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The fifteenth century may be regarded as a period of transition from the ideals of the Middle Ages to those of modern times. The world was fast becoming more secular in its tendencies, and, as a necessary result, theories and principles that had met till then with almost universal acceptance in literature, in art, in education, and in government, were challenged by many as untenable.
Scholasticism, which had monopolised the attention of both schools and scholars since the days of St. Anselm and Abelard, was called upon to defend its claims against the advocates of classical culture; the theocratico-imperial conception of Christian society as expounded by the canonists and lawyers of an earlier period was forced into the background by the appearance of nationalism and individualism, which by this time had become factors to be reckoned with by the ecclesiastical and civil rulers; the Feudal System, which had received a mortal blow by the intermingling of the classes and the masses in the era of the Crusades, was threatened, from above, by the movement towards centralisation and absolutism, and from below, by the growing discontent of the peasantry and artisans, who had begun to realise, but as yet only in a vague way, their own strength. In every department the battle for supremacy was being waged between the old and the new, and the printing-press was at hand to enable the patrons of both to mould the thoughts and opinions of the Christian world.
It was, therefore, an age of unrest and of great intellectual activity, and at all such times the claims of the Church as the guardian and expounder of Divine Revelation are sure to be questioned. Not that the Church has need to fear inquiry, or that the claims of faith and reason are incompatible, but because some daring spirits are always to be reckoned with, who, by mistaking hypotheses for facts, succeed in convincing themselves and their followers that those in authority are unprogressive, and as such, to be despised.
This was particularly true of some of the Humanists. At first sight, indeed, it is difficult to understand why the revival of classical learning should lead to the danger of the rejection of Christian Revelation, seeing that the appreciation of the great literary products of Greece and Rome, and that, even in the days of the Renaissance, the Popes and the bishops were reckoned amongst the most generous patrons of the classical movement. Yet the violence of extreme partisans on both sides rendered a conflict almost unavoidable.
On the one hand, many of the classical enthusiasts, not content with winning for their favourite studies a most important place on the programmes of the schools, were determined to force on the Christian body the ideals, the culture, and the outlook on the world, which found their best expression in the masterpieces of pagan literature; while, on the other, not a few of the champions of Scholastic Philosophy seemed to have convinced themselves that Scholasticism and Christianity were identified so closely that rejection or criticism of the former must imply disloyalty to the latter. The Humanists mocked at the Scholastics and dubbed them obscurantists on account of their barbarous Latinity, their uncritical methods, and their pointless wranglings; the Scholastics retorted by denouncing their opponents as pagans, or, at least, heretics. In this way the claims of religion were drawn into the arena, and, as neither the extreme Scholastics nor the extreme Humanists had learned to distinguish between dogmas and systems, between what was essential and what was tentative, there was grave danger that religion would suffer in the eyes of educated men on account of the crude methods of those who claimed to be its authorised exponents.
Undoubtedly, at such a period of unrest, the Church could hardly expect to escape attack. Never since the days when she was called upon to defend her position against the combined forces of the Pagan world had she been confronted with such a serious crisis, and seldom, if ever, was she so badly prepared to withstand the onslaughts of her enemies. The residence at Avignon, the Great Western Schism, and the conciliar theories to which the Schism gave rise, had weakened the power of the Papacy at the very time when the bonds of religious unity were being strained almost to the snapping point by the growth of national jealousy. Partly owing to the general downward tendency of the age, but mainly on account of the interference of the secular authorities with ecclesiastical appointments, the gravest abuses had manifested themselves in nearly every department of clerical life, and the cry for reform rose unbidden to the lips of thousands who entertained no thought of revolution. But the distinction between the divine and the human element in the Church was not appreciated by all, with the result that a great body of Christians, disgusted with the unworthiness of some of their pastors, were quite ready to rise in revolt whenever a leader should appear to sound the trumpet-call of war.
Nor had they long to wait till a man arose, in Germany, to marshal the forces of discontent and to lead them against the Church of Rome. Though in his personal conduct Luther fell far short of what people might reasonably look for in a self-constituted reformer, yet in many respects he had exceptional qualifications for the part that he was called upon to play. Endowed with great physical strength, gifted with a marvellous memory and a complete mastery of the German language, as inspiring in the pulpit or on the platform as he was with his pen, regardless of nice limitations or even of truth when he wished to strike down an opponent or to arouse the enthusiasm of a mob, equally at home with princes in the drawing-room as with peasants in a tavern Luther was an ideal demagogue to head a semi-religious, semi-social revolt. He had a keen appreciation of the tendencies of the age, and of the thoughts that were coursing through men’s minds, and he had sufficient powers of organisation to know how to direct the different forces at work into the same channel. Though fundamentally the issue raised by him was a religious one, yet it is remarkable what a small part religion played in deciding the result of the struggle. The world-wide jealousy of the House of Habsburg, the danger of a Turkish invasion, the long-drawn-out struggle between France and the Empire for supremacy in Europe and for the provinces on the left bank of the Rhine, and the selfish policy of the German princes, contributed much more to his success than the question of justification or the principle of private judgment. Without doubt, in Germany, in Switzerland, in England, in the Netherlands, and in the Scandinavian countries, the Reformation was much more a political than a religious movement.
The fundamental principle of the new religion was the principle of private judgment, and yet such a principle found no place in the issues raised by Luther in the beginning. It was only when he was confronted with the decrees of previous councils, with the tradition of the Church as contained in the writings of the Fathers, and with the authoritative pronouncements of the Holy See, all of which were in direct contradiction to his theories, that he felt himself obliged, reluctantly, to abandon the principle of authority in favour of the principle of private judgment. In truth it was the only possible way in which he could hope to defend his novelties, and besides, it had the additional advantage of catering for the rising spirit of individualism, which was so characteristic of the age.
His second great innovation, so far as the divine constitution of the Church was concerned, and the one which secured ultimately whatever degree of success his revolution attained, was the theory of royal supremacy, or the recognition of the temporal ruler as the source of spiritual jurisdiction. But even this was more or less of an after-thought. Keen student of contemporary politics that Luther was, he perceived two great influences at work, one, patronised by the sovereigns in favour of absolute rule, the other, supported by the masses in favour of unrestricted liberty. He realised from the beginning that it was only by combining his religious programme with one or other of these two movements that he could have any hope of success. At first, impressed by the strength of the popular party as manifested in the net-work of secret societies then spread throughout Germany, and by the revolutionary attitude of the landless nobles, who were prepared to lead the peasants, he determined to raise the cry of civil and religious liberty, and to rouse the masses against the princes and kings, as well as against their bishops and the Pope. But soon the success of the German princes in the Peasants’ War made it clear to him that an alliance between the religious and the social revolution was fraught with dangerous consequences; and, at once, he went to the other extreme.
The gradual weakening of the Feudal System, which acted as a check upon the authority of the rulers, and the awakening of the national consciousness, prepared the way for the policy of centralisation. France, which consisted formerly of a collection of almost independent provinces, was welded together into one united kingdom; a similar change took place in Spain after the union of Castile and Aragon and the fall of the Moorish power at Granada. In England the disappearance of the nobles in the Wars of the Roses led to the establishment of the Tudor domination. As a result of this centralisation the Kings of France, Spain, and England, and the sovereign princes of Germany received a great increase of power, and resolved to make themselves absolute masters in their own dominions.
Having abandoned the unfortunate peasants who had been led to slaughter by his writings, Luther determined to make it clear that his religious policy was in complete harmony with the political absolutism aimed at by the temporal rulers. With this object in view he put forward the principle of royal supremacy, according to which the king or prince was to be recognised as the head of the church in his own territories, and the source of all spiritual jurisdiction. By doing so he achieved two very important results. He had at hand in the machinery of civil government the nucleus of a new ecclesiastical organisation, the shaping of which had been his greatest worry; and, besides, he won for his new movement the sympathy and active support of the civil rulers, to whom the thought of becoming complete masters of ecclesiastical patronage and of the wealth of the Church opened up the most rosy prospects. In Germany, in England, and in the northern countries of Europe, it was the principle of royal supremacy that turned the scales eventually in favour of the new religion, while, at the same time, it led to the establishment of absolutism both in theory and practice. From the recognition of the sovereign as supreme master both in Church and State the theory of the divine rights of kings as understood in modern times followed as a necessary corollary. There was no longer any possibility of suggesting limitations or of countenancing rebellion. The king, in his own territories, had succeeded to all the rights and privileges which, according to the divine constitution of the Church, belonged to the Pope.
Such a development in the Protestant countries could not fail to produce its effects even on Catholic rulers who had remained loyal to the Church. They began to aim at combining, as far as possible, the Protestant theory of ecclesiastical government with obedience to the Pope, by taking into their own hands the administration of ecclesiastical affairs, by making the bishops and clergy state-officials, and by leaving to the Pope only a primacy of honour. This policy, known under the different names of Gallicanism in France, and of Febronianism and Josephism in the Empire, led of necessity to conflicts between Rome and the Catholic sovereigns of Europe, conflicts in which, unfortunately, many of the bishops, influenced by mistaken notions of loyalty and patriotism, took the side of their own sovereigns. As a result, absolute rule was established throughout Europe; the rights of the people to any voice in government were trampled upon, and the rules became more despotic than the old Roman Emperors had been even in their two-fold capacity of civil ruler and high priest.
Meanwhile, the principle of private judgment had produced its logical effects. Many of Luther’s followers, even in his own lifetime, had been induced to reject doctrines accepted by their master, but, after his death, when the influence of Tradition and of authority had become weaker, Lutheranism was reduced to a dogmatic chaos. By the application of the principle of private judgment, certain leaders began to call in question, not merely individual doctrines, but even the very foundations of Christianity, and, in a short time, Atheism and Naturalism were recognised as the hallmark of education and good breeding.
The civil rulers even in Catholic countries took no very active steps to curb the activity of the anti-Christian writers and philosophers, partly because they themselves were not unaffected by the spirit of irreligion, and partly also because they were not sorry to see popular resentment diverted from their own excesses by being directed against the Church. But, in a short time, they realised, when it was too late, that the overthrow of religious authority carries with it as a rule the overthrow of civil authority also, and that the attempt to combine the two principles of private judgment and of royal supremacy must lead of necessity to revolution.
I wish to express my sincere thanks to the many friends who have assisted me, and particularly to the Very Rev. Thomas O’Donnell, C.M., President, All Hallows College. My special thanks are due also to the Rev. Patrick O’Neill (Limerick), who relieved me of much anxiety by undertaking the difficult task of compiling the Index.
St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
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Created November 11, 2000; revised November 14, 2000.