consequences of the Reformation (a preview)

What I’m offering here is a mere outline of an an argument that I want to make in more detail later. It is inadequate on its own because of its dearth of quotations from and detailed analysis of the books under consideration. I’m posting it now more as a reminder to myself than anything else, though I would welcome thoughtful feedback too.

Two of the most ambitious and widely-discussed works of intellectual history in recent years are Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007) and Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation (2012). The books are interestingly comparable in many ways. Both are written by Catholics; both rely on a very old and simplistic story about what the Reformation brought into being; both are strangely incurious about developments in Protestant thought after, and even during, the sixteenth century.

For Gregory, the cardinal error of the Reformation — which he tends to present as a uniform agent, as I’ll show below — was to apply intellectual remedies to a moral problem. In dismissing alternative views to his own, he writes that “the failure of medieval Christendom was not a function of the demonstrated or demonstrable falsity of central doctrinal truth claims of the Christian faith as promulgated by the Roman Catholic Church”; nor were there any problems stemming from too great diversity in religious practice or “an enforced uniformity of piety and religious practice.”

The failure of medieval Christendom derived rather from the pervasive, long-standing, and undeniable failure of so many Christians, including members of the clergy both high and low, to live by the church’s own prescriptions and exhortations based on its truth claims about the Life Questions. It was at root a botching of moral execution, a failure to practice what was preached.

Gregory doesn’t, as far as I can tell, do anything to establish the truth of his claim that the only failings of the medieval church were moral — though it is clearly vital to his understanding of the period. (“The Reformation ended more than a thousand years of Christianity as a framework for shared intellectual life in the Latin West.” All by itself, with no assistance from the Catholic Church.) Certainly many people in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries came to believe that at least some Catholic teachings were false. In a book about the consequences of the Reformation, the assertion that such falsehood was not established — or maybe that (Gregory’s prose is vague here) any such demonstrations of falsehood were inconsequential — seems to be the mootest of moot points.

But let’s waive all that and assume that these claims of Gregory’s are correct. Even if so, these scarcely exhaust the possible explanations for “the failure of medieval Christendom.” It’s perfectly possible — indeed, one would think, quite likely — that the “central doctrinal truth claims of the Christian faith as promulgated by the Roman Catholic Church” were imperfectly and inconsistently understood by many medieval priests, whose education was highly variable and in some cases almost nonexistent. And what did those clergy actually teach the laypeople of medieval Europe? The historical record seems to indicate pretty clearly that actual teaching, from pulpit or elsewhere, was highly variable too. It seems strange that Gregory doesn’t consider the possibility of this kind of intellectual failure, serious though it could be. Instead, he takes refuge in what seems to me to be nothing more than a consoling fiction: that there was one “framework for shared intellectual life” everywhere in the Latin West that stood consistently for an entire millennium.

But to acknowledge variability in this monolithic structure of belief, in time or space — or, even if this story of fixed truth were true, to consider failures in the understanding and transmission of Catholic doctrine — would be to undermine Gregory’s whole argument, which is, again, that in trying to apply intellectual remedies to moral problems the Reformers inadvertently generated tragic cultural consequences. If the medieval Western church was in fact beset by doctrinal inconsistencies and incoherences, in addition to its moral ones, then the magisterial Reformers’ strategies become easier to understand and defend, and it becomes harder to blame the whole of Infamous Modernity on them.

I find Gregory’s book massively tendentious and unfair in its determination to see intellectual Catholicism as a simple victim of the Reformers’ acts of (however inadvertant) destruction. Taylor’s A Secular Age strikes me as a much richer, deeper, and more fair-minded book. Taylor is much less ready than Gregory to dismiss the achievements of modernity: he knows, as Gregory often seems not to, that if the Catholic Church had been able to stifle the Reformation in the cradle we might be living in a world that few of us would want to live in. (One of the oddest features of Gregory’s book is that its concluding chapter, “Against Nostalgia,” could scarcely be more nostalgic about the Catholic Middle Ages.)

But there is a flaw that Taylor’s book shares with Gregory’s: a failure to recognize that from Martin Luther on the most intelligent Protestants have been quite aware of, and concerned or alarmed about, the forces that they unintentionally unleashed, and have devoted constant and rigorous thought to these issues and how they might be addressed in light of biblical truth and (often enough) Catholic tradition.

Consider this: Taylor’s 900-page book about the varieties of secularization and secularity that have arisen in the past half-millennium, and the varieties of actual or possible Christian response to them, does not mention the name Kierkegaard. Not once. (Gregory mentions him a single time, in a mere list of Protestant thinkers.) Yet it would be impossible to name anyone who thought more deeply, more rigorously, and more critically about the relationship between Protestantism and the emergent secular — though the other names that one might mention in that context, for instance Barth and Bonhoeffer, are equally ignored by Taylor and Gregory.

Moreover, the magisterial Reformers themselves, from Luther to Calvin to Richard Hooker, even in the midst of social upheaval, are often quite acute on the very matters that concern Gregory and Taylor.

Both Gregory and Taylor construct stories in which “the Reformation” is the one historical actor, while poor Catholicism stands by, helpless to prevent the birthing of Modernity (understood by Gregory as a monster simpliciter, by Taylor as something more ambiguous, rather like Doctor Frankenstein’s creation as described by Mary Shelley). A more truthful account of the past five hundred years would acknowledge (a) the full range of ways in which Catholicism participated in its own dethronement, (b) the remaining power and influence of Catholicism both intellectually and as a set of forms of Christian practice, (c) the deep, lasting commonalities between at least the magisterial Reformation and the doctrinal inheritance of the Christian west going back to the Fathers, and (d) the immense devotion, creativity, and intellectual rigor which the deepest Protestant thinkers have brought to the very problems which Gregory and Taylor address.