There are some questions in life that most individuals throughout the world and throughout the ages have attempted to answer: “What should I believe, and why should I believe it?” “What is meaningful in life?” “What kind of person should I be?”
These questions, according to Brad S. Gregory, are “Life Questions.” And, for 1,500 years, they were not only asked by most people, but the answers were also considered to be true and universal for all people. Today, however, most people attempt to answer these questions in individual and relativistic terms, with little consideration of the universal significance that the answers to these questions yield for the moral fabric of society as a whole.
For Gregory, associate professor of early modern European history at the University of Notre Dame, the Catholic Church provided the unity and the authority to bind society together to face significant challenges in the world. However, since Martin Luther launched the Reformation in 1517 by undermining the authority of the bishop of Rome, we continue to sort out the consequences of a world where truth is constantly being questioned and redefined.
Gregory’s treatment of Reformation-era Catholicism in The Unintended Reformation is not without criticism of popes that led unholy lives or bishops that wielded their power to accrue personal wealth. Even so, the teachings of the Church were not diminished or changed by the sinful actions of her leaders, and Gregory is equally critical of the likes of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and other reformers who sought to impose their supposed personal revelation on matters of theology over Church teaching.
For centuries, the Church provided a real focal point that grounded and shaped not only religious life, but also the way that Christians engaged in political, economic and social activities. The Unintended Reformation surveys the domino effect of Protestant Christianity after the Reformation, where individuals continue to challenge other individuals on matters of doctrine, with little or no authority to stop heresy and false belief.
This proved true in the decades immediately after the Reformation, as modern philosophy attempted to develop a framework of understanding the world based on reason alone and void of religious authority. This autonomy, however, has continued over the centuries, as evidenced by the Marxist philosophy that shaped both the Nazi Party and Cold War-era Europe, as well as the relativism that dictates our present debates on the value of human life and the definition of marriage and family.
Clocking in at 592 pages, The Unintended Reformation is a thorough analysis of not only the past, but also our present condition. Divided into only six chapters, readers may at times grow weary of the detail and length of each section, but the end result is well worth the effort. Gregory’s study serves as a record that, without the moral authority and unity of the Catholic Church, things fall apart — and as William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” warns us, the center cannot hold.
Christopher White writes from New York.
THE UNINTENDED REFORMATION
How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society
By Brad S. Gregory
Belknap Press, 2012
592 pages, $39.95
To order: osv.com