The Church that Morphed

Another: I AM A Catholic Lesson

This part assembled by Patrick Miron

 BEGINNING OF PART 6

From the late Middle Ages to the Reformation

The most decisive–and the most traumatic–era in the entire history of Roman Catholicism was the period from the middle of the 14th to the middle of the 16th century. This was the time when Protestantism, through its definitive break with Roman Catholicism, arose to take its place on the Christian map. It was as well the period during which the Roman Catholic Church, as an entity distinct from other “branches” of Christendom, even of Western Christendom, came into being. There is therefore much to be said for the thesis that Roman Catholicism in the form in which it is known today is, in many fundamental ways, a product of the Reformation.

Late medieval reform: the Great Western Schism and conciliarism

Reformation of the church and the papacy was what the advocates of a return of the papacy from Avignon to Rome had in mind. In the pope’s absence, both the ecclesiastical and the territorial authority of the papacy had deteriorated within Italy itself, and the moral and spiritual authority of the papacy was in jeopardy throughout Christian Europe. This condition, so many believed, would continue and even worsen so long as the papacy remained in Avignon . Pope Urban V (reigned 1362-70) attempted to reestablish the papacy in Rome in 1367, but after a stay of only three years he returned to Avignon , only to die soon after his return. It was finally Gregory XI (reigned 1370-78) who, in 1377, permanently moved the papal headquarters back to Rome ; but he died only a few months later. The immediate result of the return to Rome was the very opposite of the restoration of confidence and credibility that, for differing reasons, the prophetic voices and the political calculations of the 14th century had predicted would come from it. For not only had the church during its residence in Avignon come under the political and religious domination of France, which resisted the repatriation of the papacy to Italy, but the weakness of the papacy in Avignon had enabled the college of cardinals and the papal bureaucracy to fill the administrative vacuum by developing a pattern of government that can only be described as oligarchic. The powers that the cardinals had succeeded in appropriating were difficult for the centralized authority of the papacy, whether in Avignon or in Rome , to reclaim for itself.

Meeting in Rome for the first time in nearly a century, the college of cardinals elected Pope Urban VI (reigned 1378-89). But his desire to reassert the monarchical powers of the papacy, as well as his evident mental illness, prompted the cardinals to renege on that choice later in the same year. In his stead they elected Clement VII (reigned 1378-94), who soon thereafter took up residence back in Avignon . (This Clement VII is officially listed as an antipope, and the name was later taken by another pope, Clement VII [reigned 1523-34].) The years from 1378 to 1417 count as the time of the Great Western Schism, so identified to distinguish it from the no less great East-West Schism. The Great Western Schism divided the loyalties of Western Christendom between two popes, each of whom excommunicated the other and all of the other’s followers. In the conflict between them, kingdoms, dioceses, religious orders, parishes, even families were split; and the pretensions of a church that claimed to be, as the Nicene Creed said, “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” were seen as a mockery, since the empirical church–whichever it was–was in fact none of these. No one could be absolutely certain about the validity of the sacraments if the integrity and very unity of the church, and therefore of the episcopate, and therefore of the priesthood, were in doubt. Speaking for a broad consensus, the University of Paris proposed three alternatives for resolving the crisis of the institution, which had now become, for laity and clergy alike, a crisis of faith: resignation by both popes, with the election of a single unchallenged successor; adjudication of the dispute between the two popes by some independent tribunal; or appeal to an ecumenical council, which would function as a supreme court with jurisdiction over both claimants.

The third of these, the summoning of a general church council, seemed to the theologians at Paris and to many others to be the preferable route. The first of several reform councils was held at Pisa in 1409 to deal with the schism and with the many other problems of discipline and doctrine that had arisen. Pisa elected Alexander V (reigned 1409-10) as pope in place of both incumbents. But, because neither of the other two would acknowledge the authority of the council and resign, the immediate result was that for a few years, as one cardinal said, the church was treated to “a simulacrum { simulacrum noun :

something that looks like or represents something else} of the Holy Trinity”–the spectacle of three popes. That spectacle and the Great Western Schism itself came to an end through the work of the Council of Constance (1414-18). In addition to the settlement of the question of papal legitimacy, Constance enacted legislation on a variety of reform issues. Among others it stipulated that thenceforth, as a matter of church law, the church council was not to be seen as an expedient to be resorted to in an emergency but as a standing legislative body, a kind of ecclesiastical senate that should meet at brief and regular intervals. The decree of the Council of Constance justified this provision on the principle that the authority of the ecumenical council as the true representative of the entire church was superior to that of the pope, who could not make a similar claim for himself apart from the council. In oversimplified form, this elevation of conciliar over papal authority may be taken as the central tenet of the late medieval movement called conciliarism.

This action also helps to account for the ambiguous position of the Council of Constance in the history of later Roman Catholic canon law, with opinions of canonists and historians differing to this day about which sessions of the council are entitled to the status of a true ecumenical council. An ambiguity even more complex attended the next of the reform councils, which used to be known in history books as the Council of Basel-Ferrara-Florence but is now sometimes divided into two councils, that of Basel and that of Ferrara-Florence, with the legitimacy of the Council of Basel contested in whole or at least in part. The council opened at Basel in 1431, was transferred by the pope to Ferrara in 1438 (although a substantial portion of its membership remained in Basel , continued discussing and legislating, and was eventually excommunicated as schismatic), moved to Florence in 1439, and held its closing sessions at Rome in 1443-45. While still at Basel , the council reaffirmed the conciliarist teaching of Constance about the superiority of the council to the pope.

Both the Council of Constance and the Council of Florence have additional importance in the history of late medieval reform in Roman Catholicism: Constance for dealing with the problem of heresy within the Western Church, Florence for addressing itself to the relation of Western Roman Catholicism to Eastern Christendom.

Jan Hus

A major item on the agenda of the Council of Constance was the challenge posed to the authority of contending parties, council as well as pope, by the teachings of the Czech preacher and reformer Jan Hus (c. 1372-1415) in Prague. In every century of the Middle Ages there had been calls for reform in the church, and in times of moral corruption or of administrative chaos such calls inevitably became more intense. But the Hussite movement proved to be more than just another protest. It was animated by a definition of the church, rooted in the Augustinian tradition that drew a sharp distinction, if not quite a disjunction, between institutional Christendom as headed by the pope and the true church as headed by Christ. The true church consisted only of those who had been predestined for membership by God and who were true believers and saints; no hypocrite, even one in the highest ecclesiastical position, could belong to that true church.

Despite the accusations of his critics, it seems clear that Hus did not draw from this premise the radical conclusion that sacraments administered by a hypocritical priest or bishop or pope were invalid in themselves; the priestly office and the sacraments retained their objective validity. A prominent element of the Hussite demands, however, was a call for the administration of Holy Communion to the laity “under both kinds–bread and wine–[sub utraque specie],” that is, they demanded the restoration of the chalice; the followers of Hus emblazoned a chalice on their banners. The Hussite program of reform coalesced with the rising nationalism of the Czech people, many of whom saw in the Roman Catholic Church a symbol of Italian and German domination.

In 1411 Hus was excommunicated by Pope John XXIII (reigned 1410-15), now identified as an antipope, but in keeping with the widespread spirit of conciliarism he appealed his case to an ecumenical council of the church. Therefore he was summoned to appear before the Council of Constance and was promised a safe-conduct by Sigismund (1368-1437), the Holy Roman emperor. Once at the council, however, Hus was arrested and incarcerated. He was tried for heresy (particularly because of his doctrine of the church) and condemned, and on July 6, 1415 , he was put to death. His main prosecutors were also the leaders of the reform movement at the Council of Constance, notably Jean de Gerson (1363-1429), chancellor of the University of Paris . The death of Hus was not, however, the end of his movement. A principal difference between Hus and most other medieval reformers was that while they and their followers remained (though sometimes just barely) within the boundaries of Roman Catholicism, the outcome of his agitation was in fact the founding of a new church, one that continued to exist outside the structure of Roman Catholicism. In this respect, as well as in various specific doctrinal and moral teachings, he anticipated the development of the Protestant Reformation a century later, and his 16th-century disciples saw that development as a vindication of his and their position.

Efforts to heal the East-West Schism

At Basel , and then especially at Florence , there were extensive negotiations and discussions over the newly revived proposals for effecting a reunion of the Eastern Orthodox Church and Western Roman Catholicism. Earlier attempts at such a reunion, for example at the Council of Lyon in 1274, had failed. But now the time seemed ripe on both sides for a new effort at negotiation and reconciliation. Christian Constantinople was under increasing threat from the Turks and wanted Western support, moral as well as military. Leaders of the West, regardless of party, saw the prospect of achieving a long-sought rapprochement with the East as a means of restoring the prestige of both the papacy and the ecumenical council, which could then be seen as having resolved both of the major schisms of Christian history–the Great Western Schism and the East-West Schism–in the space of one generation. The patriarch of Constantinople, Joseph II (c. 1360-1439), and the Byzantine emperor, John VIII Palaeologus (1391-1448), both came in person to the Council of Florence for the theological negotiations pointing toward reunion of the two churches.

In the course of the doctrinal discussions between Greeks and Latins all the major points of difference that had historically separated the two churches received detailed attention. The Greeks acknowledged the primacy of the pope, and the West acknowledged the right of the East to ordain married men into the priesthood. The chief sticking point, as always, was the doctrine of the Filioque: Did the Holy Spirit in the Trinity proceed from the Father only, as the East taught, or “from the Father and the Son [ex Patre Filioque],” as the Western addition to the text of the Nicene Creed affirmed? At stake here was not only the dogmatic Trinitarian question itself, over which the disputes between the Latins and the Greeks had been raging since the 9th century, but the authority of one part of the church, viz., the Roman Catholic Church, to make an alteration in the text of an ecumenical creed through unilateral action, that is, without the sanction of a truly ecumenical council representing the entire church. Almost all those present at Florence came to an agreement that the dispute over the Filioque was chiefly one of words, not of content, since it could be amply documented that both versions of the doctrine of the procession of the Holy Spirit had substantial attestation from the teachings of the Church Fathers in both churches. Agreement on the Filioque and on all other points at issue led to the adoption of a document of union, Laetentur Coeli, promulgated on July 6, 1439 (and still commemorated in a plaque on the wall of the Duomo in Florence ). But the reunion came too late for both sides. It was repudiated in the East, both at Constantinople and in the other Orthodox churches, notably the Church of Russia ; and it was soon evident that in the West the internal problems of the church and the papacy had not been laid to rest by this temporary victory. Once again, as so many times throughout Christian history, the reunion of the Eastern and the Western Churches proved to have been a dead letter and an unattainable goal.

The age of Reformation and Counter-Reformation

The specter of many national churches supplanting a unitary Catholic Church became a grim reality during the age of the Reformation. What neither heresy nor schism had been able to do before–to divide Western Christendom permanently and irreversibly–was done by a movement that confessed a loyalty to the orthodox creeds of Christendom and professed abhorrence for schism. By the time the Reformation was over, Roman Catholicism had become something different from what it had been in the early centuries or even in the later Middle Ages.

Roman Catholicism and the Protestant Reformation

Whatever its nonreligious causes may have been, the Protestant Reformation arose within Roman Catholicism; there both its positive accomplishments and its negative effects had their roots. The standing of the church within the political order and the class structure of western Europe had been irrevocably altered in the course of the later Middle Ages. Thus the most extravagant claims put forward for the political authority of the church and the papacy, as formulated by Pope Boniface VIII (reigned 1294-1303), had come just at the time when such authority was in fact rapidly declining. By the time Protestantism arose to challenge the spiritual authority of the papacy, therefore, there was no longer any way to invoke that political authority against the challenge. The medieval class structure, too, had undergone fundamental and drastic changes with the rise of the bourgeoisie throughout western Europe; it is not a coincidence that in northern Europe and Britain the middle class was to become the principal bulwark of the Protestant opposition to Roman Catholicism. The traditional Roman Catholic prohibition of any lending of money at interest as “usury,” the monastic glorification of poverty as an ascetic ideal, and the Roman Catholic system of holidays as times when no work was to be done were all seen by the rising merchant class as obstacles to financial development.

Accompanying these sociopolitical forces in the crisis of late medieval Roman Catholicism were spiritual and theological factors that also helped to bring on the Protestant Reformation. By the end of the 15th century there was a widely-held impression that the resources for church reform within Roman Catholicism had been tried and found wanting: the papacy refused to reform itself, the councils had not succeeded in bringing about lasting change, and the professional theologians were more interested in scholastic debates than in the nurture of genuine Christian faith and life. Such sentiments were often oversimplified and exaggerated, but their very currency made them a potent influence even when they were mistaken (and they were not always mistaken). The financial corruption and pagan immorality within Roman Catholicism, even at the highest levels, reminded critics of “the abomination of desolation” spoken of by the prophet Daniel, and nothing short of a thoroughgoing “reformation in head and members [in capite et membris]” seemed to be called for.

These demands were in themselves nothing new, but the Protestant Reformation took place when they coincided with, and found dramatic expression in, the highly personal struggle of one medieval Roman Catholic. Martin Luther asked an essentially medieval question: “How do I obtain a God who is merciful to me?” He also tried a medieval answer to that question by becoming a monk and by subjecting himself to fasting and discipline–but all to no avail. The answer that he eventually did find, the conviction that God was merciful not because of anything that the sinner could do but because of a freely given grace that was received by faith alone (the doctrine of justification by faith), was not utterly without precedent in the Roman Catholic theological tradition; but in the form in which Luther stated it there appeared to be a fundamental threat to Catholic teaching and sacramental life. And in his treatise The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, issued in 1520, Luther denounced the entire system of medieval Christendom as an unwarranted human invention foisted on the church.

Although Luther in his opposition to the practice of selling indulgences was unsparing in his attacks upon the moral, financial, and administrative abuses within Roman Catholicism, using his mastery of the German language to denounce them, he insisted throughout his life that the primary object of his critique was not the life but the doctrine of the church, not the corruption of the ecclesiastical structure but the distortion of the gospel. The late medieval mass was “a dragon’s tail,” not because it was liturgically unsound but because the medieval definition of the mass as a sacrifice offered by the church to God–not only, as Luther believed, as a means of grace granted by God to the church–jeopardized the uniqueness of the unrepeatable sacrifice of Christ on Calvary. The cult of the Virgin Mary and of the saints diminished the office of Christ as the sole mediator between God and the human race. Thus the pope was the Antichrist because he represented and enforced a substitute religion in which the true church, the bride of Christ, had been replaced by–and identified with–an external juridical institution that laid claim to the obedience due to God himself. When, after repeated warnings, Luther refused such obedience, he was excommunicated by Pope Leo X in 1521.

Until his excommunication Luther had gone on regarding himself as a loyal Roman Catholic and had appealed “from a poorly informed Pope to a Pope who ought to be better informed.” He had, moreover, retained an orthodox Roman Catholic perspective on most of the corpus of Christian doctrine, not only the Trinity and the two natures in the person of Christ but baptismal regeneration and the Real Presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist. Many of the other Protestant Reformers who arose during the 16th century were considerably less conservative in their doctrinal stance, distancing themselves from Luther’s position no less than from the Roman Catholic one. Thus Luther’s Swiss opponent, Ulrich Zwingli, lumped Luther’s sacramental teaching with the medieval one, and Luther in turn exclaimed: “Better to hold with the papists than with you!” John Calvin was considerably more moderate than Zwingli, but both sacramentally and liturgically he broke with the Roman Catholic tradition. The Anglican Reformation strove to retain the historical episcopate and, particularly under Queen Elizabeth I, steered a middle course, liturgically and even doctrinally, between Roman Catholicism and continental Protestantism.

The polemical Roman Catholic accusation–which the mainline Reformers vigorously denied–that these various species of conservative Protestantism, with their orthodox dogmas and quasi-Catholic forms, were a pretext for the eventual rejection of most of traditional Christianity, seemed to be confirmed with the emergence of the radical Reformation. The Anabaptists, as their name indicated, were known for their practice of “rebaptizing” those who had received the sacrament of baptism as infants; this was, at its foundation, a redefinition of the nature of the church, which they saw not as the institution allied with the state and embracing good and wicked members but as the community of true believers who had accepted the cost of Christian discipleship by a free personal decision. Although the Anabaptists, in their doctrines of God and Christ, retained the historical orthodoxy of the Nicene Creed while rejecting the orthodox doctrines of church and sacraments, those Protestants who went on to repudiate orthodox Trinitarianism as part of their Reformation claimed to be carrying out, more consistently than either Luther and Calvin or the Anabaptists had done, the full implications of the rejection of Roman Catholicism, which they all had in common.

The challenge of the Protestant Reformation became also the occasion for a resurgent Roman Catholicism to clarify and to reaffirm Roman Catholic principles; that endeavor had, in one sense, never been absent from the life and teaching of the church, but it came out now with new force. As the varieties of Protestantism proliferated, the apologists for Roman Catholicism pointed to the Protestant principle of the right of the private interpretation of Scripture as the source of this confusion. Against the Protestant elevation of the Scripture to the position of sole authority, they emphasized that Scripture and church tradition were inseparable and always had been. Pressing that point further, they denounced justification by faith alone and other cherished Protestant teachings as novelties without grounding in authentic church tradition. And they warned that the doctrine of “faith alone, without works” as taught by Luther would sever the moral nerve and remove all incentive for holy living.

Yet these negative reactions to Protestantism were not by any means the only, perhaps not even the primary, form of participation by Roman Catholicism in the history of the Reformation. The emergence of the Protestant phenomenon did not exhaust the reformatory impulse within Roman Catholicism, nor can it be seen as the sole inspiration for Catholic reform. Rather, to a degree that has usually been overlooked by Protestant historians and that has often been ignored even by Roman Catholic historians, there was a distinct historical movement in the 16th century that can only be identified as the Roman Catholic Reformation.

The Roman Catholic Reformation

The Council of Trent

The most important single event in that movement was almost certainly the Council of Trent, which met intermittently in 25 sessions between 1545 and 1563. The bitter experiences of the late medieval papacy with the conciliarism of the 15th century made the popes of the 16th century wary of any so-called reform council, for which many were clamoring. After several false starts, however, the council was finally summoned, and it opened on Dec. 13, 1545. The legislation of the Council of Trent enacted the formal (and apparently final) Roman Catholic reply to the doctrinal challenges of the Protestant Reformation and thus represents the official adjudication of many questions about which there had been continuing ambiguity throughout the early church and the Middle Ages. The either/or doctrines of the Protestant Reformers–justification by faith alone, the authority of Scripture alone–were anathematized, in the name of a both/and doctrine of justification by faith and works on the basis of the authority of Scripture and tradition; and the privileged standing of the Latin Vulgate was reaffirmed, against Protestant insistence upon the original Hebrew and Greek texts of Scripture.

No less important for the development of modern Roman Catholicism, however, was the legislation of Trent aimed at reforming–and at re-forming–the internal life and discipline of the church. Two of its most far-reaching provisions were the requirement that every diocese provide for the proper education of its future clergy in seminaries under church auspices and the requirement that the clergy and especially the bishops should give more attention to the task of preaching. The financial abuses that had been so flagrant in the church at all levels were brought under control, and stricter rules were set requiring the residency of bishops in their dioceses. In place of the liturgical chaos that had prevailed, the council laid down specific prescriptions about the form of the mass and liturgical music. What emerged from the Council of Trent, therefore, was a chastened but consolidated church and papacy, the Roman Catholicism of modern history.

First period

Origin and Development of the Church in the ancient Græco-Roman world (from the birth of Christ to the close of the seventh century).

  • (a) First Epoch: Foundation, expansion and formation of the Churchdespite the oppression of the pagan-Roman state (from Christ to the Edict of Milan, 313).
  • (b) Second Epoch: The Churchin close connexion with the Christian-Roman Empire (from theEdict of Milan to the Trullan Synod, 692).

Second period

The Church as the guide of the Western nations (from the close of the seventh century to the beginning of the sixteenth).

Third period

The Church after the collapse of the religious unity in the West, struggle against heresy and infidelity, expansion in non-European countries (from beginning of sixteenth century to our own age).

As regards the methodical treatment of the subject-matter within the principal divisions, most writers endeavour to treat the main phases of the internal and external history of the Church in such a manner as to secure a logical arrangement throughout each period. Deviations from this method are only exceptional, as when Darras treats each pontificate separately. This latter method is, however, somewhat too mechanical and superficial, and in the case of lengthy periods it becomes difficult to retain a clear grasp of the facts and to appreciate their interconnexion. Recent writers, therefore, aim at such a division of the matter within the different periods as will lay more stress on the importantforms and expressions of ecclesiastical life (Moeller, Muller, Kirsch in his revision of Hergenröther). The larger periods are divided into a number of shorter epochs, in each of which the most important event or situation in the history of the Church stands out with distinctness, other phases ofecclesiastical life — including the ecclesiastical history of the individual countries — being treated in connexion with this central subject. The subject-matter of each period thus receives a treatment at once chronological and logical, and most in keeping with the historical development of the events portrayed. The narrative gains in lucidity and artistic finish, within the shorter periods the historicalmaterial is more easily grasped, while the active forces in all great movements appear in bolder relief. It is true that this method involves a certain inequality in the treatment of the various phases of ecclesiastical life, but the same inequality already existed in the historical situation described.

Tradition

We speak here of those sources which rest on mere tradition, and which, unlike the remains, are themselves no part of the fact. They are:

  • (1) Collections of acts of the martyrs, of legends and lives of the saints.
  • (2) Collections of lives of the popes(Liber Pontificalis) and of bishops of particular Churches.
  • (3) Works of ecclesiasticalwriters, which contain information about historical events; to some extent all ecclesiastical literature belongs to this category.
  • (4) Ecclesiastico-historical works, which take on more or less the character of sources, especially for the time in which their authors lived.
  • (5) Pictorial representations (paintings, sculptures, etc.).

And so we end this tour of our Catholic Church History. My motive as I begin this project was to provide ample historical evidence of the existence of the Roman Catholic Church, long before the emergence of Constantine.

How the Protestant community can overlook the abundant historical evidence of both our existence and the many contributions made by the “Body-Catholic” over the centuries is remarkable.

For them to gloss over this secular history, and not be able to recognize that their distorted faiths [plural] must in an absolute sense stem from and flow through todays Catholic Church, who must rightly be credited with “birthing the Bible” they claim to believe, yet are unable in many places to be able to actually correctly comprehend, {Mt 10:1-8, Mt 16: 15-19, John 17:17-20, Mt. 28:18-20 and John 6:47-58 * John 20:19-23} as examples, provides ample evidence of their collective inability to actually GET, what Christ Taught.!

END OF PART 6

Blogged 03/30/2019

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working4christtwo

I am an Informed and fully practicing Roman Catholic

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