THE Renaissance and the Reformation are the two springs of modern history, rival sources of the intellectual and moral freshening of modern life. Men might be divided by their preference and lineage here, by their conscious debt to the Renaissance for liberating the mind and beautifying life, or their gratitude to the Reformation for quickening religious belief and the moral sense. The debate between Erasmus and Luther goes on, and will, for in these large matters such truth as men can attain is begotten by the union of opposites, and will ever feel its double parentage.
In a sense the debate is ethnic and geographical, between the Latins and the Teutons, the plein-air, sensuous South and the misty, hardy North; between peoples conquered by Rome and receiving the classic heritage, and peoples resisting Rome—some conquering Rome—and loving their own roots and climes far more than Greeks bringing gifts or Romans bearing laws. Italy and Germany divided between them the forming of the modern soul: Italy by going back to classic literature, philosophy, and art, Germany by going back to early Christian faith and ritual. Italy was almost succeeding in its second effort to conquer Germany—now through tithes and humanism; Germany resisted again, expelled the Church, and silenced the humanists. The Reformation repudiated the Renaissance and its emphasis on earthly affairs and joys, and returned to that aspect (only one!) of the Middle Ages which counted human achievements and delights trivial and vain, called life a vale of tears, and summoned sinful man to faith, repentance, and prayer. To the Italian of the Renaissance, reading Machiavelli and Aretino, this seemed a medieval reaction, a restoration of the Age of Faith in the struggling adolescence of the Age of Reason. The Italian who had heard Pomponazzi, and lived under the easy rule of the Renaissance popes, smiled to find Luther and Calvin and Henry VIII keeping all the marvelous dogmas of the medieval creed—a God-dictated Bible, a triune deity, predestination, creation by divine fiat, original sin, incarnation, virgin birth, atonement, the last judgment, heaven, and hell—and rejecting precisely those elements of medieval Christianity—the worship of the Virgin, a God of love and mercy, the invocation of intercessory saints, a ritual adorned with all the arts—which had given to that faith a tenderness, solace, and beauty warranting a wink at the myths that allowed enjoyment of the arts.
The sincerely believing Catholic had his own argument against the Reformation. He too resented tithes, but he could not dream of destroying the Church. He knew quite well that the monks were getting out of hand, but he felt that there should be room and institutions in the world for men dedicated to contemplation, study, and prayer. He accepted every word of the Bible with two provisos: that the law of Christ had abrogated the law of Moses, and that the Church, having been founded by the Son of God, had equal authority with the Bible, and should have the final right to interpret it and adjust it to the changing needs of life. What would happen if ambiguous and apparently contradictory passages in Scripture were left to the free interpretation and judgment of the individual man?—would not the Bible be torn to pieces by a thousand minds, and Christianity be shattered into a thousand warring sects?
The modern Catholic continues the argument through every phase of modern life. “Your emphasis on faith as against works was ruinous, and led to a religion whose coldness of heart was concealed behind the piety of its phrases; for a hundred years charity almost died in the centers of your victory. You ended the confessional and generated a thousand tensions in the soul of men struggling between instinct and civilization, and now you belatedly restore that healing institution under dubious forms. You destroyed nearly all the schools we had established, and you weakened to the verge of death the universities that the Church had created and developed. Your own leaders admit that your disruption of the faith led to a dangerous deterioration of morals in both Germany and England. You let loose a chaos of individualism in morals, philosophy, industry, and government. You took all the joy and beauty out of religion, and filled it with demonology and terror; you condemned the masses of mankind to damnation as “reprobates,” and consoled an insolent few with the pride of “election” and salvation. You stifled the growth of art, and wherever you triumphed classical studies withered. You expropriated Church property to give it to the state and the rich, but you left the poor poorer than before, and added contempt to misery. You condoned usury and capitalism, but you deprived the workers of the restful holy days a merciful Church had given them. You rejected the papacy only to exalt the state; you gave to selfish princes the right to determine the religion of their subjects, and to use religion as a sanction for their wars. You divided nation against nation, and many a nation and city against itself; you wrecked the international moral checks on national powers, and created a chaos of warring national states. You denied the authority of a Church founded, on your own admission, by the Son of God, but you sanctioned absolute monarchy, and exalted the divine right of kings. Unwittingly you destroyed the power of the Word, which is the only alternative to the power of money or the sword. You claimed the right of private judgment, but you denied it to others as soon as you could; and your refusal to tolerate dissent was less understandable than ours, for we had never defended toleration; no man can be tolerant except where he is indifferent. Meanwhile see what your private judgment has led to. Every man becomes a pope, and judges the doctrines of religion before he is old enough to comprehend the functions of religion in society and morals, and the need of the people for a religious faith. A kind of disintegrative mania, unhindered by any integrative authority, throws your followers into such absurd and violent disputes that men begin to doubt all religion, and Christianity itself would be dissolved, and men would be left spiritually naked in the face of death, were it not that the Church stands firm amid all the fluctuations of opinion and argument, all the fashions of science and philosophy, and holds her regathering flock together against the time when those of you who have come to understand, and are really Christians, will submit your pride of individuality and intellect to the religious needs of mankind, and will come back to the one fold that can preserve religion despite the blasphemous ideologies of this unhappy age.”
Can the Protestant answer this indictment? “Let us not forget the cause of our divergence. Your Catholic Church had become corrupt in practice and personnel, your priests were not functioning, your bishops were worldlings, your popes were the scandal of Christendom; do not your own historians confess it? Honest men called upon you to reform, and meanwhile kept their loyalty to the Church; you promised and pretended to reform, but you did not; on the contrary, you burned at the stake men like Huss and Jerome of Prague because they cried out for reform. A thousand efforts were made to reform the Church from within; they failed until our Reformation forced you to act; and even after our revolt the pope who tried to cleanse the Church became the laughingstock of Rome.
“You pride yourself on producing the Renaissance, but everyone agrees that the Renaissance was issuing in such immorality, violence, and treachery as Europe had not known since Nero; were we not right in protesting against this paganism, flaunting itself even in the Vatican? Granted that morals declined for a while after our Reformation began; it took time to rebuild a moral life whose religious foundations and ministrations had decayed; ultimately the morality of Protestant lands became far superior to that of Catholic France and Italy. We may owe our mental awakening to the Renaissance, but we owe our moral recovery to the Reformation; to the liberation of the intellect was added the strengthening of character. Your Renaissance was for the aristocracy and the intellectuals; it scorned the people, and winked at their hoodwinking by indulgence peddlers and monkish profiteers on mythology; was it not good that this crass financial exploitation of human hopes and fears should be challenged? We rejected the paintings and statues with which you had littered your churches, because you were allowing the people to worship the images themselves, as when you required them to fall on their knees before the sacred dolls carried in procession through the streets. We dared to base our religion on a strong and active faith, rather than try to drug the mind of the people with liturgy.
“We acknowledged the secular authority as divine—as your own theologians had done before us—because social order requires a respected government. We rejected the international authority of the popes only after they had flagrantly used it not to arbitrate justice among nations but to advance their own material interests. The inability of your self-seeking popes to unify Europe for a crusade against the Turks shows that the dishonesty of the papacy had broken the unity of Christendom long before the Reformation. And though we supported the divine right of kings, we also, in England, Scotland, Switzerland, and America, favored the development of democracy, while your priests in France, Italy, and Spain were truckling to kings; and our rebellion against the authority of your Church broke the spell of despotism, and prepared Europe to question all absolutisms, religious or secular. You think we made the poor poorer. But that too was a passing phase; the same capitalism that for a while exploited poverty learned to enrich the average man as never before; and the standard of living is surely higher in Protestant England, Germany, and America than in Catholic Italy, Spain, and France.
“If you are stronger today than yesterday, it is because of us. What but the Reformation compelled you to reform the Curia, to redeem your clergy from concubinage, to seat men of religion, instead of pagans, in the papal chair? To whom do you owe it that your clergy today have so high a repute for integrity? To the Council of Trent? But to what did you owe the Council of Trent, if not to the Reformation? Without that check your Church might have continued its degeneration from Christianity into paganism until your popes would have been enthroned over an agnostic and epicurean world. Even with the regeneration which we forced upon your Church, the peoples that accept your creed are more negligent of religion, more skeptical of Christianity, than those that adopted the Reformation; compare France with England.
“We have learned to reconcile our piety with the freedom of the mind; and it is our Protestant lands that have seen the greatest flowering of science and philosophy. We hope to adjust our Christianity to the progress of knowledge—but how is this possible to a Church that rejects all the science of the last four centuries?”
Here the humanist enters the argument, and brings both houses down upon his head. “This is the honor and weakness of Protestantism, that it appeals to the intellect, which is always changing; and the strength of Catholicism lies in its refusal to adjust itself to the theories of science, which, in the experience of history, seldom survive the century in which they were born. Catholicism proposes to meet the religious demands of the people, who have barely heard of Copernicus and Darwin, and have never heard of Spinoza and Kant; such people are many and fertile. But how can a religion that speaks to the intellect, and centers around the sermon, adjust itself to an expanding universe in which the planet that claimed to have received God’s Son has become a transitory speck in space, and the species for which He died is but a moment in the phantasmagoria of life? What happens to Protestantism when the Bible that it took as its sole and infallible basis is subjected to a Higher Criticism that turns it from the word of God into the literature of the Hebrews and the transformation of Christ in the mystical theology of Paul?
“The real problem for the modern mind is not between Catholicism and Protestantism, nor between the Reformation and the Renaissance; it is between Christianity and the Enlightenment—that hardly datable era which began in Europe with Francis Bacon, and hitched its hopes to reason, science, and philosophy. As art was the keynote of the Renaissance, and religion the soul of the Reformation, so science and philosophy became the gods of the Enlightenment. From this standpoint the Renaissance was in the direct line of European mental development, and led to the Illumination and Aufklärung; the Reformation was a deviation from that line, a rejection of reason, a reaffirmation of medieval faith.
“And yet, despite its original intolerance, the Reformation rendered two services to the Enlightenment: it broke the authority of dogma, generated a hundred sects that would formerly have died at the stake, and allowed among them such virile debate that reason was finally recognized as the bar before which all sects had to plead their cause unless they were armed with irresistible physical force. In that pleading, that attack and defense, all sects were weakened, all dogmas; and a century after Luther’s exaltation of faith Francis Bacon proclaimed that knowledge is power. In that same seventeenth century thinkers like Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, and Locke offered philosophy as a substitute or basis for religion. In the eighteenth century Helvetius, Holbach, and La Mettrie proclaimed open atheism, and Voltaire was called a bigot because he believed in God, This was the challenge that Christianity faced, in a crisis far more profound than the debate between the Catholic and the Protestant version of the medieval creed. The effort of Christianity to survive Copernicus and Darwin is the basic drama of the last three hundred years. What are the struggles of states and classes beside that Armageddon of the soul?”
And now, as we look back over the meandering narrative of these thousand pages, we perceive that our sympathy can go to all the combatants. We can understand the anger of Luther at Roman corruption and dominance, the reluctance of German princes to see German collections fatten Italy, the resolve of Calvin and Knox to build model moral communities, the desire of Henry VIII for an heir, and for authority in his own realm. But we can understand, too, the hopes of Erasmus for a reform that would not poison Christendom with hatred; and we can feel the dismay of devout Roman prelates like Contarini at the prospective dismemberment of a Church that for centuries had been the nurse and custodian of Western civilization, and was still the strongest bulwark against immorality, chaos, and despair.
Nothing of all these efforts was lost. The individual succumbs, but he does not die if he has left something to mankind. Protestantism, in time, helped to regenerate the moral life of Europe, and the Church purified herself into an organization politically weaker but morally stronger than before. One lesson emerges above the smoke of the battle: a religion is at its best when it must live with competition; it tends to intolerance when and where it is unchallenged and supreme. The greatest gift of the Reformation was to provide Europe and America with that competition of faiths which puts each on its mettle, cautions it to tolerance, and gives to our frail minds the zest and test of freedom.