Reformation anniversary: something to swear about?
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.