Reformation, Revolution and Beyond?


Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms, where he refused to recant his works, which were deemed heretical by the Catholic Church.
Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms, where he refused to recant his works, which were deemed heretical by the Catholic Church. (photo: Public domain)

What to call the movement of Christians that broke full communion with the Catholic Church?

In the English-speaking world, the “Reformation” has been the common term. Even many Catholics use it, albeit sometimes with a certain discomfort. Still, some Catholics today and many Catholics in the past referred to the Protestant “Revolt” or “Revolution” rather than the ProtestantReformation. Why the Catholic unease? “Reformation” usually connotes change for the better, perhaps setting a person or an institution back on his or its original course after confusion or corruption took things in the wrong direction.

Many Catholics reject the expression Reformation because, as Catholics, they don’t see breaking with the Catholic Church as improving Christian faith or practice. They see it as substituting the full truth of Christianity for what they regard as the partial truth and error of Protestantism.

Revolt and Revolution, on the other hand, imply a radical break.  A revolt or a revolution can, of course, be either a good thing or a bad thing. Usually, Catholic Americans think of the American Revolution as a good thing. On the other hand, they tend not to view Communist Revolution in Russia that way.

When it comes to the term “Protestant Revolt” or “Protestant Revolution,” Catholics who use the expression mean to describe something bad — a revolt against the legitimate authority of the Church, a rejection of sound Christian doctrine and a repudiation of the full reality of the sacraments Christ gave to his Church.

Thus, there is the question of the Protestant Reformation versus Protestant Revolution. Yet there is also the 16th-century movement of reform within the Catholic Church, which didn’t involve rejecting certain Catholic doctrines, or certain sacraments or liturgical and devotional practices recognized by the Catholic Church, or the authority of the Catholic Church’s leaders. What do we call the efforts to increase faith in, and understanding of, Catholic belief? To encourage receiving the sacraments and engaging in devotional practices more fervently? To strengthen the respect for Church authority and to improve the moral lives of Church leaders?

One answer is, well, reformation. And, indeed, that term has often been used. To distinguish it from the Protestant Reformation, though, historians often speak of the Counter-Reformation. If the Reformation is the Protestant effort to move the people of Christian Europe toward what Protestant leaders regarded as a truer, purer, more faithful Christianity and away from what they thought of as the heretical, impure and corrupt Christianity of the Catholic Church, then the Counter-Reformation is what we call the Catholic effort to move people to a deeper understanding and practice of their faith as the Church saw it.

And yet many historians and not a few others don’t use that expression. For them, it sounds as if the Church tried to improve Catholic belief and practice simply in response to Protestantism. In fact, much of Catholic efforts at reform had nothing to do with Protestantism. Wouldn’t it be better to speak of the Catholic Reformation?

The proponents of the term “Catholic Reformation” seem to have a point. We should, from the Catholic perspective at least, speak of the Protestant Revolution and the Catholic Reformation, right?

Well, not so fast. “Revolt” is a strong word. Some Catholics insist more than rebellion was involved, and they appeal to Unitatis Redintegratio, the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on ecumenism, which states that Catholics should make “every effort to avoid expressions, judgments and actions which do not represent the conditions of our separated brethren with truth and fairness and so make mutual relations with them more difficult” (4).

True, Vatican II doesn’t rule out ever using “Protestant Revolt.” Still, the orientation of the decree on ecumenism, as well as the thrust of Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical Ut Unum Sint and the Church’s “Directory for the Application of the Principles and Norms of Ecumenism” run in another direction. Find another term, such Catholics insist.

How about this: The Reformation refers to the movement of various groups of Christians to change the beliefs, practices and recognized religious authority, either by rejecting certain things they regarded as contrary to biblical Christianity or by deepening people’s faith, participation and submission to what many regarded as the legitimate authority of the traditional Church. The Reformation, in that sense, would refer to Protestant and Catholic efforts to achieve their respective goals. Protestant efforts we would call the Protestant Reformation, while Catholic efforts would be the Catholic Reformation. Fine, you say. Now I’ve got it.  Just the Reformation, which includes both Protestant and Catholic movements.

The trouble is, some scholars today seem increasingly inclined in another direction: Reformations. Protestantism, to the extent this view allows such a diverse set of beliefs and practices to be grouped under a single “ism,” still represents so many perspectives of Christian reform that to speak of the Protestant Reformation misleads. And while reformist Catholicism was more unified, there was sufficient diversity in culture, temperament and spiritual movements that even to speak simply of the Catholic Reformation risks oversimplification, in some scholars’ view. Hence Reformations.

So not only did the various efforts at reform in 16th-century European Christianity create division, but five centuries later, as we try to describe what happened, division remains — not just about what happened, but even about what we should call it.

Mark Brumley is the author of The Seven Deadly Sins of Apologetics and is the president of Ignatius Press.