Purification of Memory – The 'Reformation Divorce'

John Wayne and Lee Marvin play characters in the film Donovan’s Reef, who relapse into fighting whenever they see each other – predictably every year for decades. And the daughter of one of them points out that they have been fighting so long, they have forgotten what they were fighting about in the first place, so they can never make up and be friends.
There seems something of that dynamic between the Catholic Christians and Protestant Christians – we’ve forgotten what we originally disagreed about ....

Corruption in the Catholic Church

Regrettably, the breakdown of relations between the Catholic Church and the Reformers (who had understandably protested about the unquestioned corruption within the Catholic Church at that time) was very unpleasant and destructive – with scars remaining until this day - like a very unpleasant and bitter divorce. (But we know that bitterness has unforgiveness at its root .... and the Lord's Prayer mentions forgiveness as a condition for receiving God's Grace!!).

It is a well-documented and unquestioned historical fact, that at the time of the Reformation there was widespread corruption, abuse of power and ‘worldliness’ in the Catholic Church, and no doubt many of today’s Catholics would also have ‘protested’ and become ‘Protestants’ at that time.

When the Pope at that time, responded defiantly to the protesters, those conscientious reformers eventually found themselves outside the Catholic Church and subsequently formed the Protestant Churches, where they have continued to test and ironically 'protect'; their parent organisation - the Roman Catholic Church ever since: As Timothy (2Timothy.3:16) states, Scripture is good for correcting error and as such the so called 'Bible-based' Churches have been rather a protection for the Catholic Church in their challenges and debate. Scripture scholarship amongst Protestants is highly respected by Catholic theologians who of course, also have their own Scripture scholars.

(The Bible, as a large collection of separate books by different authors, was of course discerned and composed by the Catholic Church in the first place.)


Leading up to the Reformation it is not difficult to see God’s purposes in the Protestants ‘protesting’ about what the newly available printed Bible told them was wrong in the conduct of the Catholic Church at that time - having become corrupted by land ownership; involvement in politics; untrained clergy who were doing a "job" and not following a "calling"; and also many superstitious practices had developed, which were a distraction from true faith.
The last straw was when the Pope Leo X, who was perhaps one of the most extravagant and worldly Popes in history, decided to renovate St Peter’s basilica in Rome, and to acquire the enormous sums of money for renovation, he encouraged the sale of "Indulgences," which was a promise of relief from eternal penalties. As a result, over-zealous clergy wandered the Continent encouraging and pressuring the poor to give money they couldn’t afford, for fear of their loved ones suffering longer in Purgatory than they otherwise might.

In Germany this over-zealous practice aroused the frustration of Martin Luther, a Catholic monk, who, in 1517 issued ninety-five arguments (theses) suggesting reform of the Catholic Church – many of them aimed at attacking the doctrine of indulgences which was being abused and he also resented the related doctrine of Purgatory – a place of final cleansing of lesser sins (purging) before entering Heaven.
Luther wrote in his 95 Theses criticising the Church, - "Why doesn't the Pope build the basilica of St Peter's out of his own money?" What Luther did was very timely, since there were numerous other factors, like a "perfect storm" which ignited at the spark which he provided – the Church was ripe for reform. German nobles saw an opportunity to cut off currency flowing to Rome which was very much needed at home, so they backed Luther's cause and Europe started to unravel into regional wars due to the combination of political interests and religious zeal..
In 1520, Leo issued the papal bull "Exsurge Domine" demanding Luther retract 41 of his 95 theses, and after Luther's refusal, excommunicated him. (Interesting that out of 95 theses, the Pope only asked him to retract 41 of them – leaving 54 that were presumably valid concerns.)

Anyway, the papacy at that time was defiant and unrepentant, and eventually, after decades of ‘Protesting’, the initial reformers, whose intention had not been to leave the Catholic Church originally, but only to reform it from within, (and whose authority in doing so was reference to the newly printed Bible), ended up being excommunicated by the Vatican and left to fend for themselves. Indeed non-Catholic Christians were denounced and ‘going to Hell’, as far as the Catholic Church believed,for the next 450 years -Though there had been a longstanding debate within the Catholic Church about the salvation of non-Catholic Christians; also unbaptised babies and adults who had not heard the Gospel so had an excuse not to become Catholics, were not viewed so harshly.

Finding themselves outside the Catholic Church, and therefore without the particular interpretation of the Bible that had been handed down to the Catholic Church by the early Christians, the Protestants ‘started from scratch’ - looking at the Bible and interpreting it themselves, which caused inevitable divergence from the original teaching of the Catholic Church and subsequent diversity even within their own numbers. For the Catholic Church’s part, although reforms were actually carried out following the Reformation and corruption undone, the Catholic Church fiercely defended their key truths, that had been handed down through history as Sacred Tradition (solemnly discerned God-inspired Sacred Tradition – note the capital ‘T’ in the word 'Tradition').
Looking around the Christian denominations at present, it is easy to recognise different talents, styles and emphases in the different denominations and ministries; some are more evangelising; some more contemplative; some are more attractive to young people; some are more attractive to older people; some are more involved in Social Action than others, etc.
God is surely active in this diversity, which God clearly enjoys in Nature too, and which the Protestants particularly have been rather free to develop since they were not bound to the emphasis and solemn liturgy which must accompany the celebration of the Eucharist in the Catholic celebration of Holy Mass.

Separated Brothers

In the years since the Reformation the Catholic Church continued to teach for centuries, that anyone outside the Catholic Church could not obtain salvation and were therefore going to Hell. Considering that this stance was completely reversed at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960's, this historical condemnation had been a hurtful and divisive decree to declare against the Protesters, who had after all only opposed the corruption in the Catholic Church, in the first place.
On the other hand, holding their measuring rod of the 'Bible-alone' against the Catholic Church, Protestants have also spent centuries denouncing Catholic teachings which vary from theirs in similar harsh and angry terms, insisting that anything not in the Bible cannot be true faith. Both positions have made unity more difficult.

During the Council several documents were produced concerned ecumenism and a "unity" with non-Catholic Christians. As a result of those pronouncements, the Catholic Church recognized Christians in the Orthodox and Protestant Churches as "separated brethren" i.e. siblings of the same family who are not together!
This was a drastic change from the previous centuries of denunciation that existed between the Catholic Church and other Christian Churches. Catholic and Orthodox Churches have long been very close in their respect for their respective diversity and formal relationships.

In his famous ‘Maxims of Christian Perfection for All Christians’, Blessed Antonio Rosmini, who is being made a saint by the Catholic Church because of his exemplary life, wrote (emphases added for clarity):

  1. Jesus Christ has power over all things in heaven and on earth, and has merited to be absolute Lord of all people; and He alone, with unspeakable wisdom, power and goodness, rules all events according to His Divine pleasure, and for the greater good of the elect who form His beloved Spouse the Church.

  2. Christians therefore should feel perfectly at peace and full of joy, resting entirely upon their Lord, however contrary even to the good of the Church events may seem. But they must not cease from praying earnestly that the will of God may be done on earth as it is in heaven, that is, that people may fulfil the holy law of charity on earth as the saints fulfil it in heaven.”

  3.  Christians should banish from their hearts all uneasiness, and every kind of anxiety and apprehension, even that which seems at times to have no other object than the good of the Church of Jesus Christ.
    Moreover, they must not rashly imagine that they can remedy the evils, which assail the Church, before they see clearly that such is the will of the Lord.*
    They must bear in mind that Jesus Christ alone is the Ruler of His Church, and that most displeasing to Him, and most unworthy of His disciples, is the rashness of those who, not called and moved by Him, but, led blindly by a secret pride, presume of their own accord to do any good in the Church, however little it may be, as if the Divine Redeemer stood in need of their poor help, or of that of any person whatever.
    (Maxim 3)- http://www.rosminicentre.co.uk/images/witness/MAXIMSPRINTEDBOOKLET.pdf

(* The call to unity on this page, has come from a specific prophetic instruction to bring down the barriers between God’s people)

God has certainly therefore, allowed the diversity of the Orthodox and the Reformation churches as a major factor in His Mystical Body, the Christian Church “according to His Divine pleasure” –  and it would be pride and presumption for any of us to resist and be scornful of this God-given diversity without clear guidance from the Lord.
The Catholic Church for its part, has held onto longstanding truths, and has not felt so free to explore different ways of ‘doing Church’ during the centuries. Each denomination has different talents and strengths – we just need, like different members of a corporate team, to respect our differences and not despise them, since the Almighty hand of God is certainly at work in this diversity within His Body.


Having quoted from a Catholic saint, for our Protestant brethren let us also consider this positive view of diversity in the Scriptures, where we may also see that God enjoys diversity and expects it in His Church:
At the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in Luke 4:18, it is evident from the text He chooses (Isaiah 61) and his explanation (Luke 4:21-27) that he came to save the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed, Jews, and the gentiles. Jesus’ love for all people is clearly evident as the Gospels record numerous examples of his ministry: to a Roman officer (Matthew 8:5-13); a Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:22-28); a Samaritan woman (John 4:7-29), and to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:6). His inclusivity for His Church is demonstrated by reference to the kingdom of heaven being populated by those “from east and west” (Matthew 8:10-12), no doubt a reference to his “other sheep, which are not of this fold” (John 10:16).
Yet, Jesus’ desire and plan for these 'last days', is for His diverse followers to “become one flock with one shepherd” (John 10:16), “perfected in unity” as proof to the world that He was sent by God (John 17:10-26).
The answer to divisions in the Church is the cross by which Jesus reconciled all things who were once hostile to himself (Colossians 1:19-21) and brought peace out of the hostility that once existed between us:

Colossians 1:19 -22: For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.  And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death.

Of course we also have Jesus in the Book of Revelation describing several diverse attributes of the seven Churches which he refers to positively, as well as the areas of criticism that were also mentioned. 

adly within 30 years of the Reformation starting, the Anabaptists insisted that the other reformers (Lutherans and Calvinists etc.) were not even Christian because they were baptised as infants (cf. infant circumcision and entry into covenant on the eighth day after birth), and Protestants began executing other Protestants over doctrinal differences according to the particular creed held to by the judiciary in respective towns and regions. The Catholics of the time were equally hostile against Protestants. In hindsight, all sides were unloving and unchristian to other Christians in the name of 'truth',  which must have saddened God greatly..

 So in terms of ‘purifying our memories’, as referred to by Pope John Paul II, neither the Catholics: who were in a pitiful mess and subsequently excommunicated and damned to Hell their Christian critics for 450 years; nor the Protestants: who have been equally fierce and unforgiving, not just against Catholics but even against each other, should be quick to ‘cast the first stone’ and we must remind ourselves that when we do accuse, we have one finger pointing forward and three fingers pointing back at ourselves.

The Orthodox and Catholic Churches have made great progress in reconciling their differences but unfortunately, from the Protestant Churches, there is no single voice who could accept his apology and make courageous and loving steps towards forgiveness and reconciliation as Pope John Paul II did.

But let us all now work and prayer to ensure that there are no more obstacles of misunderstanding and unforgiveness between us Christians brothers and sisters.