In my continuing endeavor to engrave our periods on my own memory (using passion and mockery as a stylus),
I offer this on the Reformation:
It’s amazing how deadly resilient Christianity is.
Philip IV of France (ruled 1285-1314) decides to tax French Clergy for half their annual income to pay for a
war. The Pope in Rome nixes that. But Philip’s war is popular in France; so the French church supports
Philip and Philip taxes the church. So much for Christianty’s authority over the state, right?
When the pope dies, a buddy of Philip is elected pope and in 1305 moves the papacy from Rome to Avignon, France.
Obviously, if a king’s whim can move the seat of holiness, it must be bogus, n’est-ce pas? Non! Pas du tout!
Meanwhile, the Hundred Years’ War, between England and France starts in 1337. The English don’t like
the idea of sending their contributions to a pope who lives in France. So John Wycliffe allies with
the English king and announces that the English don’t have to depend on the papacy for salvation.
In other words, the pope’s a bozo, eh wot?
In 1378, a French Pope decides he’d rather be in Rome, but when he dies, the Italians insist on
electing an Italian pope. This irks the French, who elect their own so now we have TWO clowns with
funny hats claiming to speak for God. The church realizes this is making it hard to take the office
of Pope seriously, so they decide to settle it by holding a council and choosing a Pope who’s neither
of the two contending for the role. The finally settle on a prudent choice and declare him Pope.
Problem is, the other two won’t step down. So now we have THREE Popes
(one unsanctified author swears this was the original inspiration for the Three Stooges.)
Once this slapstick situation has settled down, and we’re getting into the 1500s, we get a couple of
Popes with better – but more expensive – taste. Julius II commissions the Sistine Chapel.
Leo X commissions St. Peter’s in Rome. Their self-indulgence is expensive and they come up with
the idea of paying the bills by selling Get-Out-Of-Purgatory-Not-Quite-For-Free cards, known as Indulgences.
The outcome of all this comedy is that some people start taking Christianity into their own hands.
* * *
In Wittenberg, Martin Luther – a glum and obsessive monk who recognized his vocation when he almost
got hit by lightning – was beginning to have opinions of his own. To Luther, salvation
was a gift direct from God, with the Church as teachers and helpers, not merchandisers and toll collectors.
So when Johan Tetzel, a porcine indulgence salesman, came to Wittenberg in 1517, and advertised
(allegedly) “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs,”
Luther went ballistic. He posted his response on the local bulletin board -- the church door.
His message consisted of 95 one-liners, individual, numbered sentences, each of which is its own
little proverb, nicely framed to appeal to bourgeois housewives, and all linked in theme. For example:
2. Only God can give salvation – not a priest.
21. An indulgence will not save a man.
21. A dead soul cannot be saved by an indulgence.
27. It is nonsense to teach that a dead soul in Purgatory can be saved by money.
45. A person who passes by a beggar, but buys an indulgence, will gain the anger and disappointment of God.
46. A Christian should buy what is necessary for life, not waste money on an indulgence.
95. Let Christians experience problems if they must – and overcome them – rather than live a false
life based on present Catholic teaching.
In short, Luther was asserting his right, as a individual, as an intellectual, to interpret the
scripture and disagree with priests and popes. He had not broken out of the prison, but was doubting
the character of the jailer. The German Reformation had begun.
The trend of defying Rome continued in England in 1534, when Henry VIII, demanded the pope let
Henry marry and divorce whenever his Royal Horniness pleased, and the Pope declined. Henry issued
the Act of Supremacy, unilaterally declaring himself the head of the Church in England. The English
Reformation had begun.
Two years later, in 1536, the Frenchman who came to be known as John Calvin settled in Geneva
and published his Institutes of the Christian Religion, which featured the very ingenious notion
that if you – of your own free will – decided to become a Calvinist, God had predestined you for
salvation. Perhaps it was the piquancy of the paradox that made Calvinism so popular in France.
With all this enlightened intellect devoted to religion; through the storms of opposition and rebellion;
though St. Peter’s heirs were manufactured in triplicate and behaved like used-car salesmen; though
rules and rituals were swept away by sword and syllogism, Christianity – like the ineradicable cockroach –
throve snug and deep in the foundations of Europe, and stowed away – like a rat – in the holds of the ships
bound for the New World.