YOU SAY YOU WANT A REFORMATION?
Reformations have been much in the news recently. Ever since the sex abuse crisis erupted in the US Roman Catholic Church in the mid-1980s, activists have been comparing the Church's situation with the problems it faced in Europe at the start of the sixteenth century. And since the revelations of Church misconduct first developed in the Boston Archdiocese this past January, calls for change have become even louder, and the Bishops themselves acknowledge that "The church in the United States is experiencing a crisis without precedent in our times." Accordingly, the reform agendas now under discussion within the US hierarchy definitely do involve ideas about lay participation of the sort heard during the great Protestant Reformation. Growing numbers among both the laity and the clergy have called for a major expansion of lay power within the church, in matters like church government and finances, but also extending to highly sensitive matters like the selection and training of priests. With clerical prestige at an all time low in the US, the Church realizes that any investigation of internal misconduct absolutely has to involve substantial lay participation. Buzzwords like "accountability" and "empowerment" feature often in Catholic rhetoric.
Emboldened by the new willingness to discuss significant changes, some activists are openly calling for much more radical reforms, that they do not hesitate to compare to a new Reformation. One much-quoted expert on sexual misconduct by Catholic priests is Dr. Richard Sipe, who over the years has spoken regularly of "a new Reformation," and of "Wittenberg," recalling the site of Luther's movement against the Catholic orthodoxy of his day. In recent months, Dr. Sipe has become even more specific. He now believes that "We are at 1515, between when Martin Luther went to Rome in 1510, and 1517, when he nailed his 95 theses on the door in Wittenberg." Such analogies have appeared ever more frequently, from victims' groups, from anti-clerical activists, but also from rank and file lay believers, who organize through pressure groups like Voices of the Faithful.
The heroic image of Luther and the church door has exercised a powerful appeal on later generations of would-be reformers, who have often tried to cast themselves in his mold. Many have tried to formulate their own lists of theses, much like every self-respecting radical group of the 1960s had to have its own version of the ten point program of the Black Panther Party. From recent religious controversies, we have a package of 21 theses from Robert Funk, leader of the Jesus Seminar group of radical New Testament critics, while former Newark Bishop John Spong offers his blueprint for a new Reformation in twelve theses. At 9.5 theses, Mark Jordan is more concise, though no less explosive, since he is arguing that “The Roman Catholic Church has long been both fiercely homophobic and intensely homoerotic” Theses are the standard currency of religious reform.
What is different about the current furor is that the advocates of change within the Catholic Church are gaining widespread support for their views, which in some ways do parallel the demands of the early Protestant thinkers. The obvious parallels involve what Sipe calls the Church's “celibate/sexual system," namely the insistence on clerical celibacy, which does so much to make priests into a separate caste elevated above normal believers. Worse, it is claimed, the practice of celibacy itself seems to reflect an immature loathing of sexuality, as well as a fundamental suspicion of women. For the reformers, the celibacy doctrine is crucial to denying full Church participation to lay people, presumably because the authorities regard them as mired in their horrible lustful ways.
End celibacy, the argument goes, and many of the Church's ills end with it. In the short run, a priesthood freed from its unnatural frustrations would no longer exploit and abuse children, but the reform would echo through the whole system. Married priests would no longer claim a status superior to the laity. Catholic doctrine would move towards a mature appreciation of human sexuality, with all that implies for policies on matters like contraception and homosexuality. And the way would be clear for the full participation of women in the Church, including as priests, bishops, and - who knows - as Popes. The result would be a true priesthood of all believers, as described in the New Testament. One prophet of such a transformation is former priest James Carroll, author of the best-selling Constantine’s Sword, a sweeping indictment of Catholic anti-Semitism through the ages. He sees the Church facing its greatest crisis since the Protestant Reformation, and in the best-case scenario, a reformed Catholic Church would implement “the democratic reforms necessary to empower the laity … equal rights for women and… a new vision of human sexuality."
For the reformers, the ending of celibacy would be a massive step towards a Church based on democracy and consultation rather than hierarchy and authoritarianism. In all these matters, liberal and feminist pressure groups are convinced that their views must triumph in time, once the gerontocracy in the Vatican has faded into history. Suggesting this historical confidence, one liberal American pressure group claims for itself the title of FutureChurch.
If Rome tried to prevent or prohibit change, that could of itself provoke a national schism or separation. A liberal American Catholic Church would confront a hidebound and traditional-minded international Church, though at least that conflict would not have the direct military or diplomatic consequences of the great religious divisions of bygone years. No international Catholic super-powers would be waiting to swoop down to end the courageous American experiment. The Habsburgs are not what they used to be.
For the would-be reformers, the consequences would be entirely positive. Catholics would rely more on themselves, their own judgments and resources, rather than on traditional authorities. It all sounds so right, no natural, so American, that at first is difficult to see why any reasonable person would oppose such a reform scheme (Vatican authorities are not considered reasonable critics). Envisaging a revived, post-Reformed, American Catholicism, proponents of change sound rather like an earlier generation of Protestants celebrating the great mental liberation that supposedly launched the modern world around 1500. Rudyard Kipling summed this view up perfectly in his poem, "The Dawn Wind:"
So when the world is asleep, and there seems no hope of her waking
Out of some long, bad dream that makes her mutter and moan,
Suddenly, all men arise to the noise of fetters breaking,
And every one smiles at his neighbour and tells him his soul is his own!
Who could possibly fail to want a Reformation?
Whether such a change will come in the foreseeable future is anyone's guess. Realistically, no cardinal or bishop is likely to propose independence or secession for the American church, and the most dramatic tension that is likely to occur between Rome and the American church will involve some unusually frank controversies over policy statements. But lay-clerical conflict certainly will continue, as will tensions between higher and lower clergy, and in both cases, debates will use the language of "Reformation." This kind of historical analogy is important in itself, in framing how activists see themselves and their enemies, and perhaps even in suggesting future strategies. Commenting on the group Voices of the Faithful, historian Scott Appleby tries to locate them on the spectrum of Reformation politics circa 1520: “They are Erasmus, not Luther. Erasmus said, I remain Catholic because I believe the basic theology of the church, but I think there’s widespread need for invigorating those institutions”. At the time of writing, no Church protest group has yet staged a ceremonial nailing of theses on a cathedral door, but it’s probably just a matter of time before they do.
However attractive it sounds, the prospect of the New American Reformation encounters some serious problems. In a sense, we have been here before. Before using the concept of “Reformation” as any kind of model, we should learn from the experience of past events of this kind. When we look more closely at the last Reformation, it appears far more complex and less heroic than the heroic fetter-breaking image preached by the current reformers. And we should not forget the dramatic divisions that this movement inflicted on global Christianity, on Christendom if we like.
In this area, the historical parallels between 1517 and 2002 look quite striking. While a Reformation might conceivably be getting under way in North America, a quite separate religious revolution is already taking place in other parts of the world, and moving in very different directions from the trends we can see in the advanced Western societies. Just as sixteenth century Europe was divided between two Reformations, Protestant and Catholic, so the modern Christian world may be becoming polarized between two quite distinct revolutionary movements. From this point of view, the West's New Reformation looks like an attempt to secede from the Christian world.
Modern-day reformers who hark back to the era of Luther rarely have more than a vague idea of just what was at issue at that time. Reading modern accounts, it is easy to assume that Luther’s most radical act was decisively abandoning celibacy by marrying an ex-nun, while the core of his message was giving power back to the laity. Actually, neither celibacy nor priesthood had little to do with the conflict at first, and celibacy was not even mentioned in the original 95 theses. Luther's original protest concerned the sale of indulgences - loosely, "get out of jail free" cards that people could buy to get dead relatives out of Purgatory. Very quickly, though, his thinking evolved to raise much more fundamental questions about the core of the Christian religion. Luther believed that the central Christian teaching was that a sinful humanity fully deserving of damnation was redeemed by God's saving act in sending his son to die on the Cross, and that only by faith in Christ was salvation possible. This, he believed, was the core theme of the New Testament – he called his ideas "evangelical," from the Greek term for "Gospel". Any Church teaching that reinforced this core idea was good and desirable; anything that detracted from it was a diabolical contamination, which needed to be purged away. But how was a faithful Christian believer to know which was which? Answering that question correctly was much more than merely a matter of life and death: literally, it made the difference between eternal salvation and damnation.
A religious practice was justified if it could clearly be shown to have existed in the earliest days of Christianity, which in practice meant the first century or so after the time of Christ. Just what had been normal Christian practice at that time could be known clearly enough from the text of the New Testament, though a few other very Church writers might be cited to this purpose. If a practice fitted these standards, it could be maintained; if not, it should be purged as a late perversion of the faith, something that was un-Christian and probably anti-Christian. We often talk of "Occam's Razor" as a means of slicing away unnecessarily complex arguments; the Protestant reformers were not using a razor for pruning the faith of their day, but rather Luther's Chainsaw. From this perspective, the developments of some 1400 years of Christian history were irrelevant or worse. In pruning away what they believed to be accretions to the religious system, activists found themselves asking frankly revolutionary questions about every aspect of society and politics, including matters as basic as gender relations and economic life.
The Reformation was much more than a matter of irate lay people rising against corrupt priestly exploiters. It was rather a far-reaching social movement that, at least to its supporters, sought to return to the original sources of a religion. The movement challenged the idea that authority should be mediated through institutions or hierarchies, and denied the value of tradition. Instead, it offered radical new notions of the supremacy of written texts, interpreted by the individual conscience. By emphasizing the judgment of the individual, the Reformation approach at least made possible a religion that could be practiced privately, rather than in community. It is above all this first move towards individualism, towards the privatization of religious belief, which makes Luther's career so attractive to moderns. The growth of the individual and the private sphere promoted a new vision of the family and the household as basic building blocks of society.
In no respect were the reformers more radical than in the dominant forms of media used to teach and discuss religious truths, with all that shift implies for cultural sensibilities. The Reformation was a media event. Traditional societies had taught their truths through visual imagery, such as stained glass and sculpture; through music; and above all, through drama and ritual action, which often involved a large amount of communal participation. Protestants taught through the word, in the form of books and tracts, hymns and sermons. The new religious model was made possible only by the rise of printing, which we think of most directly in terms of books and especially Bibles. Equally significant though were pamphlets, handbills, song-books, chapbooks, and especially cartoons, which were a major vehicle for distributing the Reformation message throughout Germany and Northern Europe. In creating the modern world, printing was as significant as the new mechanisms of central state power made possible by artillery. Thomas Carlyle famously listed "the three great elements of modern civilization, Gunpowder, Printing, and the Protestant religion."
A fundamental change in media might offer the closest analogy between present conditions and Luther's age. Today's new electronic media should have an impact on our notions of "ways of being religious" quite as substantial as the book and mass literacy did centuries ago, and in so doing, will also transform notions of authority and individual belief. Already, religion and spirituality occupy a vast amount of Internet traffic. In coming decades, all denominations will have to confront the issue of just how far religious experience can be conveyed through the Internet or similar remote means, and the whole language of "attendance," "participation" and even "going to church" will need careful re-examination.
Though the European discovery of printing predated Luther, it was he Reformation that effectively made it a revolutionary mass medium. Today, similarly, radical religious change might well develop on the basis of the pre-existing technology of the Internet, because both movements, social and technological, share common cultural assumptions. The electronic setting meshes very poorly with notions of authority or hierarchy, since the whole ambience of the medium favors voluntarism, participation, individual choice, and "grazing" among available options. The Internet is a world that functions most naturally on a peer to peer basis, rather than on the authoritative distribution of spiritual goods by a narrow elite. While written texts are inflexible, Internet content is endlessly malleable, and so are the truths it communicates. The medium is best suited to that kind of mix and match self-created religion that is sometimes called "cafeteria" faith, and which is already the bugbear of orthodox Catholic thinkers. Nor is the highly atomized electronic culture hospitable to any attempts to impose -or even to suggest – moral absolutes. And at least in theory, participation in Net culture takes no account of gender or sexual preference.
Almost certainly, the new forms of interaction will promote a new kind of radical religious privatization much as the printed book did in its day. More immediate communication will encourage the growth of global denominations and para-church networks, which will gain importance as migration continues to reduce the significance of national boundaries. If printing and the reformation laid the basis for modernity and Protestantism, then electronic media are eminently suited for post-modernity, and probably for post-Christianity.
To think even more speculatively, these issues will become all the more pressing when computers break their reliance on keyboards and permit easier and more intuitive interfaces. The development cannot be more than a few years distant. Nor can it be much longer before human-machine interfaces erode the boundaries between the biological and the electronic, as computers quite literally become part of our bodies. Trying to imagine the new post-Internet religious world might be almost as hard for us as it would have been for a late medieval Catholic to have envisaged the Bible-oriented spirituality of seventeenth or eighteenth century Puritanism. Literally, that was an inconceivable world to them, and imagining religious life after the Internet might be equally problematic for us. But we can safely predict that new forms of electronic media will have far-reaching effects on religious practice and the whole notion of religious community.
Let us suppose that the Catholic Church in the West really is on the verge of a New Reformation, a revolutionary overthrow of older religious authorities, coupled with the rise of new cultural forms. It all sounds heady enough, exciting and romantic. Just like political revolutions, though, Reformations are interesting and exciting to read about, but often horrible and destructive to live through. In many details, the original Reformation era might offer some serious warnings in terms of the divisions and inner crises that it launched.
The modern notion of Luther and Wittenberg contains a number of errors, some trivial, some not. It scarcely matters, for instance, whether Luther actually nailed those theses to the church door, but even if he did, he was not defying the whole world in the way that is often imagined today. This was not a sixteenth century equivalent of the lone Chinese student standing in front of the tanks en route to Tienanmen Square. It is more accurate to think of Luther posting the document on a notice board for the attention of fellow faculty members. More important, though, is the underlying myth that moderns are using when they draw the Wittenberg comparison. If we compare our present situation with a more accurate model of what the Reformation represented, then we can still find some useful parallels, but they are more disturbing.
Modern reformers are generally working with a popular myth that goes something like this. By 1500 or so, the church was awash with corruption, ordinary lay people were appalled by their corrupt, depraved, greedy and ignorant clergy, and they demanded a radical change, that resulted in the establishment of new Protestant churches. To quote the popular Victorian rationalist J. W. Draper, "It wanted nothing more than the voice of Luther to bring men throughout the north of Europe to the determination that the worship of the Virgin Mary, the invocation of saints, the working of miracles, supernatural cures of the sick, the purchase of indulgences for the perpetration of sin, and all other evil practices, lucrative to their abettors, which had been fastened on Christianity, but which were no part of it, should come to an end. Catholicism, as a system for promoting the well-being of man, had plainly failed in justifying its alleged origin." In short, people rebelled against a blatantly false and fraudulent system, and where the will of the people prevailed, Catholicism collapsed. That system held on elsewhere because the old Church and its secular allies managed to hold off the revolutionaries. It was a popular revolution against a corrupt elite, People Power in operation.
For some years, though, mainstream historians have favored a less simplistic approach. Perhaps the most important recent account, and the most startling, is the 1992 book The Stripping of the Altars, by Cambridge historian Eamonn Duffy (Yale University Press). By the time you have finished reading Duffy, you realize that most of what you know about the Reformation era is simply wrong. The book takes its title from one of the gloriously theatrical events around which church life revolved in late medieval England. On the Thursday before Easter, the church's altars were stripped of all decoration, as part of a symbolic re-enactment of the stripping, death and burial of Christ. The ritual drama even included a symbolic burial of the Host that represented Christ, as parishioners kept watch around the "tomb" until the moment of Resurrection on Easter Day. Duffy gives a sense of the dazzling pageantry in which virtually all Christians participated to some degree, even in the poorest and most remote regions.
But the term "stripping" also refers to what happened as a result of the Reformation, as English churches were subjected to horrible acts of desecration and iconoclasm. Valuables like chalices and liturgical items were confiscated, notionally because they symbolized Catholic superstition, but in fact because the king needed them for their bullion value. The churches were virtually sacked, the sculptures broken, the windows smashed. The dramas and ceremonies that defined the Christian year were banned as criminal activities. Duffy shows that this national wave of vandalism was not the work of an enraged laity striking back at their oppressive clerical masters. In almost every case, it was undertaken by the state in alliance with a tiny band of reform-minded fanatics. Far from being a popular revolution, the Reformation in England at least was a vast act of political and cultural repression and plunder, inflicted by a brutal elite. We can easily think of later parallels of radical reformers trampling on local traditions in the name of true belief and national progress, from French Jacobins to Russian Bolsheviks and Afghan Taliban.
Duffy's book reinforces other recent works on pre-Reformation religion in its positive view of the social role of the Church in the late Middle Ages. However much it contradicts the traditional view, we realize how wholeheartedly the Church's role was accepted, how widely popular were Catholic beliefs and rituals, and how well the clergy fitted into their society. Generally, the clergy were respectable and pious, did their best in difficult economic circumstances, and were open to the idea of reasonable reforms. There were scandals, to be sure, but the Church was accepted as a fundamental part of life. What lay grievances existed were limited and specific, and in no sense demanded a revolutionary reform. Popular though the idea may be today, European people did not overnight convert to Luther's complex theological notions as soon as he proclaimed them, whether on a church door or not.
However, the sixteenth century Church came under increasing attack from vehement anti-clericals, who exaggerated and often invented tales about corrupt and predatory clergy. Some church critics authentically wanted a systematic religious change, but many were demagogues or timeservers, who used the mass media available to them at the time, including scabrous cartoons and visual imagery. The attack on the church succeeded in many countries because governments resented church independence, and its resistance to the new nationalism. When church authority collapsed, governments ensured that the new religious establishments were totally docile to state power. Other beneficiaries of religious reform included lay elites like the lawyers, who enriched themselves through the massive legalized plunder of church property. From this point of view, the original Reformation resulted from a tactical alliance of radical theologians, political activists, and the simply greedy, and it is open to debate whose motives dominated in any particular phase of the movement.
This kind of framework is useful in challenging the simple myth of a lay popular revolution against evil church power. If we look at the current furor within the US Church, then we can see some analogies with this more nuanced view of the Reformation. Though the recent crisis has been ignited by undeniably genuine instances of sexual abuse, the degree of public anger would not have been anything like so intense if the Church over the years had not made so many political enemies through its participation in public controversies. Especially on the liberal and feminist side of the political spectrum, anti-clericalism has for a quarter-century been a potent theme, which helps explain the zeal of so many journalists and commentators once the notorious cases began to emerge.
This anger accounts for the media tendency to present the sexual issues in terms far darker than they probably merit – notably the extension of the word “pedophile” to all sorts of sexual misconduct that do not merit this appalling technical description. While the abuse problem is bad enough in its own right, only the ferocity of underlying anti-clerical sentiment can explain the highly exaggerated figures for priestly depravity circulating in the media, most of which on closer examination turn out to be derived from liberal reformers within the Church itself. Using the stereotype of the sexually predatory priest in order to justify the expansion of lay power in the Church is exactly what occurred in the movement towards Reformation around 1520, and it seems to be happening again in a very similar form. Authentic instances of sexual abuse and misconduct become merged inextricably into a broader, symbolic indictment of the whole clergy for their supposed abuse of spiritual powers and privileges.
Like all revolutions, the effects of the Reformation went far beyond what most of its original supporters could possibly have imagined. People who merely wanted to end clerical abuses soon found themselves in a cultural maelstrom in which every religious and social assumption was thrown into controversy. To the modern mind, asking challenging questions is always good, but the consequences can be very difficult for a great many people.
The revolutionary consequences of Reformation thought emerged when the reformers decided which ideas and practices could or could not be tolerated within their religious vision. Probably their greatest single grievance was the cult of the Virgin Mary. Through the middle ages, the veneration of Mary became so popular and so widespread that it basically became the commonest symbol of European Christianity. Looking at all the icons and statues, an alien anthropologist who wandered across Europe around 1500 could have been forgiven for believing that the people's religion was a form of goddess-worship, devoted to the concept of motherhood and female fertility. The practice had firm foundations in terms of popular tradition, of beliefs that had arisen over long centuries, and of a vast body of legends and myths. For the reformers, none of these justifications offered anything like a reliable warrant for venerating Mary. Traditions counted for nothing, nor did the communities that maintained them; scripture, as read by the individual, was all that mattered
This new standard was bad news for the mass of ordinary religious believers, who saw their cherished religious practices mocked and prohibited by the new elites in church and society. In the British Isles, for instance, the frontal assault on the cult of Mary was extraordinarily sensitive because she was venerated here to an even higher degree than on the Continent. Because of this passionate popular devotion, late Medieval England was known as "Mary's Dowry". To think of a modern parallel to the central role of Mary in British religion, we would have to think of the Mexican love for the Virgin of Guadelupe, the primary focus of national loyalty and self-identification. After the Reformation, the new British elites spent a century rooting out this stubborn Marian devotion, using every means available, from coaxing and mockery through repression, bullying and official terror.
When we think of the Reformation in terms of Luther and the church door, it's salutary to think of some very different images that reflect how the revolution affected everyday people. Duffy reports one minor but representative incident that occurred in 1549, when the up and coming landowner Walter Ralegh was riding through a Devonshire village (this was the father of the famous explorer). Seeing an old woman carrying her rosary beads, he ordered her to get rid of them immediately, warning "that there was a punishment by the law appointed against her and all such as would not obey and follow the same, and which would be put into execution upon them." The woman went to her neighbors and reported that "except she would leave her beads and give over holy bread and water the gentleman would burn them out of their houses and spoil them". The enraged people rioted, almost lynching Ralegh, and order was restored only when the forces of the state "ruthlessly butchered" the villagers.
Nobody is suggesting that a contemporary Reformation in North America is going to lead to the abolition or persecution of traditional believers, any more than to a Habsburg invasion. But the notion that our next Reformation could be confined just to an institutional shift in the status of the laity is highly unlikely. Nor would it end with the reform of celibacy. The movement would probably sweep away many now-popular ideas and practices. How much would be left that could reasonably be called Catholic is open to doubt.
Since the 1960s, the US Catholic Church has in a sense being living through the early stages of a Reformation, since it has radically changed its liturgical and devotional practices according to the standard of whether they meshed with the standards of the earliest church. As a result, most of the everyday practices and habits that had characterized Catholic life from roughly 1840 to 1960 changed so rapidly that today they are almost unintelligible even to practicing Catholics under the age of forty.
Largely gone from modern Catholic life are the package of religious practices that claimed only tenuous Biblical warrant, but which were justified by long usage and tradition. Before the 1960s, Catholic churches looked radically different from their Protestant counterparts, because of the abundance of images of the Virgin Mary, of saints, and of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. A glance inside even a small Catholic Church demonstrated the existence of a quite distinctive aesthetic. To see what older urban churches in the US looked like in this period, one would today have to travel to a traditional-minded community in Mexico or Central America. These older churches were also the settings for many customary events that Protestants found both embarrassing and difficult to comprehend, including the saying of the Rosary and novenas, First Fridays and Benediction. For many Catholics today, especially in suburban parishes, most of the visible aspects of the older Catholic Difference barely exist, or are regarded as the habits of elderly diehards. How many Catholics under thirty own rosaries?
These changes were mainly the result of the second Vatican Council that met from 1962 to 1965, which caused a revolution in parish life and liturgy. The centerpiece of religious life was henceforward to be the Eucharist, spoken in English, and the rhetoric of the age demanded a new emphasis on congregational participation and the use of the Bible. The practice of Confession began a steep decline from the mid-1960s onwards. As churches were reconstructed to meet new liturgical needs, they came to look increasingly like Protestant buildings, while the old devotionalism became ever less important. Even the Virgin Mary is a tangential figure in many churches built since Vatican II. By the 1980s, liturgy and religious practice in an average Catholic parish looked and felt very much like that in mainstream Protestant denominations like the Lutherans, Episcopalians, or Methodists. The lived experience of Catholic believers became increasingly harmonized to that of "higher" Protestants.
Yet for all these changes, two key issues remain as touchstones of distinctively Catholic belief and practice, respectively the veneration of the Virgin, and even more critical, the belief that during the Eucharist, the bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ. It is this last doctrine above all that gives the Catholic priesthood its special role, its sanctity. Both ideas, Mary and the Eucharistic presence, have in turn been stressed time and again by the Vatican, above all under John Paul II. In the United States, though, the idea that Christ is really present in the Mass has declined among the Catholic faithful. Today, around a third of American Catholics think that the Eucharist is merely a symbol in which Christ is not really present, and the figure rises to nearly 40 percent among those aged 20 to 29.
For liberal reformers, a Next Reformation would not only clean up the remaining traces of the old devotionalism, but also these other doctrines which rely only on the authority of tradition rather than scripture. On both issues, the Eucharist and Marian devotions, reformers like James Carroll, John Cornwell, and Garry Wills often sound remarkably like the anti-clericals and anti-Catholic Protestants of bygone years in their zeal for change. Wills mocks the devotion to Mary, claiming that in her most extreme manifestations, she was worshipped as “an idol-goddess”. He also calls for an end to the priesthood in the sense it has been known for many centuries, as what he calls "magicians of the Eucharistic transformation." In liberalizing church structure and dogma, there is little doubt that Catholics would find themselves in a community barely distinguishable from mainline Protestantism. I wonder if that is what lay Catholics want, any more than late medieval believers wanted to lose their rituals and dramas.
Modern-day Catholics sympathetic to structural reform might find it useful to see the experiences of those sixteenth century believers who thought they could keep the old religion more or less intact within the radical new institutional framework. In no case was such an accommodation permitted, or at least not for more than a few years. Sooner or later, the altars were stripped for good. The ferocious new standard of sola scriptura, the scripture alone, left little room for negotiation.
Just as historians like Duffy make us see the religious changes as much less natural and spontaneous, so other scholars have shifted our view of the so-called Counter-Reformation or Catholic Reformation. Traditional British or American writing paid little attention to this movement. The main story was what was happening with the Protestant states of Germany, England and Scandinavia, while the isolated Latin countries stubbornly maintained their old medieval superstitions. As a manifestation of Anglo-Saxon insularity, this view is up there with the notorious British newspaper headline “Heavy Fog in English Channel: Continent Isolated” When we look at the lands that stayed within the Catholic fold, we see their religious world as innovative and dynamic rather than just survivalist and defensive. In fact, we can better see the movement as a competing cultural revolution quite as radical as the movements of Luther and Calvin, even as a rival Reformation, rather than just a kind of traditional retrenchment.
Catholics were if anything even more inventive in their use of the emerging media, and of the sophisticated psychological and educational techniques of the age. These included the creative visualizations taught through Ignatius Loyola's Spiritual Exercises, which required the aspiring prayer warrior to use all five senses in recreating moments from the Christian drama. At the end of the sixteenth century, Catholic missions gained entrée to China because of their mastery of the "memory palace", that is, their control of mental techniques that allowed them to record and retrieve vast amounts of information. While Protestants taught through the word -written, spoken, and sung - the Catholic message was preached through all available media, verbal and visual, plastic and symbolic, mystical and sensual.
For at least a century after Luther's Reformation, any reasonable observer would have decided that the true political, cultural and social centers of Europe were all in the Catholic South rather than the Protestant North. It was the Catholic states that were launching global missionary ventures, into Africa and Asia, in both North and South America. By about 1600, the Catholic Church had become the first religious body in history to operate on a truly planetary scale. Even in the Protestant heartlands of Northern and Western Europe, the heirs of the Reformation had to spend many years discouraging their people from succumbing to the overwhelming attractions of revived Catholicism, and conversions to the "Roman Antichrist" continued steadily through the period. It looked as if the Reformation had effectively cut Protestant Europe off from the mainstream of the Christian world. Only a century later would Protestantism find a place on the global stage, through the success of booming commercial states like England and the Netherlands.
These analogies raise some interesting questions about the fate of our hypothetical "Next Reformation", since present-day reformers in the advanced West are going so directly against very powerful global trends. The changes that Catholic reformers are trying to inspire in North America and Europe run contrary to the dominant cultural movements in the rest of the world, which look much more like the Counter-Reformation. But unlike the sixteenth century, we are not talking about a roughly equal division of "Christendom" between two competing halves, but rather between the shrinking population of the liberal West, and the overwhelming majority of the traditional Rest.
Over the past half-century, the centre of gravity of the Christian world has moved decisively to the global South, to the continents of Africa, Latin America and Asia, and that trend is continuing apace. The growth in Africa has been awe-inspiring. During the twentieth century, the proportion of Africans who were Christian rose from nine percent of the whole to almost half, and Christian African countries have among the world's most dramatic rates of population growth. Within a quarter century, half the world's Christians will be located in just the continents of Africa and Latin America. I have estimated that by about 2050, the proportion of the world's Christians who are non-Latino whites will have fallen to perhaps one in five or, probably, even less than that. A Southern population boom is coinciding with a dramatic Birth Dearth in the advanced industrial countries.
The population shift is even more marked in the Catholic world, in which Euro-Americans are already in the minority. The figures for African growth are staggering, from around sixteen million Catholics on the continent in the early 1950s to 120 million today, and probably to 220 million by 2025. By 2025, according to the respected World Christian Encyclopedia, almost three-quarters of Catholics will be found on the three "Southern" continents, of Africa, Asia and Latin America, and that proportion will grow as the century progresses.
Even so, these figures actually understate the “Southern” predominance within world Catholicism, since it fails to take account of Southern-derived immigrant communities in Europe and North America. Within the United States, this particularly means Latinos, who should represent a quarter of the nation by 2050 or so, but Asian communities also have sizable Catholic populations. By that point, US Catholics will probably make up around six percent of the world's Catholics, but a large proportion of those believers will be "Southern" by ethnic and cultural heritage. Current trends suggest that their religious practices and values will long remain quite distinct from those of older American populations. In the recent priest abuse crisis, Latin voices and complaints have largely been missing.
European and Euro-American Catholics will within a few decades be a small fragment of a worldwide church dominated by Filipinos and Mexicans, Vietnamese and Congolese. We can already get a sense of this change from the numbers of Catholic baptisms, since regions with the largest number of baptisms are also the centers of the most dynamic growth. Of eighteen million Catholic baptisms recorded in 1999, eight million took place in Central and South America, and no less than three million in Africa. Today, the annual baptismal totals for Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are each higher than the combined figures for such familiar Catholic lands as Italy, France, Spain and Poland.
The numerical changes in Christianity are striking enough, but beyond the simple demographic transition, there are countless implications for theology and religious practice. For the purposes of our prospective Reformation, the most significant point is that in terms of both theology and moral teaching, Southern Christianity is more conservative than its Western or, specifically, American version. Obviously, Western reformers do not like this fact - James Carroll has complained that "world Christianity [is falling] increasingly under the sway of anti-intellectual fundamentalism" - but the cultural directions are hard to ignore.
The denominations that are triumphing all across the global South are stalwartly traditional or even reactionary by the standards of the economically advanced nations. The churches that have made most dramatic progress in the global South have either been radical Protestant sects, evangelical or Pentecostal; or Roman Catholicism, of a traditionalist and orthodox kind. Except for indulgences, the list of horrors that Victorian critics charged against the medieval church are all much in favor in Third World Catholicism, including "the worship of the Virgin Mary, the invocation of saints, the working of miracles, supernatural cures of the sick" and so on.
While Southern Catholics are very comfortable with Counter-Reformation values, a full-scale Reformation movement is taking place on the Protestant/ Pentecostal side of things. Northerners need to be reminded that we are joining this Reformation already in progress. The booming Pentecostal and prophetic churches of Africa, Asia and Latin America are thoroughly committed to a kind of restoration of primitive Christianity of a kind that would have made sense to Luther, however far removed it is from the thought-world of Northern liberals. While American reformers dream of a restored early Church freed from hierarchy, superstition and dogma, Southerners look back to a New Testament Church filled with spiritual power, able to exorcise the demonic forces that cause sickness and poverty.
Today, as in 1520, that exposure to the spirituality of the book can have explosive consequences. To quote a modern-day follower of the African prophet Johane Masowe, "When we were in these synagogues [the European churches] we used to read about the works of Jesus Christ... cripples were made to walk and the dead were brought to life... evil spirits driven out .... That was what was being done in Jerusalem. We Africans, however, who were being instructed by white people, never did anything like that.... We were taught to read the Bible, but we ourselves never did what the people of the Bible used to do." This notion of a restored New Testament church is strongest in the Pentecostal and prophetic churches, but similar ideas are also found in the offshoots of Western communities like the Anglicans and Lutherans. And this powerful supernaturalism is also a strong characteristic of Southern Catholicism.
The most successful Southern churches preach deep personal faith and communal orthodoxy, mysticism and puritanism, all founded on clear obedience to authority. Across the denominational spectrum, Catholics and Protestants alike preach messages that, to a westerner, appear simplistically charismatic, visionary and apocalyptic. In this thought-world, prophecy is an everyday reality, while faith-healing, exorcism and dream-visions are all fundamental parts of religious sensibility. Alongside the fast-growing churches, passionate religious excitement has led to the emergence of apocalyptic and messianic movements that try to bring in the kingdom of God by armed violence. This phenomenon too would have been instantly familiar to Europeans five hundred years ago, and millenarian groups like this represented one of Luther’s worst nightmares. Then as now, it is difficult to set bounds to religious enthusiasm, especially when it is based on extreme biblical literalism. Today, such extreme movements are particularly found across parts of Africa where the mechanisms of the state are so weak, in fanatical groups like the Lord’s Resistance Army, in Uganda. Across much of the global South today, religious conditions can best be described in the language of revolution, of Reformation and Counter-Reformation.
At this point, we might recall the concept of "globalization" that has been so unavoidable over the past few years. If in fact every corner of the world is being subjected to a common barrage of media influences, and these are overwhelmingly from the West, why are we not seeing a kind of cultural homogenization? Why is the global South not absorbing Western moral and religious liberalism? And why aren’t they secularizing? One explanation is that the sheer imbalance of wealth makes it difficult for Southerners to accept the cultural standards that are held out to them. Instead, they become even more suspicious of Western standards on matters like homosexuality, which is seen as a poisonous form of cultural decadence. The more Western media penetrate a Third World nation, the more people stress their traditional values to avoid being submerged by these alien standards. The consequence is a revival of faiths providing straightforward moral teachings, including both fundamentalist Islam and traditional minded Christianity.
The already yawning cultural gap between Christians of North and South should increase rather than diminish in coming decades, for reasons that recall the shift in cultural sensibilities that occurred in Luther's time. During the early modern period, Northern and Southern Europe were divided between the Protestantism of the word and the Catholicism of the senses. Today, we might see a parallel as the impact of electronic technologies will be felt at very different rates in the Northern and Southern worlds. These technological innovations, the new media revolutions, will occur first in the advanced societies of Europe, North America and the Pacific Rim, while the other parts of the globe focus on the traditional world of book-learning. Northern communities should move to ever-more decentralized and privatized forms of faith, while Southerners maintain older ideals of community and traditional authority. In a few decades, maybe the religious explosion in the global South will have social effects like those that ultimately grew out of European Protestantism; but any such developments still seem far off.
The changing demographic balance between North and South go far towards explaining the current shape of world Catholicism, including the fact that the Church is currently headed by Pope John Paul II. During the papal election of 1978, Southern Hemisphere cardinals were not prepared to put up with yet another incumbent from Western Europe, and at least the Polish candidate represented a decisive break with tradition. In turn, John Paul has recognized the growing Southern presence in the church. When in 2001, he elevated 44 new cardinals, no less than eleven were from Latin America, and two each from India and Africa. When a new papal election eventually takes place, over forty percent of the cardinals eligible to vote will come from Third World nations.
Judging by the media accounts of recent months, pressure for some kind of "Reformation" solution within the United States itself seems overwhelming. Poll after poll indicates distrust of clerical authority, support for greater lay participation, for women's equality, and so on. From this perspective, the obvious question seems to be just how long can the hierarchy and the sinister Roman puppet-masters stave off the forces of history. From Rome, though, with its global perspective, the picture looks utterly different, as do the "natural" directions that history is going to take. On present evidence, a Southern-dominated Catholic Church is likely to be traditional-minded on all the hot-button issues that most concern American and European reformers. These areas of potential disagreement include matters of theology and devotion, sexual ethics and gender roles, and centrally, and most fundamentally, issues of authority within the church.
In terms of theology, most Southern Catholics venerate Mary and the saints in a way that their North American counterparts generally have not since before the second Vatican Council. . In Latin Catholicism, Mary is often portrayed as something like a feminine face of God. For Mexicans, the Virgin of Guadelupe is an absolutely central symbol, and the story of her appearance to the Aztec peasant Juan Diego is reflected in images found across Mexico, and of course in many parts of the United States. La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre holds a similar place in the hearts of Cubans, the Virgin of El Quinche is beloved by Ecuadoreans. Demographic and cultural trends mean that globally, the cult of the Virgin is not only surviving, but gaining significantly in numbers and devotion. Far from perishing in a world ever less hospitable to tradition and superstition, the cult of the Virgin is rather destined to occupy a central role in Catholic Christianity.
In recent years, also, Latino theologians have argued against the Western view that sees Marian devotion as a survival of a semi-pagan "folk Catholicism." Instead, they proudly justify this worship, together with the whole associated world of processions and pilgrimages. For a leading Mexican-American theologian like Fr. Virgilio P. Elizondo, Marian devotions and other "popular religious expressions of the people" are central to ethnic identity, and they should be treated as "the living creed and primary sources of theology." By European standards, these practices may be flawed or suspect, but who ever said that European criteria were absolutely valid for all times and places? If you insist on scriptural justifications, then these can be found: perhaps Mary is the woman clothed with the Sun, as prophesied in the book of Revelation? But the most important reason for venerating her is that Latino Catholic people already do so, in the way they have done for centuries past. The idea that traditional popular practice is in itself an absolutely valid source of religious authority is very much an established Catholic and Counter-Reformation ideal, that runs flat contrary to "Reformation" assumptions.
Modern theologians like Elizondo interpret the Guadelupe tale as a distinctively Latino version of the fundamental Christian story. In this view, Guadelupe is a messianic symbol for the resurrection of the world's oppressed races: "In the person of Juan Diego was represented the Indian nations defeated and slaughtered, but now brought to life." Repeatedly, Mexican popular and revolutionary movements have claimed to be directly serving La Morena, the weak woman who conquers the conquerors. Since devotion to the Virgin is rooted in the people, and has so often served as a focus of popular resistance to oppression, Guadelupe and her counterparts have become important symbols of liberation theology.
Not just among Mexican thinkers, the figure of Mary has acquired messianic dimensions, which will assuredly become more important globally as a consequence of the Southward shift within Christianity. Pope John Paul has worked hard to reverse the declining enthusiasm for the Virgin in the liberal North, and at the start of the new millennium, remarkable attention is being paid to Marian shrines and visions. On his 1998 visit to Cuba, the Pope made a special visit to the shrine of El Cobre to crown the statue of La Caridad, and proclaim her queen and patron of the island. There is now widespread talk that the Virgin might be proclaimed a mediator and co-Savior figure, comparable to Jesus Himself, co-mediatrix and co-redemptrix, something close to a fourth member of the Trinity. Such ambitious schemes remain controversial, but demographic trends within the Church make it highly likely that they will be implemented in the coming decades. Exalting the Virgin to the highest possible degree fits very well with the Catholic traditions of Latin America, the Philippines, and other regions that are steadily assuming a more central position within the church.
A revived cult of Mary would have an appeal far beyond the Americas. Marian devotion is a powerful force in African Catholicism, and has been since the time of the earliest native converts. One of the first Catholic martyrs of sub-Saharan Africa was Isidore Bakanja, who was converted in the Belgian Congo in 1906, but whose Marian piety provoked his murder at the hands of secular-minded White colonists. Since 1980, mystical visions of the Virgin have been reported in Rwanda, Kenya and Cameroon. Amazing reports of Marian apparitions have also occurred within the Coptic Church of Egypt. A Catholic Church dominated by Latin Americans and Africans would prove highly receptive to new concepts of Marian devotion, which might serve as a bridge to other ancient Christian communities. A black or brown Mary would be a powerfully appropriate symbol for the emerging Southern Christendom.
This notion also raises interesting issues for North American liberals, who generally believe in the idea of Third World people asserting their authentic identity in the face of colonial and imperialist oppression. Presumably, then, they should be delighted at the focus on the cult of the Virgin. At the same time, it must go terribly against the grain to praise such a symbol of religious and moral tradition. When Garry Wills reviewed a recent book on Guadelupe, he recognized the cultural significance of the symbol, but could not conclude without a barbed comment on the utter falsity of the whole tale. He noted that "Pope John Paul II, who beatified Juan Diego in 1990 and is relying on the pseudo-science of investigated miracles to canonize him this summer, giving formal endorsement to a fiction." Remarks like these suggest how difficult it may be for American liberals to attack what they regard as the evils of traditional Catholicism without directly targeting the deeply-rooted beliefs of the nation's fastest-growing Catholic minorities - who may not remain minorities for much longer.
On moral issues, too, Southern churches are massively out of step with northern liberalism. On key issues like homosexuality and abortion, African and Latin American churches tend to be very conservative, including both Catholic and Pentecostal traditions. This cultural division can pose real political difficulties for churches that aspire to a global identity, that try to balance such completely diverse opinions. At present, this is scarcely an issue for the Roman Catholic Church, which preaches the same conservatism for all regions. If, though, American or European Catholics proclaimed a new moral stance more in keeping with progressive secular values, it would certainly have the effect of dividing them from the growing churches of the South.
To understand the potential North-South conflict, we might look at the experience of the world's Anglicans or Episcopalians, which may foretell the future direction of conflicts within the Roman Catholic Church. In the Anglican Communion, a global cultural conflict focused on issues of gender and sexuality has led to orthodox Southerners actually seeking to re-evangelize a Euro-American world that they view as close to open heresy. The situation uncannily recalls the situation in sixteenth century Europe, in which Counter-Reformation Catholics sent Jesuits and missionary priests to reconvert those regions that had fallen into Protestantism.
First world Anglicans tend to be very liberal on matters like the ordination of women, and on gay issues. In recent years, though, the liberals have been appalled to find themselves outnumbered and, regularly, outvoted by very conservative bishops from Asia and Africa. The most ferocious battle to date occurred at the Anglican world conference that took place in Lambeth in 1998, which easily passed a forthrightly traditional statement about the evils of homosexuality, and the impossibility of reconciling homosexual conduct with Christian ministry. And as in the Roman Catholic church, all projections of future numbers suggest that the Southern predominance will be even greater in future events of this kind.
The Lambeth debate also initiated a series of events that Catholic reformers should study carefully. Briefly, American conservatives who were disenchanted with the liberal establishment in the US Episcopal church realized that they had powerful friends overseas, and transferred their religious allegiance to more conservative authorities in the global South. In 2000, some conservative Episcopalians traveled to Singapore where they were ordained as bishops by AnglicanAsian and African prelates, including the Archbishop of Rwanda. By ancient tradition, an archbishop is free to ordain whoever he pleases within his province, so that the Americans legally became bishops within the province of Rwanda. In addition, though, these Americans became missionary bishops charged to minister to conservative congregations in the US, where they would support a dissident "virtual province" within the church. They, and their conservative colleagues, were now part of the Anglican Mission in America, which was intended to "lead the Episcopal Church back to its biblical foundations." The Mission would restore traditional teachings on issues like the ordination of gay clergy, and blessing same-sex marriages: in short, to combat the "manifest heresy" of the current US church leadership.
As the church became increasingly divided over issues of gender and sexual orientation, North American conservatives found themselves much closer politically to the upstart churches of Africa and Asia than to their own church elites, as they looked to Singapore and Rwanda to defend themselves against New York and Ottawa. Thirty or so conservative Episcopalian congregations physically located in North America are now technically part of the jurisdiction of the Archdiocese of Rwanda, white soldiers in the service of black and brown generals. For these Americans, at least, orthodoxy travels from the South to the North. If the US Catholic Church ever finds itself following a parallel path to the Episcopalians, many more American conservatives might quite possibly consider seeking the protection of Southern prelates.
Looking at the crisis in American or European Catholicism, it's difficult to see an alternative to radical change in the directions of greater lay power, individual autonomy and pluralism, and a decline in traditional orthodoxies. On the world scale, though, Christianity is moving in exactly opposite directions, towards supernaturalism and neo-orthodoxy. In one part of the world, there seems to be no option to changing Church doctrine to accommodate secular values. Elsewhere though - in what are already the major centers of Christian population - change of this kind is simply not on the agenda. An irresistible force in one part of the world runs up against an immovable object in another, Northern Reformation encounters surging Counter-Reformation. Over the last year, we have heard a great deal about the culture clash between Christianity and Islam. But could the gulf be any wider than what we might soon be seeing within the Christian world itself?