Letter to Harold “Hoot” and Annie Gibson cont. part 8
A DISCLAIMER AND A SLIGHT DIGRESSION: HENRY VIII, INVENTOR OF THE REALLY SHORT HAIR CUT.
At this point I have to make a slight disclaimer. I have been rather hard on the founders of Protestantism, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Cranmer, Henry VIII and that crowd. From the perspective of five centuries it is easy to be harsh. One must take a look however at two characters of the English reformation who make it much more difficult for me to be as smug as I would like to be.
The first of these is St. Thomas More (1478-1535), lawyer, philosopher, and finally Henry VIII’s chancellor. Rumors abounded that More tortured heretics in his own home, but that myth can be blamed on John Foxe and his Book of Martyrs. More denied the claims. He admitted that he did imprison heretics in his own home, but that was not unusual. It was done for their “sure keeping,” but he claimed never to have tortured anyone “so help me God,” and More was not a man to take oaths lightly. It cannot be denied that six heretics were burned at the stake during More's chancellorship. It was pretty standard procedure, and as I have elsewhere pointed out, we Americans still burn people at the stake, we just call it electrocution. More refused to sign the oath recognizing Henry as head of the Church in England. He was eventually tried and executed, holding on to the belief that the papacy was established by Christ and thus necessary.
The second is St. John Fisher (1459-1535) an English bishop. Fisher was also executed by King Henry VIII for refusing to accept Henry as head of the Church and continuing to hold papal primacy. Of the bishops in England, 26 in all, only St. John refused to give in, and as far as I know, of all the high government officials of England only St. Thomas refused to give in. My point is this: these men gave their lives, not simply for Christ and the Church Universal, and not just for the papacy. They gave their lives in defense of the papacy, when the popes were, by in large, not very worthy men. They were able to see past the circumstances of the times and to realize that the papacy was integral to the Gospel. Most of the people of England, and I suppose Germany, thought, “What’s the difference? They’re all a bunch of crooks!” This was a time when stealing and killing for Christ was much in vogue. The Pizarro brothers were evangelizing Peru at the time by burning, raping, garroting, wholesale theft and enslavement, all the while giving God the glory.
The other conquistadors did their best, but they really didn’t give it the effort that the Pizarros did. It was everywhere the same. My forbears come from a little town in the rolling hills of Upper-Hessia (go to Marburg, take a right, you can’t miss it.) The town’s history didn’t lend itself to a quiet reverence for traditional Catholicism. Everybody remembered how back in 1465 two bishops had gotten into a shooting war over who was going to be Archbishop of Mainz. We backed the wrong guy. The bishop who eventually won the argument put our town under siege and to commemorate the event, there are three cannonballs in the church wall to this day.
So, when somewhere around 1520, the pastor marched into the mayor’s office and announced that the town was now protestant, the mayor just nodded. There would be no more Masses, people didn’t like Mass anyway since it was boring and pointless. Quite a few people disagreed and wanted to stay Catholic, despite the pastor. They built a chapel outside the town walls. Eventually the town was re-Catholicized and is part of a cluster of small Northern German Catholic towns, a very rare thing. (Motto: crabby, but still Catholic.)
I suspect that, had I been there at the time, I would have said, “Luther has a point! Throw the bums out!” Because my ancestors come from the same cheerful part of Germany as Luther and the eponymous Brothers Grimm, I have a certain sympathy for Luther. There were things wrong IN the Church, but there was nothing wrong WITH the Church. Luther would have been counted with Teresa of Avila, and John of the Cross if he had just reformed the abuses and not the theology. He tried to make the Church conform to what he thought reasonable and, I suspect to his own needs. He only succeeded in unleashing a century of war and the secularized society in which we now live. Someone once said that Henry VIII’s attempt to partially protestantize the English Church was like commanding a man to leap from a tower and then commanding him to stop half way down. So it was with Martin Luther.
Luther, like myself, really believed that his ideas were so reasonable, that if only people would agree with him, all would be fine. He was not a year into the revolution he had created when he realized that it wouldn’t go as planned. Luther once said, “I confess that I am much more negligent than I was under the pope, and there is now nowhere such an amount of earnestness under the Gospel, as was formerly seen among monks and priests.” (Walch. IX. 1311) In 1538, Luther wrote, “Who would have begun to preach, if we had known beforehand that so much unhappiness, tumult, scandal, blasphemy, ingratitude, and wickedness would have been the result?” (Walch. VIII. 564 These quotes are taken from the Johann Georg Walch Edition of Luther's Works, 1740-1753.) Most sadly, there is a story told of Luther’s mother who, as she lay dying, asked her son which really was better, Protestantism or Catholicism. Luther is said to have replied, “Mother it is easier to live as a protestant, but it is easier to die as a Catholic.” I’m not sure of the footnote here, but it pretty much sums things up, and one can’t help but feel for Luther in a way that one feels for no other of the reformers. He was a renaissance Pandora, who having opened the box, saw all that was good fly away. I cannot but feel sorry for him.
NEXT WEEK: BLOODY MARY, GOOD QUEEN BESS AND THEIR LITTLE BROTHER. THIS TIME I PROMISE.