Ecumenical Corner

June 1999
Ernest Falardeau, SSS

Another Look at the Reformation

Pope John Paul II in his encyclical "Ut Unum Sint" speaks of the importance of ecumenical formation. He stresses the need to revisit the history of the reformation as one of the major areas where objectivity needs to be reestablished. There has been a lot of "character assassination" and stereotyping of the players in the events of that time. This does not mean that one must whitewash what happened. But it is important to study its history with objectivity.

Martin Luther (1483-1546)

Most people are familiar with the life of Martin Luther. The Augustinian monk who posted 95 theses on the Cathedral door at Wittenburg and started the Reformation was the "trail blazer" - the rough woodsman who blazed a trail that others followed. His life and contribution to religion in the sixteenth century and to the eventual reform of the Catholic Church, which he loved very much, is not fully appreciated. Caricature and misrepresentation, even by the Catholics of his time, distorts the accomplishments of a great scholar and religious genius.

For my part I have found it useful to download his 95 theses ( to see exactly what it was Luther was trying to say. Reading the theses, I was struck by Luther’s reverence for the Pope (Leo X) and for his legitimate criticism of the abuses which were current in the preaching of indulgences at his time. Important to this reassessment of Luther is a recognition that the people against whom he was fighting were coming from a very different perspective. Cardinal Cajetan, for example, was an Italian, a Dominican, a prince of the Church and a philosopher. There was never a meeting of minds between him and the peasant, Augustinian friar and bible scholar, Martin Luther.

Luther’s primary concern was the reform of the Church, especially the greed and wealth which characterized some of the hierarchy of the time. He deplored the ignorance of the lower clergy and the affluence of the hierarchy.

John Calvin (1509-1564

Many Catholics know little of John Calvin. And yet he is perhaps as important to the Protestant Reformation as Martin Luther. If Luther was the trail blazer, Calvin was the architect. His keen mind and gift for organization made him the natural talent needed at the time of the Reformation to codify in a coherent system, the tenets of the Protestant Reformation. Calvin did it in his famous Institutions de la Religion Chrétienne (Institutes of the Christian Religion). This is essentially a work on faith, the creed, prayer (especially the Lord’s Prayer), the Sacraments and Christian freedom and the organization of the Church.

Calvin has been stereotyped as a very austere and puritanical type. He is the founder of the Reformed Church. (In Scotland and the United States the term Presbyterian is used for this Church. John Knox had a very great influence on it.) Calvin clearly stated in his introduction to his work, dedicated to the king of France, that he and the reformers did not want to start a new Church. They wanted a reformation of the Catholic Church.

John Calvin was a humanist (his first published work was a translation of Seneca’s De Clementia in 1531). He also published many commentaries on the New Testament and several theological tracts. But his Institutes remain his monumental contribution to the cause of the Reformation. He revised it many times and published the final editions in Latin and French shortly before his death.

Ahead of their Time

One conclusion that readily comes to mind in studying Luther and Calvin, is that both men were "ahead of their time". Luther and Calvin were asking for bible translations in the vernacular, participation of the laity in the liturgy and church life, more frequent reception of the Eucharist, communion under both species, etc. These are things that have since been granted by the Church, especially at Vatican II.

We cannot rewrite history. It is difficult for us in our time to judge Luther and Calvin in theirs. They were undoubtedly men of great religious fervor and dedication. They were outstanding scholars and men of great influence. To say they were ahead of their time is to be more than polite. Had there been more of a meeting of minds and a willingness to dialogue and more concern about the unity of Christians at the time of the Reformation, five hundred years of division might have been averted.

This is hindsight. More importantly, it is possible in our time to bridge the gap between Catholic and Protestant views. If the Church is to be one, a careful re-reading of history will be required.


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