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In the excerpt from his epilogue today, Tom Lee has an all-too-brief look at the Reformation. This excerpt ends with a searing quotation from Voltaire: "Of all religions, the Christian is undoubtedly that which should instill the greatest toleration, although so far the Christians have been the most intolerant of all men."
Epilogue—The Results Part 29.3
The 'Holy' Inquisition — nothing 'Holy' about it...
The popes of the medieval period, challenged by dissenters, established an unbridled tribunal that became the Holy Inquisition. There was nothing holy about it. It demonized all Jews as murderers of Jesus, and took a totalitarian stance to all those who believed differently to the orthodoxy it enforced. With the threat of excommunication, a form of sacramental extortion, the inquisitors persuaded secular authorities to burn their opponents, even those who merely questioned their otherwise uncontested power. It hollowed out the church.
Because the accused were assumed to be guilty, the inquisitorial process focused on convincing him or her to admit guilt, often with cruel tortures. The accused was also expected to denounce friends, relatives and accomplices. Because heresy was both a sin and a crime, a public trial was also required. Dogmatic ideology became cant, and papal shenanigans supplanted real achievement. No kind of thoughtful response was possible in the face of a fundamental belief in the Church's inerrancy.
As priest and sociologist Fr. Andrew Greeley has written:
"If the Lord had wanted a perfect church, he would have limited its members to the angels... As it is, we have been led by atheists and rapists, drunkards and adulterers, child abusers and thieves, phonies and fools, traitors and liars, psychopaths and idiots."
Despite the turmoil of reformers attacks; under the influence of the Jesuits and others, reverence for the effects of ordination to the priesthood grew. Fantasies were built upon the theology of indelible marks and in persona Christi, fantasies that placed priests apart and above and beyond. The faithful bought it all and in doing so helped, inadvertently, to set them up for a fall.
The popes precipitated the Reformation by financing their wars, profligate building schemes, and the amorality of Rome, with the sale of what amounted to get-out-of-Purgatory-free passes to the faithful. Erasmus of Rotterdam, bastard son of a priest, was the sane man in the middle twixt Pope Leo X and Luther, trying to get the pope to talk to Luther and visa versa, until he realized, "it was like trying to put the nose-bag on the wrong end of the horse". Both Erasmus and his friend Sir (now Saint) Thomas More believed that clerical celibacy should be optional and that married men would make fine priests.
Literal interpretation of scripture, as a dominant view, appeared in the wake of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation as newly invented printing presses made the Bible available to literate Christians in their own languages and transformed the work of librarians and readers. The educated classes were literate and curious, and the printers brought, within half a century, some twenty-eight thousand titles, and millions of individual books.
Christianity, in the early centuries, did not insist on anything like literal interpretation of Scripture. Early theologians like Origen, Augustine and Heracleon offered mostly metaphorical interpretations. This knowledge, however, did not accompany the raw bible texts.
Renegade Augustinian monk Martin Luther was both a passionate anti-Semite and ferocious believer in absolute obedience to political authority. He nailed his theses challenging church abuses on the church door at Wittenburg on Halloween 1517. He wanted Germany rid of Jews, and believed the poor should accept their lot without complaint. When the downtrodden peasants revolted against inhuman conditions in 1525, he advised his patron princes to adopt the most ruthless measures against the "mad dogs". By Luther's time the Beatitudes mysterious promise of blessing for the weak and the poor was replaced by a conviction that happiness on earth was an outward sign of God's grace.
Luther employed a coarseness and brutality of language unequalled in German history. His advice was literally followed four centuries later by Adolph Hitler. The Dutch Reformed Church's support for the racist policies of Apartheid in South Africa during the twentieth century could be traced back to the same kind of thinking.
The Reformation's unraveling of the Church was all the more dramatic considering the church's prior almost total control of Western Christianity. It led to a one-hundred year war during which the European landscape was bitterly divided and ruined in the name of faith. The popes became reckless and embittered as the reformers whittled away at the institution built solidly into the social fabric, plunging Europe into an age of schism and feud. The Catholic Church expected the secular authorities to apply a repressive policy; an attitude that inevitably provoked resistance to a religious system in which intolerance played so large a part.
The Protestants were, however, no less brutal with those they considered heretics. Sebastian Castellio (1515-63), translator of the Bible into Latin and French, was one of the first champions of religious toleration. His outrage at the burning of Michael Servetus for heresy in 1553 and his growing disagreements with John Calvin, who had been his mentor, led him to write several tracts against the persecution of heretics. In one, a 1554 response to Calvin's "Defense of the Christian Faith", Castellio declared:
"If Christ himself came to Geneva, he would be crucified. For Geneva is not a place of Christian liberty. It is ruled by a new pope, but one who burns men alive, while the pope at Rome at least strangles them first."
Trent — Romes' answer to the turmoil...
The Council of Trent (1545-1563) was Rome's answer to the turmoil. It stripped away many excesses, extraneous ceremonials and archaic injustices, and promulgated codes of canon law and a fixed number of what were now called the seven sacraments, claimed to have been instituted by Christ, although they weren't. For many it was too little too late, and the Inquisition remained untamed.
The paradox led Voltaire to write in 1763,
"Of all religions, the Christian is undoubtedly that which should instill the greatest toleration, although so far the Christians have been the most intolerant of all men."
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©2009 Tom Lee