Re­for­ma­tion an­niver­sary: some­thing to swear about?

Winnipeg Free Press - - TANK - MICHAEL COREN

EV­ERY­BODY loves a birth­day. Well, per­haps not ev­ery­one; I can’t imag­ine con­ser­va­tive Ro­man Catholics will be cel­e­brat­ing the 500th an­niver­sary of the Re­for­ma­tion at the end of Oc­to­ber, com­mem­o­rat­ing when Ger­man the­olo­gian and monk Martin Luther al­legedly nailed those 95 the­ses to the church door in Wit­ten­berg.

Mind you, Pope Fran­cis and many pro­gres­sive Catholic bish­ops and clergy are hold­ing ec­u­meni­cal ser­vices and ac­knowl­edg­ing what 1517 means to civ­i­liza­tion, cul­ture, free­dom and democ­racy.

That, of course, is quite the claim, and in an in­creas­ingly sec­u­lar and even athe­is­tic Canada, there are many who prob­a­bly think they shouldn’t and couldn’t give a damn about the whole thing. But that’s not the case. The very right to not be­lieve, to speak one’s mind and even to say “damn” in pub­lic is a di­rect re­sult of what hap­pened five cen­turies ago.

Not that Martin Luther was a per­fect man, or that ev­ery­thing done in the name of Protes­tantism over the years has been tol­er­ant and em­brac­ing (it cer­tainly hasn’t), but without that scream of de­fi­ance in the early 16th cen­tury, matters would have been a lot worse.

Take a look, for ex­am­ple, at two rel­a­tively re­cent ex­am­ples of na­tions that did not ex­pe­ri­ence a suc­cess­ful Re­for­ma­tion: Spain un­der Gen­eral Franco, and Ire­land in the 1950s.

Both were ef­fec­tively Catholic states, burst­ing with cen­sor­ship, state in­ter­fer­ence, a cruel de­nial of women’s equal­ity, rigid church con­trol and lim­its on what could be said and done. We could ar­gue a not-dis­sim­i­lar case for Que­bec un­til the Quiet Rev­o­lu­tion.

This was partly about re­li­gion, but also author­ity and pa­tri­archy. Anti-Catholi­cism is sor­did and wrong, but it can’t be de­nied that the Ro­man Catholic Church is built on a strong theme of male dom­i­nance and a pow­er­ful sense of struc­ture and con­trol. Some of this changed in the early 1960s, with the Sec­ond Vat­i­can Coun­cil, but that was to a large ex­tent a re­ac­tion to the world around Catholi­cism, a world much-in­flu­enced by Protes­tantism, es­pe­cially in much of Europe and North Amer­ica.

As late as 1864, Pope Pius IX is­sued a Syl­labus of Er­rors in which many of the virtues that we take as self-ev­i­dent, such as lib­er­al­ism and ra­tio­nal­ism, were roundly con­demned.

What, in essence, oc­curred 500 years ago was that the in­di­vid­ual was lib­er­ated, and a new in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Chris­tian­ity was pro­posed in which each man and woman had a re­la­tion­ship with God that did not re­quire the in­ter­ven­tion of a church. On a less the­o­log­i­cal level, this meant that the very na­ture of the rights of the in­di­vid­ual, com­mu­nal free­doms, and re­li­gious di­ver­sity be­gan to change.

It would take cen­turies for all of these things to fully blos­som, but within a cen­tury in the de­voutly Protes­tant Nether­lands there was re­li­gious tol­er­ance, and sci­ence and in­quiry were re­booted in prag­mat­i­cally Protes­tant Eng­land.

The En­light­en­ment of the 18th cen­tury was a di­rect child of the Re­for­ma­tion, just as is the mod­ern na­tion-state. The for­mer de­manded a cer­tain rel­a­tivism and open­ness, one not en­cour­aged and some­times pos­i­tively for­bid­den by Rome. The lat­ter has pro­duced mixed re­sults. At its worst, it gave rise to na­tion­al­ism, but even na­tion­al­ism is some­times a good thing. Ital­ian uni­fi­ca­tion and the in­de­pen­dence of var­i­ous small states were pro­duc­tive and grand achieve­ments. When taken to ex­tremes, of course, it has led to racism and in­tol­er­ance, but that’s a rare and largely mid20th-cen­tury phe­nom­e­non.

Women’s rights took a long time to de­velop, and the jour­ney is not com­plete. But within Chris­tian­ity, many Protes­tant churches now or­dain women, and in so­ci­ety women oc­cupy places of in­flu­ence and power that could only have de­vel­oped out of a ques­tion­ing, re­form­ing cul­ture.

Sim­i­larly, when it comes to ed­u­ca­tion, mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism and mi­nor­ity rights, the state has to be free of re­li­gious con­trol for all of them to be fully im­ple­mented, partly be­cause so many peo­ple to­day sim­ply have no re­li­gious be­lief. While this sepa­ra­tion of church and state is cer­tainly not unique to non-Catholic Chris­tian­ity, such in­de­pen­dence has sel­dom been given over by the Catholic Church without a strug­gle.

Luther is long gone and so, thank good­ness, are most of the sec­tar­ian dis­putes within Chris­tian­ity. But what re­mains is some­thing we might take for granted but ig­nore at our cost — even that right to say “damn” when­ever we feel like it.

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