Politics & Policy

Crucible of Freedom

From the May 17, 2004, issue of National Review.

The Reformation: A History by Diarmaid MacCulloch (Viking, 792 pp., $34.95)

(Yale, 438 pp., $35)

God writes straight with crooked lines: Never was that proverb more conspicuously true than in the period known as the Reformation, and in its consequences. The revitalization of certain religious truths, in the thought and activity of Martin Luther and his successors, was met with repression by religious authorities. The repressed reformers, in turn, spilled the blood of their own opponents, and even tried to establish some of their own semi-theocracies. The long-term result of this vicious circle of repressive absolutism? The most flourishing system of religious tolerance that mankind has ever known.

To study the Reformation, then, is to become a connoisseur of historical ironies and unintended consequences; and Oxford historian Diarmaid MacCulloch’s magnificent new book is replete with them. In the 1520s, for example, conservative Catholic theologians in France were alarmed at the use that might be made of vernacular Bibles, so they convinced authorities to ban them outright; as a result, the only Frenchmen who printed vernacular Bibles did so in secret, and in support of the Protestant cause. (The moral is, if you outlaw Bibles, only outlaws will have Bibles.) In the 1550s, England’s Queen Mary tried valiantly to restore the Catholicism that her father, Henry VIII, had replaced with his new state church–only to find, writes MacCulloch, that one of her “chief enemies” was the Pope himself: “Not only did [Pope Paul IV] declare war on her husband King Philip, but he also pursued his old vendetta with Cardinal Pole,” the religious leader of English Catholics. Mary’s reign would be brief, and her window of opportunity for re-Catholicizing England equally so; she could ill afford such lack of support from her most obvious ally. Similarly, in 1566, the Council of Trent published a Catholic Catechism that would become renowned for its rigorous orthodoxy; but because it was based on the work of a Spanish Dominican who was suspected of heresy back home, “the Spanish Inquisition persistently refused to allow [the new Roman Catechism] to be used in Spain” itself.

The most unfortunate irony, of course, is that in the interest of refining the public’s understanding of Christian doctrine, countless gallons of blood were spilled. The Thirty Years’ War of 1618–48 was just the longest and bloodiest of the confrontations involving adherents of the Gospel. “Opinions vary,” writes MacCulloch, “but within the German lands one modern estimate is that 40 percent of the population met an early death through the fighting or the accompanying famine and disease, and even the most cautious reassessment of the evidence comes up with a figure of 15-20 percent.”

Out of this slaughterhouse, though, something of inestimable value was born: toleration as we know it today. MacCulloch writes that this is perhaps “the most significant contribution of the two Reformation centuries to Christianity,” though he concedes that the contribution might have been both “inadvertent and reluctant”: “The first implementations of toleration in western Europe were mostly concessions by the powerful whose power was not complete: a grudging recognition of something that ideally would have remained forbidden.” In short, European man needed to have his nose rubbed in the consequences of religious murder on a massive scale before beginning to concede that perhaps this was not God’s intention after all.

“Experience is a dear teacher,” Benjamin Franklin said, “but fools will learn at no other”; the West today has the challenge of teaching this particular lesson to yet another group of fanatics, in the hope that the Islamists will come to their own grudging acceptance of the fact that religion must not be imposed by force. This principle is in fact present in the Koran itself: “Let there be no compulsion in religion,” says Sura 2. But can the behavior of religious believers be brought into line with the nobler passages in their own sacred texts? On this question, there have always been skeptics. MacCulloch recounts that in 1606, an enraged Pope Paul V “confronted the Venetian ambassador with the rhetorical question, ‘Do you not know that so much reading of Scripture ruins the Catholic religion?’” History has provided a heartening answer to Paul V: The turn to Scripture in the 20th century has been a major force in the strengthening of the Catholic faith. Even as fissiparous tendencies threaten Catholicism in a number of areas, a greater familiarity of the Catholic faithful with the sacred text has put an end to the stereotyped notion that the Bible is the exclusive preserve of Protestants.

MacCulloch takes pains to point out that not the least of the beneficiaries of the Reformation was, paradoxically, Catholicism itself–not chiefly because of the centralizing tendencies of the Tridentine Counter-Reformation, but because of the broader efforts of such figures as Sts. Ignatius of Loyola, Francis de Sales, and Charles Borromeo to reinvigorate the faith at the local level. Vatican II, like the renewed attention to the Bible among Catholics, is an outgrowth of the renewal movement begun in the 16th century.

This book is long, and full of detailed discussion of political maneuverings and theological debates. MacCulloch apologizes occasionally for the technical nature of the religious disputes, but he needn’t; his accounts of them are lucid, and will not be boring to anyone with the least interest in the subject. He is, in general, an engaging and serious writer who avoids the projection of current political controversies into the period he is studying, with one exception: his 58-page excursus on marriage and the family, which, while rich in colorful detail on the sexuality of the time, speaks the language of today’s preoccupation with sex as the central issue of religion. These chapters can be safely skipped by those whose chief interest is the Reformation itself.

Overall, this is a comprehensive and readable account of a world dramatically different from our own, that was destined nonetheless to bring ours to birth. Like the human story itself, it is a sad chronicle of barbarous tortures and atrocities, but points beyond itself to a happier outcome.


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