Consilium de emendanda ecclesia (1537), Part III

[Continued from Part II]

The Consilium’s treatment of the problems affecting the government of the Church begins by noting the most glaring problem:

the abuse that first and before all others must be reformed is that bishops above all and then parish priests must not be absent from their churches and parishes except for some grave reason, but must reside, especially bishops, as we have said, because they are bridegrooms of the church entrusted to their care. For, by the Eternal God, what sight can be more lamentable for the Christian man travelling through the Christian world than this desertion of the churches? Nearly all the shepherds have departed from their flocks, nearly all have been entrusted to hirelings. (Ibid., pg. 191)

The gravity of this abuse should not be underestimated in coming to terms with the vehemence which the Protestant reformers felt themselves forced to take regarding the episcopate. A stellar example I have discovered in my readings is this one from Thomas A. Brady, Jr.’s book The Politics of the Reformation in Germany: Jacob Sturm (1489-1553) of Strasbourg (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1997). It seems that when the bishop of Strasbourg celebrated Mass in his own cathedral on June 22, 1508 an observer noted that such a thing had not been done there for a century and a half, and was but the legendary rumor of “olden times” (pp. 23-24).

The long absence of the bishop from his see was due to the prevaling problem of the age mentioned in the last segment of this series: the functional breakdown of the theoretical distinction between the Two Powers of Christendom, such that the bishops were more often found behaving like feudal lords than like ministers of the Church. I have written about this elsewhere (see here and here), so I will not repeat myself. Additionally, it is instructive to realize that John Calvin made the spiritual functions of ministers in the Church the focal point of some of his severest criticisms of the Roman Church. This surely cannot be a coincidence.

The Consilium continues with some recommendations on reforms of monastic orders, of procedures leading to the selection of candidates for ordination and their ordination examinations, and on problems in convents (pp. 193-194). It then moves into a discussion of the duty of pastors and other ministers in the Church to oversee what is taught to the young even outside the walls of the Church:

There is a great and dangerous abuse in the public schools, especially in Italy, where many professors of philosophy teach ungodly things. Indeed, the most ungodly disputations take place in the churches, and, if they are of a religious nature, what pertains to the divine in them is treated before the people with great irreverence. We believe, therefore, that the bishops must be instructed, where there are public schools, to admonish those who lecture that they not teach the young ungodly things, but that they show the weakness of the natural light [of reason] in questions relating to God, to the newness or the eternity of the world, and the like, and guide these youths to what is godly. (pg. 194)

Such a remark as this goes against the grain of our own cultural premise concerning the “separation” of Church and State, but we should remember that for all its very evident problems (ironically many of them precisely in the area of Church-State relations) the society which produced a statement like the above was one in which the name of God could not be publicly blasphemed by the open propagation of anti-Christian notions and by unflinching lives of utter immorality lived without public consequence.

In this world “religion” was not (as it is today) a relativized part of reality hermetically-sealed off from the rest, but was the very foundation and integrating principle of everything. In this world the Public Square was not ruled by a Caesar to whom all things were acceptable so long as the obligatory pinch of incense was burned at the proper times, but by servants of a Christ to whom all authority had been given and who Himself would reign until all His enemies were placed under His feet. The dominion of Christ extended far and wide, even to matters we ourselves consider sacrosanct, such as the unlimited freedom to publicly-propagate “ideas”:

The same care must also be employed in the printing of books, and all princes should be instructed by letter to be on their guard lest any books be printed indiscriminately under their authority. Responsibility in this matter should be given to the ordinaries. (pg. 194)

Now it is all too easy for us to look back on such a situation and focus only on the great affronts we imagine it must have given to the “self-evident truth” of individual autonomy; to focus, that is, only on such things as the Inquisition or the “holding back of progress” of such actions as threatening Galileo with “heresy” charges, or even, the ultimate offense to our vision of absolutely unrestrainable private conscience, the occasional capital punishment of a heretic (real or imagined).

As Protestants especially we know all the worst examples of abuses propagated under this policy of “repression of the press”, and we are so quick to use them as polemics against those Christians who today still hold to the basic theories under which the abuses occurred. It is not my purpose here to get into a discussion of the abuses, or to attempt to spell out an alternative that would still maintain the basic “Church as empowered conscience of the State” position (with which I firmly agree). It is my purpose here only to take note of the dire cultural situation of Christendom at the time the Consilium was written.

For Christendom, the majestic but flawed creation of the Church Fathers and the cultural lifeblood of, nay, the very womb of, every civilized nation was being horribly besieged from every side. From within came attacks by all manner of reckless men, Christian in name only, using humanism and the newly-developing natural sciences as a cover for assaulting basic Christian orthodoxy and cultural dominance; from without by infidels who, having destroyed Eastern Christendom only eight decades earlier were now pressing at the very gates of the West aiming to repeat the conquest for the glory of their false god. From within came the terrible pressures of pressing doctrinal controversies the resolution of which the Medieval Church had long put off, but could put off no longer; from without came the terrible pressures of large-scale social changes that were exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to manage given the breakdown within the Church.

In this world, what could have possibly made more sense than having the Church, the very keeper of the oracles of God and the transmitter of His revelation to the world, exercise a strong measure of oversight over the ideas that were sweeping the educational system of the day? Ideas, after all, have consequences.

The Consilium’s advocacy of educational oversight was not merely general. Interestingly, it lists by name the tremendously popular Colloquies of Erasmus as something to be prohibited in the curriculum of the public schools. The reason given was that the book of the great humanist reformer contained “much to educate unformed minds in ungodly things” (pg. 194). This type of judgment, which had been more strenuously stated in the condemnation of the book by the Sorbonne in 1526, ten years before Erasmus died, is interesting since the book was accused of containing many “pagan” things and “mockeries” of Christianity, and the accusers were very often the types of worldly priests and clerics whom Erasmus so viciously satirized in many of his works, including Praise of Folly (1509) and Sileni Alcibiades (1515).

As has become clear from the citations from the Consilium (1537) moderate reforming forces in the Church knew quite well that the outcry against the priests, bishops, and other clerics, who stood in desperate need of moral reform (and sometimes doctrinal reform, too), simply could no longer be put off. But it seems equally clear that as moderates, these reforming forces had the most difficult time of all attempting to chart a course to reform. Like the eleventh century, the sixteenth was an age of desperate emergencies, and the unshakeable convictions born of them that if this way was not followed with the utmost rigor the result would be the total destruction of Christendom. Again, ideas had consequences. No one knew this better than sixteenth century Christians.

The Consilium de emendanda ecclesia closes with a recitation of a few more abuses to be corrected amongst friars and clerics, and recommends that concerning instances of simony, “a crime so great that there is none more dangerous or more scandalous”, the pope should studiously refrain from exercising his right to overrule declarations of the positive law (i.e., the laws on the books at a given time) as to the punishment of convicted simoniacs, so that further and deeper scandal would not be given (pp. 195-196). Although it deals with extremely serious issues, its tone is one of striking moderation (again, probably because the moderate reformers who wrote it knew that they could not afford to turn the pope’s ear away from them by writing more forcefully, as many others were certainly doing).

In the next post I will outline Luther’s very bitter, very sarcastic 1538 response to the Consilium.

[Go to Part IV]

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