History of the Catholic Church - J. MacCaffrey

The Reformation

Lutheranism in the Empire

Luther (14831546) received his university education at Erfurt, and alarmed by the sudden death of a companion, he determined to join the Augustinians of that city. After his ordination as priest in 1507 he was appointed professor in the recently founded university at Wittenberg. He was of a nervous, gloomy temperament, and found but little comfort in the observance of his rule. This led him gradually to look with favour on the theory advocated before his time, that good works were of little avail for salvation and that faith in the application of the merits of Christ was all that was required. In his heart he had already broken with the doctrines of the Catholic Church, but the preaching of indulgences by Tetzel, a Dominican, furnished him with the occasion of making his views public (1517).

Leo X., anxious to secure funds for the building of St. Peter's, proclaimed an indulgence throughout Germany, on condition that those who wished to gain the indulgence should contribute according to their means. Tetzel was commissioned to preach this indulgence, and on his approaching the city of Wittenberg, Luther published his famous theses against indulgences (1517). These were drawn up very skilfully and in a style likely to deceive the people. Many of them were clearly opposed to Catholic teaching, while others of them professed the most complete submission to the Church and to the Holy See. The publication of the theses aroused great commotion in Germany, and many people hastened to assure Luther of their approval. Tetzel and others published very learned rejoinders, but while the defenders of the Catholic Church were wasting their time preparing learned dissertations that would be read only by a few, Luther was employing his extraordinary powers as a popular orator and writer to win support; and in a short time he had secured an enormous following, most of whom regarded him merely as a patriotic German anxious to put an end to abuses in the Church.

The disturbance in Germany soon came to the ears of Leo X. who failed completely to realise the seriousness of the movement, and who believed that at worst it was only a dispute between two rival religious orders. A letter sent to him by Luther at this time in which he expressed his complete submission to the Holy Father seemed to justify this view. The Pope sent Cardinal Cajetan into Germany in 1518, and a meeting was arranged between the papal legate and Luther at Augsburg, but the interview produced little effect. Luther published an appeal from the Pope badly informed to the Pope well informed. The next year, however, he was induced to write a most respectful letter to Leo X. in which he assured the Pope of his loyalty and devotion. A disputation was arranged at Leipzig (1519) between Luther and his opponents. Luther was supported by Carlstadt and the professors of Wittenberg, while Eck, the champion of orthodoxy, was assisted by the professors of Leipzig, Cologne and Louvain. Though Luther was completely beaten in this controversy, yet the disputation served to give him and his theories the notoriety that he desired, and won for him the man who was to be his ablest supporter, Philip Melanchthon. The Pope, having discovered at last the true nature of the movement, issued the Bull, Exsurge, condemning many of Luther's errors and threatening him with excommunication unless he retracted within sixty days (1520).

But Luther had now passed the stage when he feared even threats of excommunication. Supported by the students and the people of Wittenberg he burned the papal condemnation and the writings of his opponents. Throwing himself with renewed ardour into the struggle he issued pamphlet after pamphlet written in a terse and popular style and full of abuse of the Pope and of the Church. In turn he appealed to the racial pride of the Germans and their ill concealed hatred of the Italians, to the cupidity of the princes by offering to make them the heads of the church in their own states if only they threw off the yoke of the Pope, to the discontented nobles and peasantry by dangling before their eyes the wealth which would be ready for distribution among them if the bishoprics and monasteries were suppressed, and to the university students and professors by proclaiming that he was the champion of liberty and learning, who would save them from the ignorant rule of the Scholastics. As a popular speaker and writer of German prose Luther had few equals. He knew better than most men how to win the sympathy of the crowd by his coarse and ribald jokes and how to rouse them to action by his appeals to their passions and patriotism. Nor was he careful about truth if truth did not serve his purpose. In this way, while his opponents were at work in their cells preparing ponderous Latin refutations of his heresy, Luther had captured the masses of the people.

Charles V. had been elected emperor in 1519. As ruler of Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria and the greater part of Italy he might have been in a position to put an end to Luther's movement had he not been handicapped by revolts in Spain, by wars with France and by the Turkish invasion of the empire. On his arrival in Germany, (1521) he summoned Luther to appear at the Diet of Worms. Luther, strengthened by the promise of assistance from Frederick of Saxony and others of the German nobles, refused to retract his errors and was ordered to depart, but on his way from the Diet he was carried into a safe retreat at the castle of Wartburg by the soldiers of Frederick of Saxony. Charles V. declared his intention of putting an end to the trouble, and Luther was placed under the ban of the empire. Unfortunately, however, Charles V. could not enforce this decree owing to the troubles in Spain and with France.

While at Wartburg, Luther issued some of his most violent pamphlets attacking the Mass, the celibacy of the clergy and vows of chastity. The results of the wild onslaughts made by him on all authority, both ecclesiastical and civil, soon made themselves felt. Luther's followers, in accordance with the principles laid down by their master, began to interpret the Bible for themselves. The Anabaptists denied the necessity of infant baptism, and Carlstadt denied the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Luther hastened from his retreat to attack such daring innovators, and drove Carlstadt from Wittenberg. The parting scene between these two apostles of heresy was anything but edifying. At the same time the peasants, roused by Luther's teaching, rose against the princes and a frightful civil war devastated Germany. Luther, who was primarily responsible for this rebellion, alarmed lest the princes should turn against him, quickly changed sides and called upon the princes to slaughter the rebels.

While these scenes of confusion were being enacted Luther, much to the disgust of his friends, married the ex-nun, Catherine Bora (1525). He set himself to organise his party, and the outstanding feature of his ecclesiastical organisation was that it gave complete control into the hands of the civil rulers. It was this feature that secured the adhesion of most of the princes, as for example, Frederick, elector of Saxony, Albert of Brandenburg, and Philip of Hesse. Charles V. was taken up so much by the war with France that he was unable to give any attention to the course of affairs in Germany. A Diet was held at Spires in 1529 which was very favourable to the Catholics, and as a consequence the Lutheran princes protested against the decrees. It is from their action on this occasion that they got the name Protestants. Ten years later Philip of Hesse, who was already married, asked permission from Luther to take a second wife, and threatened that if this permission were not granted he would take no further part in the movement. Luther and Melanchthon consented to his request on condition that the second marriage should be kept secret, but the secret was not long kept, and to do him justice, Melanchthon at least was thoroughly ashamed of what they had done. On the return of the emperor in 1530 he summoned both parties to meet at Augsburg. Melanchthon on behalf of the Lutherans presented "The Confession of Augsburg" as a statement of their doctrinal views. A conference was held between the Catholic and Lutheran theologians, but the conference having failed, the emperor announced his attention of upholding the Catholic faith.

Both sides began to prepare for war. The Protestant princes joined together in the League of Schmalkald. They entered into negotiation with Francis I. of France, and with Henry VIII. of England, and refused to aid the emperor against the Turks. Later on the Catholics also formed the Holy League in defence of their religion. When peace was made with France (1544) Charles V. determined to take some decisive action. Frederick elector of Saxony and Philip of Hesse began to organise their forces. They were declared traitors by the emperor and were completely routed at the battle of Muhlberg (1547). After this defeat many of the Protestants announced their readiness to accept the decrees of the Council of Trent, and Melanchthon was actually on his way to the council when, suddenly, Maurice of Saxony changed sides and marched with a great force against the emperor. Charles V. was obliged to take to flight, and discouraged by his want of success he determined to abdicate and to retire to a monastery. He was succeeded by Ferdinand as emperor and by Philip II. as king of Spain. In 1555 Ferdinand was obliged to sign the peace of Augsburg by which the existence of Protestantism in the empire was recognised definitely.

In 1546, the very time when the triumph of the emperor over France had darkened the horizon for his party, Luther, after having spent a very pleasant evening during the course of which he had expressed himself in especially bitter terms about the Pope, took ill and died. As a popular leader he possessed most of the qualifications required for success. He was a clever writer, a first rate platform orator, as fond of a good joke or of a song as of his beer, and in every way the kind of man likely to secure the sympathy of the crowd, with whom his very weaknesses were a recommendation. But he was sadly wanting in nearly every characteristic that might be expected in a "heaven-sent" reformer. His language was always coarse and very often so obscene that it could not bear repetition in any decent society; his pride and self-confidence were colossal, and there were no extremes to which he was not prepared to go to revenge himself on those who opposed him, whether they were followers of the Pope or of Carlstadt or of Zwingli.

The foundation of Luther's system was the loss of free will and the complete corruption of human nature by the Fall, so that the best work that men could do was always bad. As a consequence of this teaching good works could avail nothing towards sanctification, which could be acquired only by faith in the merits of Jesus Christ. In such a scheme, as is evident, there was no place for the Sacraments, though Luther still retained Baptism and the Eucharist, nor for a priesthood. On the other side, his fundamental position was that the Bible was the sole rule of faith and individual judgment its sole interpreter. Hence, there was no necessity for a visible church, teaching with authority, nor for a Pope who claimed to be the head of such a society.

The Reformation in Switzerland and the North

Zwingli was for Switzerland what Luther was for Germany. As a priest he had been well known for his eloquence and unfortunately also, for his immorality. So early as 1516 he began to preach against the Blessed Virgin and against pilgrimages, and later on he laid down the principle that the Bible was the sole rule of faith. Though he claimed to have discovered his system independently of Luther yet in its main outlines it was in agreement with Luther's teaching, except that it was slightly more logical and more rationalistic. In 1522 he sent a request to the bishop of Constance asking him to suppress clerical celibacy, and as a proof that personally he had a deep interest in this question he took to himself a wife. Supported by the council of Zurich he broke into the churches of the city, destroyed the altars, statues and pictures, and set up in place of the altars plain tables for the celebration of the Lord's supper.

About the same time Oecolampadius, an apostate monk of Basle, began the reformation in that city, and set an example to others by taking a wife. Luther denounced both Zwingli and Oecolampadius as heretics for whose salvation there was no use in praying, because they ventured to deny the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist—a doctrine which he himself was anxious to reject in order to spite the Pope, only that on his own admission, the words of the Scriptures were too strong for him. The Swiss reformers replied to Luther that they were merely following his own principle of interpreting the Scriptures for themselves, and to refute them, Luther was obliged to fall back on the practice of the Church and the writings of the Fathers, whose works he had already denounced as "fetid pools from which Christians had been drinking unwholesome draughts." The cantons of Switzerland which had accepted the new teaching determined to force the other cantons to follow their example, and the result was an appeal to arms. A great battle was fought between the opposing forces at Cappel (1531) where Zwingli himself was killed, much to the relief of Luther, and his followers were dispersed.

Denmark was won over to Lutheranism by the tyrannical action of Christian I. (1513–23) and of Christian III. (1533–67), who recognised in it the best means of making themselves absolute rulers and of getting possession of the riches of the Church. All the bishops were arrested and held prisoners until they consented to resign and to offer no opposition to the movement. To his honour, be it said, there was one at least who refused to agree to such conditions and who preferred to die in prison. In place of bishops superintendents were appointed according to the German plan, who were immediately subject to the king, and the most violent measures were taken against all priests who refused to accept the new teaching. Norway was united with Denmark at the time, and the same methods were employed as in Denmark itself. Sweden fell from the Catholic Church owing to the action of the king, Gustavus Wasa, who had succeeded in winning the independence of his country (1523) and who had, therefore, great influence with the people. He thought that Lutheranism was likely to strengthen his own position and the position of his country, and he hesitated at no means to bring about the change of religion. Two of the bishops were put to death (1527), and force was used to suppress opposition.


John Calvin (1509–64), a Frenchman, was at first intended for the Church, but having changed his mind he took up the study of law, and soon became the friend and ally of the party in Paris and France who favoured the Lutheran movement. When active measures were taken against the heretics he fled to Basle, where he published The Institutes of the Christian Religion  (1533). In their personal characteristics there was a great difference between Calvin and Luther. Luther, with all his faults, had a big heart and could be at times generous and sympathetic, but Calvin seems to have been devoid of human feeling and utterly incapable of appreciating the bright side of human nature. The same difference may be noticed in their systems. Calvin taught the doctrine of absolute predestination according to which God created some men to be damned and some to be saved, irrespective of their merits. In such a system there was no place for Grace or Free Will. The Sacraments were merely signs, though Calvin found it necessary to admit that in receiving the Eucharist, Christ was virtually received, in the sense that the communicant partook something of the spiritual life and strength of Christ. Unlike Luther, Calvin refused to give supreme control of his organisation to the State. It was to be governed by a consistory which consisted of a certain number of representatives appointed by the different churches.

Calvin arrived at Geneva in 1536 at a time when the reform movement had begun, and was being warmly supported for political reasons by the opponents of the Duke of Savoy. His puritanical rule did not please a great body of the citizens and he was expelled, but he soon returned (1541) and became dictator of Geneva. The code which he laid down for the government of Geneva was remarkable for its severity. Heresy, blasphemy and adultery were punished by death, and very special penalties were decreed against dances, gaming and extravagance of dress. His spies were at work everywhere, and no man in Geneva felt himself safe. The number of executions and imprisonments during Calvin's dictatorship is almost incredible, but perhaps the most remarkable was the case of Michael Servetus, a Spanish doctor, who was seized while on his journey through Switzerland, brought to trial for heresy and burned. Calvin wrote a book in defence of putting heretics to death, and was strongly supported in this position by Melanchthon and the other leaders of the Reformation party. Assisted by his ablest lieutenant, Theodore Beza, Calvin succeeded before his death in 1564, in having his system adopted in many of the cantons of Switzerland.

In France the new doctrine found favour, especially amongst the party at Paris University and at the court who favoured the classical movement. The king, Francis I., was too much occupied by his troubles with the emperor to devote any attention to what seemed to him to be a dispute between the Scholastics and the Humanists, but roused by the repeated outrages against the Catholic religion which took place in Paris, he took serious measures to suppress the heretics in 1535. Still, the desire of keeping on good terms with the Protestant princes of Germany in order to utilize them against the emperor, and the protection afforded to heretics by his sister Margaret, prevented him from doing what he felt personally inclined to do to stamp out the movement. Several leading personages in France openly joined the Reformation, the most important of whom were Anthony of Bourbon, King of Navarre, the Prince de Conde, and Admiral de Coligny. In 1559 the French reformers were strong enough to hold a synod at Paris, in which they adopted Calvinism as their official creed.

Henry II. of France died and was followed by Francis II. (1559–60), husband of Mary Queen of Scots, Charles IX. (156074) and Henry III. (1574–89), but in reality France was governed by the Queen Mother, Catherine de Medici, who was a clever intriguer, caring little about religion, and anxious only to maintain her own power by playing off the Calvinists against the Catholics. In 1562 a civil war broke out between the Catholics and the Huguenots as the Calvinists were called, and lasted till the Peace of Amboise (1563) which authorized the use of Calvinist worship wherever it had been established.

But this peace did not put an end to the trouble. The Huguenots rose again and again, acting with the greatest cruelty towards their opponents, and attempting to capture the government. Twice during the interval between 156270 France was obliged to undergo the horrors of civil war, and twice the Huguenots were beaten; but in order to conciliate them, great concessions were made in 1570, by which they were allowed freedom of worship and were to hold possession of four of the strongest fortresses in France.

This peace was exceedingly distasteful to the Catholics, and to make matters worse, Admiral Coligny and the other great leaders of his party were invited to court, and a marriage was arranged between the Calvinist king of Navarre and the sister of Charles IX. Coligny soon acquired complete control over the king and worked hard to induce him to take the side of the Calvinists of Holland against Philip II. of Spain. The Queen Mother fearing the power of Coligny, determined to bring about his murder, while the arrival of large numbers of Calvinists in Paris for the marriage of the king of Navarre, and the defiant attitude of their followers who went about the streets armed and with the airs of conquerors, roused the feelings of the Catholics. In these circumstances very little was required to bring about a dreadful conflict. The Queen secured the signature of Charles IX. for a decree ordering that when a certain signal was given the Calvinists in Paris should be murdered. In accordance with this decree the mob of Paris surrounded the houses where the Calvinists were lodged. Coligny and many of his followers were put to death, and from Paris the massacre spread into several other cities of France till altogether over 2,000 Huguenots were murdered. This is what is known as the massacre of St. Bartholomew (1572). Such a dreadful slaughter was not dictated by zeal for religion, nor was the Church in any way responsible for it. It was due entirely to the action of the Queen Mother and the excited feelings of the populace, and was in no sense a premeditated affair. In order to justify his conduct Charles IX. announced that a plot had been discovered, that the Huguenots had arranged to murder him, and that the only way of securing his own person was to anticipate them. This was the announcement that was brought to Rome, and in order to celebrate the escape of the king, Gregory XIII. ordered a Te Deum  to be sung.

The Huguenots flew to arms once more and concession after concession was made to them by Henry III. Henry had no children and the death of his brother seemed to prepare the way for the accession of the Huguenot king of Navarre. The Catholics took alarm and formed a league in defence of the Church. Both sides allied themselves with the foreigner. While the Huguenots turned to England and Germany, the League turned to Spain, and a civil war broke out once more. Henry III. favoured the Huguenot party and managed to bring about the brutal murder of the Catholic leader, Henry of Guise (1585). The people were roused by this act. Henry was obliged to join his forces with the forces of the king of Navarre, then marching on Paris, and at Saint Cloud he was stabbed to death (1589). Henry of Navarre now became king under the title of Henry IV., but realising that nobody except a Catholic would be accepted as ruler by the people of France, he announced his intention of abjuring heresy and of accepting the Catholic faith (1J93). To put an end to the trouble he published the Edict of Nantes (1598), by which the free exercise of their religion was guaranteed to the Huguenots, and they were allowed to retain most of the fortresses which they held.

During the minority of Louis XIII. (1610–43), Cardinal Richelieu, prime minister of France, annoyed by the constant demands of the Huguenots and wishing to put an end to a party which claimed to be a state within a state, captured their last fortress, La Rochelle (1628) Louis XIV. revoked the Edict of Nantes (1685) and demanded that the Calvinists should return to the Church or quit the country. Such a step was dictated entirely by political motives and was not in accordance with the wishes of the Pope.

In the Netherlands the religious trouble began to make itself felt during the reign of Philip II. (1556–98). This monarch gave great offence to the people by his contempt for their constitutional privileges, by sending Spanish troops to garrison the country, and by his appointment of Spaniards to most of the important offices of State. The opposition to Philip favoured the Reformation movement, and Calvinism soon got a great hold especially in the northern provinces. The principal leader of this party was William of Orange. Philip recalled the Duchess of Parma who had been governor, and appointed the Duke of Alva to put down both the heresy and the rebellion. He arrived in 1567 and took stern measures to insure the success of his work, but his severity only served to foster opposition and he was recalled in 1573. His successors, notably Farnese, were more successful. The southern provinces which remained Catholic returned to their allegiance, and the northern provinces, which had accepted definitely Calvinism, formed themselves into a separate kingdom. They were supported by England, and at last Spain was obliged to make a truce with them (1609), and, finally, to recognise their independence (1648).