The Story Of Religious Controversy
The Reformation and Protestant Reaction
- The Disgust of Christendom
- Why the Reformation Succeeded
- Martin Luther
- The Catholic Reformation
- Humanity Crucified for Christ
In the spring of the year 1415 a General Council of the Church of Christ met at Constance to deliberate on the indecent spectacle presented by its Popes and its clergy.
This Council represented all the chief monarchs and all the prelates of Europe. The ablest scholars and the most learned abbots assured it that its authority was higher than that of Popes, and that it must, and could, put an end to the scandals which made Christendom seem to the Mohammedans a religious masquerade. So the twenty-nine cardinals, thirty-three archbishops, three hundred bishops and abbots, and hundred grave doctors of law and divinity solemnly invoked the light of the Holy Ghost, deposed two Anti- Popes, branded Rome’s ruling Pope as “the dregs of vice and a mirror of infamy … guilty of poisoning, murder, and persistent indulgence in vices of the flesh,” and decided that the Church must be reformed “in head and members.” They decided also, very emphatically, to suppress all heretics; and in this at least they set a good example by forthwith burning John Hus, who had the effrontery to wish to lead Christendom back to Christ.
This was just one hundred years before Father Tetzel roused the fateful ire of Father Luther by coming to sell indulgences in his district. A Reformation a century before Luther! And this Conciliar Movement, as it is called — this plan of making General Councils of bishops higher than the Popes — lasted quite a long time, and had the support of the finest scholars and prelates of Europe. Yet, curiously enough, neither the Catholic nor the Protestant writer presses the movement on your notice. The modern Catholic does not because he has discovered, eighteen centuries after the death of Christ, that the Pope is higher than a Council. And the Protestant does not because … Well, let me tell you a little more about this famous Council of Constance.
During all the winter of 1414-1415 the right reverend and very reverend gentlemen were pouring over the Swiss mountains into the little city by the Lake. They traveled, not as Paul had done, but in all the comfort that the age afforded: swaddled in heavy furs in their lumbering coaches, gay troops of horse protecting them from the ubiquitous robbers. Into the little town also poured streams of gay adventurers, entertainers, purveyors of all luxuries, from the nearest cities of Germany, France and Italy. And amongst these, the most reliable chroniclers of the time tell us, were a thousand painted ladies who came to alleviate the labors and soften the exile from their courts of the four hundred prelates and abbots and their suites.
You see how supple and accommodating a weapon in the hand of the apologist is the writing of historical facts. Omit one little detail, the gathering of the geishas at Constance — it is surely not a material part of the story of the Council — and you have an edifying account of Christendom striving to purge itself of its wantons. Tell that detail, and the reform Council begins to need a little further elucidation. And when I add that the Emperor Sigismund, who sternly commanded this gathering to reform the Church, was a flagrantly immoral and unscrupulous monarch; that the king of France was not a whit better and, like the emperor, was consulting his own pocket; and that the king of Naples, the third chief monarch involved, was poisoned by the father of one of his many mistresses while the Council was assembling, you begin to wonder whether that eccentric little man John Hus was not the only Christian amongst them. Certainly as a body those four hundred prelates and abbots, and their priest and monk retainers, shuddered at the prospect of a return to Christ.
A few years earlier that “mirror of infamy” Pope John XXIII had called a Council in St. Peter’s, at Rome, to reform the Church. I have no doubt that the ex-brigand (as he was) opened the proceedings with quite a grave countenance. But an owl came out of a dark corner of the church and sat, blinking, right opposite the Pope; and be blushed as red as an Italian can blush, and closed the meeting. Roman wits, who thought the whole business a delicious comedy, said that he imagined himself confronting the Holy Ghost whom he had invoked.
You see, I do not begin my little study of the Reformation with learned and profound reflections on the political, economic, psycho-nalytic, and mystic conditions of the time. We shall see presently such of these as concern us. But much of this “philosophy of history” that is now written is merely proof of the author’s ability to philosophize; as we saw in regard to the causes of the Renaissance. A good solid chunk of human truth is better to get one’s teeth into.
And the broad human truth here is that Europe was in a stupid and muddled condition of mind because an unnatural creed had been forced upon it, and there could not be a sound general advance until an age of enlightenment removed the creed. The only question was whether the world would first give one more trial to the pure doctrine of Christianity, or entirely discard the creed and frame a human idealism. Was salvation to come by the Renaissance or the Reformation?
In justice to our ancestors we must avoid judging them by our modern standards. It occurred to nobody in those days to ask when, where, and by whom the Gospels were written; which was the first condition of escape from the Christian creed. To talk about the “simple piety” of our ancestors is bunk. They were duped so thoroughly and comprehensively that even a scholar did not think of asking those skeptical questions. Do not imagine that I am making bold statements which modern scholars would not sanction. It is merely the words I use that they would not sanction; and these pages are written for people who prefer a lie to be called a lie instead of a terminological inexactitude.
Most of the more learned theological authorities on the Gospels now say that words are put into the mouth of Jesus which Jesus certainly never uttered. All but Catholic scholars say this of the profoundly important supposed saying to Peter: “On this rock I will build my Church”; and even learned Catholic scholars say it of the almost equally important command (Matthew xxviii, 19) to “baptize” in the name of the Trinity. Then attention was distracted from such weaknesses as the gospel narrative obviously has by the fabrication of a supernatural version of the triumph of Christianity (the tabarum, the discovery of the cross and Veronica’s pocket handkerchief, thousands of forged legends of saints and martyrs, etc.). A number of further forgeries (Donation of Constantine, etc.) established the Pope’s royal dignity, and a vast number of falsified or forged decrees of Councils proved his spiritual supremacy. There had been, on the admission of all historians, six hundred years of forgeries. The stark humanity of the Church was concealed under a purple and gold robe of supernatural favor.
In the circumstances it is remarkable how much radical anti- Christian heresy there was before the revival of learning. I must not attempt even to summarize it here. It is enough to recall that, to our positive knowledge, hundreds of thousands of men and women were killed for revolt against the ruling creed between 1200 and 1500 A.D. If we were to take the early Christians as a standard — say, in the Diocletian persecution, when a few hundred suffered for the faith and a few million abjured it — we should have to conclude that there was a colossal proportion of heresy in the Middle Ages. Remember that the total population of Europe in those days was only about thirty millions. Life was so ghastly, so ruthlessly devastated by disease and violence, that, although men and women bred like rabbits, the population was almost stationary. However, let us be liberal and grant the apologist that the medieval heretics were much more faithful than the early Christians — or, if he prefers it, that the Christian Church was much more thorough in its bloody measures than the pagan authorities had been — so that we will not claim a thousand heretics for every one that died.
This revolt took two different lines. In part (in the Bogomiles, Albigensians, Luciferists, etc.) it was a revolt against Christian doctrine. In part (Waldensians, Lollards, Hussites, etc.) it was a revolt against the Church’s corruption of Christian doctrine. But in both cases the mightiest element in the revolt was disgust at the state of Christendom. The corruption of the Church was the seed of heretics. Whether they said that the creed was wrong and unnatural, or that the creed was right but corrupted, they united in pointing out that the actual state of the Church repelled people of delicate spiritual nostrils.
The intellectual or doctrinal revolt was murdered. Churches are always sterner against intellectual vitality than erotic vitality — in practice. The Renaissance was not in the least a continuation of the earlier doctrinal rebellion. It was confined to the cultivated few. It was generally on good terms with the Church and as willing to burn incense to Jesus as to Apollo or any other form of thought. Where it was outspokenly anti-Christian, it was Greek: Platonist or Epicurean or Stoic. But in Greek literature were the germs of modern thought and the modern spirit.
Hence the relation of the Renaissance to the more dramatic revolt which we call the Reformation is profoundly interesting, and quite opposite opinions are expressed on it. The Reformation was in the direct line of moral revolts against the Church in the interest of pure Christianity. It continued, and it was greatly helped by, the revolts of the Wyclifites, Hussites, Christian Cathari, etc. It agreed with the Humanists in the attack on Scholastic theology and Canon Law; and the leading Humanists (Erasmus, etc.) agreed with the Reformers in denouncing the corruption of the Church. Yet, although the effects of the Renaissance remained — the act of awakening is merely the first and temporary condition of the state of being awake — the Reformers denounced the human or, as they said, pagan spirit of it, which was its finest contribution to the new era. Did the Reformation do more harm than good? Did it postpone unnecessarily the development of the modern humanitarian, libertarian, and scientific spirit?
Let us first set aside the claim of the modern Catholic that there was less to reform in the Church than is generally supposed, and that the machinery and desire of reform were in the Church, so that the Revolution, as they call it, was unnecessary. On the former point we have seen enough. The Church stank with corruption. The literature of the fifteenth century reeks with it. And the verdict of history is just as emphatic on the second point.
When the Council of Constance closed its labors, it handed to the new Pope a long list of abuses and vices which he was to correct. He bowed humbly; and he dropped the schedule into the waste-paper basket at the Vatican as soon as he got there. Every one of his successors for the next century and a half absolutely rejected the world-demand for reform. The Popes and the Curia (Papal court) became more and more vicious, as we saw, and precisely when the demand for reform was loudest and most threatening (1450-1530), the chair of Peter was occupied by entirely immoral and unscrupulous men. To the very end the Papacy bitterly resisted moral and financial reform.
Well, says the Catholic, there were other ways. There was the intellectual vitality of the Scholastic movement: which was captured and sterilized at once by the Popes, and in the sixteenth century was the arch-foe of intellectual progress. There were Francis of Assissi and Dominic and the friars; and the Franciscan friars and all other monks were corrupt within fifty years of their foundation. Movements like that which Francis inaugurated were crushed by the Popes all over Europe; and Francis himself would have suffered like the others if he had had any intellect. In short, the facts of history show that no reform was possible in the Church as long as Rome retained its power.
This is the other side of the picture. Rationalists, noticing only that the Reformation interrupted the return of paganism, are apt to dismiss it with the contemptuous remark that it enthroned a book after dethroning the Pope. Protestants, who make a bogey of paganism and refuse to see that all that is best in modern times means a return to it, applaud the Reformation precisely because it put an end (they say) to the Renaissance. Against both we might plead that it is misleading to talk of the collapse of the Renaissance. A birth or re-birth does not continue; it is the thing born or re-born which continues. And a very great deal that was re- born in the fifteenth century continued. The art-movement was bound to end soon, as all great artistic periods do. The scientific movement, on the contrary, moved on, slowly but surely, to its triumph. The establishment in the schools of “humane letters” was not undone.
Still, there was a reaction, and we have to study carefully both the causes and consequences of the Reformation. To begin with, as I said, it is better to take a very broad view of the historical situation. There were three rebellions in Europe; one against the doctrines of Christianity, one against its ethic, and one against the corrupt hierarchy of the Church. The first had little chance of success in the sixteenth century. Ninety percent of the people were illiterate, and could barely understand skepticism. Erasmus and the Humanists trusted to see superstition die a natural death as knowledge grew. But it is a very serious question whether, but for the Reformation, the Papacy might not have, by some political chance, passed to a new Innocent III, and he could have crushed the intellectual revolt.
The rebellion against the Christian ethic as such was comparatively small. The Luciferist or witch movement was the chief expression of it. Apart from this were only a few Neo-Pagans. The truth is that the Christian ethic was not taken seriously enough to inspire a revolt. The fire-insurance arrangements of the Church were so complete and generous that people used “hell” as a comfortable swear-word.
The essential condition of a successful revolt was to have a powerful organization to oppose to the Church’s organization. Isolated rebels, or small bodies of rebels, were simply butchered — and the experience of the Albigensians and Waldensians showed that even a body of half a million or more members, with their own fortified cities, could not succeed. The Pope could loosen an avalanche of looters, called Crusaders, upon the rebels. Even a relatively powerful State could be attacked by the Pope arranging a coalition of other States against it.
In other words, there could be no freedom of thought in Europe until the power of the Popes was broken, and it could not be broken until the mass of the people and their rulers in several States already accepted the new ideas. And this in turn obviously means that the rebellion had to be based upon some serious practical grievance acutely felt and resented by both peoples and their rulers. The immorality of the clergy (or of Popes, cardinals bishops, priests, monks, and nuns) alone would never cause such a revolt, There were not enough people with sincere moral indignation. Disdain of the hypocrisy of the clergy was more commonly expressed in ribald songs and spicy stories which were themselves indecent. The disgust of Christendom, which was to be the driving force of any successful revolt, had to be excited primarily by something more important than the amours of Popes and nuns. Fortunately, the Popes were stupid enough to give the world this grievance just at the time when political conditions made a Cooperative revolt possible and a man of powerful personality appeared to incite and lead it.
To the Protestant the Reformation is from the first a sublime revolt against the moral corruption, usurped authority, and un- Christian teaching of the Roman clergy. But it is an acknowledged fact that, although Luther was at Rome in 1510, and saw with his own eyes the corrupt condition of the Curia and the clergy, he remained silent for years; and it is equally clear that in the early years of his struggle he had not the least idea of the doctrinal challenge which he afterwards formulated.
Modern historians, therefore, speak of the Reformation as a political and religious event. I have several times referred to the incautious tendency of some of our historical writers to show their liberality by admitting some of the contentions of the Catholic writers. Naturally, no subject in the whole range of controversy has brought out so strongly the ingenuity and sophistry of Catholic writers as the Reformation, yet voluminous unscrupulous historians like Denifle (“Luther und Lutherthum”), Grisar (“Luther,” 6 vols., English translation 1913), and Janssen (“History of the German People at the Close of the Middle Ages,” 6 vols., English translation 1896-1903) have not seriously modified the traditional view of the Reformation. American Catholics have not even ventured to translate Father Denifle’s “great” work; though Father Grisar’s work and the article on Luther in the “Catholic Encyclopedia” (by a Doctor of Music!) are largely based on it.
Popular Catholic works on Luther and the Reformation are, as we shall see, so gross that Catholic scholars have to protest against them, The only use of the best of them is to correct the exaggeration of the religious elements of the Reformation — or the exclusion of any other elements — by popular Protestant writers. A vast amount of melodramatic rubbish has been written on both sides, and, after looking over the entire literature of the last twenty years, I cannot recommend any book. Professor Robinson’s long article in the “Encyclopedia Britannica” is a fine and substantial analysis, as far as it goes, and (the Rev.) Professor Mackinnon’s recent “Luther and the Reformation” (only the first volume of which is out) is a useful work on the narrow lines of a liberal theology.
The truth is that the new fashion of speaking of the Reformation as a political and religious event is not quite accurate, and it represents a concession to Catholic literary intrigue. Catholics want the Reformation to be put on political grounds. But the grounds of the disgust of Christendom which led to an examination of the Pope’s authority and teaching, and thus brought about a doctrinal revolt, are not well described as “political.” In the main they referred to two things: the Papal claim of a right to interfere in the affairs of every kingdom in the world, and the appalling Papal extortion and greed which drew vast sums of money out of every country to Italy. The grievances summarized under these heads united rulers and people, and a good many of the clergy, in a common hostile attitude toward the Roman Curia. They provided the first essential of a successful revolt. It was a religious revolt, but it started as a resentment of grievances which were not religious, yet are not aptly described as political.
The whole history of the three centuries preceding the Reformation is, as every student knows, filled with the quarrels of the Popes with various monarchs. During the whole thirteenth century Italy was rent in halves, and spattered with blood, by the quarrel of the Guelphs and Ghibellines; which means, mainly, partisans of the Pope or the emperor. In fact, the well-known picture of the Emperor Henry IV doing penance at Canossa in the year 1076 shows the arrogance of the Popes far earlier. Gregory VII, the Pope of the time, claimed to depose monarchs, hand out crowns, and use armies, as he thought fit. His principle was (“Letters,” iv, 24): “If the See of the Blessed Peter decides and judges heavenly and spiritual things, how much more shall it judge things earthly and secular?” Innocent III, the next most powerful of the Popes, had exactly the same ruling principle. Europe was to them a kind of United States and the Pope was president — without a Congress to check him.
This arrogant attitude had its foundations in the barbaric days of Europe, when the half-civilized Teuton monarchs had a superstitious awe of the Papacy, and the Popes could fabricate documents with impunity. Charlemagne’s father, Pippin, was a mere usurper; but when the Pope had heard of his intention — he consulted the Pope as to the morality of it — he ordered Pippin to seize the throne, and Popes afterwards claimed that this made France a “fief,” or feudal dependency, of Rome.
It was a Pope, moreover, who created Charlemagne “Roman Emperor” (after duping him with two of the most shameless forgeries in history). Then, in 858, came Nicholas I (in whose reign the most comprehensive and profitable of all the forgeries, the False Decretals, appeared), who expressly described himself as “prince over all the earth” (“Letters,” lxv) and claimed that all kings received their swords, the symbols of their power, from the Pope.
There is an exaltation almost amounting to insanity in the letters of Nicholas, Gregory, and Innocent; and the Forged Decretals, to which Gregory VII added other forgeries, gave chapter and verse for every act of autocracy. But, with all the superstition of Europe, the autocracy was fiercely resented. An Archbishop of Cologne in the ninth century wrote as contemptuously as Luther would ever do about this Papal “emperor of all the world,” and the emperor came to Rome to smoke the Pope out of his palace. But the Popes generally won, for the ignorant monarchs of the time had a terrible dread of hell-opening anathemas. Rome then passed into its hundred and fifty years of degradation, but the Puritan Popes who followed fastened their chains upon Europe more firmly than ever.
I have in my “Crises in the History of the Papacy” given a summary record of the acts of Nicholas, Gregory, and Innocent and it is a record of the most insufferable interferences in secular matters. Many historians do not realize this and speak as if such matters as “investitures” were the chief grounds of quarrel. Bishops and archbishops were amongst the most powerful nobles of a king in the early Middle Ages, and the monarch naturally demanded a voice in their appointment. The Popes just as naturally claimed the sole right to appoint or “invest” them. This led to a century of quarrels and ended in compromise. The exemption of the clergy from taxation was an even greater cause of friction and annoyance.
But it is quite a mistake to suppose that Popes confined their interference to matters of this kind, in which they could make out at least a plausible case. The words of Gregory VII, which I have translated from one of his letters, mean that there is no single “earthly and secular” thing on which they may not dictate if they think fit. The claim was strengthened by making countries “fiefs of the Holy See”; and this was by a series of often sordid maneuvers. Pope Alexander II gave his blessing and a Papal banner to William of Normandy when he made his quite unscrupulous raid on England, and this was later held to make England a feudal dependency of the Papacy. Pope Innocent kindly undertook to be guardian of the boy Frederick II for his simple-minded mother, and thus claimed Naples as a fief of the Holy See. On one pretext or other most countries of Europe became Papal fiefs, or subject to the Pope as feudal monarch as well as spiritual head.
The more religious the Pope, the more use he made, and often very unscrupulous use, of this power. Innocent III was a terrible offender, but I will give only one instance. He did not move a finger when King John of England murdered his nephew and he complacently rid the king of his wife, and gave him a very light penance for his new amorous adventure. But he laid an interdict on England when John resented his forcing Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury; be deposed the King (expressly as his feudal monarch), and invited Philip of France to cross the Channel and lay waste the country. When John submitted, the Pope exacted a solemn recognition of England’s feudal dependency on Rome, and then, as feudal monarch, excommunicated the barons for forcing the king to sign the Magna Charta. When the barons offered the crown to the son of the French king, Innocent excommunicated the king. His interference in Germany was just as galling and even more unscrupulous.
Now the various European monarchs had become much more powerful and less docile by the sixteenth century. A very significant change in the history of Europe, which is not sufficiently noticed, is that the advisers of kings were now largely lay lawyers and nobles instead of prelates. The Pope had to treat with them as one monarch with another and forget all the talk about “fiefs.” But a glance at the activity of Leo X, the Pope of Luther’s day, will show how irritating the Papal claims still were.
“When you have made a league with one man,” the Pope used to say, “there is no reason why you should cease to negotiate with his opponent.” Accordingly he signed a secret treaty with Spain against France, and at the same time a secret treaty with France against Spain; and a few months later secretly entered the German League against France. His aid, it is important to remember, always took the form of the funds which the Papacy wrung out of Europe. He made secret terms with the French king, then deceived both him and his other allies and tried to escape by revealing their secrets to each other. Later he again sold his secret support to France for half a million dollars, and within a fortnight secretly signed a treaty against France with Spain. This “unparalleled duplicity,” as the Catholic historian Pastor calls it, was merely the last stage of Papal interference before the crash, and every monarch in Europe was profoundly disgusted. The first blast of the great storm was already raging in Germany, and the chair of Peter was occupied by a fat, lazy, and utterly unscrupulous sensualist, a man who was said in clerical circles to have boasted that his luxurious life was based upon the world’s belief in “the fable of Jesus Christ.”
At this point also, just when Luther had taken the war-path in Germany, the fiscal system of Rome reached its most scandalous proportions. Rome had so many sources of income that it is impossible even to summarize them here. Peter’s Pence, the direct contribution of the faithful to the Pope, may be dismissed as comparatively respectable. The Papal States yielded a further income which might be deemed respectable if the Pope’s title-deeds were not arrant forgeries, as all now admit, and if the maintenance of them through the ages had not meant so much bloodshed and intrigue.
Beyond that one may admit that, like the civil service, the Papal Curia had a right to recoup its clerical and administrative expenses from petitioners, but this innocent plea of payment for necessary servants had grown into a colossal and sordid system of extortion, entailing the grossest simony, or sale of sacred things.
The charges for dispensations from various disabilities alone brought a huge sum and were scandalous. For instance, the degrees of kindred which formed an impediment to marriage, without a dispensation, were extended farther and farther until one could not marry a person related within four degrees by blood or marriage or spiritual relationship. These and other impediments were deliberately fabricated in order to make money out of the dispensations. When some pious Christian expostulated with the Vice-Chancellor of Pope Innocent III — the system was already fully developed in the thirteenth century — he cynically answered: “God desired not the death of sinners, but that they should pay and live.” The result was that the poor (who were related to practically everybody in their village and never got away from it) lived in “sin” and scoffed at the rich. There was no “divorce,” but a large payment so sharpened the eyes of the Papal lawyers that they could discover a flaw in, and declare null and void, any marriage of a wealthy man. “The most holy sacrament of marriage,” says a Catholic writer, “was made a subject of derision to the laity by the venality with which marriages were made and unmade to fill the pouches of the episcopal officials.”
This, remember, is only a single class of dispensations. There were many others, such as dispensations from onerous penances. The real quarrel of Rome with the Spanish Inquisition was about money. Even today in Spain you can buy a dispensation from nearly all the fast-days of the Church during a year for ten cents. But the two corrupt sources of revenue which were most significant in connection with the Reformation, which exasperated the clergy as well as the laity, were the sale of benefices and the sale of indulgences.
John XXII, one of the Avignon Popes, a miserly lawyer who organized the Papal finances, made a drastic beginning of what is quite properly called the sale of benefices. An earlier Pope had declared that the benefices of priests who died at Rome passed to the disposal of the Papacy. John made this a general law of the Church. When a benefice — the salaried position of priest, chaplain, abbot, bishop, etc. — fell vacant, the successor of the dead incumbent was to pay three years’ revenue to Rome. Benefices (bishoprics, etc.) were multiplied by the Papacy, and candidates for the vacant office came with their offers of payment of “first fruits” just as they made offers for any other lucrative appointment.
The infamous John XXIII extended the system and gave it a quite sordid character. The Papacy had spies and an information bureau, reporting on the health of ailing or aged priests. The “expectation” of the benefice was sold to the highest bidder; and even after this a “preference” would be sold to a second man over the head of the first. The most disgusting traffic in sacred offices continued throughout Christendom for two or three centuries, but again it will suffice to take an instance from the reign of Leo X, in the days of Luther.
It will probably occur some day to an historian or medical man to inquire whether Leo X was entirely sane. There was in his time such a demand for reform, such an open scorn of the Church’s corruption, that Leo had to hold a Council in Rome to consider it. He, of course, thwarted the Council. What idea of reform could there be in a man who spent, largely in personal luxury, about two million dollars a year, and surrounded himself with a court of buffoons and immoral companions? He needed vast sums of money, and he used the corrupt system of the Vatican more unscrupulously than any before. In 1514, in order to have the political support of the Elector Albert of Brandenburg, he permitted that young and licentious noble to assume the dignity of Archbishop of Mayence, and, against all Church rules, he further permitted him, for a bribe of one hundred thousand dollars, to retain the bishoprics of Magdeburg and Halberstadt. Germany was particularly angry about the corrupt system, and Germany was treated by the Papacy as if it were a nation of helpless peasants.
Albert of Brandenburg was told that he could recoup himself out of the sale of indulgences, and this brings us to the second most corrupt source of income.
I will not linger over the word “sale.” You can in Spain today get valuable indulgences, sealed and signed by the Archbishop of Toledo, who says that he has a fresh Papal authorization every year, in a shop. You pay seventy-five centimos (about fourteen cents). That sum is marked on the paper (bula), and if you offer a quarter of a dollar you get your change just as if you had bought a cake of soap. The Church says that your money is a gift or alms to itself, and that the indulgence is a gift to you. It is the emptiest of bunk. Indulgences are sold in Spain today, and were in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries sold all over Europe.
The “indulgence” started as an arrangement by which a man who was condemned to an onerous penance for his sins might have it commuted for an “alms” — to the Church. In time the Popes discovered that the wonderful graces and indulgences you gained by making a pilgrimage to Rome might be gained just as well by paying to the Church the price of such a pilgrimage. From that time, the fourteenth century, indulgences were given for money-payments everywhere. The price of a pilgrimage to Rome was high, so the scale of the alms was lowered. The Church, as ever, was mindful of her poorer members; in other words, she realized that a million gifts of a dime each are worth more than a hundred gifts of twenty dollars each.
Most people are now aware that an indulgence does not mean permission to commit sin, or even absolution from sin. It means that a certain amount of punishment in Purgatory is wiped off the slate. Pope John XXIII, the Council of Constance found, actually sold absolution from sin, but that is exceptional. Still, any person who knows Catholic sentiments will understand that the indulgence encourages “sin” by making it easy to avoid the punishment (Purgatory) which the Catholic dreads most. Confession relieves him of the fear of hell at any time, but not of the penalty in Purgatory.
This traffic reached its culmination under the Popes of the Renaissance, and especially Leo X. For the maintenance of the luxury of the court and for the building of St. Peter’s and other monuments colossal sums were needed. Leo X organized the sale of indulgences as if they were a new cure for indigestion. Commissaries were sent everywhere, and, flaunting the Papal banner, they cried their wares like street-salesmen. And again it was Germany, the most disaffected part of Christendom, that was most exploited. The cup was full. Rulers, priests, and people were talking angrily or scornfully of this system which was somehow imposed upon them as part of their religion. Pamphleteers had a resounding success. And at last came the man who could prove that this was no part of Christ’s religion, and that therefore Rome had apostatized from Christ.
German scholars have devoted very considerable research to the condition of their country in the half-century before Luther raised the flag of revolt, and it is now known that the land was particularly ripe for insurgence against the Papacy. With their customary blindness to actualities, the Popes did not appreciate the changes which were taking place in Europe, and, proud of the strength and wealth they had recovered since their return from Avignon, they contemptuously ignored all protests except where their political or diplomatic interest was involved. Thus France had been induced to withdraw its support from the Conciliar Movement in 1438 and had been granted a liberal arrangement with the Papacy (in the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges). England and Spain had come to terms at an earlier date, and Italy, where Marsiglio of Padua had published a virulent attack on the Papacy as early as 1324 (“Defensor Pacis”), was, as usual, cowed into subjection.
The German emperor had ostensibly got a favorable Concordat with the Papacy in 1448, but it left the principal sources of friction unsettled, and there were loud and constant complaints of Papal greed. The excuse was now made that to increase the extortion large funds were needed for a campaign against the Turks; yet Christendom presently learned with horror that Popes Innocent VIII and Alexander VI accepted one hundred thousand dollars a year from the Sultan to keep his younger brother a captive at the Vatican, and that Alexander VI offered to prevent a war against the Sultan if the money was paid. Complaints were formulated at every meeting of the German Diets, and it was particularly emphasized that the fine folk at the Vatican treated the Germans as “slaves,” “barbarians,” and “beer-swillers,” and contemptuously refused to hear them. For a time there was a renewed demand for a General Council, but Pius II decreed that such an appeal was an infringement of Papal rights, and the Germans had to be content with venting their anger.
The new circumstances which escaped the notice of the Popes were the rapid growth of the feeling of nationality in Germany, the kindling of some spirit amongst the peasantry themselves after the abolition of serfdom, the dissemination of the ideas of the Humanists, and eventually the invention of printing. Very extensive agitations amongst the peasants already existed in the fifteenth century, and peasant orators, who had immense influence, were not slow to point out how the people were exploited by the clergy.
By the middle of the century there were scores of printing presses in Germany, and, scanty as education was, the new invention was in controversy something like what the invention of gunpowder was in warfare. There was in the second half of the fifteenth century a sort of religious revival in Germany: a purification and deepening of religious sentiment which tended to concentrate attention on the words and spirit of Christ. Editions of the Bible poured from the press, and a thousand could now consult the actual words of Christ for one who could have done so fifty years earlier. Luther seems to have exaggerated, from imperfect recollection, when he said in later years that he was almost the only monk of his body to read the Bible. In the seventy years before the revolt of Luther about two hundred editions (total or partial) of the Bible were printed in European languages, and eighteen of these were in German; and there were some five or six hundred editions in Latin.
Another formidable weapon provided by the German press was the literature of the Humanists. Erasmus, as we saw, quitted his native Netherlands, where Spain and the Inquisition ruled, and ultimately settled in Germany. Reuchlin, an older and more orthodox Humanist, had to some extent prepared the way for him, but the brilliant and dissipated young poet Ulrich von Hutten (1488-1523) hit the popular taste even more effectively than the broad passages in the “Colloquies” of Erasmus. Ex-monk himself, he had ample material for controversy, and his courage was equal to his wit. He printed in Germany Lorenza Valia’s exposure of the fraudulent bases of the Pope’s temporal power (the Donation of Constantine), and in conjunction with another German writer he issued a work, “The Letters of Obscure Men,” in which he held up to ridicule the orthodox monks who defended the Papacy, by assigning to them letters that combined orthodoxy and stupidity in equal proportions. The anger of Germany thus assumed at times the more dangerous form of laughter. Scores of pamphlets circulated deriding the Papacy and the clergy.
At the height of this movement Leo X, as I said, gave Germany a most cynical proof of his contempt for their claims. Men already murmured that the archbishopric of Mayence had been vacant seven times in one generation, and that the price which the Papacy demanded for appointment to it was raised from ten thousand to twenty thousand gulden. Then Leo sold it to the quite unworthy Elector, Albert of Brandenburg, who merely desired its revenues, and in addition permitted him, for a large consideration, to keep two other episcopal sees. Albert was, as we saw, to recover part of his payment by a share in the proceeds of the sale of indulgences, and it is here that the Dominican monk Tetzel and the Augustinian monk Martin Luther enter the story.
Few characters in history have been so venomously libeled and so unscrupulously glorified as Martin Luther. To the uncultivated Protestant he is, after Jesus and Paul, the third founder of pure Christianity: a man purified and ennobled by the spiritual flame that burned in him and removed from him every human defilement. To the Catholic he is an instrument of the devil: a coarse and fierce sensualist, a man whose very breath was foul with obscenities, a fool who for the tickling of his vanity and the gratification of his passions perjured his soul and fabricated a charge against the Church. Yet no character that has thus been painted by rival love and hatred in fantastically exaggerated colors is more easy to appreciate.
Catholic literature even in our own day, when it affects an air of liberality, is stupid in its exaggerations. Professor Mackinnon quotes a work by a German Catholic (Merkle’s “Reformations-geschichtliche Streitfragen,” 1904) which I have not been able to see, and tells us that it contains a “crushing exposure” of the Catholic Baron von Berlichingen’s “Luther and the Reformation.” But a good idea of the stupid tradition may be obtained from the American work “The Facts About Luther” by the Rev. Mgr. Dr. P. O’Hare. From such a very reverend and learned- looking author the Catholic expects the very truth, and is assured by a professor of the Catholic University at Washington (the Rev. Prof. Dr. Guilday), who writes the preface, that he gets it.
The book is a quite sordid piece of deceit. The reverend professor first tickles the appetite of the reader by announcing “scenes of coarseness, vulgarity, obscenity and degrading immorality.” That is Catholic university culture in America. Even the writer on Luther in the “Catholic Encyclopedia” ignores this libel in his authorities, and, instead of immorality, speaks only of “unsurpassable and irreproducible coarseness.” But Father O’Hare reproduces this for us. He opens his book with the constructive lie that “learned and distinguished historians like Janssen, Denifle, and Grisar, and many others” have “Painted with masterly accuracy the real picture of the reformer.” He conceals from his Catholic readers the fact that Denifle and Grisar are just Church-serving priests like himself, and that the “many others” have a profound contempt for their lies about Luther.
Then he discovers that even unscrupulous hatred can invent no calumny about Luther as a student, monk and professor, so he fills his book with dreary discussions of doctrine and untruthful defenses of the faith. We saw, for instance, that the last straw laid upon the back of Germany was Leo X’s cynical deal with Albert of Brandenburg. Albert’s purchase of the archbishopric is actually defended, his character is not mentioned, and not a word is said about the Pope permitting him, for a corrupt bribe, to retain two other bishoprics.
However, in the last chapter we reach the “obscenities” promised us by the introducing professors. Luther’s immorality, the priest assures us, is vouched for by numbers of witnesses; and the only one he quotes is a bitter Catholic opponent of the Reformer who makes a vague general charge. On the strength of this, and some of the passages in which Luther satirizes clerical celibacy and bluntly tells monks and nuns to go and get married, we get the quite childish assurance that “to deify indecency” was part of Luther’s “satanic desire and diabolical purpose.” This sort of melodramatic mouthing is what the American Catholic reads as a summary of “learned and distinguished historians.” From refined Father Grisar the refined Father O’Hare even reproduces the very delicate suggestion that Luther had syphilis … One almost regrets that the kind of blunt and forceful language which he quotes from Luther has gone out of fashion, and that one has now, more politely, to describe this kind of literature as the dung of obese Jesuits and the dollar-catching drivel of lick-spittle servants of the Pope.
There is no dispute about the fact that Luther was a profoundly religious man: that is to say, a man of, not only the firmest belief in Christianity, but of exceptionally strong religious sentiment, In his “Table-Talk” he describes adultery as “a crime most odious … a crime at once against God, against society, and against one’s family.” And, as against Dr. O’Hare’s repeated statement that he glorified sexual intercourse and ridiculed the idea that a man or woman could remain virginal, we have his advice, in insisting on purity, to the preacher of the gospel: “Is he able, with a good conscience to remain unmarried? Let him so remain.” Luther was a man of strong sensuality. His temperament was peculiar in this that he united an acute nervous sensibility and explosiveness with the eupeptic blood-circulation that usually goes with placid nerves. He therefore felt acutely the conflict of his “flesh” and the contempt of his creed for the flesh, but he was too sincere in his faith to assuage the conflict by a compromise between the two. or by devoting a Saturday to the one and a Sunday to the other. It is impossible to say exactly why he became a monk, but I agree with Professor Mackinnon that an explanation given by himself in later years is the correct one: that in a dangerous thunder-storm he vowed to enter a monastery if his life was spared.
The Augustinian monastery he entered was not lax, and the fierce conflict of flesh and faith tormented his early manhood, in spite of his admitted austerities. He brooded morbidly for years on what Paul calls, in the Latin Bible, the “justice” of God. It suggested a Rhadamanthus of a judge, particularly in regard to the innocent physiological movements which the Christian calls “bad thoughts.” How could a man like himself, with so many “bad thoughts,” hope to escape this searching and fiercely punishing judge? And it is admitted by all that this terrible stress ended, long before he had any idea of a breach with Rome, in a discovery that there was a mistranslation of the Greek text of Paul. He had spoken of God’s “righteousness,” not “justice,” and a perfect confidence in God would infallibly bring whatever “grace” was necessary for “salvation.”
These things do not of themselves interest us today. Even the normal Protestant or Catholic does not now go home, after glimpses of the upper regions of silk stockings on the screen or of bare limbs in a revue or a vaudeville, to tear the sheets and wet the pillow with tears. But Luther’s struggle and the solution of it while he was still a monk are part of the essential history of the Reformation. It was evolving in Luther’s mind as inevitably as events were moving toward it in the world at large; but without those outward events we should never have heard of Martin Luther. He had no instinct of rebellion. In 1510 he visited Rome on business of his Augustinian Order, and after seeing all its corruption, he went back meekly to his cell. He was not of heroic stuff. Son of a miner, he had in early manhood a great sympathy with the oppressed poor and spoke scornfully of their lords and exploiters; but when the peasants rebelled and appealed for his aid, he not unmindful that if princes deserted the Reformation, it was certainly ruined — harshly exhorted the masters to treat them as “mad dogs” and shoot them.
The career of such a man naturally has weaknesses, but the only one worth serious notice is his fiery temper and coarseness of language. He was, as I said, of an explosive nervous temperament, and to say that he often in the trying circumstances of his struggle flew into a rage is merely to say that he was not a “saint.” The coarseness of his language at times — his “Table- Talk” generally reads as soporifically as Marcus Aurelius — cannot be lightly set aside as explained by the lowliness of his home or the general coarseness of the Middle Ages; though, if we had the same extensive and intimate knowledge of some even of the bishops and nobles of the time, we might find them using the same language. Luther, indeed, might have argued, if any person had objected to his fluent scattering of “asses” and “swine,” that Jesus himself was pretty free with expletives like “brood of vipers,” and so on. In short, Luther was not and never professed to be, a meek saint or an anemic apostle of gentleness. He did not see that Christianity obliged him to say “woman of ill fame” (with a blush) instead of “whore.” For any serious historical purpose his “coarseness” is as immaterial as the size of his boots.
Luther was teaching at Wittenberg University when, toward the close of 1517, the Dominican monk, Father Tetzel, came to Juterbog, a few miles away, to sell indulgences. Tetzel’s character no more matters than the robustness of Luther’s language. He was specially chosen by the Pope as chief indulgence-monger because he had an effective way of getting money. This way consisted in his loud and picturesque appraisal of the value of the indulgences. Wittenberg was only three miles away, and people went over to hear this medieval Billy Sunday and talked about him. Luther had long ago concluded that salvation was a very difficult business, and one could make sure of it only by personal union with and reliance on God. From every point of view the Tetzel business honestly disgusted him. It released people from reliance on “grace” and encouraged them to rely on bits of money and ceremonies. It encouraged vice by indicating a very easy way of evading payment for it. And the money went to a corrupt hierarchy, and Purgatory was not in the Bible or the Fathers, so … As the issue of his reflections, Luther drew up ninety-five propositions about Purgatory and indulgences, and nailed his paper, on the eve of the feast of All Saints, to the door of the Castle Church, which was used as a sort of notice board.
This was not the beginning of the Reformation. It was one Catholic disputing with another Catholic as to whether some point not defined by the Church could or could not be held. But there was the germ of revolution in it, because the Popes had for two centuries drawn vast funds from the sale of indulgences, and this was based essentially on the doctrine of Purgatory. Luther cannot have dreamed that Rome would tolerate his denial. He can only have supposed that Rome, nearly a thousand miles away, would never hear of his proposed battle of wits with Tetzel. Probably, indeed, he never thought about Rome, but only of Tetzel. From his pulpit in Wittenberg he roared invectives across the three miles of space to Juterbog.
The bishop sent a copy of Luther’s ninety-five theses to Rome. He smelt sulphur, but a professor at the university was a professor. A Dominican monk in Rome replied to the theses, and, in fact, the Dominican monks, the “dogs of the Lord,” the ready tools of the Popes at that time in searching out wealthy heretics and in selling indulgences, informed the Vatican that Luther was spoiling business in his part of Germany. The emperor also was induced to denounce Luther. He was summoned to Rome; and he was probably reminded of the little poem, if it already existed in some shape, about the spider and the fly. Through the influence of his patron, the Elector of Saxony, he was excused from going to Rome, and ordered to present himself before the Papal Legate at Augsburg in 1518.
Pope Leo sent his ablest Legate, Cardinal Cajetan, for he wanted money. But the Diet listened somberly to the cardinal’s description of the menace of the Turk, and, in fine, refused the money and drew up afresh a long list of their grievances against Rome. It was in this atmosphere that Luther boldly refused to retract and appealed to a general Council. This was not new or revolutionary. A great many people, especially in Germany, had held for a century that a General Council was higher than the Pope, and, on such a theory, it could not matter that the Pope said otherwise.
Luther returned unmolested to Wittenberg, and no further step was taken for two years. But the work went on mightily. People were now reading Erasmus and laughing over Ulrich von Hutten’s “Letters of Obscure Men.” More pious folk were reading spiritual books which brought them back, like Luther, to Paul and the New Testament. Luther’s theses were printed, in Latin and German, and widely discussed. This learned professor, it seemed, maintained that the Papacy had definitely admitted as Christian truth a human invention. On top of it all came the political news that the Diet had buttoned up the German people’s pockets against the Pope. The general frame of mind was one of hostility to Rome within the limits of the faith. But if anyone were now to prove that this faith imposed by the Popes was adulterated in their own interest … The prairie was very ready for a spark.
The spark fell, and the Reformation began, when Luther in 1520 published the results of his two years reflections. He had compared the Scholastic theology (about which he had long been uneasy) and the Canon Law with the real Christian faith as given in the New Testament and the Fathers. He issued two pamphlets (and a third which does not matter here). The first, an “Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation,” reminded secular rulers how much they paid for the pomp and luxury of Rome, and informed them that they had a perfect right to reform the Church; that the Pope’s sharp distinction between spiritual and temporal power was an invention. The second pamphlet, “The Babylonish Captivity of the Church,” said that the Christian truth was that men must rely on God’s grace, not ceremonies; that four of the Church’s seven sacraments were inventions; and so on. A Papal bull was hurled at the monk; and he gave the Reformation its third and final foundation when, on December 10th, he, in the presence of students, professors, and townsfolk, burned Pope Leo’s bull at the gate of Wittenburg, amidst general applause.
Luther was still far more Catholic than Wyclif or Hus had been. His idea merely was that the Papal system should be sheared by a General Council, convoked by secular rulers, of certain doctrines and practices not contained in the writings of the Fathers. But this was to attack the basic principle of the system, the authority of the Pope; and it was, on the other hand, the very note which Germany required to give a definite direction to its vague dissatisfaction. At the same time a certain Jacques Lefevre was preaching a somewhat similar gospel, and bringing men back to the Bible, in France, and Zwingli, the favorite preacher of Zurich, was denouncing indulgences in that city.
The next move was with “the assassins,” and the orthodox young emperor, Charles V, summoned Luther to appear before the Diet at Worms (1621) and condemned him. He and the Diet reaffirmed all their grievances against Rome, and demanded a General Council, but he had not the least sympathy with an eccentric monk who burned Papal bulls. Luther was a “notorious and stiff-necked heretics” and his writings were “foul and harmful.” Strong in the loud manifestations of popular support everywhere, Luther had refused to recant, but the combination of Church and State against him was irresistible. He might have ended as Hus and Savonarola had ended, and the Reformation been postponed to another age, had not the friendly Elector of Saxony arranged a little plot for his safety. He was seized as he traveled from Worms and lodged in the ancient castle of the Wartburg. There, disguised as a knight, he turned to the translation of the Bible, awaiting some new turn of events. And the turn, the critical historical fact which facilitated the Reformation, was that the fiery ambition of the young emperor now drove him abroad for some years in the military enforcement of his rights, and the minor princes of Germany were left free to consider, and in some cases adopt and encourage, the new anti-Papal theories.
The German Emperor Charles was, though no model of chastity, an orthodox believer; but we do not need a prolonged search to find the usual very human elements in any spiritual triumph of Leo X. The emperor was embarking upon a serious campaign against France, and he wanted, and received a promise of, Papal support. So he branded Luther a heretic, and Leo felt that he could now force the Elector of Saxony to surrender Luther to the mercies of the Inquisition. But Leo himself died before the end of the year, and he was succeeded by Hadrian VI.
Quite certainly Hadrian wanted reform, and there were many clerics in Rome who saw that reform was urgently needed to save the Papacy. But the luxurious and vicious cardinals appointed by Leo and his predecessors ruled the Palace, and they smiled at the piety of this son of the working class who had strangely found his way among them. Hadrian himself, in fact, did not propose to do more than modify the abominable traffic in spiritual things. He died, utterly distracted, within two years, and the Papacy again fell to a member of the great Medici house.
Clement VII was not vicious, but he was weak and he was, like his predecessors, immersed in politics and in the interests of his relatives. Catholic writers claim under his pontificate the first evidence that the Church could and would reform itself, and even so cautious an historian as Professor Robinson says that the Legate Campeggio, acting on the Pope’s instructions, “met the longstanding and general demand for reform without a revolution in doctrines or institutions.” The truth is that the Catholic princes themselves, whom Campeggio was to combine in a League against Luther’s supporters, compelled the Pope to make some show of reform, and what was done was of the most meager description.
The pontificate of Clement VII precisely shows the utter unwillingness or incapacity of the Church to reform itself. The Lutheran princes formed a powerful League to protect the heresy. In Switzerland city after city officially adopted the rebellion. Gustavus Vasa adopted Lutheranism in Sweden, and it made great progress in Denmark. And, most formidable of all, Henry VIII had severed his own State and Church from the Vatican, and the Reformers were making dangerous progress in France. The revolution was sweeping Europe. Yet this representative of the more luxurious members of the Sacred College, confronting the most terrible disaster that the Pope had ever imagined, spent his life in promoting the interests of his family by political intrigue and at the most made a few tactical and entirely useless concessions to a local demand.
That the Church was neither willing nor able to reform itself is even more clearly proved by the pontificate of Alexander VI. When the Medicean Pope Clement died in the year 1534 the Reformation was almost established. The one hope now for the Vatican was that by a drastic purification of the morals of the higher clergy and a complete reform of its fiscal system it might unite the Catholic princes in a zeal for the faith and win back a large body of the people. Most of the German princes held firm for the faith, and they waited only for a General Council to reform the Church and settle points of doctrine before they set out to coerce the minority. There was still a possibility of at least confining the schism to a few countries or provinces on the fringe of Europe.
In this solemn hour the frivolous cardinals who met at Rome to elect a Pope, and cynically implored the light of the Holy Ghost, chose Cardinal Alessandro Farnese to wear the tiara and control the destinies of the Church. A more stupid and irritating choice it would be difficult to imagine. He had been known in the Church for more than twenty years as “the petticoat cardinal.” No one in Europe was ignorant that he owed his high position to the fact that his fifteen-year-old sister, Giulia Farnese, had been the mistress of Alexander VI, and that as a cardinal he had had a regular mistress, besides his occasional amours, who bore him four children in his cardinalitial palace. At the very time of his election his son, Pier Luigi, and his daughter, Costanza, were well-known figures in Roman society, and, instead of retiring into a decent obscurity, they came out boldly to enjoy the new wealth and prestige of their Papa. Two boy nephews also, one seventeen and the other fourteen years old, were at once promoted to the cardinalate and enriched with lucrative ecclesiastical benefices; and both of these cardinals became as immoral as the rest of the noble Farnese family.
Paul III was, as Pope, a man of virtue; he was nearly seventy years old when he was elected. But, although, there were assuredly now many cardinals who wanted reform — it is a miracle of Stupidity that any did not — the very fact that Paul III was elected shows that the Papal court as a body was still corrupt. Its attitude is quite clear. Paul III was reputed to be a very able diplomatist, and he was to meet the demands of Europe for reform with all the astuteness in words that he could command, yet yield not one inch except under severe pressure.
And that is precisely what was done even at the height of the storm in Europe. Paul announced that a General Council would be held to reform the Church and settle questions of doctrine. It was three years after his accession when he fixed the date and place of the Council, and, as it was to be held in Italy under the control of his Legates, even the Catholic monarchs would have nothing to do with it. Paul was determined not to yield, and he wasted another year and then announced a Council at Vicenza: again in an Italian town, which both Catholic and Protestant princes refused to sanction, and under Papal auspices. When Paul’s three Legates made a pompous entry into Vicenza at the appointed time, they found only five bishops there, and they ignominiously retired to Rome.
Many historians believe that Paul had not the least desire to hold a Council. I should say that he was certainly willing to hold a Council in Italy, under his own control, but he had only the faintest hope of inducing even the Catholic monarchs to agree to it, and he relied entirely on his diplomatic ability to bring about a union of Catholic princes and then organize a massacre of Protestants on the largest scale. Meantime, he had a reform- commission at work in the Vatican, and, although he gave the reform cardinals to understand that they must be prudent and moderate, they in 1537 presented him with a very ugly document, a list of the reforms which the Church must make “from within.” It is enough to say that the document was shelved in the Papal Archives, where it remains today.
One office of the Vatican establishment was selected for reform, and the discussion of this lasted three further years. It was not until 1540, nearly twenty years after Luther had burned the Pope’s bull, that any reforms, a few minor reforms, were carried out. One instance will show the real value of these, however edifying they may seem in schedule. One of the grave abuses was that priests obtained lucrative clerical positions far away from Rome, and then lived a luxurious life in Rome on the income. This scandal at least must end, said the reform cardinals, and the Pope resigned himself to sacrifice eighty notorious offenders. They tearfully pointed out … In short, they all remained in Rome.
It is of interest to the modern reader to know that the Popes and cardinals were not the only offenders in the Church. It was, above all, the German Emperor who pressed for a General Council, so that he might unite and pacify his distracted empire, and the French king and many of the subsidiary German princes felt that it was very much against their own interest to see the emperor recover his full power. Priests and laymen, in other words, were equally lax in regard to a “reform from within.” All that Rome — apart from the minority of reformers — wanted was a Council which should satisfy the emperor that the followers of Luther were formal heretics, and he might unsheathe the sword. But the emperor wanted a Council at which the Lutherans would assist in the discussion of doctrine and thus afford some chance of a pacific settlement. For this, he knew, reform of morals and finance was essential; and Rome preferred its traditional device of bloody suppression.
In 1541 the Pope met the emperor and was forced to act. A Council should be held, as soon as possible, at Trent, in the emperor’s dominions. It is enough to say that when Paul’s Legates arrived there, with the usual pomp, and after allowing three weeks for the gathering of the prelates, not a single bishop had come! No one believed in the Pope’s intentions. At that solemn hour of Papal history he was enriching his family and parading his illegitimate offspring. When the emperor heard that the Pope had, with incredible levity, just given his granddaughter (daughter of his illegitimate daughter) two duchies of the Papal States as a dowry, he threatened to invade Rome and depose the libertine.
These are undisputed historical facts. These are the prosy statements you will find in any history of the time. Instead of the Church — either Popes, cardinals, or prelates — being willing and able to reform themselves, they evaded every attempt of the laity for forty years, in fact for a hundred and thirty years (counting from the Council of Constance), to impose reform on them. When the Council of Trent was at last announced, in 1545, there were only two bishops present when the Pope’s Legates arrived. The purpose of the Pope was notorious. At the very time when he announced his grand plan of reform, he issued new coins in Rome on which there was a naked figure of Ganymede watering the Farnese lily! Secretly, as we now know, Paul was sending funds to Germany for a war on the heretics which would make the Council superfluous. So to the end of his life he resisted reform and relied on the sword. His successor, Julius III, suspended the labors of the Council of Trent and proved even more frivolous than Paul. It was only when Protestantism was fully established that some measure of reform became inevitable; and the sale of indulgences in Spain to this day is a sufficient proof that it was based on policy, not principle. The Church was reformed where, and in so far as, compulsion existed.
It remains to tell how Rome now failed to drown the new heresy in blood, as it had drowned previous revolts, and how in its effort to do so it crucified humanity anew. It may be said in a word that the new religion triumphed for the same reason that Christianity had triumphed in the fourth century: it won the favor of secular princes. The Protestant who seeks a divine intervention in the affairs of the world in the sixteenth century is just as eccentric as the Catholic who holds that his Church enjoyed a divine guidance throughout the nightmare of the early Middle Ages and the corruption of the later. Religious ideas prevailed, like political ideas, when the sword of the soldier enforced or protected them.
Luther, branded a heretic by the emperor at the instigation of the Papal Legate, was in hiding in the Wartburg fortress. His great hymn, “Our God Is a Strong Fort,” is not without irony. The Wartburg and the soldiers of the Elector had to represent God to him for the time being. But — here the zealous Protestant might discern the hand of God — the greed and ambition of the young emperor drove him to military fields abroad for several years, and the governing council which he left in Germany proved feeble and futile. The new ideas spread rapidly, and several men of power were won to them. The city of Wittenberg officially embraced some of the new ideas, modifying the mass, abolishing fasts, and pooling Church property; and Luther was encouraged to return.
The new Pope, Hadrian VI, wanted reform, as I said, but could not achieve it. Through his Legate at the Diet of Nuremberg in 1523 he admitted the corruption of the Church, yet he demanded the enforcement of the edict against Luther. The Diet refused to persecute, demanded a General Council, and enjoined on Luther merely to refrain from further controversy until the Council was held. One might is well tell a fire to burn no further. The Reformation swept on. To the Diet of Spires in 1524 the Pope sent his ablest Legate, Campeggio, and promised reform. Now the Diet promised to enforce the coercive decree, but it was too late to do so, and the opposing forces secretly organized. The Pope’s representative formed a Catholic League of the Duke of Austria, the two Dukes of Bavaria, and a few others — incidentally assigning to each, on the Pope’s instructions, a large bribe out of Church funds — and the Elector of Saxony, the Margrave of Hesse, and others formed a league to protect the reformers. The Swiss cities were now adopting the ideas of Zwingli, and an attempt was made to unite the German and Swiss reformers, but Luther and Zwingli, who met in 1529, could not agree. The Swiss cities combined separately to protect their reformed religion.
In the same year, 1529, the Diet of Spires received orders from the emperor, who was still abroad, to enforce the Worms decree against the innovators. Here it was that the Lutheran minority of the Diet made the famous “Protest” which made them henceforth the Protesters or Protestants.
In 1530 the Emperor Charles returned, and the moment of crisis seemed to have arrived. He summoned a Diet at Augsburg, inviting the Protestants to formulate their views, and they did so in the Augsburg Confessions. To this document, rejecting auricular confession, the mass, clerical celibacy, and monastic vows, the majority replied by a decree that if the Protestants did not voluntarily submit by a certain date the truth would be enforced upon them in the traditional way of those pious times. But the Confession had the signatures of the Elector of Saxony (the Constantine of Protestantism), Philip of Hesse, the Margrave of Brandenburg, the Dukes of Luneburg, and the representatives of various cities, and, when they left the Diet and formed the Schmalkaldic League, the odor of gunpowder restrained the zeal of the orthodox. The period of grace was extended. The emperor was busy with his personal ambitions, the Turks were threatening Christendom, and the Catholic princes were not too eager to see the emperor triumph. It is not for a very profane historian like myself to say if God arranged these things.
Meantime, as I said, Lutheranism conquered Denmark and Scandinavia, and the strange spectacle was seen in Paris, in 1528, of his Most Catholic Majesty inviting the reformers to set forth their ideas in his palace, through the mouth of a zealous young man named Cauvin, or Calvin, of whom the world would hear much. The king’s sister favored the new ideas. The Sorbonne was deeply infected with them. But Calvin had to fly to Geneva, where he persuaded the Swiss to exchange the less irrational views of Zwingli for his own dreary and ferocious predestinationism; which soon showed its human value in the horrible outrage of the burning of the brilliant young Spaniard, Servetus, because his views of religion were two centuries more enlightened than those of John Calvin.
Meantime, also, Henry VIII of England had been inspired by his “lust” and by the Papal control of his appetites to reflect in his turn on the bases of the Pope’s power. The superficial Catholic view which represents the Reformation in England as merely an expression of the perversity of Henry VIII ought to be resented by Catholic readers as an insult to their intelligence. Long before Henry’s time more than one-tenth of England had embraced the even more radical Protestantism of Wyclif, and the grounds of that heresy remained: the actual teaching of Christ in the Gospels on the one hand, and the elaborate mythology and corrupt practices of the Church on the other. All Europe was ready for a reform, and was prevented from embracing it only by the use of force. Long before the question of Henry’s divorce arose, the learned Dean of St. Paul’s Colet, was preaching a kind of Protestantism and had many supporters.
But, however we may smile at the character of the man who in 1533 displaced the Pope (“the petticoat cardinal”) as the head of the Church of England, we can quite easily see how he could reach his conclusion in sincerity. The English kings had long refused to recognize Papal supremacy in the form in which the Popes demanded a recognition of it, and royal advisers like Crammer, who became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1532, had studied the Lutheran ideas at Cambridge and in Germany. To look for ambitions and lusts at the roots of the English Reformation is to the modern mind amusing. The contrast of Christ’s teaching and the teaching and practice of Rome was so glaring that, no matter what occasioned a man to reflect on it, he could hardly be other than sincere in saying that he perceived it.
It is much easier to understand than a case in recent times of a Protestant English princess discovering, just when the Spanish royal crown was dangled before her eyes, that the mythology of the Spanish Church is much nearer to the teaching of Christ than the comparatively respectable tenets and practices of the Church of England; and every Catholic in the world warmly approved the conversion” and subsequent marriage to the king of Spain of that English princess.
I need not, therefore, follow the details of the English Reformation. To most of us moderns the only difficulty is to understand how it took men so long to realize the rottenness and untruthfulness of the bases of the Papal claim; for little beyond that was rejected in the early days of the Reformation. England remained Catholic, and the Bishop of Rome was told to confine himself to his own ill-regulated diocese. But the discovery of one Papal fraud was bound to lead to the discovery of others, and presently the maggots were ejected from the comfort of the monastic cheese, the mummery of the mass was seen to be a burlesque of Christ’s last supper, the confessional was easily recognized as an invention of medieval priestcraft, and so on.
Protestantism in every country ran its inevitable course. Luther died, and the Council of Trent began its labors, in 1546. The schism was now a formal and powerful heresy, and Pope Paul III egged on the emperor and the Catholic princes to a crusade. Paul secretly promised the emperor one hundred thousand ducats out of the Papal treasury, twelve thousand soldiers in Papal pay, half a year of the revenue of the Spanish Church and five hundred thousand ducats’ worth of monastic property — the confiscation of which in England so profoundly shocked the Pope. Charles was at length brought or driven to the conclusion of a secret treaty with the Pope and the Catholic princes to make “war” on his Protestants. Again he hesitated for a moment when be learned that the Pope, to precipitate matters, had treacherously betrayed this plot to the Protestants themselves and had invited other Catholic monarchs to join the “crusade” and thus diminish the glory of the vain monarch. Charles inflicted some defeats on the Protestants, and then bitterly disappointed and angered the Pope by granting the interim, a temporary peace and compromise between the two parties. The treaty of Augsburg in 1555 then promised mutual toleration and liberty.
But a new “religious” farce, the Jesuits, now appeared, and the Court at Rome was purified of its paganism and the inevitable issue was — war, massacres, burnings, hangings, disembowelings. The civilization of Europe, which had begun to advance again, was once more put back a hundred years. France checked its Protestants by the most horrible outrage that stains its chronicles, the St. Bartholomew Massacre (1572), over which the Pope sang a Te Deum, and by the war against the Huguenots. England stank with the burning flesh of “martyrs” on both sides. In the little Netherlands Catholic Spain’s “butcher’s bill” amounted to more than a hundred thousand men and women. Germany, or the whole central part of Europe, remained a charnel-house for decades. Bohemia, the main battlefield, and until then a most promising civilization, had its thirty thousand prosperous villages reduced to six thousand, its three million enlightened citizens reduced to seven hundred and eighty thousand beggars. The plague, supervening upon the impoverished people, carried off a further hundred thousand.
So the glorious Reformation and the now “reformed” Church of Rome crucified humanity afresh. The same fierce intolerance remained on both sides. The human interests of man were despised on both sides. The new culture, which had initiated and symbolized the awakening of civilization, was dreaded by both sides. Protestantism had the lean fanatic’s hatred of art: Catholicism prostituted it and ruined its inspiration. Eyes bloodshot with hatred glared across streets and frontiers at each other. … You would tell me that God and Christ were looking down on this new and unprecedented massacre and debauchment of men in their name! “The only excuse for God is that he does not exist.”
But humanity had new germs of mental vitality in it which could never again be destroyed. Even in the religious field Ana- baptists and Socinians appeared. Presently Deism would inaugurate the final development. Science found laboratories where Popes and their Inquisitors dare no longer intrude their noses. I am disposed to welcome the Reformation: not indeed the narrow theology, the dreary worship, the ferocious orthodoxy, which some would perpetuate in the world, but the effect on Rome. It proved that the new tyranny of a book had no approach to the tyranny of the Pope. The race began to speculate. A great lesson in rebellion had been taught. The progress of the world consists in learning lessons of rebellion. The Catholic sneers at the “Protestant Revolution.” He gives us the measure of his own fatuity.