Originally posted on July 15, 2010, almost one year before The Church and New Media burst onto the scene.
Another week, another pithy review of European History. I have to think that when Belloc wrote this book in 1936, he was at the height of his literary abilities.
Once again there is a lot of events covered in this chapter, and once again “Old Thunder” manages to make it both educational and entertaining. And short too —now that takes skill!
This week, we read “What Was The Reformation?” Did you expect Belloc to minimize the causes that led to the break-up of the Catholic Church? Well he doesn’t do that, but tells it like it was. The Church needed reforming, and he does a great job explaining why. But he also explains what now seems to be a prophetic description of what is occurring within Protestant denominations today.
Before I get carried away, let me drop a few quotes from this chapter that I felt were important and then I’ll turn it over to book clubber and blogger Brandon Vogt to lead the discussion.
First a generalization which I think is on the mark. I was one of these guys once.
They know much less about us than we know about them. That is natural,
because we proceed from older origins, because we are universal while they are regional and because we hold a definite intellectual philosophy whereas they possess rather an emotional and indefinite, though characteristic, spirit.
In the category of “who is in charge here”, it turns out to be “every man for himself.”
while within the Protestant culture, where there was less definite doctrine to challenge, there was less internal division but an increasing general feeling that religious differences must be accepted a feeling which, in a larger and larger number of individuals, grew into the, at first, secret but later avowed attitude of mind that nothing in religion could be certain, and therefore that toleration of all such opinions was reasonable.
One of the reasons I became a Catholic after looking deeply into the scriptures, and early history?
The Papacy ought of its nature to be Universal. That it should be National
was shocking to the western European of that time (before the reformation).
But after the rise of the Nation-State? The new god of patriotism holds a lot of people captive. And my last quote is Belloc’s three stages of change. This could be from Political Change 101:
The first character is this: Change of every kind and every degree is proposed simultaneously, from reforms which are manifestly just and necessary, being reversions to the right order of things, to innovation which are criminal and mad.
The second character is that the thing to be reformed necessarily resists. It has accumulated a vast accretion of custom, vested interests,official organization, etc., each of which, even without direct volition, puts a drag on reform.
Thirdly (and this is much the most important character) there appear among the revolutionaries an increasing number who are not so much concerned to set right the evils which have grown up in the thing to be reformed, as filled with passionate hatred of the thing itself- its essential, its good, that by which it has a right to
Setting the stage for the next chapter on that one. Now that is enough from me. I now yield the floor to Brandon Vogt,
The Great Heresies: What is Protestantism?
Protestantism was a different beast than the earlier heresies discussed. Though each of the others offered a distinct, doctrinal dispute that could be debated, Protestantism was “not a particular movement, but a general one”. It was a heresy that attacked on many nebulous fronts. Also, Belloc notes that while each of the earlier heresies sought to supplant the existing Catholic Church, Protestantism, especially Calvinism, wanted to destroy the institutional Church in its entirety; eventually, the Reformers didn’t want a “cleaned-up Church”, but its complete demise.Beginning with Luther’s revolt in 1517, Belloc offers a whirlwind of history and politics, describing the two distinct periods of the Reformation. The first, during the mid-late 16th century, was “a time of universal debate and struggle”. The second, during the next couple centuries, “became as much political as it was religious”, and more and more divisive.
Belloc then explores the extraneous sparks contributing to the Reformation’s birth, including the Black Death, the growth of vernacular literatures, and a “vivid intellectual awakening”. However, he quickly digs into the main causes. Belloc states that at the movement’s beginning, “no one worth consideration would have contested the need for reform.”Everyone, dissident or faithful, saw that something needed to change. Bad traditions (false legends, fake relics, etc.), local customs taking precedence over universal doctrine, and the worldliness of clerics were clear troubles within the Church. (I did find it interesting that the main point of contention in Protestant lore, the selling of indulgences, was mentioned only in passing by Belloc.)
Some apologists today try to minimize the corruption of the 16th-century Catholic Church, but Belloc clearly notes that everyone would agree that serious problems existed. How the problems were to be solved, however, remained a point of disagreement. The Catholics wanted reform, the Protestants wanted revolution.
Belloc describes the three “the concomitants of all revolutions” that arose in
this particular revolt: proposed change of every kind and every degree, resistance from the thing being reformed, and hatred for the thing being reformed. All three of these attitudes were surely at play.
After briefly mentioning Martin Luther, Belloc turns his focus to the central cog in the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin. Describing Calvin as a “true heresiarch”, because of his intention to set up a true counter-Church, Belloc weaves financial storylines through the grander Reformation tale. The majority of young Calvin’s income was confiscated by a local bishop after it was discovered that Calvin’s father was embezzling money from the Church.
For Calvin, this likely fostered hatred—or at least serious discontent —for the Church. Along those same lines, a significant reason for the quick growth of the Protestant movement was Calvin’s dispersion of Church loot to the rich, giving them vested interest in the Church’s permanent downfall. With the aristocracy on his side, Calvin’s cause was significantly amplified. As in many revolutions, money and power played major roles.
As Belloc wraps up the Reformation tale, he sees its anti-climactic conclusion as a ‘win’ for Protestantism. As interest in the movement waned, people began taking religion less seriously on the whole. Agnostics and skeptics scandalized Catholic countrymen, while skepticism, doubt, and doctrinal relativism were accepted in the Protestant world, much as they still are today.
Ultimately, Belloc saw the Protestant Reformation as “auto-toxic”—it was created as a self-poison. The Protestant doctrine of solo scriptura—one of the Reformation’s main rallying cries—ultimately ruined Protestantism by dismissing any objective, doctrinal authority. Different biblical interpretations led to unmitigated schisms among Protestant churches.
Today Protestantism is still evident, maybe more so than any of the other heresies so far discussed. Though Belloc may have overstated Protestantism’s demise—as it still flourishes in much of the world—he nonetheless points out its Achilles heel, seeing its fall as eventual.
Thanks Brandon! Next week, we wrap it up with the last chapter “The Modern Phase.”