Leibniz on Healing the Protestant / Catholic Schism

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, most often known for his intricate philosophy of “monadology”, was a 17th century Protestant intellectual leader who, in in the aftermath of the Wars of Religion and the evident rise of Secular Modernity, passionately desired the reunification of the Church. Though a committed Protestant, it seems that Leibniz had access to a different set of working assumptions than we living today are accustomed to, for in the words of one of his modern expositors he “became the defender of a reformed and truly universal Papacy; at the same time he vigorously defended the Conciliar Movement of the fifteenth century, believing that if it had succeeded, the Reformation would have been unnecessary and the ‘universal’ authorities (Pope and Holy Roman Emperor) would still be viable.” [Editor’s Introduction to Leibniz: Political Writings, trans. and ed. Patrick Riley, second edition (Cambridge University Press, 1988), pg. 1.]

Although his cause in this regard was ultimately unsuccessful, it was not for lack of passionate arguing and a longing for the peace of the Church and Christian society. In his correspondence with the Catholic political absolutist Bishop Bossuet, Leibniz urged a mutual policy of forebearance between Catholics and Protestants, agreeing that the issues of separation were extremely serious but insisting that they were not such as could not be overcome if all sides would adopt charitable analysis of each other’s views rather than the rigid dogmatism that had so lately ripped Christian Europe apart in the Wars of Religion. In one letter to Bossuet, Leibniz responded with uncharacteristic sharpness to his impression that the Bishop was simply unwilling to consider any sort of compromise with “heretics”:

To say that you cannot consent to a new examination [of the Council of Trent], is only to renew the old equivocations: a new examination is necessary at least for the benefit of those who have a right to doubt a pretended infallible decision; and your party is deceiving itself in trying to derive any advantage from this [Council], as if it were permitted that a band of minor Italian bishops, courtesans and hangers-on from Rome (who were believed to be little-educated and little mindful of true Christianity) fabricate in a corner of the Alps, in a manner highly disapproved by the most serious men of their times, decisions which are to obligate the whole Church.–Cited in ibid., pg. 31

Elsewhere Leibniz opined that

The essence of Catholicism is not external communion with Rome…the true and essential communion, which makes us part of the body of Jesus Christ, is charity. All those who maintain the schism by their fault, by creating obstacles to reconciliation, contrary to charity, are truly schismatics: instead of which those who are ready to do everything that can be done to re-establish external communion are Catholics in effect.—Cited in ibid, pg. 31

But most interesting about Leibniz’s correspondence with Bishop Bossuet is the following extract, which shows his commitment to avoiding portraying the issues of the schism as trivial and simultaneously his conciliatory spirit:


I do not want to delay a moment in responding to your letter, [which is] so full of goodness, in as much as it reached me the day after I thought of an important example which can serve in the matter of the reunion [of the Catholics and Protestants]. You have all the reason in the world to say that one must not take as easy that which, at bottom, is not such at all. I grant that the thing is difficult because of its nature and of circumstances, and I never contemplated easiness in such a matter. But is a question of establishing, above all, that which is possible or permissible. Now, all that which has been done, and of which there are examples approved by the Church, is possible; and it seems that the Protestant party is so considerable that one must do everything that can be done for them. The Calixtins of Bohemia were much less [considerable]; nevertheless you see, by the executorial letter of the Council of Basel, which I attach here, that in taking them back [the Church] suspended a notorious decree of the Council of Constance, with respect to them; namely, that which decided that the use of the two species [of communion] is not commanded of all the faithful. The Calixtins did not recognize the authority of the Council of Constance at all and, not agreeing in the slightest with this decision, Pope Eugene and the Council of Basel passed over this matter and did not demand that they submit to it, but left the matter to a new future decision by the Church…

Judge, Monseigneur, whether the greater part of the German-speaking people does not deserve at least as much accomodativeness as was shown toward the Bohemians. I beg you to consider this example well, and to tell me your feelings about it. Would it not be better, for Rome and for the common good, to regain so many nations, though one would have to remain in a state of disagreement on some points for some time—since it is true that these differences would be still less considerable than some of those which are tolerated within the Roman Church, such as, for example, the point concerning the necessity of the love of God, and the point of probabilism, to say nothing of the great difference between Rome and France? If, however, the matter were treated as it should be, I believe that the Protestants would one day be able to explain their views concerning dogma much more favorably than seems [likely] at first, above all if they saw signs of a true zeal for effective reform of abuses, particularly with respect to worship…

You will recall, Monseigneur, that it was agreed that it would be necessary to join three means in order to arrive at a peaceable reunion. The first is the means of exposition concerning certain controversies, by showing that, when people understand each other well, there may be agreement. These controversies are verbal at bottom, though they are quite often taken as real and have caused a good deal of noise and evil…The second means is that of deference, when one party gives way to the other and grants it something in certain matters. If these are dogmas, this can be brought about only by good proofs; but it is not our plan to enter into this at present. If they are practices, people can and must sometimes give way to each other, in bringing about what seems best for enlightenment and peace. We believe that our doctors [of theology] can give way on some dogmas [which are] received among them, and [that] yours [can] as well; but it turns out that these dogmas are not universally established or received among either group. And we are also of the opinion that one must, as soon as possible, return to the hierarchy and government of the body of the visible Church, recognizing the leadership of its head, and conform so far as is reasonable to the enlightened practices which obtain on your [the Catholic] side: as we hold that, on your side, one must apply himself strongly to abolish certain abusive practices which are only too well publicly established in some places, particularly with respect to the worship of images—which is disapproved even on your side by wise persons, and sometimes even by regulations. And the occasion of reunion with the Protestants can be useful to authorized and well-intentioned persons of your party (among whom I number the Pope who is zealous, as he ought to be) in realizing that which the courtiers at Rome once eluded by their strategems at the Council of Trent, that is, the purging of the Church of several abuses—to which the liberty not to allow them, which will be left to our side, will contribute a great deal, and will seem the less extraordinary because the Greeks, the Maronites and other easterners [who were] reconciled with the Roman Church have kept their rites, and because the Council of Florence approved it.

The third means is that of abstraction or suspension, or leaving out of account certain points on which one cannot agree, or on which one could not agree so soon, by setting them aside, either forever, when they are of little importance, or until the decision of a future ecumenical Council. And this means must come to the aid of the two others, in certain permitted cases, to shorten their length. For we agree that it is necessary to lay down, as the foundation of the whole negotiation, the great maxim that each, on his side, must make the most extreme effort which is possible without injuring his conscience, by showing the greatest obligingness for the others that he can have without offending God: in order to forward the great work of reunion in so far as he can, [and] to obviate such great evils as those which the schism has brought about, that is, the loss of so many thousands of souls and the spilling of so much Christian blood, not to speak of other miseries which this schism has caused and will be able to cause if it is not stopped. Thus everyone can be re-united under a single hierarchy even before all the dogmas ordinarily insisted upon by your side are agreed on, or all the abuses disapproved by our side are redressed: provided that everyone takes certain essential steps which can be agreed on at the beginning of the reunion.–“Excerpts from Two Letters to Bossuet Concerning the Re-Unification of Christendom”, in Leibniz: Political Writings, trans. and ed. Patrick Riley, second edition (Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 189-190

The Christendom that Leibniz wished to see restored and preserved even as the Medieval era was giving way to the Modern is gone, but the terrible schism between Catholics and Protestants remains. Indeed, in many ways it has been exacerbated by the crisis of Secularism that both have had to face apart from each other, and which has negatively affected both in their own peculiar ways. It is obviously not possible for either Catholics or Protestants to follow every piece of Leibniz’s advice and there are some on both sides who will doubtless take radical offense at the mere suggestion of having to admit serious problems on their side which require forebearance with equally serious problems on the other side. But regardless of polemical felt-needs, surely it is still possible to see in our brother Leibniz’s words a genuinely committed Protestantism which yet maintains a vibrant hope for the future reconciliation of the divided parts of the Church.

Although the present schism is not unilaterally our fault, because we do contribute a great deal to its maintenance it must be said that there is no intrinsic necessity for Protestantism to be oriented around a perpetual ethic of schism. We cannot change Rome, but we can, by God’s grace, change ourselves. We do not have to give up what is important to us (the Gospel) in order to have hope for the future and try to work for it today. And not to needlessly harp on one of my favorite subjects, Leibniz’s points about the Conciliar Movement are of particular relevance here. Protestants of the past knew what this was about and could use it to great effect in discussions with their Catholic opponents. One wonders what has happened to Modern Protestantism that we do not know what Leibniz knew and therefore find the prospect of duplicating his attitude to be so alien to our way of life.

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