Great Moments in Chestertonian Ecumenism

Great Moments in Chestertonian Ecumenism October 31, 2013

On Reformation Day, it is customary, in Protestant America, for Catholics to pause and beat their breast about how the Church had it coming and the Reformation bore so much wonderful fruit. (Usually, the latter claim is used to justify the former). Now it’s true that the Reformation bore good fruit. So, for that matter, did the betrayal of Judas Iscariot, since God is in the habit of bringing good out of evil. Still and all, it might be good now and then for Protestantism to consider the possibility that the evils wrought by the Reformation were, in themselves, almost unalloyed evils for which we are still paying today as the centrifugal forces unleashed by the catastrophe of the Reformation continue to eat like a cancer at the gospel. So without further ado, let me cede the floor to the Prophet Chesterton, who offers a Minority View on the sheer wonderfulness of the Reformation as it is commonly bruited in the agitprop of English-speaking culture:

I am firmly convinced that the Reformation of the sixteenth century was as near as any mortal thing can come to unmixed evil. Even the parts of it that might appear plausible and enlightened from a purely secular standpoint have turned out rotten and reactionary, also from a purely secular standpoint. By substituting the Bible for the sacrament, it created a pedantic caste of those who could read, superstitiously identified with those who could think. By destroying the monks, it took social work from the poor philanthropists who chose to deny themselves, and gave it to the rich philanthropists who chose to assert themselves. By preaching individualism while preserving inequality, it produced modern capitalism. It destroyed the only league of nations that ever had a chance. It produced the worst wars of nations that ever existed. It produced the most efficient form of Protestantism, which is Prussia. And it is producing the worst part of paganism, which is slavery. –G.K. Chesterton

Just a little curmudgeonliness on this ill-starred day when everything Chesterton said above is even truer of our now post-Protestant civilization. Yes, I get that Protestants today are not in the situation of the Reformers and not guilty of their crimes, rebellion against Christ, lies, and manifold evils. I get that Protestants today are typically noble, good, and holy people. But it is worth noting that those crimes, lies, and manifold evils of the Reformers did happen and still poison the world. We can be grateful that God brought good out of the betrayal of Judas without pretending that Judas acted like a saint.

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  • Sam Rodgers

    Mark, this is a great find. Do you know where in Chesterton’s corpus this can be found?

    • chezami

      Dunno. Reader Sean Dailey found it. I’d ask the people at

      • Sean P. Dailey

        Dale Ahlquist used it in his talk at the annual Chesterton conference in August. I will ask him.

  • You should print that out and nail it to your nearest Protestant churchdoor.

  • Dave G.

    “I get that Protestants today are not in the situation of the Reformers and not guilty of their crimes, rebellion against Christ, lies, and manifold evils. I get that Protestants today are typically noble, good, and holy people. But it is worth noting that those crimes, lies, and manifold evils of the Reformers did happen and still poison the world.”

    This sounds almost exactly like what I read about Catholicism in certain hardcore fundamentalist sources (or Christianity in general in my non-Christian days). From a different POV of course. Sure is hell and gone from CAEI, c. 2005 when I first started visiting. But change, as they say, is the only constant.

    BTW, exactly what Catholics beat their breasts about Protestantism’s wonderful fruits? I’ve been Catholic for 8 years, and I’ve not heard one, even among those unfortunate enough to be in America, who have said that. I must be reading the wrong things and listening to the wrong Catholics.

    • Alexander S Anderson

      I heard it all the time growing up. I always heard the old saw that “the Reformation was necessary”. I don’t hear it as much, now.

      • Dave G.

        That’s different than saying they celebrated the wonderful fruits of Protestantism. Yes, there are Catholic who believe there were times that some leaders in the Church and sometimes the Church as a whole were falling short of its purpose. And that the Reformation was the result, albeit an unfortunate one. But I’ve not heard a Catholic say that it stands to reason therefore that the fruits of Protestantism were a wonderful thing. Quite the opposite. Virtually all I’ve ever read or listen to who said that, followed with lamenting what happened as a result of the Reformation.

        • Alexander S Anderson

          You’ve been lucky, then. I’ve heard people who may regret the final result (separated brethren, mostly) while saying that the Reformation was overall a good thing and that the Reformers had good ideas and etc. Some would then say that the Catholic Church has learned her lesson from the episode, while others claimed that we needed to go further in implementing the ideas of these anti-Catholic Reformers.

          • Dave G.

            Well yeah. There are those who think the Church was in dire straights. Likewise, there are others who insist that for 2000 years, the Catholic Church has been spot on awesome, that Catholics have always been awesome, except for a few unfortunate misunderstandings and a couple supposed “Catholics” who injured some bathers. They hold that the Reformation was what Mark describes above. Most I know are between. The Church was at one of its lower ebbs, and those seeking Reform (of which Luther was merely one of many) recognized the need to get things back in order. Just as had happened before. The results were unfortunate, but that doesn’t mean Catholics couldn’t learn from Protestants That was actually a major theme of Mark’s blog and writings c. 2005 – affirm what can be affirmed, and know that while Protestantism is by no means spot on, and in fact is wrong about many crucial things, there are things about Protestants that Catholics would do well to learn from. Yes, there are those Catholics who treat Protestants the way some Protestants treat Catholics. My experience with Catholics was, at least until recent years, a willingness to take the higher ground.

    • Dan

      I’ve never heard that either. Most Catholics I know totally ignore Protestants and don’t even care what the Protestants believe. And I spent nine years in elementary/secondary Catholic schools and we never discussed Protestants beliefs at all. That might be more of a product of my liberal Catholic upbringing, however, which was more concerned with social justice* and charity than theology.

      *Of course, the liberal Catholic emphasis on charity (and it isn’t like we weren’t taught anything: we learned the Beatitudes, the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy, the three virtues, etc) does refute Luther’s argument of justification by faith alone.

  • Sean P. Dailey

    Thanks for posting this, Mark! I’ll ask Dale what the source of the quote is.

    NB: It is important to note that when Chesterton wrote that, he was still a Protestant.

    • Sean P. Dailey

      The quote is from an essay that was published on June 20, 1919, in New Witness.
      In other words, about three years before Chesterton became a Catholic.

  • Marthe Lépine

    While we are talking about the “fruits” of Protestantism, may I ask a question? I grew up in the French-Canadian culture and did not have much opportunity to learn much about Protestantism. My question relates to something that I have seen often in writing, but I cannot really understand what it means. In various places, such a some books and blogs, I have seen mention of the Calvinist influence when it comes to discussing the poor, and why the poor are poor. I went as far as purchasing a Bible comment actually written by John Calvin about the epistle of St-Paul that says if someone is not willing to work, they should not eat. But I still cannot see, even from that reading, what it is about Calvinism that is supposed to have had such an influence. Would someone care to enlighten me, or direct me to a good book or link, please?

    • Paul

      Gorski, “The Disciplinary Revolution”, may cover what you’re looking for.

    • Dave G.

      I would say study Calvin. The early Reformation. Then start with Calvin’s writings, particularly his Institutes of the Christian Religion (not the whole thing, but at least certain parts). You can then trace the development of Reformed theology, Calvinism, and get involved in the debate about whether Calvin was or wasn’t a Calvinist. You can then look at its impact on the development of Protestant theology, its influence on the Great Awakening, and the impact it had on early American Christianity. Make sure you consult sources both critical of Calvin and supportive. The best way to learn. I would avoid looking at one book here or there for the whole story.

  • Mark R

    I hate to be the turd in the punch bowl, but looking at the lives of Catholics through history in countries largely untouched by the Reformation, I am not encouraged by GKC’s rhetoric. Let’s have a little perspective, amici, and takes things with a grain of salt. Human nature is fallen, unfortunately this includes monks as well as Protestant merchants.

    • Dave G.

      True. Some Catholics seem to lay the sins of the world at the feet of Protestants. It isn’t as if Catholics aren’t quite capable of the same. I once heard a fellow make an interesting claim. The Reformation was, essentially, a Catholic phenomenon. The first Reformers were Catholic. The environment out of which the Reformation occurred was 100% Catholic. Everything that made the elements ready for Reformation was within a Catholic context. The Reformation was, in many ways, a Catholic failure. Sometimes Catholics almost act as if the old Trail of Blood is true, that there was this ancient, secret group of ‘Real Christians’ outside the Catholic fold that suddenly came out of the closet in the 16th century. Nope. Catholic civilization had produced a state in which all the parts necessary for the Reformation to happen within were in place.

      • Sean

        From the viewpoint of an Eastern (Catholic) Christian, that account makes sense. Not that the East hasn’t had its own spectacular problems, but the Reformation was thoroughly Western Catholic development.

        • Elmwood

          Yep, the orthodox churches never suffered a reformation. Many Eastern Orthodox lump protestants in with Catholics pretty much, seeing them both heretical.

          It’s a great question why didn’t the reformation also take root with the Eastern Orthodox churches. My guess is that Orthodoxy is more “organic” in a sense. There isn’t this feeling of a great divide in the liturgy between the priests and the laity–vernacular-like languages are often used in the liturgy. And that theology is woven into the liturgy and is where the faithful and priests learn their faith.

          Plus, the Eastern Orthodox do a much better job catechizing through the scriptures, they may have never felt that the bible was foreign to them, as it is integral to worship in the east. Maybe in the end, scholasticism or legalism is to blame.

          • Bede the Venerable

            Reformers (e.g. Philip Melanchthon, for one) were making overtures to Orthodoxy. Also, look into the story of Cyril Lucaris, Ecumenical Partiarch of Constantinople. He tried to reform Orthodoxy along Protestant, and even Calvinistic, lines in the early 1600s. We need to remember the Reformation occurred after the fall of the Byzantine Empire, so Orthodoxy was largely under Muslim oppression, not in its glory as in Byzantium. Cryil Lukaris was strangled by Jannisaries and his body dumped into the Bosporus. It’s hard to say what might have happened in Orthodoxy if they didn’t have to deal with the Muslim menace so intensely and at all levels from the hierarchy of the church down to the lowest parishoner. Speculations about predestination in such situations were seen as of much less importance then they assumed in the post-medieval west.
            The Reformation itself was much more of a political movement then protestant churches want to acknowledge. The catalyst that really got it going was the local feudal lords taking up the cause to for very political reasons. They wanted to harnass the movement to enhance their own power, thus the centuries of religious wars that ensued.

            • Elmwood

              I believe there was a Patriarch of Constantinople who was a condemned Calvinist heretic and that bishops of these churches went to protestant seminaries during their formation in Europe, probably because of the Islamic oppression and resentment of Rome. But between the iconography, liturgy and spirituality of the East, I don’t think there was fertile ground for Protestantism to take root, unlike in the west.

          • Dave G.

            I once read a piece that suggested that the Reformation spirit of ‘them heretics/us real church’ was rooted in the post Orthodox/Catholic split. When that happened, or more accurately once that happened, the Latin Church around Rome concluded it was *the* Church, the True Church, and all others were, well, heretics, or at least of lesser stature. Hence the Crusaders and their tendency to slaughter Middle Eastern Christians or even Orthodox Christians along with Muslims. To their mindset, there was only one Church now. The old Universal Church based around the Confession was no longer, it was the One Church based around Rome. By the time the Protestants came around (Catholics as they were), that idea that ‘there’s wrong Christians, and then there’s True Christians (Us)’ was already ingrained.

      • MainlineP

        Thank you for stating these obvious facts. War between and among fully RC countries was a fixture of the pre-Reformation church. Then there were the Crusades against Islam, and often indirectly against Jews and Eastern Orthodox, and the campaigns against various “heretical” sects. Blood flowed like water in some places. Chesterton acts like so many converts. He is so filled with zealotry for his new faith that objectivity has flown the coop.
        Mr. Shea, I’ll accept your backhanded compliment as a modern mainline Prot. But please, examine more closely the history of the Reformation, and not from a Catholic historian with an axe to grind. Prof. MacCullough (sp.?) has a magisterial work you might try.

      • You’re friend is right. It was a Catholic failure. But the protestant reformers took it way too far. They didn’t just reform the church in its governence, they “reformed” theology in their self image outside of authority.

  • Rebecca Fuentes

    Mostly, I feel like I need a translation dictionary when speaking with my Protestant friends (usually the Fundamentalists, but not always–The Seventh Day Adventists too). It’s like basic words used to talk about God and Jesus have totally different meanings. Words like faith and religion and sin and new covenant don’t seem to mean the same things to them as they do to me.
    Sorry it’s off topic, but It’s been very frustrating, especially with the recent, “Halloween is evil devil worship, let’s celebrate the fracturing of the one true church instead.” (Okay, they don’t say it that way.)

  • Fred

    Your League of Nations point struck me. Before the reformation was there much conflict between nations in the Catholic controlled parts of the world (excluding the Orthodox Church countries)?

    • Dave G.

      Before the Reformation, nations as we see them were only just developing. But there were periods of brutal warfare nonetheless. The Hundred Years War, the myriad wars of conquest between rival principalities, wars of invasion. Chesterton, being a child of his age and time of course, was probably unaware of what we’re now learning about the history of Asia from Asian countries’ points of view. Or the conflicts in other parts of the world untouched by grasping Protestant fingers. His is a very Eurocentric/Catholic-centric appraisal. But it is a view held by not a few Catholics.

  • It was a tragedy and he’s right about replacing the sacrements with the bible as deleterious, and many other theological issues, but i have no idea what he’s referring to in bringing about the worst kind of wars. As if the Catholic world didn’t have horrible wars before the reformation? Need i remind him of the 100 years war between Catholic England and Catholic France culminating in the burning at the stake of St. Joan of Arc? By the religious clergy no less. There was a Holy Roman Empire and it didn’t get constituted by peace loving Christians. In fact Dante sided with the Holy Roman Emperor over the Pope in civil authority and governence. The tragedy of the reformation wasn’t that it spawned heretics like Luther and Calvin, but that millions of people didn’t love the Church enough and followed the heretics. For that the Church is most definitely at fault. Through the selling of indulgences and selling of Church offices and integration with aristocracy, it undermined personal connection with common people. Both Dante and Chaucer have lots of examples of corrupt Church officials. And they are both very Catholic. That is the tragedy of the reformation. As to individualism, capitalism, and nation states, those were concurrent movements not rooted from Protestantism. All three were taking place in the Italian states. That’s what the Renaissance was all about.