Monday, October 24, 2011

A Roman Catholic Scholar Looks at Causes of the Reformation

Originally posted 5/20/10

Joseph Lortz was a German Roman Catholic theologian. He's best known for his work on Martin Luther and the Reformation. In his book The Reformation: A Problem for Today (Maryland: The Newman Press, 1964), he has a chapter entitled "The Causes of the Reformation." One particular "cause" caught my attention. He states,

"When Luther asserted that the pope in Rome was not the true successor of Saint Peter and that the Church could do without the Papacy, in his mind and in essence these were new doctrines, but the distinctive element in them was not new and thus they struck a sympathetic resonance in the minds of many. Long before the Reformation itself, the unity of the Christian Church in the West had been severely undermined" (p. 37).

This type of sentiment is far different than that usually expressed by Roman Catholics. Typically, Luther is the grand innovator that tore the church asunder. Lortz though does something many don't bother to do- he sees a flow to history. In his chapter preceding this statement, he lists a number of ways in which the West was more than ready to grant that the pope in Rome was not the true successor of Saint Peter and that the Church could do without the Papacy. Here's how Lortz explains this comment:

The significance of the break-up of medieval unity in the thirteenth century, but even more during the Avignon period, is evident in the most distinctive historical consequence of the Avignon Papacy: the Great Western Schism. The real meaning of this event may not be immediately apparent. It can be somewhat superficially described as a period when there were two popes, each with his own Curia, one residing in Rome, the other in Avignon. This situation in which both contenders claimed to be pope (at one time the number increased so that many spoke of the "cursed trinity") was in the main corrected by the efforts of the German Emperor Sigismund at the Council of Constance in 1414. These statements are true, but the account they give is sketchy and superficial; they tell us nothing of the real significance of the Schism.

The real significance of the Western Schism rests in the fact that for decades there was an almost universal uncertainty about where the true pope and the true Church were to be found. For several decades, both popes had excommunicated each other and his followers; thus all Christendom found itself under sentence of excommunication by at least one of the contenders. Both popes referred to their rival claimant as the Antichrist, and to the Masses celebrated by them as idolatry. It seemed impossible to do anything about this scandalous situation, despite sharp protests from all sides, and despite the radical impossibility of having two valid popes at the same time. Time and time again, the petty selfishness of the contenders blocked any solution.

The split caused by the Western Schism was far from being merely the concern of theologians; no area of public or private life remained untouched; even the economic sphere was affected, mainly because of disputes in regard to the possession of benefices. Provinces of the Church, religious orders, universities, even individual monasteries and parish houses were divided. For decades, all experienced this profound division in all sectors of daily life. Good people on both sides, even saints, were not only unable to bring about unity, but in their allegiance to one or the other of the contenders they themselves were in sharp opposition. We find, for example, St. Catherine of Siena on the Roman side and St. Vincent Ferrer on that of Avignon. Furthermore, the settlement of the Schism at the Council of Constance did not really solve the problem. The triumph of the Conciliar Theory at Constance, and even more at Basel, extended the life span of the Schism from 1378 to 1448, when it finally came to an end in the person of the Antipope Felix V. The confusion and uncertainty about the valid pope and the true Church is manifest in the amazing twists in the allegiance of Nicolaus of Cusa and Aeneas Silvio dei Piccolomini, later to become Pius II, both of whom had begun by defending the Conciliar Theory in its most radical form.

This was an experience shared by the entire West — one which would leave its imprint in Western consciousness for a long time to come. The memory of this experience was still fresh a century later. It is not too difficult to see the effects of the Western Schism in preparing the way for the doctrines of the Reformation. When Luther asserted that the pope of Rome was not the true successor of Saint Peter and that the Church could do without the Papacy, in his mind and in their essence these were new doctrines, but the distinctive element in them was not new and thus they struck a sympathetic resonance in the minds of many. Long before the Reformation itself, the unity of the Christian Church in the West had been severely undermined (pp. 35-37).


Joe said...

Hi James.

Have you read the whole book and would you recommend it?


In Him,


James Swan said...

Yes I have read this book, last year. If you're going to read it, make sure to first read my overview of Lortz (linked in the post above).While Lortz charges Luther with subjectivism, he still does have insightful comments about the Reformation in the first half of the book. If it's a concise Reformation you're looking for background from a Roman Catholic scholar, this book would be a good read.

In terms of Roman Catholic books on Luther, I can't say enough good things about Franz Posset's The Real Luther. Lortz is goood, but Poss

Joe said...

okay...thanks James. perhaps will buy them both then.


PeaceByJesus said...

Along with this older but viable post, would go the following also which helps provide context for the Reformation, which is contrary to the anachronistic reading into it that many RCs engage in.

► The Avignon Papacy (1309-76) relocated the throne to France and was followed by the Western Schism (1378-1417), with three rival popes excommunicating each other and their sees.

Referring to the schism of the 14th and 15th centuries, Cardinal Ratzinger observed, "For nearly half a century, the Church was split into two or three obediences that excommunicated one another, so that every Catholic lived under excommunication by one pope or another, and, in the last analysis, no one could say with certainty which of the contenders had right on his side.

The Church no longer offered certainty of salvation; she had become questionable in her whole objective form--the true Church, the true pledge of salvation, had to be sought outside the institution. It is against this background of a profoundly shaken ecclesial consciousness that we are to understand that Luther, in the conflict between his search for salvation and the tradition of the Church, ultimately came to experience the Church, not as the guarantor, but as the adversary of salvation. (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Sacred Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith for the Church of Rome, “Principles of Catholic Theology,” trans. by Sister Mary Frances McCarthy, S.N.D. (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1989, p.196;

► Catholic Encyclopedia>Council of Constance:

The Western Schism was thus at an end, after nearly forty years of disastrous life; one pope (Gregory XII) had voluntarily abdicated; another (John XXIII) had been suspended and then deposed, but had submitted in canonical form; the third claimant (Benedict XIII) was cut off from the body of the Church, "a pope without a Church, a shepherd without a flock" (Hergenröther-Kirsch). It had come about that, whichever of the three claimants of the papacy was the legitimate successor of Peter, there reigned throughout the Church a universal uncertainty and an intolerable confusion, so that saints and scholars and upright souls were to be found in all three obediences.

On the principle that a doubtful pope is no pope, the Apostolic See appeared really vacant, and under the circumstances could not possibly be otherwise filled than by the action of a general council. —

..there is no actual standard of what gap of time is acceptable, and what gap would break succession. Thus, it is simply impossible to say what gap is acceptable. For example, according to a typical list of popes (example) there was no pope during the whole years 259, 305-307, 639, 1242, 1269-1270, 1293, 1315, and 1416, not to mention the many partial years. That's over a half dozen breaks of over a year. - .

► “If we keep in mind how variegated medieval catholicism was, the legitimacy of the reformers' claim to catholicity becomes clear. - Jaroslav Pelikan, "The Riddle of Roman Catholicism (New York: Abingdon Press, 1959), p. 47

► Cardinal Bellarmine: "Some years before the rise of the Lutheran and Calvinistic heresy, according to the testimony of those who were then alive, there was almost an entire abandonment of equity in ecclesiastical judgments; in morals, no discipline; in sacred literature, no erudition; in divine things, no reverence; religion was almost extinct. — Concio XXVIII. Opp. Vi. 296- Colon 1617, in “A History of the Articles of Religion,” by Charles Hardwick, Cp. 1, p. 10,

More .

PeaceByJesus said...

This ancient Blog post was just posted as an article on

Someone asked, "Are there Roman Catholic scholars who are sympathetic to Martin Luther?"

Which got this response:

Give Francis a few more years and we'll ALL Be sympathetic to him.

James Swan said...

Thanks for the info!