Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain! Roman Catholic History and the Emerald City Protocol

Article by   April 2012
In the field of Reformation studies, Professor Brad Gregory is somebody for whom I have immense respect.  Those outside the discipline of history are possibly unaware of the ravages which postmodernism brought in its wake, making all narratives negotiable and fuelling a rise in interest in all manner of trivia and marginal weirdness.  Dr. Gregory is trained in both philosophy and history and has done much to place the self-understanding of human agents back at the centre of historical analysis.  Thus, for those of us interested in the Reformation, he has also played an important role in placing religion back into the discussion.  For that, I and many others owe him a great debt of gratitude.

I therefore find myself in the odd and uncomfortable position of writing a very critical review of his latest book, The Unintended Reformation (Belknap Harvard, 2011). The book itself is undoubtedly well-written and deeply learned, with nearly a third of the text devoted to endnotes.  It is brilliant in its scope and execution, addressing issues of philosophy, politics and economics.  Anyone wanting a panoramic view of the individuals, the institutions and the forces which shaped early modern Europe should read this work. Yet for all of its brilliance, the book does not demonstrate its central thesis, that Protestantism must shoulder most of the responsibility for the various things which Dr. Gregory dislikes about modern Western society, from its exaltation of the scientific paradigm to its consumerism to its secular view of knowledge and even to global warming. I am sympathetic with many of Dr. Gregory's gripes about the world of today; but in naming Protestantism as the primary culprit he engages in a rather arbitrary blame game.

Dr. Gregory's book contains arguments about both metaphysics and what we might call empirical social realities. On the grounds that debates about metaphysics, like games of chess, can be great fun for the participants but less than thrilling for the spectators, I will post my thoughts on that aspect of the book in a separate blog entry. In this article, I will focus on the Papacy, persecution and the role of the printing press.  This piece is more of a medieval jousting tournament than a chess game and will, I trust, provide the audience with better spectator sport.

One final preliminary comment: I am confident that my previous writings on Roman Catholicism and Roman Catholics indicate that I am no reincarnation of a nineteenth century 'No popery!' rabble-rouser. I have always tried to write with respect and forbearance on such matters, to the extent that I have even been berated at times by other, hotter sorts of Protestants for being too pacific. In what follows, however, I am deliberately combative.  This is not because I wish to show disrespect to Dr. Gregory or to his Church or to his beliefs; but he has set the tone by writing a very combative book. I like that. I like writers who believe and care about the big questions of life. But here is the rub: those who write in such a way must allow those who respond to them to believe with equal passion in their chosen cause and to care about it deeply and thus to be equally combative in their rejoinders.

A key part of the book's argument is the apparent anarchy created by the Protestant emphasis on the perspicuity of scripture. In this, Dr. Gregory stands with his Notre Dame colleague, Christian Smith, as seeing this as perhaps the single weakest point of Protestantism. He also rejects any attempt to restrict Protestantism to the major confessional traditions (Reformed, Anglican and Lutheran) as he argues that such a restriction would create an artificial delimitation of Protestant diversity. Instead, he insists on also including those groups which scholars typically call radical reformers (essentially all other non-Roman Christian sects which have their origins in the turn to scripture of the Reformation). This creates a very diverse and indeed chaotic picture of Protestantism such that no unifying doctrinal synthesis is possible as a means of categorizing the whole.  

I wonder if I am alone in finding the more stridently confident comments of some Roman Catholics over the issue of perspicuity to be somewhat tiresome and rather overblown. Perspicuity was, after all, a response to a position that had proved to be a failure: the Papacy.  Thus, to criticize it while proposing nothing better than a return to that which had proved so inadequate is scarcely a compelling argument.

Yes, it is true that Protestant interpretive diversity is an empirical fact; but when it comes to selectivity in historical reading as a means of creating a false impression of stability, Roman Catholic approaches to the Papacy provide some excellent examples of such fallacious method.  The ability to ignore or simply dismiss as irrelevant the empirical facts of papal history is quite an impressive feat of historical and theological selectivity. Thus, as all sides need to face empirical facts and the challenges they raise, here are a few we might want to consider, along with what seem to me (as a Protestant outsider) to be the usual Roman Catholic responses:

Empirical fact: The Papacy as an authoritative institution was not there in the early centuries. 
Never mind.  Put together a doctrine of development whereby Christians - or at least some of them, those of whom we choose to approve in retrospect on the grounds we agree with what they say  - eventually come to see the Pope as uniquely authoritative.  

Empirical fact: The Papacy was corrupt in the later Middle Ages, building its power and status on political antics, forged documents and other similar scams. 
Ignore it, excuse it as a momentary aberration and perhaps, if pressed, even offer a quick apology. Then move swiftly on to assure everyone it is all sorted out now and start talking about John Paul II or Benedict XVI.  Whatever you do, there is no need to allow this fact to have any significance for how one understands the theory of papal power in the abstract or in the present.  

Empirical fact: The Papacy was in such a mess at the beginning of the fifteenth century that it needed a council to decide who of the multiple claimants to Peter's seat was the legitimate pope.  
Again, this was merely a momentary aberration but it has no significance for the understanding of papal authority.  After all, it was so long ago and so far away.

Empirical fact: The church failed (once again) to put its administrative, pastoral, moral and doctrinal house in order at the Fifth Lateran Council at the start of the sixteenth century.  
Forget it.  Emphasise instead the vibrant piety of the late medieval church and then blame the ungodly Protestants for their inexplicable protests and thus for the collapse of the medieval social, political and theological structure of Europe.  

Perhaps it is somewhat aggressive to pose these points in such a blunt form. Again, I intend no disrespect but am simply responding with the same forthrightness with which certain writers speak of Protestantism. The problem here is that the context for the Reformation - the failure of the papal system to reform itself, a failure in itself lethal to notions of papal power and authority - seems to have been forgotten in all of the recent aggressive attacks on scriptural perspicuity.  These are all empirical facts and they are all routinely excused, dismissed or simply ignored by Roman Catholic writers. Perspicuity was not the original problem; it was intended as the answer.   One can believe it to be an incorrect, incoherent, inadequate answer; but then one must come up with something better - not simply act as if shouting the original problem louder will make everything all right. Such an approach to history and theology is what I call the Emerald City protocol: when defending the great and powerful Oz, one must simply pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.  

Given the above empirical facts, the medieval Papacy surely has chronological priority over any of the alleged shortcomings of scriptural perspicuity in the history of abject ecclesiastical and theological disasters. To be fair, Dr. Gregory does acknowledge that 'medieval Christendom' was a failure (p. 365) but in choosing such a term he sidesteps the significance of the events of the late medieval period for papal authority. The failure of medieval Christendom was the failure of the Papacy. To say medieval Christendom failed but then to allow such a statement no real ecclesiastical significance is merely an act of throat-clearing before going after the people, the Protestants, who frankly are in the crosshairs simply because it appears one finds them and their sects distasteful. Again, to be fair, one cannot blame Roman Catholics for disliking Protestants: our very existence bears testimony to Roman Catholicism's failure. But that Roman Catholics who know their history apparently believe the Papacy now works just fine seems as arbitrary and selective a theological and historical move as any confessionally driven restriction of what is and is not legitimate Protestantism.  

As Dr. Gregory brings his narrative up to the present, I will do the same. There are things which can be conveniently ignored by North American Roman Catholic intellectuals because they take place in distant lands. Yet many of these are emblematic of contemporary Roman Catholicism in the wider world. Such, for example, are the bits of the real cross and vials of Jesus' blood which continue to be displayed in certain churches, the cult of Padre Pio and the relics of Anthony of Padua and the like (both of whom edged out Jesus and the Virgin Mary in a poll as to who was the most prayed to figure in Italian Catholicism). We Protestants may appear hopelessly confused to the latest generation of North American Roman Catholic polemicists, but at least my own little group of Presbyterian schismatics does not promote the veneration of mountebank stigmatics or the virtues of snake-oil.

Still, for the sake of argument let us accept the fideistic notion that the events of the later Middle Ages do not shatter the theology underlying the Papacy.  What therefore of Roman Catholic theological unity and papal authority today? That is not too rosy either, I am afraid.  The Roman Catholic Church's teaching on birth control is routinely ignored by vast swathes of the laity with absolute impunity; Roman Catholic politicians have been in the vanguard of liberalizing abortion laws and yet still been welcome at Mass and at high table with church dignitaries; leading theologians cannot agree on exactly what papal infallibility means; and there is not even consensus on the meaning and significance of Vatican II relative to previous church teaching. Such a Church is as chaotic and anarchic as anything Protestantism has thrown up. 

Further, if Dr. Gregory wants to include as part of his general concept of Protestantism any and all sixteenth century lunatics who ever claimed the Bible alone as sole authority and thence to draw conclusions about the plausibility of the perspicuity of scripture, then it seems reasonable to insist in response that discussions of Roman Catholicism include not simply the Newmans, Ratzingers and Wotjylas but also the Kungs, Rahners, Schillebeeckxs and the journalists at the National Catholic Reporter.  And why stop there?  We should also throw in the sedevacantists and Lefebvrists for good measure.  They all claim to be good Roman Catholics and find their unity around the Office of the Pope, after all. Let us not exclude them on the dubious grounds that they do not support our own preconceived conclusions of how papal authority should work.  At least Protestantism has the integrity to wear its chaotic divisions on its sleeve.

Moving on from the issue of authority, we find that Dr. Gregory also argues that religious persecution is a poisonous result of the confessionalisation of Europe into warring religious factions. Certainly, the bloodshed along confessional lines in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was terrible, but doctrinal disagreements did not begin with the Reformation. The New Testament makes it clear that serious doctrinal conflict existed within the church even during apostolic times (I hope I am allowed, for the sake of argument, to assume that the New Testament is perspicuous enough for me to state that with a degree of confidence); and the link between church and state which provided the context for bloodshed over matters of theological deviancy was established from at least the time of Priscillian in the late fourth century. It was hardly a Protestant or even a Reformation innovation.

When it comes to the empirical facts of Catholic persecution, Dr. Gregory only mentions the Inquisition twice. That is remarkably light coverage given its rather stellar track record in all that embarrassing auto da fe business. Moreover, he mentions it first only in a Reformation/post-Reformation context. Yet Roman Catholic persecution of those considered deviants was not simply or even primarily a response to Reformation Protestantism but a well-established pattern in the Middle Ages. No doubt the Spanish Jews and Muslims, the Cathars, the Albigensians, the Lollards, the Hussites and many other religious deviants living before the establishment of any Protestant state might have wished that their sufferings had received a more substantial role in the narrative and more significance in the general thesis. Sure, Protestantism broke the Roman Catholic monopoly on persecution and thus played a shameful and ignominious part in its escalation; but it did not establish the precedents, legally, culturally or practically.

Finally, the great lacuna in this book is the printing press. Dr. Gregory has, as I noted above, done brilliant work in putting self-understanding back on the historical agenda and thus of grounding the history of ideas in historical realities rather than metaphysical abstractions. The danger with this, however, is that material factors can come to be somewhat neglected. His thesis - that Protestantism shattered the unified nature and coherence of knowledge and paved the way for its secularization - does not take into account the impact of the easy availability of print. The printed book changed everything: it fuelled literacy rates and it expanded the potential for diversity of opinion. I suspect there is a very plausible alternative, or at least supplementary, narrative to the 'Protestantism shattered the unified nature and coherence of knowledge' thesis: the printing press did it because it made impossible the Church's control of the nature, range, flow and availability of knowledge.

Ironically, the printing press is one of the great success stories of pre-Reformation Catholic Europe. One might argue that it was a technological innovation and thus not particularly 'Catholic' in that sense. That is true; but for some years after it was invented it was unclear whether it would be successful enough to replace medieval book production. In fact, its success was significantly helped by the brisk fifteenth century trade in printed breviaries and missals and the indulgences produced to fund war against the Ottomans. In other words, it was the vibrancy of late medieval Catholic piety, of which Dr. Gregory makes much, that ensured the future of the printing press and thereby the shipwrecking of the old, stable forms of knowledge.

The Roman Catholic Church knew the danger presented by the easy transmission of, and access to, knowledge which the printing press provided. That is why it was so assiduous in burning books in the sixteenth century and why the Index of Prohibited Books remained in place until the 1960s. I well remember being amazed when reading the autobiography of the analytic philosopher and one-time priest, Sir Anthony Kenny, that he had had to obtain special permission from the Church to read David Hume for his doctoral research in the 1950s. At the start of the twenty-first century, Rome may present herself as the friend of engaged religious intellectuals in North America but she took an embarrassingly long time even to allow her people free access to the most basic books of modern Western thought. Women in Britain had the vote, Elvis (in my humble opinion) had already done his best work and The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were starting to churn out hits before Roman Catholics were free to read David Hume without specific permission from the Church.   

Of course, Dr. Gregory knows about the Index; but he seems to see it as a response to Protestantism, not as an extension of the Church's typical manner of handling deviation from its central tenets and practices which stretched back well before the Reformation. And therein lies the ironic, tragic, perplexing flaw of this brilliant and learned book: Dr. Gregory sets out to prove that Protestantism is the source of all, or at least many, of the modern world's ills; but what he actually does is demonstrate in painstaking and compelling detail that medieval Catholicism and the Papacy with which it was inextricably bound up were ultimately inadequate to the task which they set - which they claimed! - for themselves.  Reformation Protestantism, if I can use the singular, was one response to this failure, as conciliarism had been a hundred years before.  One can dispute the adequacy of such responses; but only by an act of historical denial can one dispute the fact that it was the Papacy which failed.

Thanks to the death of medieval Christendom and to the havoc caused by the Reformation and beyond, Dr Gregory is today free to believe (or not) that Protestantism is an utter failure.  Thanks to the printing press, he is also free to express this in a public form. Thanks to the modern world which grew as a response to the failure of Roman Catholicism, he is also free to choose his own solution to the problems of modernity without fear of rack or rope. Yet, having said all that, I for one find it strange indeed that someone would choose as the solution that which was actually the problem in the first place.

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