History of the Reformation -
Was it a Sham?
From Ch. 10 of In Search of the Loving God
. . .
by Mark Mason
he basic lack of change in [Reformation] Protestantism is reflected
in the fact that the same bad old fruits kept being produced by
the new churches. The way the Anabaptists were treated is just
one example of this. Another is that the burning of witches went
on just as relentlessly in Protestant areas as it did under the
Catholic Inquisition. Indeed, as we have seen, the competition
between Protestants and Catholics resulting from the Reformation
led to a renewal of intensity of witch burning on both sides,
when it had looked like it might otherwise have died out. The
real reform, a return to Jesus' teachings of toleration, love
and living in "the Kingdom of Heaven," quite simply
just didn't take place in the main-stream Protestant Reformation,
or in the Catholic Counter Reformation. And, arguably, genuine
reform couldn't yet take place, as the conditions in Europe were
still so superstitious and brutal. But at least the break-up of
the church started to bring it under the control of governments.
Eventually, as governments became more democratic and enlightened,
this would cause the church's more barbaric excesses to be curbed.
Within two hundred years the witch burnings ceased, and the time
finally arrived when scientists were able to get on with their
work without living in fear of their lives.
Although the Reformation was politically significant, in starting
the process of bringing the church under secular control, it was
very much a non-event in spiritual terms. Perhaps the biggest
single misapprehension holding the Protestant church back in our
time, is the notion that it has already gone through all the major
reform it needs, in the Reformation, and that all it needs to
do now is get around and "witness" to as many people
as possible, and tell them how wonderful it is. Most of the reform
the church needs, both Catholic and Protestant, is yet to come,
and their witness will be unimpressive until after this real reform
Although the Protestant churches were sponsored by secular rulers,
they continued to exert a lot of control over the government of
society. In the Reformation days it was still considered appropriate
for churches to do this. To John Calvin, the church was supreme,
and should not be restricted in any way by the state. It meant
the Protestant churches were very little different from the Catholic
church in the way they controlled society - they just did it on
a smaller scale, and were more answerable to secular rulers. Church
and state were still closely linked; the Reformation did little
to change that. It was not until the Enlightenment and the spread
of democracy in the last two hundred years that this started to
The American President and founding father, Thomas Jefferson,
was a champion of religious freedom. He was, however, also a champion
of the then revolutionary concept of the separation of church
and state. In 1802, he wrote to the Danbury Association of Baptists
that he would see built and retained "a wall of separation
between church and state." The First Amendment to the American
Constitution (of 1791) had laid down that there should be neutrality
in religion, that there should be free speech and right of assembly,
and that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment
of religion." The Constitution also rejected all religious
tests for office-holders. The United States became the first modern
secular state. Some parts of the church have never accepted the
necessity of the separation of church and state, yet under it
a wide variety of churches have flourished in America. Under
the Separation Law of 1801, a similar separation of church
and state was achieved in France.
This was a critical point of departure for the church. Different
parts of the church have made different responses to the separation
of church and state. Some have accepted it as reasonable and moved
forward into the modern age. Others, the fundamentalists, baulked
at it, and have been fighting it and stagnating ever since. These
religious conservatives often say they do accept the separation
of church and state, but, as we shall see, their beliefs and actions
The papacy responded to its progressive loss of political power
by increasingly emphasizing what it called its "spiritual"
power - its power to control people's lives. It policed its edicts
on how people should conduct their personal lives both directly,
through religious courts such as the Inquisition, and indirectly,
by playing on people's anxieties about their sexuality, and their
fears about what would happen when they died. The church's edicts
on morality to this day so often focus on sexuality and reproduction
because this is the domain of every person's control over themselves,
where people make choices which don't directly affect others.
The church has gained its control over people's sexual and reproductive
lives by the divide-and-conquer tactic of making people feel guilt-stricken
and fearful about such a normal and reasonable thing as enjoying
sex, whether it be through masturbation, or through the use of
contraception to enable people's sex lives to extend beyond reproduction
into the area of recreational sex.
This extension of control and manipulation over the lives of
individual people is what the Counter Reformation was really about.
As with the Protestants, there was a certain amount of genuine
reform. The sale of indulgences, which precipitated the Reformation,
was stopped. The Oratory of Divine Love, a society of progressive
and influential Catholics, and a number of saints, such as Teresa
of Avila and John of the Cross, contributed to some important
spiritual renewal which was lacking in main-stream Protestantism.
In addition to this, though, the Catholic church used the Inquisition
in a big way to enforce its authority over people, and the Jesuits
to spread Catholic ideas through education and missionary effort.
The familiar Jesuit saying, "Give me a child until he is
seven, and he will remain a Catholic the rest of his life,"
reflects their philosophy. The Catholic church also tried more
than ever to control people's thinking, and insist on the absolute
authority of the papacy. The Council of Trent issued the Tridentine
Index of prohibited books, which was kept and updated until
it was finally abolished in 1966. In the sixteenth century it
censored nearly three-quarters of all the books in print. Pope
Pius IX's bull of Ineffabilis Deus (of 1853) established
the doctrine of the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary,
claiming that from the moment of her conception she was entirely
free from original sin. This provided a solid basis for the veneration
of Mary, and at the same time strengthened Pius's own authority.
Ten years later Pius's Syllabus of Errors condemned political
liberalism, rationalism in all its forms, liberal theology, Freemasonry,
religious toleration, and even the Bible Societies. At the first
Vatican Council (of 1870) Pius IX capped off his elevation of
the "authority" of the papacy with his dogma of "papal
infallibility," which taught that the pope is infallible
when speaking ex cathedra on matters of faith and practice.
This was the pope's response to the growing influence of rationalistic
thought, such as that promoted by Darwin's Theory of Evolution.
Many subsequent popes have used this power to lay down the law
to Catholics. Often this has been done in a very arbitrary way,
as when Pope John XXIII's successor, Paul VI, ignored the advice
of his wide-ranging and respected committee, and issued the encyclical
Humanae Vitae prohibiting the use of artificial birth control
by Catholics. The overwhelming consensus in the church was to
allow artificial birth control, but the pope totally ignored what
his church was telling him, and decided against birth control
purely on the basis of his own "infallibility," and
in the tradition of wielding "spiritual" power to gain
control over people, which the church practiced down through the
centuries. This return to hard-line conservatism and arbitrary
authority, after the enthusiasm generated by the reform of the
second Vatican Council (1962-65), in fact greatly undermined the
real authority of the papacy. An increasing number of people had
become liberated, through education, from the hold of this sort
of manipulation, and were coming to see the manipulation itself
as being wrong. Many Catholics felt angry and betrayed by the
pope indulging in such arrogant behavior. It is common knowledge
that most educated Catholics in western countries have blatantly
disregarded this encyclical on birth control; only in third-world
countries has it been widely obeyed, and there it has greatly
contributed to the population explosion, and the consequent misery
this has produced. In 1993, right against the tide of change in
his church, Pope John Paul II reaffirmed the Catholic Church's
insistence that artificial birth control is intrinsically evil,
in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor. Its release was accompanied
by many claims of its irrelevance to most Westerners, but fears
as to its adverse effect in third-world countries like the Philippines,
where Catholicism is taken very seriously, and where there is
massive overpopulation and widespread poverty. At this time, throughout
the world, there were 23,000 new unwanted pregnancies occurring
every day, about eight million each year. For many Catholics,
the actual evil of the human misery caused by the ban on artificial
birth control far outweighed any theoretical "intrinsic evil."
This encyclical was an acknowledged attempt to stem the tide of
liberalism in the church, but the pope may as well have been King
Canute, sitting on his throne on the beach, ordering the tide
not to come in. Its greatest effect, in the West, has been to
cause large parts of the church to dismiss the papacy as being
irrelevant to their church. There is nothing in the world
so powerful as an idea whose time has come, and this is what liberalism
is in Western Catholicism.
The liberal papacy of John XXIII, and the reform of Vatican II,
stand out as bright lights in the darkness of Roman Catholic History.
The second Vatican Council was called to improve the pastoral
work of the church, and ushered in a new era of Catholic thought.
It showed an openness to many theological questions, including
dialogue with Protestant churches and other religions. The Jesuit
Karl Rahner, who typified the post Vatican spirit, believed that
the people of God extend beyond the Catholic church, and even
the other churches, to include all of humanity. The early
sixties was a stirring time to be a Catholic, and the early return
to arbitrary conservatism, after John XXIII died, was bitterly
disappointing to progressive Catholics around the world. Many
sincere and devoted Catholics left the Roman church at this time,
but many also stayed, and kept their progressive ideas, continuing
to work quietly for reform, in spite of the papacy. In the interests
of unity, the papacy has, for a long time, largely tolerated these
rebels, who, to a large extent, act independently of the Vatican.
Only pope John Paul II has seriously attempted to suppress them,
and in vain.
In South America, Liberation Theologians adapt Catholicism to
cater to the urgent needs of oppressed people, and go as far as
using Marxist analysis to help determine the way the church should
care for society. They have achieved impressive results in improving
the lot of the poor. In North America the former Dominican Matthew
Fox is one of the main advocates of a widespread Catholic Feminist
theology. To make up for past wrongs, he advocates changing the
Bible to make its language gender inclusive, and proposes the
adoption by the church of the essentially pantheist perspective
of "Creation Theology," incorporating a renewed worship
of ancient earth goddesses. He believes we are all heirs to God's
"original blessing" rather than to original sin.
He has also been a major force in bringing to light the evils
of the witch craze, which, in the Catholic Church, via the Inquisition,
was perpetrated by his own Dominican order. The Catholic priest
Bede Griffiths ran an Hindu-style ashram in India, and preached
around the world on the similarities between Hinduism and Christianity,
and of the urgent need for them to cooperate to revitalize each
other. This progressive side of Catholicism is in stark contrast
to the official church, which continues to be conservative and
authoritarian. Issues such as birth control, celibacy of priests,
the sexual abuse of children in the church's care, and ordination
of women, are racking the Catholic church. While the Vatican continues
to fail to properly address these issues, and others raised by
liberals, Roman Catholicism will keep on stagnating. Yet at least
there are the seeds of renewal within Catholicism, in its saints
and in its liberals. If it can let go of the dead wood of its
past, acknowledge its corruption, and see that much of its tradition
just isn't worth keeping, then the Catholic liberals and the main-stream
may well be able to work together. The Roman Catholic church might
then be able to go permanently into "Vatican II mode,"
and create a church which really would be able to meet the spiritual
needs of the sophisticated, concerned, and discriminating people
of the twenty-first century. If such an accommodation is not achieved,
though, the Catholic Church will effectively split. The papacy
will become like a diseased branch, cut off from the nourishment
of the vine, gradually withering away, while liberalism will blossom,
as its roots become more and more firmly established in the community.
The dead hand of the past, and the seeds of renewal, are also
present in the Protestant church. Within Protestantism they manifest
differently, though. The Protestant hankering to return to a past
era, when the church controlled society, manifests as fundamentalism.
A prime example of this is the Moral Majority movement in the
United States, which evolved into the Christian Coalition. Under
it, conservative Christians began to play a major role in politics.
They twice helped secure the Presidency for Ronald Reagan, and
continued to support the Republican Party after his departure.
In return for their support, these fundamentalists expect Republican
administrations to bring in legislation to enforce observance
of their moralistic, so-called "Christian" values. They
want abortion outlawed, prayers to be said in schools, and "decent,"
middle-class, values to be established. Neither they, nor the
Republican party, however, take on the issues of structural social
injustice which are plaguing America, and which Jesus and the
old-testament prophets were so concerned about in their time.
Ironically, it is liberals, who make much less of a show of being
Christian, who promote these social justice issues through their
own agencies and the Democrats. Implementing social justice through
reform involves helping people who need it and want it; it is
selfless service of the type Jesus commended. Implementing laws
which punish people for so-called "moral crimes" is
imposing a value system on others, and taking away their God-given
free will. It is selfish and power seeking. Jesus clearly avoided
doing it, and if his example means anything, Christians should
too. Setting a good example, and having high expectations of others,
as Jesus did, are far better ways of promoting right behavior.
Fundamentalism usually attracts the Christian spotlight, with
its high political profile and tele-evangelists, but for every
fundamentalist in the church there is also another caring, loving,
tolerant Christian with a more liberal outlook. By and large this
liberal outlook is reflected in the World Council of Churches.
In this liberal Christianity, the separation of church and state
is accepted, and energy is not spent trying to reverse it. Instead
there is a concentration on helping the poor and dispossessed,
properly caring for the world God entrusted to us, and trying
to find common ground between believers of different denominations
and faiths. Unfortunately, the historical problems of church and
society have often caused these liberals to react to more conservative
religion by being very rationalistic, often to the point of not
believing in the miraculous, or the power of the Spirit in individual
lives. At the same time Pentecostal Christians, with their personal
faith in the saving power of the Spirit, often lean toward fundamentalism.
This is the strange dilemma of modern Christianity, and it is
tearing it apart. If only the concern for spirituality of the
Pentecostal movement could be combined with the social concern,
love and tolerance of the liberals, then Christianity could really
begin to meet the needs of spiritual seekers in our society. I
believe the tacit acceptance of many false doctrines and attitudes
from the medieval church is preventing such a joining of the best
with the best in the church. A cleansing must take place first,
before healing is possible. Then the conservatives will be able
to see that much that is traditional in the church is actually
holding it back, and the liberals will be able to see that the
corrupt and the miraculous aren't at all just one package, and
can be separated. Until this cleansing takes place, the church
in western countries will continue to stagnate, because it will
keep on failing to meet the needs of discriminating people, and
will keep on leading more emotional people down a path of selfishness.
There is a very good reason why the church has been so successful
in Africa, when it has been languishing in western countries.
African culture delights in the charismatic and ritualistic, and
is at home with a conservative interpretation of the Bible. It
also honors hierarchies and titles, and readily accepts strict
discipline. The church structure of our past suits most African
societies much better than it now suits ours. Also, since the
church is new in Africa, the dead weight of the past isn't holding
it back in the same way it does in the West. Africans have been
quick to adapt Christianity to their culture, and a wide variety
of local churches have arisen, mostly emphasizing the Pentecostal
experience of the power of the Spirit. There may be some lessons
for the West in the way the church has succeeded in Africa, but
it is unlikely to be as simple as that we should just imitate
it; the differences between the two societies, and their past
exposure to Christianity, must be taken into account.
The church in the West is dogged by its past, but it doesn't
have to be forever, unfortunate as this past is. A twentieth century
Indian saint, Sri Yukteswar, said this about what has gone before:
"Forget the past. The vanished lives of all men are dark with
many shames. Human conduct is ever unreliable until anchored
in the divine. Everything in the future will improve if you
are making a spiritual effort now."
It is advice the Western church can heed. But in order to make
it possible for the church to forget the past, it needs to acknowledge
with Albert Schweitzer that:
"What has been passing for Christianity during these nineteen
centuries is merely a beginning, full of weaknesses and mistakes,
not a full-grown Christianity springing from the spirit of Jesus."
. . .
From: In Search of the Loving God by Mark Mason - Copyright © 1997.
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