Looking Back to Think Forward


Published on August 4, 2021

First Things

History is a great teacher. And lately I’ve been absorbed by three late 15th- and early 16th-century Catholic reformers: Girolamo Savonarola, John Colet, and Egidio da Viterbo. Each was a priest. Each saw the unpleasant truths of Christian life in his time—the complacency, the tepidity, the hypocrisy and corruption. Each warned of coming turmoil if the need for reform, among both laity and clergy, were ignored. And each saw his words go unheeded.

Savonarola, a Dominican preacher in the city of Florence, is the best known of the three and the most problematic. To this day his legacy—saint or heretic; huckster, political zealot or holy prophet—is disputed. Savonarola was excommunicated in 1497. He was then hanged and his body burned in 1498.

One awkward detail: Alexander VI, the pope who condemned him, ranks among the worst in history; Savonarola’s preaching regularly targeted his wickedness. The distinguished Fordham scholar, John Olin, described the Dominican friar as “an authentic religious reformer . . . whose consuming aim was the revival of Christian virtue and the renewal of Christian life” in a time of crisis. Savonarola’s 1495 “Renovation Sermon” on the reform of Catholic life (found here) is a classic example of his fiery style. The cause for his sainthood still exists. It has never been closed.

Colet and Egidio likewise called for reform in words that still have power five centuries later. Colet preached the need for conversion to English Church leaders in 1512. Barely two months later, Egidio delivered a similar plea to the Fifth Lateran Council. He warned that “unless by this council . . . we force our greedy desire for human things, the source of evils, to yield to the love of divine things, it is all over with Christendom, [and] all over with religion . . . because of our neglect.”

The council made a bumbling attempt at reform with a document in 1514. It was too little, too late. Martin Luther posted his 95 theses just three years later.

What happened next was predictable. As Yale historian Carlos Eire wrote:

The fragmentation of Christendom was the most immediate and long- lasting effect of the Reformations. This splintering, and the plurality of churches and worldviews created by it, changed Western civilization radically, creating spaces large and small into which all of the other preexisting secularizing forces could flow. Eventually, these other forces increased in strength and volume . . . and they overflowed from these spaces . . . turning what had once been the continent of Christendom into a mere archipelago of islands enveloped by a vast and ever-rising tide of secularism and unbelief.

As others have noted, the gulf separating the 1500s from today is huge, and history never really repeats itself. But human nature, and the patterns of thought and behavior that mark it, do repeat themselves, all the time. Thus, looking back on crises of the past can help us think forward about challenges of the present and future.

In the Catholic Church, as Colet stressed, no enduring reform can happen without a purified commitment to the gospel on the part of the clergy. Priests bear the privilege and the burden of pastoral authority. Most laypeople love their priests, and rightly so. I saw this again and again during 27 years of diocesan service. They’ll follow holy priests almost anywhere, no matter the cost.

But nothing alienates faithful laypeople more reliably than clergy who violate the dignity of the vocation to which they’re called. It licenses our own ugly lay weaknesses and sins—any alibi for our failures is always welcome—and it confirms the skeptical in their cynicism. To borrow from the wisdom of St. John Vianney: bad priests, worse people. This is why reports of priestly misconduct, sexual or otherwise, can be particularly damaging.

Before we complain about priestly sins, though, we Catholics in the pew might take a look in the mirror. Baptism implicates all of us in the health of Catholic life. We live in an age that celebrates the vocation of the laity and the universal call to holiness. Benedict XVI stressed that laypeople are not simply “cooperators” or followers in the mission of the gospel, but fully co-responsible for the life of the Church.

In other words, we are the times. We make the times. And if the times seem troubled, the burden for fixing them—and the blame for helping to create them—also falls on us.

We live in an increasingly “post-Christian,” hostile surveillance culture that we ourselves helped build through our appetites and distractions. We strengthen it every time we agree to the “privacy” stipulation of a web application. If rabbis, ministers, and priests can be sexually outed or diplomats blackmailed by tracking the data of their illicit behavior, exactly the same can be done to anyone reading these words. In today’s world, nothing is reliably secret, and purity is not just a virtuous thing. It’s the smart thing.

Today’s efforts to train better Church leaders, to manage Church resources more effectively, and to plan for future Church needs in an unfriendly world are vitally important. But as the Benedictine scholar Jean Leclercq once said, “there [can] be no reform of the Church without reform of the Christian.” What the past teaches us most forcefully—from the Gregorian reform of the 11th century, to the Dominican and Franciscan revivals of the 12th and 13th centuries, to the anguish of the various 16th- century Reformations—is that reform of the institution depends on reform of the individual.

The Church, as a structure of offices and ministries, never reforms herself. She’s reformed by men and women who themselves are “re-formed” by their love for Jesus Christ; remade in the fabric of their souls through personal repentance, personal conversion, and a passionate recommitment to the gospel. In every age, it’s the converted mind and heart that God uses to make all things new, whatever the obstacles.

As strategic plans go, “conversion” might sound naively pious and hopelessly simple. And perhaps it is. But it’s also painfully hard, which is why so few of us choose to do it. In the end, though, the lesson of history is just this: What the Church finally needs now, and tomorrow, and always . . . is saints.

Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and senior research associate in Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame.


Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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