The Protestant Reformation

Catholics and Protestants in America, 500 years later

It would be difficult to accurately portray what the majority of Christians thought about the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this past Tuesday, and perhaps that is what is most significant.

The half-millennium since Martin Luther declared that “to say that the cross emblazoned with the papal coat of arms, and set up by the indulgence preachers is equal in worth to the cross of Christ is blasphemy” has been bloody and tumultuous. In that time, Protestantism has taken many forms and while Luther saw a break from the Catholic Church as necessary, it is not clear if that multiplicity is what he had in mind.

The Encyclopedia of Protestantism says there are almost 1,000 different Protestant denominations operating in the United States. As of 2015, these congregations’ members make up 46.6 percent of America’s population with no single tradition accounting for more than 2.5 percent, aside from the Southern Baptist Convention which makes up 5.3 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.

This sort of diversity is a part of what has made Protestantism so strong in America. Almost anyone can find a community and tradition that fits their lives. Luther gave power of Biblical interpriation to the layman — a power that was traditionally reserved for the clergy.

“He put the emphasis on the individual man and woman,” said Glenn Holland, professor of religious studies at Allegheny College. “[He] gave sacred value to everyday human activity.”

Even today, Protestantism attracts more converts than any other form of Christianity, but this multiplicity also reveals the limitations of the term “Protestant.” It is a broad moniker that includes everything from Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists and Anabaptists. Between non-denominational Protestants, inter-denominational Protestants, Restorationists and Apostolic Pentecostals, Protestant has come to mean little more than “not Catholic.”

In this way, Protestant Christianity has fractured enough to render it incapable of having any unified social or political influence, and has left the individual traditions to do their work independently. This is nothing to lament as Christians are less focused on this world than the next ans when Luther proclaimed the Bible as the primary source of spiritual authority, differing interpretations were inevitable, but may be a cause for worry moving forward.

As Christianity becomes more diverse and Protestant denominations’ resources and theological teachings become increasingly independent of one another, the faith may struggle to retain the real-world efficacy it once held.

After the Reformation, if the Protestants chose to give power to the laymen who responded to the dynamics of the world, the Catholic Church resolved to do the opposite.

Older readers who were raised Catholic will remember hearing the Latin Mass every Sunday as a child — the same liturgy which had been celebrated since the 16th century. This deep history was, for many, the reason the Catholic Church held a powerful draw.

This changed with the Second Vatican Council in 1965. Among other reforms, the Church decided to allow mass to be said in languages other than Latin, and modernized the liturgy.

“In the years immediately after the council, nuns discarded their habits, priests discovered women — more than 100,000 left the priesthood to marry — and theologians threw off the shackles of introverted orthodoxy,” wrote Andrew Brown in his expose of the Vatican this week in the Guardian. “After 150 years of resisting and repelling the outside world, the church found itself engaging with it everywhere, until it seemed to introverts that the whole edifice would collapse to rubble.”

Church attendance plummeted from 55 percent of Catholics regularly attending mass in 1965 to only 22 percent by 2000, according to the same source. This could have been anticipated. When an institution claims to profess eternal truths, around which adherents organize their lives, but then alters its teachings, it runs the risk of undermining its long history and authority which was its greatest virtue.

At this moment, the Church may be encountering a similar struggle. Many have found the Church’s social teaching to not only be antiquarian, but offensive. Whether it is the ban on contraception or its pro-life posture, the Church has never been short of fierce critics, and Pope Francis, the current Pontiff, seems intent on hearing them out.

In addition to his pledge to rid the clergy of pedophilia and his admission that “the Church’s conscience came a bit late,” he has also softened some traditional Church teachings. For example, when he suggested that divorcées may receive communion in his exhortation Amoris Laetitia, dissent arose among conservatives.

Moving forward, some change may be needed for the church to keep pace with the changing world, but it must come slowly so as not to alienate the clergy and the devout. The Catholic Church has not responded quickly — or at all — to the pressures of the world for 2,000 years, and may do well to keep that track record.

Protestants face similar struggles with new and evolving social issues. These trends are rearing their heads, and challenging the way Protestants have come together in the recent past. 

“In some ways, the Church has come together over long standing differences, and in some ways it is coming apart over social issues — like sexuality and the place of women,” said Jane Ellen Nickell, chaplain and professor of religious studies at Allegheny College. 

Adding to this challenge is the introduction and growth of new technology. Some have likened the advent of the internet to the invention of the printing press — a device which helped facilitate Luther’s Reformation 500 years ago.

“Technology has radically changed the way we live our lives and the ways of the Church,” Nickell said.

Without strict guidelines and rules, the Protestant branches will continue to transform and adapt to the world, and as a result, offer salvation to many more in America than the Catholic Church can hope to reach, but in this strength also lies a vulnerability of groups becoming too alienated. Where there are no fundamental theological disagreements between Protestant traditions, more cooperation and communion may be worth pursuing.

Such sentiments are not new. There have been efforts to foster dialogue and pursue cooperation. Lutherans, Anglicans, Episcopalians and Moravians have found communion with each other over their mutual understanding of the bread as the body of Christ. The National Council of Churches and Churches Uniting in Christ are two such examples of national attempts to bring Christians together. Local efforts in towns and cities can produce equally positive effects. Moving forward, the more Protestant branches can work together where their theology allows, the stronger they may be.

Luther could not have predicted how Christians would look back upon his indictment of the Church 500 years on, and when thinking about Oct. 31, 2517, one is equally hopeless. While the Catholic Church has relied on its institutional traditions, changes may be coming. As for the several Protestant denominations in the country, their understanding of their past is growing ever more clear, but the same cannot be said for their view of the future.