The new year will be one of great commemorations in the Church. We will mark the 500th anniversary of the commencement of the Reformation, dated from October 31, 1517, when, on the vigil of the patronal feast of All Saints’ Church at Wittenberg, the Augustinian priest Martin Luther posted his “95 Theses” in the church square.
In May, the Church will celebrate the centenary of the mysterious and mystical appearances of the Blessed Mother to three peasant children outside their small rural hometown of Fatima in Portugal.
The two commemorations will stand juxtaposed. Each not only will cause a re-examination of the times and events it marks, but will also illuminate the conflicting currents coursing through the life of the Church in 2017.
To apprehend it in its widest and most profound sense is to understand the beginning of the Reformation as the very onset of modernity itself. In the life of the Church, the Reformation only began in earnest five centuries ago. It has been, and is today, a current event, rolling on continuously, in various guises – religious, political, philosophical, and cultural – across the Western world in every epoch of the last half-millennium, up to and including the present.
The Reformation draws continued relevance not from the concepts with which it is often most readily associated – the debates over the means of justification and the extent of man’s free will. Rather, it remains a living force due to the quasi-political ideas to which Luther gave voice and that came to undergird the whole modern order.
In the three years between his posting at Wittenberg on All Hollow’s Eve and his burning of the bull of excommunication published against him in 1520, Luther became a radical. By the close of 1520, Luther had completed his “Three Treatises,” wherein he would dismantle the whole foundation of the Church as it had been built up over preceding millennium and a half.
In To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther indicted the institution of the papacy as an evil corruption that trampled upon the liberties of the German people. It is here that he proclaimed his notion of the “priesthood of all believers,” the grand egalitarian principle that obliterates any distinctions among the lowliest layman, the priest, the bishop, and the Roman pontiff himself. “As for the unction by a pope or a bishop, tonsure, ordination, consecration, and clothes differing from those of laymen – all this may make a hypocrite or an anointed puppet, but never a Christian or a spiritual man. Thus we are all consecrated as priests by baptism, as St. Peter says: ‘Ye are a royal priesthood, a holy nation’ (1 Peter ii. 9); and in the book of Revelations: ‘and hast made us unto our God (by Thy blood) kings and priests’ (Rev. v. 10).” Here, then, is the beginning of the modern attack on religious life, as well as upon the concept of hierarchy and ecclesial authority. It is the seed of modern egalitarian thinking.
He would proceed from this principle to advocate for a disparate array of “reforms” that will ring familiar to us in the present day: the elimination of priestly celibacy as an unnatural and useless burden (deconstruction of the sacral nature of the priesthood), the vast reduction of feast days so people could tend to work instead of marking religious festivals (secularization of daily life), the abandonment of canon law (doctrine equated with un-Christian, fabricated legalism).
In addition, Luther called for the civil government to stand over and govern the Church. Because he held that there is no difference between layman and priest, Luther asserted that any Christian king had as much right – indeed, a greater prerogative – to rule over the Church as had the Roman pontiff. Fourteen years after the publication of To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Henry VIII declared himself the head of his own national church, and the modern ascendancy of the secular power over the religious took flight.
Luther’s second treatise of 1520, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, built on the first. The Babylonian Captivity is devoted to the demolition of the sacramental theology of the Church, with a particular focus on a reformulation of the Mass. Luther recasts the Mass as a kind of memorial where a person of faith may hear the words of Christ, accept them, and cherish them, and then take and eat and drink of the sacrament as a sort of symbolic re-enactment of the Last Supper. He takes great pains to deny absolutely that the Mass is, in any way, a sacrifice offered to God. (To read Luther’s passages on the Mass in The Babylonian Captivity and to deny that he is, indeed, the first architect of our Novus Ordo is folly.) For good measure, Luther’s motu proprio reduces the number of sacraments to two.
At the heart of The Babylon Captivity we find not only the specific theological precepts Luther proposes, but the notion that a single man’s ideas can triumph over centuries of Tradition, of the received teachings of popes, councils, doctors, and saints. From here comes forth the modern conceit that continuity with the past is neither wise nor necessary in light of the novel genius of modern man. Herein lies the difference between legitimate, measured “reform” and the unfettered “revolution” that would characterize the modern political ideologies, from Henry VIII to the French Revolution to the rise of the Bolsheviks. It is a fundamentally un-Catholic outlook and one with which the Church has ever been at odds, or was up until the throwing open of the windows in the 1960s.
The last of Luther’s treatises of 1520, The Freedom of a Christian, was enclosed as part of Luther’s “open letter” to Pope Leo X, offered as an attempt, halfhearted at best, to reconcile with Rome. Here Luther rhapsodizes about the nature of spiritual freedom in Christ, a freedom that flows from faith in Christ and His promises – and from faith alone. “A Christian has no need of any work or any law in order to be saved since through faith he is free from every law and does everything out of pure liberty and freely.”
While there is much to admire in The Freedom of a Christian, the practical political ramifications of Luther’s incessant insistence on the total freedom that results simply from faith are far more apparent than the work’s theological applications. Thus, only four years after the publication of The Freedom of a Christian, the catastrophic Peasants’ Revolt took its inspiration, in part, from the political dimension of Luther’s teaching. After initially expressing sympathy with the peasants’ grievances, Luther was horrified by their anarchy. He strongly advocated for the revolt’s violent destruction. The revolt ended with deaths of approximately 100,000 peasants. Luther and his movement never fully recovered.
In Luther and his movement, therefore, we find the germ of modernity and the ideological constructs that the Church would labor against in the coming centuries: radical egalitarianism; individualism that begets a subjective relativism; aversion to ecclesial authority and the propriety of hierarchy; the elevation of the power of the state and the insistence on a thoroughly secular society; and the utter disregard, and contempt, for Tradition.
This is the living legacy of the Reformation.
The miracle of Fatima occurred in 1917, just as the catastrophic effects of all the modern ideologies were coming crashing down upon the world. Into the this chaos came the Blessed Mother, appearing in a small backwater to poor, unknown little children.
The Fatima event is, in its essence, anti-modern – a rebuke to modernity, in fact. Luther and his successors held the “miraculous” in varying degrees of contempt, and yet into a modern world dominated by mere rationalism came a mysterious and shocking vision from Heaven, given to these simple shepherd children.
The visions offered at Fatima give a divine condemnation to the manifestations of the modern ideological madness that had taken hold in Luther’s wake. It had reached new levels of depravity with the French Revolution and finally morphed into the Marxist Communism that arose in Russia. This ideology the Blessed Mother declared an “error,” and she seemed to further warn of the coming of the most hideous form of this godless system, soon to be known as National Socialism.
The children were also given an allegory of the suffering Church, of persecuted priests and religious, and of “a bishop in white,” affirming that, contrary to Luther’s theology, the special character of religious life has heavenly sanction, as does the papacy.
Perhaps the most important part of the Fatima messages is that which concerns sin and Hell itself. Against the modern aversion to the concepts of guilt and judgment, the Blessed Mother showed the children of Fatima a terrifying vision of souls suffering in torment. While she spoke to them of grace and mercy, the Virgin nonetheless granted to us, through the children, a fearful warning and a call for reparation, prayer, and penance.
The Blessed Mother asked for the establishment of a devotion to her Immaculate Heart, for the recitation of the rosary, and for the observance of the First Saturday – all heavenly endorsements of traditional modes of popular piety within the Church.
The Anniversaries in the Church of 2017
It is a contradiction to celebrate both the Reformation and the messages of Fatima. But the Church plans to do both in 2017, and the dual commemorations will serve to highlight the conflicting strains of thought within the Church that have caused so much disarray for more than 50 years. They will encapsulate the schizophrenia that has divided the Church between what Pope Benedict famously called “the hermeneutic of rupture” and “the hermeneutic of continuity.” The great debate between the hermeneutics has taken on unprecedented stakes in the marriage controversy unleashed by Amoris Laetitia.
Lutheranism lies at the heart of the rupture hermeneutic. In myriad ways, the so-called “spirit of Vatican II,” manifested by the manner in which the teachings of the Council were implemented, was the application of Luther’s thinking four and a half centuries after such thinking was rejected at Trent. Now, despite all of the ample evidence of decline over the decades, the Lutheranizers still do not recognize that their approach is bound to fail, because the essential character of Catholicism and the essential character of Luther’s modernizing Protestantism cannot coexist. We cannot be at once Catholic and Protestant.
The Church is not a modern institution – not chronologically, theologically, or philosophically. Since we are bound by Tradition, and since our Tradition began and developed over centuries that long precede that fateful night in Wittenberg, the Church can never fully reconcile itself to modernity. The efforts of these last 50 years to force the Church to do so, given renewed emphasis in the present pontificate, have resulted in a tragic and unprecedented auto-demolition of religion.
This is not to say the Church is fated to remain forever at war with the present and future ages. On the contrary, the Church can and must again lead the modern world, pointing it to the reality beyond what its work-a-day and rationalistic outlook would otherwise permit it to see, proclaiming the Gospel, and offering in the sacraments the ancient, sacred, and mysterious access to the grace of God, necessary for salvation. But the Church can do none of these things if it does not retain its essential character and remains marred by division, confusion, and ideological cancers that destroy its very mission and purpose.
The messages of Fatima call us back to those essentials. Fatima reminds us that the Church is here to save souls through the teaching of pious practices and moral living. It tells us that God’s judgment is just as much a reality as is His mercy. It is a message given in modernity for modernity, and it is a challenge to modernity.
So commemorate the Reformation, but do not celebrate or laud it. Mark Fatima, but do not treat it with sentimentality. Rather, let the Church heed the message of the Blessed Mother: the Church is charged with saving souls from sin and death through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It has no other or greater end.
Christian Browne is a practicing attorney in New York state. A board member of the Nassau County Catholic Lawyers Guild, he earned his J.D. from Fordham University in 2004. He is the author of The Pearl of Great Price: Pius VI & the Sack of Rome.