The Reformation Wrongly Blamed

By Radner, Ephraim | First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, June/July 2012 | Go to article overview

The Reformation Wrongly Blamed


Radner, Ephraim, First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


In 1844, the Spanish priest, philosopher, and polemicist Jaime Balmes published the third and final volume of his massive Protestantism and Catholicism Compared, With Respect to European Civilization. The popularity of his work - it was quickly translated and published in many languages - stemmed from his ability to describe the social and political consequences of various Protestant "outlooks" or "principles," consequences he judged the true source of the destructive influence of an ascendant modern and secular culture.

Identifying these consequences was part of the long-standing Catholic tradition of anti-Protestant polemic. For example, he insisted that "if there be any thing constant in Protestantism, it is undoubtedly the substitution of private judgment for public and lawful authority." A focus on the dangers of private judgment was part of a long tradition stretching all the way back to the early days of the sixteenth century, when opponents decried Protestant "anarchy" and its effects. This tradition of polemic achieved classic formulation in Bossuet's 1688 The History of the Variations of the Protestant Churches.

Into this tradition Balmes, however, introduced a new note of historical objectivity, making his antiProtestantism uniquely modern in tone and focus. He acknowledged that a rejection of authority was not the goal of the early Reformers, "fanatical," "mad," and "infidel" though they were. They quite obviously wanted to replace what they imagined a corrupted Roman authority with the purified authority of true doctrine and scriptural preaching.

However, the Reformation outran itself, he explained. The imperial power of private judgment asserted itself among Protestants "for the most part, unintentionally, and sometimes against their express wishes." Thus the nature of European society changed despite the Reformers' hopes. They maintained that "each individual has an incontestable right to interpret the Scriptures for himself," only to discover that "this principle, carried to the fullest extent, was not sustainable." Having rejected the authority of the Church as the glue holding together Christendom, Protestantism was ineluctably drawn to the force of military might, to using the secular arm of the state as the source for order and unity.

Bit by bit, society and its sustaining structures disintegrated. Morality was subverted, cohesive political communities were undermined, and commerce became king. All of this led - and this is the core of Balmes' historical critique of Protestantism - to the "obstruction" and in many cases outright destruction of "European civilization" itself. It was a genealogy of modernity that became extremely popular among nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Catholic intellectuals, reframed and recast many times, most memorably, perhaps, in a programmatic little book of 1925 by a young and recently converted Jacques Maritain, Three Reformers: Luther, Descartes, Rousseau.

Perhaps unintentionally, in The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, Brad S. Gregory revives this distinctively modern and distinctively Catholic genealogy of modernity. Throughout the West we see a society "increasingly riven by angry, uncivil rivals"; we witness the "dissolution of the social relationships and communities" that uphold integral views of "what is good, true, and right." We endure "the liquefying effects of capitalism and consumerism on the politically protected individuals within liberal states, as men and women in larger numbers prioritize the fulfillment of their self-chosen, acquisitive, individual desires above any social (including familial) solidarities except those they also happen to choose, and only for as long as they happen to choose them." And all this is now "contributing to global climate change in potentially dangerous ways," as both the West and now the East in places like China careen into the desert of self-indulgence. …

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