To the editors.
Robert McClory’s excellent overview of conservative Catholicism (“The Divine Right,” May 6, 1988) left the mistaken impression, in its necessarily brief description of church history, that the Catholic Church was the undisputed driving force in European civilization until the Protestant Reformation when “it all fell apart.” Both Catholic and Protestant historians generally agree that the shaking of the Catholic Church wasn’t just the work of an obscure Augustinian monk and professor at the University of Wittenberg named Martin Luther. The church had been setting itself up to be knocked down for some time.
For one thing, Luther’s “heresies” were nothing new. The church, as McClory implied, had been dealing with heresy and schism for some time; some heresies were esoteric notions devised by cranks which never caught on, while others showed real endurance. Centuries before Luther, there were Wycliffe and Tyndale in England, accused of the “crimes” of translating the Bible into the vernacular, making it available to laymen and daring to teach its precepts while ignoring the dubious traditions that the church had accumulated over the centuries. Wycliffe’s pupil, Jan Hus, did the same in Bohemia and was burned at the stake for his efforts.
As for schisms, the church didn’t have to look far; the worst schism in the history of the Catholic Church hit the Vatican itself. Throughout the 14th Century there were two Popes and two Holy Sees: one in the Vatican and the other in Avignon. For a variety of doctrinal, social and political reasons, it took over a century for the split to be resolved.
Over the course of several Crusades to the Holy Land, the church managed to expend a lot of men and materiel to no visible result. It was only logical, then, that part of the Catholic Church’s Counter-Reformation included warfare which sickened Europeans generally to the notion of imposing a religion on a particular kingdom. The result was the Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years War by declaring, in effect, that a nation could have whatever religion it felt like. When the Pope railed against the treaty, Europeans responded with a hearty “So what?” The Age of Faith was about to give way to the Age of Reason.
Yet despite a repudiation of the medieval church that’s been going on for centuries, the “authenticists assert history is with them.” If so, they’re welcome to it. This is the history that includes the failed Crusades, the use of the Index and the Inquisition in the aforementioned control of dissent, the alignment of French Catholics with the anti-Dreyfus forces, the Vatican’s tactical silence in this century with regard to Mussolini and Hitler in the belief that communism was so bad it made fascism look, if not good, then at least respectable.
How it will all come out is, as McClory rightly points out, a matter of time. A fitting symbol of the state of affairs in the Catholic Church, not just in the United States but globally, was a pair of proposals floated at a bishop’s conference some years back. A resolution urging increased devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes (who is identified not only with the famous healing shrine but, through such groups as the Blue Army, with Catholic anticommunism) was met with a resolution urging increased devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe (who is seen as more Third World and allied with Central American popular liberation movements). Will the real Virgin Mary please stand up? Better yet, will all Marys and Popes kindly leave the stage and make some room for Jesus Christ?
Daniel J. Drazen