Traditionally, 31 October, All Hallows Eve, is known as Reformation Day. The title of my presentation, which was the last in the series, was entitled What the Catholic Church learned from the Reformation. Today, I am posting the part of my presentation that came after my introduction, which served as my jumping off point for the 5 major lessons the Catholic Church learned as a result of the Reformation.
Instead of a written reflection on the readings for tomorrow's solemnity, this post will serve as my reflection for All Saints.
The title of my presentation, “What the Catholic Church Learned from the Reformation,” assumes that the Catholic Church has learned things from the Reformation. Some of the lessons were learned rather quickly and others were learned gradually over time. Was the sixteenth century split the only way for the Church to learn, or, as was the case with many things, be reminded, of certain things? I am inclined to say no, but not without some reservations.
Given the state Church found herself in the first quarter of the sixteenth century, a declining state for roughly the previous 200 years, one could make an argument that the unfortunate split was necessary. Being cautious, I would suggest that in the abstract it was not necessary for a schism to happen for the Church to be reformed. The concrete historical circumstances suggest otherwise. After all, it is what happened.
Given those, like Erasmus of Rotterdam and Thomas More, the latter of whom would die as a Catholic martyr during the English Reformation, to name perhaps the two most prominent voices calling for reform, it seems that in the second decade of the sixteenth century the Church arrived at a moment of reckoning. Pope Julius II, who preceded Leo X, the pope who dealt with (and who greatly exacerbated) the crisis precipitated by Martin Luther, was selected as pope, at least in part, due to an oath he swore to call a reforming Church council.
Julius II’s papacy began in 1503 and ended with his death in 1513. Upholding his oath, in 1511 he called the Fifth Lateran Council, which, according to how the Catholic Church numbers ecumenical councils, was the eighteenth council and last one prior to the Reformation.
Acting in accord with the Council of Constance’s decree Frequens, which sought to establish conciliarism (the idea that a properly convened and carried out council trumps the authority of the pope), a position that the Church has since definitively rejected, the so-called conciliabum of Pisa was called in 1511. Five cardinals participated in this gathering. Each cardinal participated either at the behest of the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I and/or the French king, Louis XII.
The involvement of the Holy Roman emperor in the conciliabum is important because it highlights something that would very much come into the play with the split that resulted from Luther’s activity: the tension between the Holy See and the Holy Roman Empire, which traces back to what we discussed in our opening session, namely the political and economic issues that contributed to the Reformation split. All of the cardinals who participated in the conciliabum of Pisa were excommunicated by Julius II.
With a papal bull, promulgated 18 July 1511, Pope Julius II, convoked Lateran V. The council opened in the Spring of 1512. Julius II died in 1513. Giovanni di Lorenzo de’Medici, a member of the powerful de’Medici family of Florence, who took the name Leo X, succeeded Julius, the so-called “Warrior Pope.”. It was during the papacy of Leo X that Lateran V concluded in 1517. Seven months after the council ended, Luther posted his 95 Theses. Suffice it to say, the reforms called for by Lateran V, which Pope Leo did not set about vigorously enacting, were quite modest, falling short of the reform needed.
Much more could and perhaps should be said about the two hundred years leading up to 1517. Bishop Denis Madden, an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, recently summed this up quite well:
It was not out of the blue that [Luther's protest] happened. The society, the church, the way things were being done at that time, called for reform, and there were very few courts of appeal where that reform could begin1The Council of Trent, which was held between 1545-1563, was the Catholic Church’s immediate response to the Reformation. While there are certainly some reactionary elements in the council’s documents and decrees, this was much more the reforming council the Catholic Church needed.
In my view, it was not until the Second Vatican Council that Catholic Church thoughtfully and thoroughly responded to the Reformation. This is the reason I insisted on putting Pope Paul VI on the promotional poster for this series along with Luther, Calvin, Henry VIII, and John Wesley.
The era between the two councils, which includes another ecumenical council, is known as the Counter-Reformation. The First Vatican Ecumenical Council (Vatican I), which took place in 1870 and was never to brought to a formal conclusion – though this was never publicly used by Pope John XXIII as a rationale for convening the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) – gave us two dogmas concerning the papacy that have greatly complicated ecumenism with both Protestants and the Orthodox: the immediate and universal jurisdiction of the pope over the whole Church and the better-known dogma of papal infallibility.
As Catholic theologian John Borelli noted: "In many ways, Vatican II was Luther's council."2 The Council, despite a very vocal minority of Catholic who never tire of intra-Christian polemics and are sadly not limited to the Lefevbrist Society of St. Pius X, marked the beginning of the end of the Counter-Reformation. Unitatis redintegratio, the Council's Decree on Ecumenism, begins with these words: "The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council."3
1 Tom Gjelten, "The Reformation 500 Years Later," National Public Radio, October 27, 2017, accessed 31 October 2020.↩
3 Second Vatican Council, Unitatis redintegratio [Decree on Ecumenism], sec. 1. Vatican website, November 21, 1964, accessed 31 October 2020.↩