Why Semper Reformanda?

Spout-offs Friday, January 4th, 2013


At the beginning of the 16th century, with few exceptions, being European was practically synonymous with being Catholic. Numerically and politically, the church could hardly have been more successful. Yet, it was not healthy. The great systematic-apologetic tradition, spurred by competition from Judaism (Paul’s epistles), Roman paganism (Augustine’s City of God), and later Islam (various works of Thomas Aquinas), had degenerated to the point that Luther could dismiss contemporary Scholastic theologians as mere “sophists”. Popes frequently acted as vaingloriously as princes, both politically and personally. And worst of all, fiscal profligacy had led the church to seek profit from the sinner’s desperation before God.

After Luther posted his 95 Theses disputing the sale of indulgences, by which the Pope from a “storehouse of merit” purported to be able to remit sins for a fee, Rome’s proud threats made it clear that the path to internal reform was closed. If not for the new printing press and powerful friends in Germany, he would surely have been silenced along with the several would-be reformers in the centuries preceding him.

In our time, by contrast, the Catholic church is hardly recognizable as the same institution. Yes, its doctrine is largely similar, but the corruption has – with a few visible exceptions – been largely rooted out, especially from the higher echelons. It stopped waging wars, it opened itself to scientific advance, and no pope after the sixteenth century has had an illegitimate child.

Why the change? Hegemony – especially religious hegemony – is sclerotic. When everyone is Catholic, it’s no wonder if Catholicism doesn’t mean much. The Reformation not only recovered the vitality of the Christian religion within its own circle (and re-energized the systematic-apologetic tradition with works such as Calvin’s Institutes), but rejuvenated the Catholic church by shattering its complacency.

Semper reformanda ecclesia est. The Church is always reforming – the ecclesiological equivalent of creative destruction. And as Israel learned many times in the Old Testament, when internal reformation fails, external discipline is never far around the corner.

In our day, Protestant hegemony in America is likewise rapidly waning. This is to be welcomed. As sclerosis sets in when those of conservative temperament feel safe enough to take the torch, thereby preventing internal reform, so vitality will be restored only when the Church is again countercultural enough that it must be always reforming.

Though the structural effects of the Reformation were important, the particular doctrines which it recovered – doctrines which to this day set it apart from the Catholic church – were even more so. In five subsequent posts I’ll talk about the doctrine behind each of the five songs on the forthcoming album.