Spanish, music, dance and perhaps Greek. Henry VIII doted on her and boasted that “This girl never cries.” Like both parents she had a very fair complexion, pale blue eyes and red or reddish-golden hair and her father’s ruddy cheeks.

In adolescence she began to suffer physical ailments and depression, likely from the stress of separation from her mother, sent away from court by Henry after he married Anne Boleyn in 1533. Mary was deemed illegitimate and styled “The Lady Mary” rather than Princess. Her place in the royal line  was transferred to her newborn half sister, Elizabeth, her household dissolved and servants dismissed, and in December 1533 she was sent to join the household of the infant Elizabeth at Hatfield, Hertfordshire.

Mary refused to acknowledge Anne as queen or Elizabeth as princess, enraging her father; she was frequently ill, which even the royal physician attributed to “ill treatment.” Mary and her father did not speak to each other for three years. Meanwhile, she was refused permission to visit her mother, who died in 1536. That year Anne Boleyn fell from the king’s favor and was beheaded; now her daughter Elizabeth, like Mary, was downgraded to the status of Lady and removed from the line of succession.

The next wife, who married Henry two months after Boleyn’s execution, urged him to make peace with Mary. He insisted that Mary recognize him as head of the Church of England, repudiate papal authority and acknowledge the marriage of her parents as unlawful and herself as illegitimate. She offered to reconcile, submitting to his authority as far as “God and my conscience” permitted. Once reconciled, Mary returned to court, was given her own household and returned to the line of succession.

As queen, one of her first concerns was to find a husband and produce an heir that would prevent the Protestant Elizabeth, who had returned to the line of succession as next-in-line under the terms of Henry VIII’s will. Her cousin Charles V offered his only son, Prince Philip of Spain. They were wed in July 1554, despite opposition to Philip, who was unquestionably Catholic, and by right of his wife would become King of England and Ireland.

More important, Mary quickly restored the country’s religious landscape to its previous status. Reginald Pole, a priest who had negotiated with the Holy See on behalf of England, pronounced the absolution of the kingdom in a solemn ceremony, with the king and queen and Parliament kneeling before him. The altars were set up again, the married clergy removed, High Mass sung at St. Paul’s and new bishops consecrated according to the ancient ritual.

At first Parliament balked, but when Pole announced that the Holy See would not make claims against those who had seized Church property, the lawmakers reenacted the ancient statutes against heresy and repealed laws against Rome enacted during the last two reigns. Mary had Parliament replace Edward’s religious laws with the Six Articles in force in 1539, affirming transubstantiation, the reasonableness of withholding the cup from the laity during communion, clerical celibacy, observance of vows of chastity, permission for private masses and confession aloud to a priest. Married priests were removed.

Mary issued a proclamation that her subjects were not required to follow her religion. However, by the end of September leading Protestant churchmen—including John Bradford, John Rogers, John Hooper, Hugh Latimer and Thomas Cranmer—were imprisoned. Some 800 rich Protestants left the country. Under the Heresy Acts, many prominent Protestants were eventually executed.

Among these, the most curious case was that of Cranmer, the imprisoned archbishop of Canterbury, who was forced to watch Nicholas Ridley, bishop of London and Westminster, and Hugh Latimer, bishop of Worcester, burned at the stake. Cranmer recanted, repudiated Protestant theology and claimed to rejoin the Catholic faith, but Mary did not relent. On the day of his burning, he dramatically withdrew his recantation. Pole was immediately appointed Archbishop of Canterbury.

Henry VIII’s first daughter has been dubbed “bloody Mary,” in part due to these executions.

The effort to eradicate Protestantism ultimately failed. Having produced no heir with Philip, Mary was forced to acknowledge her Protestant half sister Elizabeth as next in line for the crown. Mary died in 1558, during an influenza epidemic that also claimed the life of Reginald Pole later the same day.

Elizabeth would prove as harsh as her sister, even though her personal religious views have been much debated by scholars. She was a Protestant, but kept Catholic symbols (such as the crucifix) and downplayed the role of Protestant advocacy.

Moreover, with many other political irons in the fire, she effectively restored the church to the Protestant laws of Edward VI, but with many Catholic elements, such as priestly vestments. She was given the title of Supreme Governor of the Church of England rather than Supreme Head, then thought unacceptable for a woman. Under a new Act of Supremacy public officials were forced to swear an oath of loyalty to the monarch as the supreme governor. The heresy laws were repealed, but the new Act of Uniformity made attendance at church and the use of an adapted version of the 1552 Book of Common Prayer compulsory, with fines for laypeople.

In the 1560s Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth’s first cousin once removed, became the focus of a Catholic-led rebellion in the North. Pope Pius V, believing that the revolt had been successful, issued a bull in 1570, declaring Elizabeth “the pretended Queen of England and the servant of crime,” excommunicated and a heretic. It released her subjects from allegiance to her and excommunicated Catholics who obeyed her. Parliament retaliated by declaring efforts to convert English subjects to Catholicism a treasonable offense punishable by death. In the 1570s missionary priests from continental seminaries began to come to England secretly to reconvert England; many were executed and deemed martyrs.

In all, well over 300 Catholics were tortured and executed for their faith under Elizabeth, somewhat more than the 277 Protestants under Mary.

The Reformation in England had one major episode to go before reaching the full settlement that endured until the 19th century. That story took place much later and is for another day.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Tridentine Teachings

The Council of Trent clarified major doctrinal issues. We now turn to the key teachings that the council for the most part affirmed from previous sources and that stand to this day as official Catholic doctrine, setting aside administrative reforms and dabbling in secular problems of its age.

The Bible

The first and perhaps most useful decision at Trent, for all Christianity, was to produce an official list of biblical books deemed divinely inspired, or canonical (from the Greek, kanon, meaning “rule” or “measuring stick”).

Trent’s was the first such Churchwide statement, although early Church fathers such as Origen, Athanasius and others had offered such lists. As noted much earlier, Trent’s 1546 decree on the biblical canon was followed by statements by Calvinists (1559), Anglicans (1563) and the Greek Orthodox (1672).

The canon approved by Trent included all the books in St. Jerome’s Latin translation (completed in 382), known as the Vulgate, the Bible in use since then in the West and challenged by various Protestant reformers.

The Tridentine canon, still used today for all Catholic Bibles, includes all 66 books found in Protestant Bibles, plus Tobit, Judith, Wisdom (also called the Wisdom of Solomon), Sirach (also called Ecclesiasticus), Baruch, 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees. Trent also included passages clipped off by Protestants in Esther (10:4-16:24) and Daniel, including the Prayer of Azariah and Song of the Three Young Men, which deal with some of the torments during the Babylonian Captivity (3:24-90), and the story of Susanna (Daniel 13), which deals with a married woman’s virtue. The Old Testament canon is identical to that of most Orthodox Christian Bibles.

The New Testament canon includes the 27 books in all Christian Bibles. Luther attempted to remove four NT books—Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation, which he felt, with some reason,  undermined his own teachings, such as sola Scriptura and sola fide—but he failed to convince his followers.

Importantly, in that same decree’s prologue, Trent made clear that the entirety of the “Christian Gospel,” or good news, proclaimed by Jesus Christ and preached by the apostles is “contained in the written books, and the unwritten traditions which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down even unto us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand.” The clause is a mortal arrow directed at the heart of Luther’s teaching that only Scripture (sola Scriptura) could be the basis of Christian doctrine.


The council was more nuanced on original sin and justification, which were admittedly more complex. After all, Luther and Rome were not far apart on the question that original sin came through Adam and agreed on infant baptism. Luther had departed from traditional teaching only insofar as the value of good deeds and rituals of Christians justified by faith; to Luther these works and rites were useless and pointless for the purposes of gaining salvation. Calvin had gone farther astray with predestination.

Trent replied to both.

To Luther, the council effectively said “no one, how much soever justified, ought to think himself exempt from the observance of the commandments,” adding that “God commands not impossibilities, but, by commanding, both admonishes thee to do what thou are able, and to pray for what thou art not able (to do), and aids thee that thou mayest be able; whose commandments are not heavy; whose yoke is sweet and whose burthen light.”

To Calvinism, the council warned that “No one, moreover, so long as he is in this mortal life, ought so far to presume as regards the secret mystery of divine predestination, as to determine for certain that he is assuredly in the number of the predestinate” … or “that he that is justified, either cannot sin any more, or, if he do sin, that he ought to promise himself an assured repentance.”


The council decreed that the seven sacraments “instituted by Jesus Christ” are “Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, Extreme Unction, Order, and Matrimony”—the names of two have changed somewhat, but the sacraments are still the same today.

In various canons, the council declared that
  • infant baptism is valid;
  • confirmation is not “an idle ceremony”;
  • in the Eucharist the “whole Christ” is “contained under each species” (meaning either the consecrated bread or the wine);
  • Christ did bestow “the power of forgiving and of retaining sins in the Sacrament of penance, as the Catholic Church has always from the beginning understood them”;
  • “Extreme Unction” is “truly and properly a sacrament, instituted by Christ our Lord, and promulgated by the blessed apostle James”;
  • in New Testament there is mention of “a visible and external priesthood”; and
  • “the bond of matrimony cannot be dissolved on account of the adultery” and “that both, or even the innocent one who gave not occasion to the adultery, cannot contract another marriage, during the life-time of the other.”
The council condemned as “anathema” (or subject to excommunication for heresy) anyone who asserted anything to the contrary.

The list is far from exhaustive, but it represents a fair sampling of Catholic teaching on sacraments that still stands in marked contrast to the positions of almost all Protestant churches.

The council tread trod gingerly in the matter of the Eucharist. Trent reaffirmed that Christ is “really, truly, substantially present” in the consecrated bread and wine. Yet, although it said this was “suitably and properly called Transubstantiation,” it notably omitted the complex explanation by Thomas Aquinas after the T-word was first used at Lateran IV. It seems as if almost out of pique, the council fathers declined to drop the word just to please a bunch of heretics, as they would have thought of them, but they did not wish to die on the scholastic hill Aquinas built for them. Even Luther might have chuckled.

The documents do not cite biblical passages (perhaps out of exasperation with the Bible proof-texting of the reformers?), but the language of the decrees and canons on each of the seven sacraments contains Bible verses verbatim. They cite evidence that Jesus Christ in the gospels specifically empowered and ordered the Church to carry out and administer special signs of grace, called sacraments by theologians.

Biblical writ for the sacraments is ample. For example, concerning Penance or Confession, now called Reconciliation, there’s Luke 13:5 (“unless you shall do penance, you shall all likewise perish”), John 20:23 (“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained”), Matthew 16:19 and 18:18 on “binding and loosing” and James 5:16 (“confess your sins to one another”).

The council borrowed many of those passages, then drew from such teachings the idea that the sacrament requires of the penitent himself three “parts of penance”: contrition or sincere sorrow for the sins (preferably for the love of God, but acceptably out of fear of punishment); confession, or the actual oral statement of the acts committed, to an ordained priest; and “satisfaction,” or some way in which the wrong is set right, through penitence and restoration to those aggrieved by the sin. These were not new ideas, but what had been consistently taught up to the council, restated for clarity’s sake.

Purgatory, Images, Indulgences

Trent similarly linked the continued purification of the dead (purgatory) in the afterlife until final judgment of all by Christ, to the invocation of dead Christians deemed to have been saintly enough to be already in the presence of God; such pleading should be seen as seeking favors on behalf of the living and the dead from someone figuratively with direct access to God’s ear.

The biblical linchpin is 2 Macc. 12:43-45 in reference to an instance of what Jews call the prayers of Kaddish: “In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection of the dead in view; for if he were not expecting the dead to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin.”

The council put in a word for relics and images, noting their purpose in educating the faithful in church and affirming they are not idolatrous, but said little more. The matter had been dealt with centuries earlier in councils dealing with iconoclasm, the smashing of and opposition to religious iconography.

As regards indulgences, the council noted concerning the power to remit sin for those in purgatory—known as indulgences—that “there is in the Church the power of granting them.” However, Trent expressly banned the sale of indulgences, ordering that “all evil gains for the obtaining thereof, whence a most prolific cause of abuses amongst the Christian people has been derived, be wholly abolished.”

All told, Trent conceded that there had been reason for alarm concerning indulgences, even if the council disagreed with the doctrinal particulars later put forth by those who sounded the bell.

Sunday, January 15, 2017


The very words “Council of Trent” summon the beginning of a 400-year ice age for Catholic Christianity’s doctrine, worship and overall practice, until the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council. Many Catholics catechized shortly before Vatican II, especially those who soon after breathed in the council’s retrospectively mild winds of renewal, learned to apply the adjective Tridentine to any hidebound and legalistic idea.

Actually, the historical 1545-63 Tridentine council’s canons and decrees were neither as extreme as popularly viewed today nor did the modern Church rescind them four centuries later. When Pope John XXIII launched Vatican II, he expressly affirmed Trent, saying, “What was, still is.”

Nonetheless, the council is regarded as the linchpin of what Protestants call the Counter-Reformation—or what Catholic historians refer to as the Catholic Revival. In modern cinematic terms, it might be called “Rome Strikes Back.” Yet it was only about the hierarchy in charge of the Church in communion with the bishop of Rome declining to play dead when a furious horde of Renaissance humanists, Lutherans and Calvinists marched against them with torches and pitchforks.

Over 18 years, they picked at the bones of contention until they had a thorough and clear response thought to be so definitive that no other general council took place until the end of the 19th century.

Everything about Trent was painfully deliberate, in timing, place and attendance, not to mention its decisions.

The council’s 25 sessions, between December 1545 and December 1563, took place in Trento—except the 9th to 11th, held in Bologna, when there was an outbreak of the plague in 1547. Today, the city is in the Italian province of Trentino, bordering South Tyrol; at the time of the council, it was the capital of the bishopric-principality of Trent, part of the Holy Roman Empire, where many of the reformers lived.

The location was chosen to extend safe passage to “all and each one throughout the whole of Germany, whether ecclesiastics or Seculars, of whatsoever degree, estate, condition, quality they be,” a description later expanded to “all and singular the priests, electors-princes, dukes, marquises, counts, barons, nobles, soldiers, commonalty, and to all other persons whatsoever […] especially those of the Confession of Augsburg.” The latter was a reference to Lutherans. Such people were invited to “confer, make proposals, and treat on those things which are to be treated of … and propose therein, as well in writing as by word of mouth, as many articles as to them shall seem good, and to confer and dispute, without any abuse or contumely, with the Fathers.”

The Roman Curia bowed in these matters to Emperor Charles V, the Catholic, Flemish-born monarch who by lineage was a Spaniard ruling the theologically rebellious Germans. Charles had presided over the Imperial Diet that condemned Luther and was the nephew of Catherine of Aragon, the erstwhile queen of England; however, as an acute observer he saw the blemishes in the Church that inspired revolt and hoped for a council that would, in some respects, listen to his German subjects.

Legally, then, it was a public council of the Church, open to nonvoting attendees who by name requested to be there—including those whose “crimes should be ever so enormous and should savor of heresy.” The latter had the option, but not the requirement, of requesting to be judged by suitable individuals of their choosing in order to resolve pending matters.

Lutheran theologian Johannes Brenz wrote a document, known as the Württemberg Confession, a statement of belief containing 35 articles and reflecting the views of the Protestant church in Württemberg, which he presented to council members. Fellow Lutheran theologian Philip Melanchthon was headed to Trento but turned around at Nuremberg on hearing that Protestants would have no vote.

It was unrealistic to expect Reformers to participate as equals to bishops in a general council of the Church; that was something unheard of going back to the original bishops, the apostles. Some have speculated that insiders appalled at Charles V’s idea of negotiating with Reformers at a council fueled the Protestants’ early expectations, then purposely dashed such hopes in a carefully orchestrated move to keep folks such as Melanchton away. However, it might be noted as a postscript that the 1999 joint Catholic-Lutheran accord on justification cites Brenz’ Württemberg Confession as a precedent.

Pope Paul III called the council and was the first to preside over it. His successor, Julius III, led the 12th to 16th sessions (1551-52). The 17th to 25th (1562-63) were headed by Pius IV, whose successor, Pius V, implemented most of the council’s decisions.

Attendance varied from only about 30 bishops at the opening to some 255 members who signed the decrees in 1563, somewhat short of Nicaea’s 318. The signers included 4 papal legates, 2 cardinals, 3 patriarchs, 25 archbishops, and 168 bishops and other prelates. About two-thirds of the signers were Italian. Italian and Spanish attendees had the greatest bloc of votes and the largest numbers.

In broad strokes, the council accomplished three broad purposes.

First, it responded doctrinally, and in matters of worship and practice, to questions and debates of the time—these include, in more or less chronological order, the Bible, original sin, justification, sacraments, cults, saints, relics and images, and the original touchstone of the Reformation, indulgences. Some were, from the Catholic perspective, immutable doctrine traceable to the New Testament and apostolic teaching, even though the words used are not themselves fixed and unchangeable. Others were matters of practice (or “discipline” in Catholic terms) that could have been changed but were not, at least not then.

Second, they actually reformed a vast array of ecclesiastical procedures, mostly concerning the clergy and monastic orders, in ways that established exactly what kind of person should occupy certain positions, their responsibilities, their use of Church monies and resources and their behavior—in brief, many of the matters that gave scandal. Many of these were administrative measures that have since changed.

Third, they attended to several secular concerns in which the Church was involved, most notably approving a plan to correct mathematical errors in the Julian calendar that would, in 1582, result in the current Gregorian calendar, today the most widely used civil calendar worldwide. The Church interest in a common calendar stemmed from Nicaea’s aim to make Christians in the East and West celebrate the major feasts at the same time.

The council approved 62 decrees and 110 canons; the debates and decisions was collected in six large handwritten volumes. This blog cannot do justice to the complete material. The most comprehensive work on the council is The History of the Council of Trent (Geschichte des Konzils von Trient) by Hubert Jedin, published in four volumes, and 2,500 pages, between 1951 and 1976.

However, we will next attempt a brief overview of some of the principal Tridentine ideas, particularly since they define many aspects of the Catholic faith still controversial today.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

First Reformation in England

Luther was not among the wildest firebrands on the Continent and neither was King Henry VIII. What resulted in England is a sinuous tale full of drama, in three acts.

Let’s first recall that Henry could not dispose of his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn without first becoming Supreme Head of the Church of England, paving the way for an annulment by his appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. That done, the few reforms that followed were engineered by Protestant advisers stealthily, despite Henry’s opposition to doctrinal change.

Three Key Men

First, of course, the Reformation-minded plotters had to do some political maneuvering to remove three key men from Henry’s side.

The first was Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York, the second most important cleric in England. He had risen politically from the post of King’s Almoner, charged with the Crown’s contributions to the poor. Wolsey, a none-too-chaste glutton fond of luxury who had at least two illegitimate children, rose to Lord Chancellor, the top position in almost all matters of state and seemed unassailable until he failed to get Henry an annulment from the pope. Then his enemies—among them Boleyn and his own protégé, the lawyer and member of Parliament Thomas Cromwell, a Protestant—got him indicted for placing the authority of the Holy See above that of the English Crown. Wolsey, stripped of his posts and even his property, retired to the archdiocese he nominally still led, but died in 1530 on his way to London to answer the charge.

Next was John Fisher, appointed bishop of Rochester at the insistence of Henry’s father and the likely ghostwriter of Henry VIII’s treatise that earned the monarch the title Defender of the Faith from the pope. When Henry tried to divorce Catherine, Fisher supported her. He apparently startled everyone at the papal legates’ court declaring that, like St. John the Baptist, he was ready to die on behalf of the indissolubility of marriage. Richard Rich, a scabrous associate of Cromwell’s, tricked Fisher into declaring privately to him that, no, he did not think the king was actually head of the Church, then publicly accused Fisher of treason. Of his execution, a chronicle of the era tells that he was “locked in a chain and pulled up and down with a gibbet at divers times till he was dead.”

The third domino was Sir Thomas More, Lord High Chancellor of England, an intimate of the king and a frequent correspondent with learned men of the age. More refused to acknowledge the validity of either Henry’s ecclesiastical supremacy or the annulment. He resigned in 1532 and, like Fisher, opted at first to remain in silent opposition. Then in 1536, having refused to take the new Oath of Supremacy, he was convicted of treason on the basis of perjured testimony by Rich and beheaded. Before he was beheaded, he is reported to have said, “I die His Majesty’s good servant, and God’s first.”

A 1966 film of More’s story, A Man for all Seasons, won six Oscars. As the film ends, a voiceover offers the following epilogue: “Thomas More’s head was stuck on Traitors’ Gate for a month. Then his daughter, Margaret, removed it and kept it ’til her death. Cromwell was beheaded for high treason five years after More. The Archbishop [Cranmer] was burned at the stake. The Duke of Norfolk should have been executed for high treason, but the King died of syphilis the night before. Richard Rich became Chancellor of England and died in his bed.”

As an added postscript, both Fisher and More were canonized in 1935 by Pope Pius XI, with a joint feast day on June 22 (the date of Fisher's execution). In 1980, both were added to the Church of England’s calendar of Saints and Heroes of the Christian Church, commemorated July 6 (the date of More’s execution) as “Thomas More, Scholar, and John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, Reformation Martyrs, 1535.”

A Matter of Mammon

The second act is far less dramatic but just as political; it involves mainly the pursuit of wealth along with newfound beliefs.

In 1534, after succeeding More as Lord Chancellor, Cromwell launched a series of visits to monasteries purportedly to examine their character. As elsewhere during the Renaissance, in England monks were broadly disliked for the wealth that their orderly life generated, feeding Europe when no one else did, but also subject to deserved and undeserved criticism for some corruption in their lifestyle. Now, with the king heading the church, supervising monks was arguably under the chief official’s purview. However, the real reason for the visits was to assess their value for expropriation. Cromwell had done the same before on orders of Cardinal Wolsey to raise funds for proposed Oxford colleges. Parliament now enacted the Suppression of Religious Houses Act in 1535 authorizing the king to dissolve religious houses that failed to maintain a religious life. Some 243 smaller houses were dissolved at first blush.

Then began a massive campaign to seize income, dispose of assets and reassign or dismiss members in a total of about 800 monastic houses by 1541. The English Crown disbanded monasteries, priories, convents and friaries in England, Wales and Ireland. Some houses sought exemption by payment; others merged with larger houses; some monks became secular priests. A few, including 18 Carthusians, refused and were killed to the last man.

It is difficult to estimate the sums involved. According to the 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia, “the total receipts of the king from the monastic confiscations from April, 1536, to Michaelmas, 1547, was about thirteen million and a half of 1910 money, to which must be added about a million sterling, the melting value of the monastic [valuables].” In 2017 dollars that is approximately $3.9 billion, not including what did not get to the king’s coffers, including the take by local nobility and some who became gentry thanks to land they effectively stole. The value of all the stolen monastic property could be 10 to 20 times more.

The Catholic lore about the seizure of Church property splashes some famous names in modern times. For example, I was told by members of a Catholic religious order, but have not been able to verify, that the Churchill family got its name from land on a hill that they acquired from the Church at about this time.

Attempted Demarche and Denouement

Cromwell, too, as the the film mentioned above prepared us to expect, got his comeuppance (Richard Rich took his seat), leading to a third act in the Henry VIII reformation drama: the attempted demarche. When Cromwell was executed in 1540—essentially for falling out of favor—Cranmer lay low, a canny move since now King Harry himself reversed gears.

The king went after the widespread availability of the Bible. In 1536 Cromwell had ordered each parish to acquire “one book of the whole Bible of the largest volume in English” by 1539 (imagine the money raised from such compulsory purchases!). For this purpose the Great Bible was authorized, but by 1539 Henry announced his desire to have it “corrected,” a task Cranmer cleverly passed on to universities.

Then Henry restricted lawful Bible reading to men and women of noble birth, based on his perception that “the Word of God, is disputed, rhymed, sung and jangled in every ale house and tavern, contrary to the true meaning and doctrine of the same.”

Seeing that they were on the way up, a number of conservatives, led by the Duke of Norfolk, secured appointments to the regency council that would take charge on Henry’s death. But the Earl of Hertford, brother of King Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, snatched the prize away, gaining control of the Privy Council.

Henry promptly died in 1547, and Edward Seymour became Lord Protector, in effect regent for the nine-year-old Edward VI, his nephew, who elevated him to Duke of Somerset, ushering in the denouement of our drama.

Under the child king, images in churches were removed, stained glass windows and statues defaced or destroyed and bells and towers taken down. Vestments were prohibited and either burned or sold. Chalices were melted down or sold. The clergy was no longer required to be celibate, processions were banned and ashes and palms prohibited. Endowments to provide masses for the dead became illegal. In 1550 stone altars were replaced by wooden communion tables, changing the look and focus of church interiors.

Into this atmosphere, Cranmer introduced in 1549 the Book of Common Prayer, to all appearances a missal in English that kept the structure of the Mass, but with a subtly altered theology, eliminating as Luther might have, the sacrificial element wherever possible.

Not all this change was wildly popular—as historians of worship forms well know, the people most resistant to change are in the pews.

Rebellions broke out in Cornwall, Devon, East Anglia and Norwich. Many landowners still paid priests to offer Masses. Many objected to the removal of images, although some made money from the sale of vestments and plates. Many churches hid their vestments and silver and buried their stone altars.

Then Somerset fell from grace, Edward died in July 1553, and the Duke of Northumberland attempted to have the Protestant Lady Jane Grey made queen. However, thanks to the unpopularity of the confiscations, Mary Tudor, daughter of Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII, was able to have herself proclaimed queen, first in Suffolk and then in London, to the delight of the crowds. An entirely new drama had begun, one to discuss later.

Sunday, January 1, 2017


It’s one thing to write 95 fiery theses and argue on their behalf, in public but mostly academic disputations; but quite another to run with them, direct a movement formed around them and set up a church-like structure to rival the existing one. The latter was the task that faced Luther after the 1521 Edict of Worms and his enforced seclusion in Wartburg castle.

Luther referred to his stay at the estate of Elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony as “my Patmos,” a reference to the apostle John’s exile to the Isle of Patmos, in the Greek Mediterranean, under Emperor Domitian. In seclusion, Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German and began to develop the basis of the reshaped faith in three works.

In On the Abrogation of the Private Mass, he condemned the idea that the Mass is a sacrifice. This was a much-debated point among the Early Fathers, which Cyprian of Carthage, representing the eventual consensus, had summarized as follows: lay people are priests in the offering of themselves as a sacrifice to God in the form of bread and wine, and the high-priest, or bishop, takes the united oblations of all the members of the Church, given to become the Body of Christ.

Now Luther asserted the Eucharist was a gift to be received with thanksgiving; this, too, had been argued in the past although it had been subsumed into the notion of sacrifice. The argument was on a pointy-headed issue for theological scholars; on the more important issue of the Real Presence, Luther remained with the Catholic Church.

In On Confession, Whether the Pope has the Power to Require It Luther rejected compulsory confession (required, for example, before reception of the Eucharist if in a state of grave sin) and encouraged private confession and absolution, but argued that “every Christian is a confessor.” In The Judgement of Martin Luther on Monastic Vows, he addressed monks and nuns, saying they could break their vows without sin, because vows were an illegitimate and vain attempt to win salvation.

In a letter to his follower Philip Melanchton, he advised “Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2 Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign. It suffices that through God's glory we have recognized the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.”

Separately, he launched a renewed attack on Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz, whom he shamed into halting the sale of indulgences in his episcopates.

In his refuge Luther had little idea of what his followers were doing, nor they of the erstwhile monk’s essential refusal to encourage radical rebellion. Lutheran leaders Andreas Karlstadt and Gabriel Zwilling launched radical reform in June 1521 that provoked disturbances, including a revolt by Augustinian friars against their prior and the smashing of statues and images in churches.

Luther secretly went out from the castle in disguise and was appalled by what he saw. Returning to the castle, he wrote to his followers A Sincere Admonition by Martin Luther to All Christians to Guard Against Insurrection and Rebellion and in March the following year to the Elector, his protector, “During my absence, Satan has entered my sheepfold, and committed ravages which I cannot repair by writing, but only by my personal presence and living word.”

Too late! The fire of revolt was raging among poorer towns-people and peasants between 1521 and 1525. Luther’s pamphlets against the Church and the hierarchy now encouraged many peasants to believe he would support an attack on the upper classes in general; revolts broke out in Franconia, Swabia and Thuringia in 1524, even drawing support from disaffected nobles fed up with imperial and church taxes. Writing against these rebellions in Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants, Luther expressed outrage at the widespread burning of convents, monasteries, bishops’ palaces, and libraries and the economic communitarianism of the movement.

Amid all the controversy, Luther married Katharina von Bora, one of 12 nuns he had helped escape from a Cistercian convent, in April 1523. Katharina was 26 years old and Luther was 41 years old. They had six children, three of whom survived childhood; only one of them, his youngest, Margaret, who married into Prussian nobility, is known to have living descendants today.

Then, by 1526, Luther began to devote himself to establishing his church, the Evangelical Church (Evangelische Kirche), known as “Lutheran” initially only to its detractors.

Luther wrote a German Mass in early 1526 that was based on the Catholic service, except for “everything that smacks of sacrifice” and in returning to distributing both species of the Eucharist to everyone, a practice stopped in the Middle Ages in response to Barbarian abuses with the wine. He retained the elevation of the host and chalice, while vestments, altar and candles were made optional. Zwinglians deemed Luther’s service, as well as his Eucharistic theology, as too “papist.”

Alone among reformers, he insisted on the doctrine of the Real Presence of the body and blood of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine, which he called the “sacramental union.” The overwhelming majority of his opponents, and many followers, believed God to be only symbolically present in the Eucharist. Luther’s statement on the matter is his 1528 Confession Concerning Christ's Supper.

He also compiled his ideas into two catechisms. In 1529, he wrote the Large Catechism, a manual for pastors and teachers, as well as a synopsis, the Small Catechism, to be memorized by the people themselves.

Lutherans retained many of the liturgical practices and sacramental teachings of the pre-Reformation Church. Luther emphasized congregational singing of hymns and psalms in German; he authored close to 40 hymns himself; one of the most famous, sung today even in Catholic churches, is Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God) based on Psalm 46. He also provided simplified versions of the baptism and marriage services.

Before turning to the broad ideas of the movement there is one unfortunate legacy of Luther’s that cannot go unnoted: his two virulently anti-Jewish works Von den Juden und Ihren Lügen (On the Jews and Their Lies) and Vom Schem Hamphoras und vom Geschlecht Christi (On the Holy Name and the Lineage of Christ). Luther argued that the Jews were no longer the Chosen People but “the devil's people” of whom he spoke in violent language. Although they are not linked to the broad Lutheran views until tragic and recent times, some scholars have argued plausibly that they sowed the seed of German anti-Semitism.

The landmark document defining Lutheranism, however, came from a committee put together in 1530 in advance of the imperial Diet of Augsburg by the Elector of Saxony. The authors were a panel of Lutheran leaders—Martin Luther, Justus Jonas, Johannes Bugenhagen and Philipp Melanchthon—who met in Torgau to produce what is now known as the Augsburg Confession (Confessio Augustana), which was presented before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

In the document (the full text may be reviewed at Wikisource), the authors speak of what “our churches” believe and teach in 28 articles of belief. The first three, concerning the trinity, sin and the Son of God, present minor variations on the orthodox thinking of the time, although there is an excessive touch of pessimism concerning the original human condition.

Article IV, Justification by Faith, is widely seen as the entire point of Lutheranism, and it states that “men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins.” The idea pops up in various places, such as Article VI (“good deeds of Christians are the fruits of faith and salvation, not a price paid for them”). It affects the Lutheran dim view of any rite of Confession or repentance, and it touches on the nature of baptism, faith, final judgment, the entire collection of rites and holidays, and absolution—all including the idea that good behavior of Christians is merely a result of salvation, not a means to it.

Otherwise, according to the Confession, there are only two sacraments, baptism and “the Lord’s Supper,” which are “physical manifestations of God's Word.” Only those “rightly called” can administer them or preach. The document repeatedly emphasizes distribution of Eucharist in both forms to all people.

In other matters the Lutheran creed hews to a fairly conservative line. Believers are to obey civil (or governmental) law unless it commands sinful acts, absolution and confession may be retained but neither is obligatory nor a path to salvation and the Mass (Luther’s version) is retained. Extraneous ideas brought up by some Protestant rebels are flat out rejected—for example, the idea of a millennial kingdom before the end of the world.

The Confession throws out the saints as intercessors but not as examples, sees no good in monastic vows and views fasting as a useful practice but not for gaining merit. The document implicitly accepts, but does not describe, the episcopal order. “Priests and bishops” are explicitly mentioned as teachers and ministers of sacraments, who may marry. The document limits any authority for the clergy in matters of governance or civil law, rather than divine ordinance; this was clearly a shot across the bow of the papal states and the various feudal principalities headed by bishops.

In sum, the two linchpin teachings that separated Lutherans from the Catholic Church were the manner in which humanity is saved, or doctrine of justification, and the teaching that Scripture alone is the final arbiter on all matters of faith. Lutheranism chose to differ from Reformed or Calvinist theology in Christology, the purpose of God's Law, the divine grace, the concept of perseverance of the saints and predestination.