Saturday, January 5, 2019
The state of the Church at Luther's "revolt"
Luther did not break up the medieval Church -- it was ripe with rift, suffering schisms, and a bleeding body before Luther opened his mouth. In the wake of the so-called Dark Ages, Christianity found itself with a Church in turmoil and scandal on the inside and shockingly woven into the political and royal life of politics and rule on the outside.
The state of the clergy was awful. Absentee bishops and priests ignored their pastoral responsibilities. Rich families collected parishes, monasteries, and church offices like we would put together a stock portfolio or real estate empire. They doled out these to their sons who were ordained but seldom functioned as religious clergy -- preferring to delegate the actual church work to underlings. In fact it was rare for bishops of the larger cosmopolitan dioceses to be present in their dioceses, much less serve in any pastoral capacity there. These prominent sees were too often benefices for the rich families who owned them and whose sons merely collected the not unsubstantial income. The average priest was poorly trained, knew little of the Latin of the doctrinal teachers of the Church and nothing of the Greek or Hebrew of the Scriptures. They preached poor and mostly moralistic sermons, catechized poorly the youth, charged for sacraments, and spent the offerings of the people on themselves. The faith suffered even with the Church and, though there had been many voices calling for reform, the faithful were poorly served and this served as a catalyst for a reformer (Luther) who could escape being burned at the stake for challenging the status quo.
In the wake of Luther and others, no one in Rome could ignore the crisis. When the Council of Trent was convened, some hoped for an internal reform to legitimize Luther's complaints. While the Council met only sporadically between 1545 and 1563, its reform largely too the shape of a consolidation of Roman and papal power and centralized even more the shape of the those now more accurately ROMAN Catholic. Its decrees were not universally heralded or applied but over the years Trent would consolidate Roman identity while ignoring many of the abuses and the calls of the Reformers for a catholic renewal flowing from a Scriptural renewal.
To be sure, millions left Rome and not simply for Luther but because of this corrupt reality that challenged the Scriptural vision of the Kingdom. Luther is the convenient target to blame and his role is easy to call a revolt, but it is not without the dream of what might have been if the Church had been renewed through the Scriptures, regained her voice to preach the Gospel, returned to the sacraments as means of grace, and taught the priests and the faithful more deliberately. When we look at the time of the Reformation and Luther, we almost find ourselves looking at the present situation. We have payday preachers who hawk the grace of God as if it were a product and who deliver hope with a fee. We have scandals in which priests and bishops have ignored or covered up great immorality. We have churches with the Gospel lite who have traded doctrinal certainty for the whim of feeling and desire. We have a morality which moves like a barometer following the cultural direction of the moment. We have confusion about what it means to be Christian and confusion about what it means to be the Church. Perhaps it is time for another revolt, a synthesis of Christians who want to hear the Word and keep it, to come together from various homes around the Word that endures forever and doctrine that does not change according to poll or preference and truth that actually has power to call us to repentance and remake us into His image and likeness. Perhaps we do need another Luther. Like some who surveyed the situation in Luther's day, could it get much worse?