Despite the formulation you’ll hear before and after the October 31 quincentenary of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, there was no single “Reformation” to which the Catholic “Counter-Reformation” was the similarly univocal response. Rather, as Yale historian Carlos Eire shows in his eminently readable and magisterial work, Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450–1650, there were multiple, contending reformations in play in the first centuries of modernity.
There was the reformation of European intellectual life led by humanists steeped in the Greek and Roman classics: men like the Dutchman Erasmus (whose scholarship deeply influenced those who would become known as “Protestants” but who never broke with Rome) and Thomas More (who urged Erasmus to deepen his knowledge of Greek, the Church fathers, and the New Testament in its original language). There were at least four major flavors of “Protestant” reformation—Lutheran, Zwinglian, Radical, and Calvinist—and plenty of subdivisions within those categories. There were impressive pre-Luther Catholic reformers like the archbishop of Toledo, Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros. There were Catholic reformers who left a mixed legacy: The French educator Guillaume Budé, for example, influenced both the Protestant reformer John Calvin and the Catholic reformer Ignatius Loyola. There was the failed Catholic reform mandated by the Fifth Lateran Council but never implemented by Pope Leo X (the first and last pontiff to keep an albino elephant as a pet). And there were the Catholic reformers, of various theological and pastoral dispositions, who shaped the teaching of the Council of Trent and then vigorously implemented its reforms.
There were, in short, multiple Reformations. Their sometimes-violent interaction created much of what became the modern world, for good and for ill.
The bad bits are the concern of Notre Dame’s Brad Gregory in The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, a book aptly described by one reviewer as “brilliant, extraordinarily learned, eccentric, opinionated, variously wrong-headed, and utterly wonderful.” On Gregory’s argument, among the things “The Reformation”—in this case, the various Protestant Reformations—bequeathed the modern world were hyper-individualism, suspicion of all authority, moral subjectivism and relativism, skepticism about the truth of anything, the banishment of religious thought from western academic life, and the reduction of all true knowledge to what we can know from science. That’s a broad indictment, to be sure. But amidst Gregory’s dense prose and complex presentation, serious readers will get a glimpse of how bad ideas—such as the mistaken notion of God as a willful (if infinite) being-among-other-beings—can play themselves out in history with devastating results.
The five hundredth anniversary of one of the emblematic acts in this cultural tsunami of Reformations should lead to a deepening of ecumenical dialogue about what these many early modern reformers wrought—and not just for the world, but primarily for the Church. That deepened conversation would do well to focus on what makes for authentic “reform” in the Church. In the Fall issue of Plough, the quarterly of the Bruderhof Community, I propose that all authentic reform in the Church must begin from a recovery of some part of the Church’s essential “form” or constitution (in the British sense), which was given to the Church by Christ. True ecclesial reform is thus always re-form. It is not something we make up by our own cleverness. It does not mean surrender to the spirit of the age. It does not involve substituting our judgment for God’s revelation. True Christian reform always involves bringing into the present something the Church has laid aside or misplaced, and making that Christ-given something into an instrument of renewal.
And how, on this quincentenary of the Ninety-Five Theses, should we measure the authenticity of renewal? The evangelical criterion seems decisive here.
If the reform and renewal in question really does restore to the Church something of its Christ-given “form,” then the results will be evident evangelically—in an increased harvest of souls who have come to know the Lord Jesus, who walk in his Way, and who share the gift they have been given with others, thereby healing a broken and often death-dealing culture.
By the same criterion, empty churches, flaccid evangelization, and surrender to the prevailing cultural mores signal false reform and failed renewal, which can be dressed up in either romantic-nostalgic or progressive livery.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.