The Road Not Taken

Brad Litttlejohn

As we remember the Reformation this week, those who stop to think about the anniversary (too few of us, no doubt) will probably either celebrate it as the birthday of the Protestant churches, or lament it as the beginning of a great schism that still divides the western church today. We will think of such revolutionary figures as Luther and Calvin, men iconoclastic and charismatic enough to have whole traditions named after them. This way of thinking about the Reformation, though, is liable to blind us to its most significant feature: It was a reform movement, an attempt to purify and heal the Catholic Church of its corruptions. Had events played out a bit differently, the Reformation might have been exactly what its name implies, rather than a lasting schism or the birth of a new family of churches. With contemporary ecumenical zeal finally taking hold of conservative Reformed churches, and Protestant-Catholic dialogue becoming an ever more prominent fixture of the ecclesiastical landscape, it is worth pausing to remember this road not taken, the road of Catholic reform, and reflecting briefly on the causes of its failure.

The peripatetic figure of Peter Martyr Vermigli, the Italian reformer who found himself successively in Lucca, Zurich, Strasbourg, Oxford, and then Strasbourg and Zurich again, may serve as a useful reference point for this little-known side of the Reformation. Vermigli was born in Florence in 1499, when the ashes of Savonarola had scarcely cooled and Michelangelo was just beginning work on his David. Entering the Augustinian order in 1514 and the University of Padua in 1518, Vermigli soon acquired a reputation for piety, preaching, and phenomenal erudition. In Padua he formed a friendship with a student a few months his junior, a like-minded humanist from England by the name of Reginald Pole, one of the most fascinating and enigmatic figures of the Reformation.[1] 

Both Pole and Vermigli had found themselves in an ever-widening circle of priests, scholars, and devout laymen committed to the cause of church reform in Italy. This movement sought a revival of lay spirituality and devotion, focusing as Luther had on the believer's direct access to Christ without legalistic intermediaries, and also on the renewed reading of Scripture, and like Luther campaigned for the abolition of abuses among the corrupt church hierarchy. Vermigli was at the heart of this reforming network, and soon found himself promoted through a series of posts in Italy to become one of the highest-ranking officers of the Augustinian order. Though not directly exposed to the writings of the Protestant reformers until around 1537, from what we can tell, Vermigli had independently arrived at many of their same theological insights through his study of St. Augustine. In particular, he and his friend Gasparo Contarini were fleshing out a doctrine of justification by faith not far from that being taught by Luther and Melanchthon.  

The years 1536-37 were pivotal for the Italian reform movement. Vermigli was appointed consultant to a papal commission on church reform alongside Pole and Contarini (both newly-made cardinals), as well as two other leading reformist Italian churchmen: Jacopo Sadoleto and Giovanni Carafa. The different paths of these five men symbolize the very different directions that the internal Roman reform movement soon took. Pole remained a loyal-though-uncomfortable son of the Catholic church, seeking to carve out space for moderates and reformists and favoring a more lenient policy toward Protestants.[2] Sadoleto became a committed apologist of the Catholic church, seeking to win Protestants back by persuasive writing. His most famous attempt was a letter to the people of Geneva in 1539, which provoked one of the classics of Protestant polemic, John Calvin's Reply to Sadoleto. Carafa, on the other hand, who had always harbored a fierce ascetic and disciplinary streak, concluded that the corrupting influence of Protestantizing doctrine was even worse than the corrupt lives of the clergy, and became the architect of the uncompromising Counter-Reformation. In 1542 Carafa launched the merciless Roman Inquisition, over which he presided for the next thirteen years as cardinal and then in 1555 as Pope Paul IV. 

The catalyst for Carafa's crackdown was the actions of the two most evangelical members of this quintet, Contarini and Vermigli. In 1541, Contarini was appointed as the head of the Catholic delegation to the Colloquy of Regensburg (or Ratisbon), by which the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sought to reconcile the rival Catholic and Lutheran parties and thus stabilize his realm. The Protestant delegation was led by Luther's sidekick Philipp Melanchthon, and the Strasbourg reformer Martin Bucer; both had a reputation, unlike Luther himself, for valuing peace and seeking compromise whenever it could reasonably be achieved. Contarini was a man of similar disposition, and he had initially intended Vermigli to join him at the gathering, though this did not transpire, and the other members of his delegation were less irenic. Despite profound differences, however, the two parties came tantalizingly close to agreement on the central issue of justification, even signing off on a joint statement, though not one that would satisfy Luther.

Yet even before Luther had rejected it as too ambiguous, both the formula and the Colloquy were doomed. The Pope and his advisors angrily rejected articles that Contarini sent to them, and insisted that these matters could only be settled by a general council presided over by the Pope--which was to materialize as the Council of Trent five years later. Contarini was recalled to Italy, stopping to confer with his friend Vermigli in Lucca before dying a few months later in disgrace. Within a year, the Italian reform movement was scattered to the winds as the Inquisition began. Vermigli and many of his students openly declared for Protestantism and fled north, while Pole tried to shelter his fellow moderate reformists from the wrath of Carafa. Pole had one more opportunity to change the direction of the Roman church, coming within one vote of being elected pope in 1549. To avoid conflict, however, he withdrew his name and the hardliners gained control. By Carafa's death in 1559, almost the last vestiges of evangelical reform in Italy had been stamped out, and the Council of Trent had decisively turned its back on reconciliation with the Protestants.

One more tantalizing opportunity was to present itself in 1561, however, and Vermigli once again was involved, after an illustrious career through the Protestant centers of northern Europe. France was a nation that, while devout, had always harbored something of an independent streak vis-à-vis the Papacy. It was there that the Queen Mother Catherine de' Medici, de facto ruler as regent of her ten-year-old son, was seeking to steer a middle course between the Huguenot and Catholic nobility vying for influence. Ignoring the decrees of Trent and the remonstrances of the papacy, Catherine determined to call a national church council, the Colloquy of Poissy, in 1561. Theodore Beza headed the Protestant delegation and was joined by Vermigli, whose Florentine background, it was hoped, would help influence the Queen. 

After inconclusive opening sessions, leading members of both Catholic and Protestant delegations convened a private conference before the Queen, where, after a couple weeks of arguments they were able to produce a statement on the divisive issue of the Eucharist that, while completely satisfying to no one, was cautiously accepted by all.  Unfortunately, as at Regensburg, once the formula was shared with the other Catholic prelates, it was angrily rejected and the Catholic negotiators disgraced.  The Colloquy broke up without resolution, and not long afterward France spiraled into religious civil war.

What can we learn from these episodes, besides the realization that the Reformation was a much more complex and unpredictable affair than we might have previously imagined?  

Perhaps the clearest lesson of Regensburg, Poissy, and the failure of evangelical reform to capture the heart of the Roman church, is that while certainly embracing all opportunities for meaningful fraternal dialogue, we need to maintain a healthy skepticism about the apparent contemporary rapprochement between Protestantism and Rome.  We have seen our own version of Regensburg in the Joint Declaration on Justification, yet aside from the ambiguities of the formula--which would no doubt have vexed Luther--the fact remains that reconciliation remains contingent on the good pleasure of the magisterium, which reserves full right to determine the boundaries of doctrine. Progress on the material principle of the Reformation is all well and good, but remains fragile indeed so long as the formal principle, sola Scriptura, is rejected.  

Likewise, recent Protestant recovery of a robust sacramentology has held out the hope of at last transcending the great divide on transubstantiation. George Hunsinger's acclaimed exposition of Calvinist eucharistic theology toward this end, Eucharist and Ecumenism, might be considered the modern equivalent of the Reformed formula at Poissy. But whatever individual Catholic sympathizers Hunsinger may have found, the Catholic Church as a whole is not about to rewrite their catechism on the issue.

Protestants, especially in America, have been cheered by the appearance of modern-day Contarinis, Catholic leaders keen to dialogue with and learn from Protestants. We should welcome such opportunities, but with a sunny cynicism. We may find that if we keep on talking and studying Scripture and tradition, we will find common ground with some on justification, the sacraments, and more. But as long as the magisterium claims final authority to determine the shape of that common ground, the ecumenical bridge remains suspended over a chasm little narrower than the chasm that swallowed Contarini nearly five hundred years ago. In the end, our model must be a man like Vermigli--eager to seek reform, but not hesitant to shake the dust from his feet the choice lay between of submission to man or to God.


[1] Given Pole's support for church reform and his closeness to the English royal family, Henry VIII repeatedly sought his support for his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and eventual break with Rome, but Pole enraged Henry by refusing to endorse these shocking moves. 

[2] At least until the end of his life, when he would preside--just how willingly we are not quite sure--over Bloody Mary's attempt to extinguish the English Protestant church.

Brad Littlejohn (PhD, University of Edinburgh) is President of The Davenant Institute and Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Theory at Patrick Henry College. He blogs regularly at

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 *Editor's Note: This article was originally posted in October of 2014.