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Our Stuff Good, Your Stuff Bad

Fergus O’Donoghue

Reformation Myths: Five Centuries of Misconceptions and (Some) Misfortunes, by Rodney Stark, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 194 pp, ISBN 978-0281078271

In eastern Switzerland there is a special event every autumn, when cattle are brought down from high summer pastures. This fills a whole day and requires lots of skilled herding. Cattle owned by Catholics are easily identifiable, because their horns are crowned with flowers and the senior cow, in addition to the floral crown, wears the sacred monogram (the letters IHS and a cross) on a black plaque. Protestant cows are unadorned. The placing, or non-placing, of flowers on Swiss cows points to radically different attitudes: one group of owners explicitly seeks divine protection and is happy with exterior signs, whereas the other is suspicious of any emotionalism and any display. This would not surprise older Irish people, because we have tended to associate Protestantism with simplicity in attitudes, dedication to the task at hand and sobriety in behaviour.

In all the Anglophone countries, where the culture is basically Protestant, it is only recently that emotionalism and display in religion have ceased to be suspect, so “Catholic” empathy is displayed when flowers and candles are placed at the scene of tragic events. That is how things are at present, but when thinking about the past there is an unspoken presumption that the Reformation was, in every aspect, a good thing, leading to religious liberty, scientific advance, freedom of expression and modern civilisation. Catholicism, by contrast, is presumed to be colourful and cultured, but obsessed by sex and both intellectually and politically oppressive. So, to misquote George Orwell, (who detested Catholicism): “Protestantism good, Catholicism bad.” This attitude is found at all levels of writing, from the creative, such as Kingsley Amis’ counterfactual novel The Alteration (1976), which invents a backward Catholic England four centuries after the 1588 victory of the Spanish Armada, to the banal, such as a recent Irish Times headline asserting that “Catholicism can seriously damage your health” (over an article about the breast-feeding of babies). Mark Rylance, the actor who played Thomas Cromwell in the television version of Wolf Hall, expressed a common opinion when he said that the break with Rome “founded our modern world”.

Rodney Stark has written a polemic, and it is all the more unexpected in coming from a traditionally Protestant publisher. Stark wants to sift fact from myth and begins by reminding us that there were three Reformations: Lutheran, Calvinist and English, “united only in their rejection of papal authority”, but he should add that they had a common commitment to the Bible as the only basis of church teaching. The “average” Protestant, he says, is a statistical fiction. The Reformers “did not fill the pews”, nor convert the masses to a coherent Christianity. Stark maintains that Germans, and most Europeans, were ignorant of even the basic facts of Christianity and, after the Reformation, people continued to hold onto their mixture of pagan and Christian notions. Many princes who became Protestants did so in order to get their hands on the wealth of the church. Catholic princes, he argues, already had control over ecclesiastical wealth and the most important ecclesiastical appointments in their territories, so they had no incentive to accept Reformed doctrines.

It is true that medieval Christians were often woefully instructed, but their religious practice cannot be dismissed merely as a mixture of pagan and Christian. Since the time of Pope Gregory the Great (died 604), missionary policy was to christen rather than to attack the customs of different peoples all over Europe, which led to the conversion of areas such as Scandinavia that were far from old Roman imperial influences. The medieval church offered many forms of devotion: shrines of Mary and the saints, lighting of candles, relics, pilgrimages, prayers for the dead, sermons delivered in the open air and many statues and murals in church buildings. Chantry chapels (there were over sixty of them in Old Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London), meant that many Masses were being said simultaneously, so “going to Mass” meant something quite different from our modern use of the term. The only seating in churches was stone benches along the walls, where the old and the sick rested, hence “going to the wall”. Protestants abolished all those customs and devotions, removed the statues, whitewashed the murals and offered only the Sunday service in the local church (which was otherwise locked). Reformers were distressed that not everybody warmed to the very restricted devotional life they now offered, but they were ready to enforce it; in Geneva, for example, a woman was fined for placing a lighted candle on her husband’s grave.

Medieval Christians received Holy Communion very rarely and this custom was continued in the Protestant churches, which placed great emphasis on the sermon; pews had to be installed so the congregation could sit, rather than move from shrine to shrine as worshippers had in medieval times. Far more significant, however, was the conviction, unchanged since medieval times, that everybody should have the same beliefs. This led to total state control in Lutheran countries, so the Danish monarchy imposed the Reformation on Iceland and much of Norway; the Lutheran princes in Germany acted as if they were bishops and Calvinists forcibly converted the Bernese Oberland. The Habsburg reconversion of Bohemia to Catholicism, often seen as a major example of Catholic intolerance, is only one instance of a widespread pattern.

Stark believes that the Reformation replaced loyalty to Christendom with loyalty to a “nation”, thus leading to modern secularism. In fact, loyalty to a local ruler (regardless of language differences) remained fundamental until the development of modern nationalism in the nineteenth century. Rulers assumed that loyalty to them required agreement in religion, so the English-speaking Catholics of Ireland, to their great distress, were no longer favoured by the Crown. The Reformation was remarkably diverse. Lutheranism was very conservative in Sweden, which ruled Finland, and far more radical in Denmark, but it was Calvinism that wanted to create a godly kingdom on earth and developed in Geneva an early version of the police state, where houses were raided to see if the owners were hiding prohibited books and where adultery was made a capital crime. Scotland tried to emulate the Genevan example, so kirk elders visited those who were not attending church services while penance stools were installed in churches, obliging sinners, especially fornicators, to sit facing the condemnatory gaze of the other members of the congregation for a set number of Sundays. Not surprisingly, Scotland produced many dismal stories, such as the fining of twelve girls who had been heard singing carols in the ruins of Elgin Cathedral on the forbidden feast that used to be Christmas Day. The really keen Covenanters replaced Christmas festivities with seven sermons on  December 25th.

About a hundred years after the beginning of the Reformation, Catholics and Protestants had come to disagree about almost everything. Lutherans were very reluctant to grant equality to Calvinists. England and Wales were deeply divided about the type of Protestantism they wanted: was it to be radical (Puritan) or conservative? The first half of the seventeenth century was stained by the fierce wars in which religion was a useful identifier. Toleration between Catholics and Protestants, and among Protestants, was accepted only when the opponents were too exhausted to continue fighting. It was not regarded as ideal, so Louis XIV had no hesitation in making life intolerable for his Protestant subjects in 1685; Queen Anne was contented with the Penal Laws in Ireland, most of which were passed during her reign; the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg expelled thousands of Lutherans in 1731 and Empress Maria Theresa issued decrees against Hungarian Protestants in 1755. Toleration came slowly and equality (emancipation) for religious minorities became acceptable only in the nineteenth century. For Dutch Catholics it came only in 1859, thirty years after Ireland. Swedish Catholics were allowed to become teachers as recently as 1958.

The history of modern science lists Protestants, Catholics and Jews among its many outstanding figures. Capitalism, however, has been credited to Protestantism alone, particularly by Max Weber in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Stark sees capitalism as having begun in the Middle Ages, with the Cistercians’ massive farming operations and the development of banking in southern Europe, from which it spread north. Jews were forced into money-lending when all other ways of making a living were denied to them. The stock exchange originated in Bruges, long before the Reformation.

Stark does not accept that the Reformation’s emphasis on the individual led to modern secularisation, contrasted with the medieval era, when some argue that there was universal piety and no room for doubt. The extraordinary modern advance of Pentecostal Protestantism, with its rapid growth, communitarian expression of worship and constant division into sub-groups, proves that the insights of the Reformation are still developing. Stark, however, is too harsh on Catholic liberation theology in Latin America. Gatherings of liberation groups are reputed to be very boring, in contrast to Pentecostal exuberance, and Latin American Catholics have adapted Pentecostal methods very successfully. Many Pentecostal preachers, however, have little training, so their congregations may be as evanescent as those of the hundreds of Wesleyan chapels in Wales that used to be full of worshippers and are now used as furniture showrooms, workshops and job training centres.

Many medieval European Christians often believed that they had lost the purity of the early church. The desire to rediscover simplicity led to the foundation of the Franciscans and other groups of friars, as well as movements such as the Waldensians, who regarded themselves as the only real Christians. Medieval Christianity had a strong apocalyptic aspect, promoted by many and given intellectual expression in the writings of Joachim of Fiore (1135-1202), a Cistercian, who believed that Christendom was entering the Age of the Spirit, which would render church structures irrelevant.

Secularism has multiple origins, but it can be traced to the post-Reformation divisions in Christian Europe, which were also geographical. Catholics and Protestants came to regard one another as idolaters (in the eyes of the latter) or heretics (in the eyes of the former). Differences became irreconcilable.

Does Rodney Stark prove his argument? His short book might have had greater impact if it gave more attention to the radical elements of the Reformation, to those movements that grew into large churches, such as the Baptists, or that have never ceased to be sects, such as the Amish and the Hutterites. It omits the positive inheritance of the Reformation, such as worship in the vernacular and knowledge of the Bible. Clerical marriage could also be considered one of Protestantism’s positive contributions to the Christian story. Justification and predestination are no longer our greatest concerns, but the piety and prayerfulness of the Reformed traditions have been very positive contributions to the story of Western Christianity.

As a polemic, the book hits too many targets. It compares unfavourably in this respect with another short book published in 2017, The Shortest History of Germany, in which James Hawes argues that everything negative in the German story comes from the now Protestant north and east, whereas everything good comes from the still Catholic west and south (the areas that formed part of the Roman empire).

There were very strong reform movements in the pre-Reformation church, but they had no chance of succeeding until a reformer became pope. Leo X’s reaction to Luther in 1517 was typical of the Renaissance papacy: he regarded the problem as one of discipline rather than of doctrine and ignored the call to debate. Catholic reform (often known as the Counter-Reformation) began seriously in 1534, with the election of the elderly Alessandro Farnese as Pope Paul III. Already many times a grandfather, Paul, a very unlikely reformer, gave such an impetus to the Counter-Reformation that it became unstoppable in many parts of Europe.

Professor Diarmuid McCullough, who is an Anglican deacon, puts it best when he describes Reformation and Counter-Reformation as two parts of a vast movement that transformed Western Christianity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Such an attitude saves us from lazy generalisations.


Fergus O’Donoghue SJ was editor of Studies from 2001 to 2011. He lives at Saint Francis Xavier Community, Gardiner Street, Dublin.