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The 16th Century Reformation in Western Europe

  • Category(s): Religion Essays
  • Created on : 25 July 2013
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  • Author: Richard Michael Lamb


The driving forces of the reformation and the Counter Reformation.

1. Beginnings

Europe of the west had been Roman Catholic since the Roman Emperor Constantine through Charlemagne, Holy Roman Emperor, the Crusades, the Schoolmen and the Saxons (medieval) to the modern era of Martin Luther the German disputatious monk. This was 1000 years plus of unified Catholicism under the See of St Peter the Vicars of Christ in Rome itself – of which episcopacy the Popes were Bishops and primus inter pares (first among equals).

2. The Course of the Reformation Since 16th Century in Germany

The “arsonist” was Martin Luther and his direct challenge to the Papal authority. Why was he not ignored as a fanatic, maverick and crank? I don’t know! He did gain credibility and the Lutheran German Church is named after him (Respectable Church in the modern ages). Clearly Luther was voicing a German concern with the Papal Writ and its power in a politically disunited Germany. His followers associated with Luther’s challenge to Rome – they wanted a German Church of the faithful not ruled by the Papacy. They wished to rid themselves of the Roman Catholic hierarchy and create their own ordering of Lutheranism on Biblical fundamentalism and reformulation of the status quo based on individual enlightenment. That is the root of all Protestantism. We can safely dismiss the sale of indulgences (time in purgatory reduced by monies paid to the Church) as the reason for Luther’ stand. He believed in autonomy from Rome and the sales of indulgences were a mere pretext for his rebellion and for his position. He was a brave man and brave men do not take the stand for frivolities. Yes the sale of indulgences was an abuse demanding condemnation and satirical denigration like any abuse. Luther was a deep thinking man who had a really serious agenda – the Lutheran German Church has survived two World Wars (Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Martyr in 1945) and the test of time. She has made a powerful contribution to the Christian life and thinking.

3. Outside Germany

France, Italy, Austria and Spain remained Roman Catholic (and Portugal and Ireland). The Pays Basse (Netherlands) split between Catholicism and Protestantism – Germany had a big Lutheran presence in its North and the French had their powerful Protestant enclave in the Hugenots (Calvinists). Switzerland became a haven for much Protestant activity and some key Protestant thinkers eg Calvin and Zwingli. England on account of Henry the Eighth’s matrimonial complexities swung against Rome. The Protestant seed bed was planted (Wycliffe then Cranmer and Ridley) to name some strong Protestant thinkers- the last two named burned at the stake by Mary Tudor’s order for their heresy as she saw it. You cannot face such a fate unless you really believe in your stand. Those two Protestants, Cranmer and Ridley demonstrate the strength of the Anglican beginnings in England. Wycliffe nearly paid with his life as well earlier. We salute the few real religious martyrs for Protestantism in England. They have lit the fire for freedom of conscience which will never be extinguished.

4. The Counter Reformation

This was inspired by the Roman Catholic Council of Trent and the likes of St Ignatius of Loyola (Spanish Priest who began Jesuits) order S J. The Roman Catholic Church’s response was to redouble its emphasis on the Seven Sacraments, the Mass and sacramental grace. These sacraments are the essence of the Roman Catholic Church and her bridal relationship to Christ – The Way. The Truth and the Life – the only True Way (La Voie Sacré). From those sacraments spring all truly good things but they must be received with a sincere and contrite heart or they will fundamentally fail to alter the centre of the communicant. The Teaching of this Council is that Luther lacked contrition and thus his teaching was flawed as the sacramental grace was not truly coursing in his veins. He taught arrogance and disrespect for his superiors in Germany and Rome. It has taken over 400 years to bring his following to book – indeed still not achieved. It is worth the wait and struggle.

5. Anglicanism

The Counter-Reformation struck at the heart of Elizabethan England through the Jesuit Priest Campion et al’s mission to our beloved country. Anglicanism as I have said is sacrificial (Cranmer and Ridley) and there were reformation Protestant martyrs in Germany even vast numbers of 20th Century German Protestant military war time martyrs. The sacrifice is the sacrifice and the counter Reformation proclaimed the Anglican Church in 16th Century England to be the wrong cause. The self-sacrifice of the Anglicans in their ordinary lives in the course of the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries (450 years) is truly memorable and remarkable. Their particular clergymen have been cures in the true sense – let us not forget their stoicism and steadfast adherence to the Church of England at home and abroad. I for my part fight for the Council of Trent. The true meaning of the Counter Reformation is contrition of the heart, personal self sacrifice, humility and charity. That lesson goes out from that Council. The sacrifice is greater than the cause but without the cause we cannot make the sacrifice be we Roman Catholic or Anglican. I cannot resolve it – only God can.

Consider: The Anglican sacrifice is no less than the Roman Catholic one over the ages.

6. Conclusion

The Papacy and the Councils of the Church must teach as Christ Himself does through the Bishop of Rome. The teaching of one Council builds upon another Council. This teaching will be evolved not contradicted by a later Council. The Counter Reformation had to head off and then rebuke the lack of contrition and absence of humility in Anglicanism and Protestantism in the 16th and 17th Centuries in Europe – particularly in Germany and England. Not to have done so would have been capitulation and apostasy. The Roman Catholic Church is the leading and spear head division of the earthly Army of Christ. Four hundred odd years later than the Council of Trent we can make peace with Anglicanism and Lutheranism – now is peace time, the new language of peace is called for. The Council of Trent has won its battle. We are all sons of that great 16th Century Council as developed by the Second Vatican Council through John XXIII and Paul VI. We all yearn for the sacramental life in Christ and we will receive it.