Protestant Hallowe’en

My Chief Texas Correspondent, who loves to tease, sends me this morning an electronic clipping from the Wall Street Journal. It is entitled, “The Real Story of the Reformation,” and is by Eric Metaxas, darling to a certain class of “conservatives.” The account is no more “real” than the standard fairy tale of Luther nailing his theses to the church door at Wittenberg, 31 October 1517. Metaxas is indulging a very old journalistic conceit: “While no one can know what really happened, let me tell you what really happened.”

So I am a journalist. Let me tell you.

The truth is that people like to appropriate things that do not belong to them. And then they like to justify what they did. Ah, what a tangled web they weave. We have had five hundred years of this particular run of “progress,” through which Protestantism itself has “evolved”: largely into extinction, but partly into other evanescent things, such as the current fad in social justice warriorism.

As a Catholic, let me tell you plainly: Jesus Christ founded One Church, and warned against every attempt to divide her. There can be only one “Body of Christ.” He did not do avatars, like some Oriental gods; only angels and saints at His service. (And the saints as inexplicable as the angels.) His teachings are always recoverable in the Deposit of Faith. These things are not discoverable by reason alone. But they are, to the tranquil, in accord with reason.

Of course the Church descends into error and corruption: constantly. She needs fairly serious housecleaning from time to time. She is staffed by men, in each generation. Men make mistakes. Luther made plenty. The idea that he could personally, as one man, rethink a fifteen-century heritage of Faith and Reason — constantly and mysteriously self-correcting — was a tad arrogant. But many men have tried that.

I repeat myself from last week: neither Luther nor any other Protestant “reformer” can be held responsible for what the secular powers of their day did with their little thoughts. What Luther himself wanted started small, with the question of indulgences: an issue in his diocese more than in most others. He seems genuinely to have wanted to improve the religion all along. He was certainly very smart; but with time the complexity of the task defeated him, as it defeats all others.

This is why I’m opposed to every ambitious scheme of reform; why, even in the paltry matter of economics, I am “Austrian school.” (Whose philosophical antecedents are Catholic not Protestant, incidentally.)

No one man, and no committee of men, and no continuing party of men, alone or in committee, can possibly manage what God has given us through Nature. No genius or combination of geniuses can master the complexities, let alone the simplicities of our world. Do not look the divine gift-horse in the mouth; do not let thanksgiving falter. The Church herself is under the rule of her Founder, only passingly in the care of corruptible men. Her own operations, in and through Time, are beyond the human imagination, let alone our analysis. In the words of the poet, “Let it be.”

The intentions of the secular powers who embraced Lutheranism, and other Protestant creeds, were much simpler than those of ecclesiastical reformers. They genuinely wanted to acquire real estate. At a time of massive and accruing state debts — themselves typically the consequence of crude power plays — the “reformers” provided the perfect excuse. Rather than reform their own ways, they could seize Church properties in their domains, and reform that instead.

This is a much older story. Charlemagne wanted the Church to be the theological and liturgical arm of his imperial administration. So did Henry VIII. There is a very long history of Power, trying to appropriate Religion for its own purposes, right around the planet. It goes back to the beginning of recorded history. No: it goes back to Adam.

And the Church for her own purposes in this world, has entered into concordats of many kinds. So long as the world wags, this will continue. Which is to say, until the world ends.