It’s been 500 years since the Reformation and it’s been less than a blessing, according to a scholar on the schism in the Catholic Church.
“The Reformation was a religious revolution that led to the secularization of society,” said Brad Gregory, a professor at Notre Dame University in Indiana and the author of Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World.
What the 16th-century Augustinian monk Martin Luther intended to be a reform of corruption in the Church quickly became a movement that escaped his control, said Gregory, and the Bible became a bone of contention.
“When people agree that religion should be the foundation of their civilization but can’t agree about its content, they’re in for trouble,” said Gregory, who made his arguments on Sept. 22 at St. Joseph’s College as part of an interdisciplinary conference on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
“That’s why sustained disagreement is the most decisive, basic fact about the Reformation era — painfully tragic as it is for Christians today, including those deeply committed to ecumenical dialogue and cooperation.”
Five hundred years later, that split has led to individualism, consumerism, moral disagreements and political divisiveness — all of which are unintended consequences of the Reformation, Gregory argues.
An “ultra-devout, ultra-conscientious” German university professor and friar, Luther wasn’t seeking to undermine the Church or start a church of his own when he published the Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, Gregory said.
Instead, Luther challenged papal authority and controversial practices in the Church at the time, including the selling of indulgences for the forgiveness of sin. He was later excommunicated.
However, the Catholic Church, which had dominated public life in the 16th century, began to divide following the Reformation. Gregory said the split led to disagreements over teachings, political conflicts, and social upheaval.
“The Church became the churches. Christian controversies and conflicts threatened coexistence. How could Christians who believed contrary things about fundamental aspects of human life, on which they believed eternal salvation depended, coexist in relative peace and stability?”
Today, the Church has little of the influence it once had, Gregory said.
“Christianity has little capacity to influence the wider society in any coherent, collective way, because Christians themselves are divided on every contentious political, social, and moral issue, including abortion, same-sex marriage, gun control, immigration, international interventions abroad, and so forth—including the current American president.”
However, Rev. Richard Reimer, a Lutheran chaplain at the University of Alberta, said the decline of religious influence in public life is not necessarily a bad thing.
“I think the Church has the most integral voice from the margins. Jesus was marginal in his society.”
Ecumenical efforts to promote unity among Christian churches have been strong, especially over the last 50 years, but Gregory does not believe there will be a genuine reunification of Christians before the end times.
“It’s one thing to have a shared prayer service together and it’s another thing to belong to the same church and affirm the same things,” he said.
“I think it’s good that Christians get along today as well as they can, but to have those kinds of interactions does not change those kinds of problems that I’m talking about in terms of the individualism, consumerism, the moral disagreements, and the political divisiveness in our society.”
Despite its bleak tone, there were reasons for optimism in Gregory’s presentation to an audience of Christians, Muslims and other people of faiths.
Matthew Kostelecky, associate academic dean at St. Joseph’s College, said he hoped Gregory’s presentation would lead to further interfaith dialogue and a “better understanding of the past and better understanding of the present, which will help us go forward.”
Gregory’s presentation may not have been good news, but it wasn’t all bad either, said Julien Hammond, co-ordinator of ecumenical and interreligious relations for the Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton.
“You don’t come out with ‘Reformation rah, rah.’ You end up having to go home with some deep thinking.”