Eric Parker’s post Luther and Valla on The Donation of Constantine: Thoughts about Truth and History is a great read. I agree with his major points. The following comment I posted there is not a critique of his view, but a qualification of it derived from my own studies.
A good post, but a few qualifiers:
Luther was a bombastic personality anyway, and it did not help matters that his earliest papalist opponents were a bunch of rabid fanatics who took his simple, quite proper request for an academic dispute about unsettled matters and transformed it into a craven assault on the very foundations of Christian society – something Luther never envisioned. (See David Bagchi, Luther’s Earliest Opponents on this).
For one, we should probably think of many Medieval errors (like accepting the Donation as legit) were made honestly, not with malice aforethought. In an age where books of any kind were rare, they all tended to possess an almost “magical” aura. One Catholic writer has said that the problem with the Medievals was that because of the “aura” surrouding books, they reverenced books so much that they would almost literally believe anything if they read it in a book.
After the collapse of the Empire in the West, and the helter-skelter Christian attempt to save everything they could from the wreck, it took a while for any kind of critical thought about texts to emerge, and even longer for it to work out its implications in different spheres of inquiry. Then too, there was nearly always more than “just the text” at issue. People are people, and they often talk themselves into telling – and then believing – what Plato called “noble lies” for reasons that seem better to get at justice than the “plain facts.” This was certainly the case with a similar forgery that wound up underwriting exaggerated papalist claims: the False Decretals of Pseudo-Isidore, which appeared in the 9th century, were not written for the purpose of deceiving people, but for the purpose of allowing Carolingian bishops being preyed upon by the temporal power to show that there was a higher court on earth than the temporal power, to which the temporal power had to answer. Eventually this logic got abusive on its own, but it didn’t start out that way, and it is worth pondering whether we would have done any better had we been in their shoes.
Second, sometimes people are just plain blind. Lewis is probably right that rationalists are like children, and it’s very easy to read the papalist rationalists of the later 15th and early to mid 16th century that way: papalist reality collapsing around their heads, and all they could do was go “Nuh-uh! Jesus did too set it up this way! Neener-neener!” But again, a lot more was at stake. If you’ve seen the 2004 Luther movie, think about how Cajetan was portrayed when he interviewed Luther. He was a man deeply concerned with the stability of a Christian society threatened on every side with dissolution, and he was simply dumbfounded that in that context Luther would want to carry out a potentially explosive doctrinal debate. Wasn’t the health of the whole body of Christendom at that moment worth more than a “mere” academic dispute about indulgences? Couldn’t that be done after the Turks were repulsed and the crises between the Empire and Church resolved? Why did it have to be now, at the worst possible moment?
On the other hand, if one reads Cajetan’s dispute with the conciliarists John Mair and Jacques Almain, conducted during the Fifth Lateran Council just before the outbreak of the Reformation, it is difficult not to see Cajetan as a blind rationalist, chanting maxims about the utility and goodness of the papacy that had been utterly disproved in the preceding century, and then insulting good Christian men everywhere by demanding that they just sit on their rumps and pray that God wouldn’t let the pope wreck the Church. The Cajetan the cardinal who cared about the health of the whole body was the same Cajetan who refused to look reality in the face and acknowledge that the pope had already wrecked the Church, and now it was time to take drastic measures to clean up after the fool.
I think we sometimes forget when we read old texts in the safety and comfort of our studies that the people who wrote them were not us and did not have the benefit of hindsight and liberty to think things through more carefully that we have. Although it is not a good thing for a whole massive system of government to be largely built on and maintained by lies, both detecting the lies and formulating a prudent, workable response to them is not easy and may not necessarily mean there is something wicked going on.