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Rethinking Reformation

  • 26 October 2022
October 31 is Reformation Day. On that day in 1517 Martin Luther may or may not have nailed his 95 Theses on indulgences to the door of the Wittenberg church. He certainly did send them to the Archbishop of Mainz, thus initiating a movement that became the Protestant Reformation.

When I was a schoolboy I was sure the Reformation was a disaster. Without it England would have remained Catholic, the Church would have been undivided, wars would have been avoided, Europe would have been Catholic, and everyone would have been happier. I grew up in a Catholic world then.  Now, after having taught theology for many years with friends and colleagues from Protestant churches, I wonder what the world would really have been like today if the Reformation had not happened? Would it really have been a better Church and a better world?  And how, indeed, can we evaluate these enormous historical events?

Violent events such as wars of religion, burnings at stakes, the sacking of churches and the dissolution of monasteries all speak of loss and destruction. Some of these events would certainly not have happened had the Church remained undivided. But others may have persisted. The images of destroyed and alienated monasteries, for example, suggest a violent break with the past. But the alienation of monasteries began well before the Reformation – even in England Henry VIII embarked on it while he still opposed the Reformers. It was a pragmatic decision. Suppressing the monasteries provided finance needed for his wars and strengthened the loyalty of Nobles who were given title to monastic properties. The closing of monasteries in Protestant territories in Europe was supported by Reformed doctrine and popular zeal, but there, too, it provided rulers with revenue.

The growing power and independence of rulers in their relationship to the Catholic Church at the time suggest that raiding church wealth would at some time proved irresistible to rulers of any stripe. When the Pope suppressed the Jesuits two centuries later it was under pressure from the Catholic kingdoms of Spain, France and Portugal, which took over their schools, churches and other property.

The Religious Wars that followed the Reformation caused terrible suffering in Europe and alienated people from churches. Religion was certainly the flag under which armies marched. But the continuing wars between Catholic Spain and France and their incursions into other Catholic regions and into the New World suggest that Rulers