Whose Reformation?

This morning’s Washington Post has an article on the dearth of Lutherans in Wittenberg as that city approaches the 500th anniversary of Luther’s revolt. The article is interesting if you wish to see what a post-Christian culture looks like. But, it also provides a chance for Catholics to question the received history of the Reformation, the nomenclature of those seismic events, and to remind the world of a different and equally significant religious event whose quincentennial we commemorate, the establishment of the Catholic faith in the Western hemisphere.

"Reformation" was a broad phenomenon in the early sixteenth century. Erasmus certainly wanted reform of the Church, but he never left the Catholic communion and his 1524 tract "A Disquisition on Free Will" went after Luther’s theology. The Fifth Lateran Council intimated some of the reforms that were to come, even though it lacked the mechanisms needed to implement them. Names like Contrarini and Pole would take up the Erasmian tradition later in the century, become cardinals in the reign of Pope Paul III and help launch the Council of Trent. Yet, in our common nomenclature, the "Reformation" was what Luther, Zwingli and Calvin did and Catholics mounted a "Counter-Reformation." This implies that Catholics merely reacted (as in "reactionary") to Luther et al. I encourage Catholics to write to their newspapers and periodicals and suggest that the proper terms be "Protestant Reformation" and "Catholic Reformation."


We all lead busy lives, but every Catholic adult should read a good history of this period in the life of Christendom, indeed, of this period when the concept of Christendom died. Steven Ozment’s "The Age of Reform: 1250-1550" remains one of my favorites and it is widely available. Ozment corrects the received historiography, for example: "There is a pervasive misconception that late medieval religion had become lax and the medieval church tolerant to a faulty of human weakness, a conclusion often drawn in contrast to Protestantism." But, he does not underplay the reasons for the reform movement either: "The failure of the late medieval church to provide a theology and spirituality that could satisfy and discipline religious hearts and minds was the most important religious precondition of the Reformation." These quotes give a flavor of the text which is a serious but not a daunting read.

Finally, I encourage Catholics in the Western Hemisphere to look to their own upcoming historic anniversary. In 1513, Bishop Alonso Manso became the first bishop to reach the Western hemisphere when he landed at his new diocese of San Juan, Puerto Rico. (The diocese and city were then called "Puerto Rico" not "San Juan.") He was appointed at the same time as the bishop of Santo Domingo, but arrived in the New World before his colleague. Because of subsequent developments, Santo Domingo was made an archdiocese later in the century and given the title "Primate of the Americas" but in fact it was the island’s neighbor which first held a pontifical Mass.

The oldest church in San Juan, the church of San Jose, was begun in 1523 and is, after the cathedral in Santo Domingo, the oldest extant church in the Americas. It is gothic not the way St. Patrick’s in New York is gothic. St. Pat’s is gothic revival because in the 1800s Christians became enamored of the old style. San Jose church is gothic because that is how they still built churches in 1523. The coat-of-arms of the Hapsburgs adorn one of the walls. The fine stone work of the sanctuary stops halfway down the nave. The Emperor Charles V, a great patron of the church, abdicated his throne and Phillip was less inclined to share his money. The last bays of the nave were finished in stucco.

The church is currently under renovation and, with the economic downturn and a twenty percent unemployment rate on the island, the archdiocese may not have the funds to complete the work in time for this anniversary. If anyone knows a rich Roman Catholic, they can send their checks to the archbishop of San Juan. This treasure of the Catholic Reformation, so rich in history, so close to our shores, should get as much attention as the Castle Church in Wittenberg.


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8 years 11 months ago
Kudos for the historical review of an era. Just to add a bit more about one point - the first University in the New World was in Guatemala founded in 1562 - Univ of San Carlos; also, St. Augustine, FL and Santa Fe, NM were going concerns before the Pilgrims landed. When I was a student the schoolbooks seem to have originated from New England!
8 years 11 months ago
I'm glad to hear someone make this criticism of the phrase "counter-reformation."  I think it's a result of the desire of history writers to characterize the Church as monolithic.  The extent, and then the limits, of valid dialogue within the Church are often misunderstood. People simply can't fathom that there were liberals and conservatives at all levels of the Church and that they were able to study and debate the issues and find the guidance of the Holy Spirit to steer the Church.
8 years 11 months ago
I've always thought that it is better to speak of a Catholic Reformation and a Protestant Deformation. There's no such thing as a Protestant Reformation.


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