The first lines of Belloc’s 1936 book, The Characters of the Reformation, are these: “The break-up of united western Christendom with the coming of the Reformation was by far the most important thing in history since the formation of the Catholic Church fifteen hundred years before.” We live in a time when the Reformation is looked on with friendly eyes. The Reformation was said to be a very good thing, the beginning of modern “freedom” and “individualism.”
Yet, is there any validity in Belloc’s observation about the significance of the Reformation? What exactly was his point? He called it precisely “the most important thing in history” since the Incarnation. By implication, it was more related to the elimination of Christianity than to any return to its origins.
Most of the mainline Protestant churches of the original Reformation, from the Anglicans and the Lutherans to the Congregationalists, are in serious decline. The break-up is on-going. The phrase—“Ecclesia semper reformanda”—sometimes was attributed to Luther, but it may have come from Karl Barth via something in St. Augustine. Its spirit had a much greater reach than anyone probably intended at the time. We see statistics telling us that some twenty thousand Protestant sects exist. Not a few think that the Catholic Church itself looks more and more “Protestant” every day in the way it “reforms” itself. Luther is no longer reviled but praised.
Many others do not think that the Reformation began with the 95 Theses and the other problems of Martin Luther. The origins go back to the German mystics of the Middle Ages, as to the voluntarism and nominalism of Duns Scotus and William of Occam. These pre-Reformation reformers held in common that man had some direct relation to God that in principle bypassed any need of a Church. One could reach God by mystical experience.
The Church provided nothing but an outside series of demands that kept the soul from directly communicating with God. Basically, there was just “me and God.” That relationship was the only one that mattered in the spiritual life, which, in essence, was simple and earnest. The invention of a complex set of laws and rites was an accretion, a deviation from Christ’s intention.
In the Catholic tradition, why was the Church itself especially necessary? It seemed to set up a second level community that claimed allegiance of both a visible presence in this world and a membership in the City of God that transcended this world. Following Aristotle, man was a social and political being even in his redemption. His perfection fostered friendship with others, including God. The Church was founded by Christ in his lifetime. It was set up with authority and charged to go forth to the nations and to worship God following Christ’s guidance during his time on Earth.
The Church was designed as the mediator between man and God. It was based on the metaphysical notion that secondary causes really existed. God did not do everything but empower rational creatures especially to participate in his creative and redemptive actions. The sacraments were to be administered through the Church’s authority, itself assigned to it by Christ, the Son of God. “All nations” were to be baptized. God’s graces came through the sacraments.
Ecclesial authority was not the result of human agency. It was not modeled on political societies, on a social contract. The Church did recognize the state’s competence, in the “things that are Caesar’s.” Man was required to do things, things that revealed his soul and character, lightsome things and serious things.
One thing incumbent on redeemed man was to worship God after the manner that Christ established at the Last Supper. The other was to live a life worthy of this relation to the Father through Christ. “Unless you eat this bread and drink this cup, you shall not have everlasting life in you” (John 6:53).
It is not that there was no personal relation to God in faith. This direct relation was often stressed by Paul. Sacraments in fact were part of this direct relation. But what counted was an obedient relationship that looked to what was revealed and not just to what man concocted by his own feelings or desires. The moral life and the liturgical life were seen to stem from the same source and required each other. They were to exist in harmony. The current controversy over Amoris Laetitia actually involves the question of whether one’s subjective understanding can overrule the norms explicitly set forth by Christ. If one’s subjective conscience alone is what matters, there would be no need of a Church or a priesthood within it.
What Belloc saw in the Reformation was not a revitalization of the Church but the premises, if they continued in their own logic, of its eventual demise. It could be reformed out of existence. This view would not necessarily imply the disappearance of Christianity contrary to Christ’s promise to be with it to the end. But it would indicate a picture of an end-time in which few believers remained (Luke 18:8). Joseph Pieper’s 1980 book, The End of Time, spelled out this inner-terrestrial consequence.
Eric Voegelin once remarked, in his 1968 book, Science, Politics, and Gnosticism, that modernity was largely the result of Christian men losing their faith in the transcendent order. They shifted their allegiance almost exclusively to the enterprises of this world. The separation of faith and works left works with an autonomy of their own, instead of, as in the Catholic tradition, seeing the transcendent end directing the things of this world to their own natural order.
Catholicism saw the natural world itself as indicating a relation of order to God. But with Luther’s anti-Aristotelian views, the world was evaporated of any connection between mind and God. The examination of the world led not to transcendence but to atheism. It turns out that Aristotle and what he stood for, namely the integrity of reason’s capacity to know reality, was necessary for the integrity of faith itself. Faith was not so blind that it could see nothing in reason when it encountered the order of things.
Separating faith from action in this world affected the sacramental function of the Church. Step by step it disappeared from theology and culture. We might say that faith was saved but what Christ told us to do was lost. The real problem was not God, but the literal fact of the Incarnation, of the presence of the Second Person, the Son, in this actual world.
In his insightful essay, “Phenomenology and the Eucharist,” Msgr. Robert Sokolowski wrote: “One could say perhaps that the controversies about the Eucharist—and hence about the Church … were the way in which the resistance to the Incarnation was carried out throughout the second millennium of the Church’s history.” The most difficult thing to believe, to repeat, is not the existence of God but his Incarnation in the Person of Christ.
Thus, the Jews never accepted the Christ or the Trinity from which it proceeds. In Muslim thought, Christ is not divine, but just a good man, a prophet. Belief in the Incarnation and Trinity are blasphemous. This trend of post Reformation thought was in the same direction to which Benedict XVI pointed in his “dehellenization” steps in “The Regensburg Lecture.” Scripture became an object of purely scientific methodology. It a priori disallowed any evidence not open to this method that always presupposed quantity. Christ again became just a good man (#32 ff.). As a result, none of the divine claims associated with him had any objective standing.
The crux of the matter is the real presence and how it is maintained. The Mass presupposed the same Sacrifice that Christ endured. There is only one Mass in the history of the world. It is conceived on an altar. It requires priests authorized to make the Sacrifice present to the congregation. All, priests and people, face the same direction historically. The heart of the Church’s presence in the world is the Eucharist and the other sacraments.
If Christ is not really present in the Eucharist, the Mass soon becomes a meal, not a sacrifice. The altar is changed into a table. The priest is not an alter Christus but a leader of the congregation. The bread and wine are memorials that remind us of the Last Supper. The leader is gradually not a bishop or a priest or a leader, the congregation itself rules and selects its officers and beliefs.
We soon reach the Unitarians who see no need for any Trinity or Incarnation even in faith. There is no need of any mediation between God and man. Indeed, there may not be any need of a God. All transcendent notions have become re-subsumed back into a project in this world. Issues of preparing for death and judgment, for resurrection are long forgotten.
“A loss of faith in the Eucharist—a loss of faith in the real presence of Christ in the sacrament, and a loss of faith in the identity of the Eucharistic sacrifice and that of Calvary—leads,” Sokolowski observed,
to a loss of faith in the Resurrection, which leads to a loss of faith in the Incarnation, which leads to a loss of belief in the Holy Trinity? If you deny the truth of the Eucharist, you begin the drift to Unitarianism. I wonder also if the trace to iconoclasm in the Church in recent decades—the removal of statues and pictures, the movement towards abstraction in architecture and decoration … does not also raise difficulties in regards to faith in the Incarnation. The human mind seems persistently unwilling to accept the intense nearness of God incarnate, which affirms Creation and makes everything real.
If we return to Belloc’s remarks after following this sequence, it becomes quite clear that the Reformation did not end with the Reformation. It is only ending in our time when we see the existential logic of denial carried out step by step over time.
If we read these reflections with care, it seems clear that our political controversies are, at bottom, really theological. Imbedded in our politics is not only an increasingly vigorous and even violent denial of its very existence, but an even more stubborn refusal to accept any natural order as if it contained some order of its own that cause us to be the sort of beings we are. Not only do we not recognize Christ in the Eucharist, but we do not recognize man in his own nature. The relation of reason to faith is meaningless if both faith and reason are empty of content.
We are left with a humanism that lacks any notion of what is there to believe in and a faith with nothing objectively to affirm. This result is what we mean by “freedom.” The premises of the Creator-God from the beginning were to leave man free to accept both the Creation and the Incarnation that sought to redirect him to his true transcendent end. Every indication exists that this result was anticipated. Even the Church at times seems confused. To conform to the “modern world” now ends by insisting that we conform to an empty world that began by losing its faith in the real presence at the Sacrifice of the Mass.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is the monument of Martin Luther in Wittenberg, Germany. It was designed by J.G. Schadow in 1821.