One Last Look at the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, From a Different Angle

Frank Cash - Rome

The 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, on October 31, 2017, is finally over.  For many Catholics, the ‘celebration’ may have been a bit drawn out.  The plethora of articles both praising and criticizing Luther and the Reformation that lead up to the anniversary, although not entirely unexpected, was a tad much.

Crux Editor John Allen wrote, on the day of the anniversary, that in the opinions of “two experts on each side of that Catholic/Lutheran divide” there is now a strong desire to reunite Catholics and Lutherans. Maybe high up the chain of command, the desire is there, but in all likelihood, the many pro and con articles that preceded the celebration did very little to bring lay Catholics and lay members of any of the Protestant denominations closer together.  It’s even possible the divide may have grown at ground level.

For example, my elderly, widowed, devout Catholic mother-in-law has an equally elderly and widowed, devout Lutheran male friend. In October they agreed to attend each other’s Sunday services.  After attending his first Catholic Mass ever, my mother-in-law’s friend was fairly critical of the Mass.  But my mother-in-law didn’t even make it to the end of his church’s service.  She got up and walked out just before the end of the minister’s sermon – a 15-minute diatribe against the Catholic Church.  Not much reuniting here.

And of the many articles that appeared prior to Oct. 31, one article, in particular, stands out as a perfect example of why the divide won’t be closed anytime soon. The article, “The 500th Anniversary of the Reformation and What It Means Today” attributes pretty much everything good that has happened since 1517, to Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the Reformation.

“If there had been no Reformation, there would be no United States as we know it today,” says author Scott Powell, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute.

“American history from the very beginning — with the Anglicans settling Virginia, the Puritans and Presbyterians settling in New England, the Reformed Dutch settling in New York, and the Quakers settling Pennsylvania to name a few — is inextricably linked to the Protestant Reformation.”

Influences on the Founders

Okay, the USA was settled mainly by Protestants and it is a predominantly Protestant country. And most of the Founding Fathers responsible for writing the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were Protestants as well.  No news there.  But then the author credits Martin Luther’s “radical notion of human equality in a “priesthood of all believers,” with the notion that “liberty of conscience and equality of all believers, regardless of class, was the proper basis for religious and political life.”

Many historians generally agree that the biggest influences on the Founding Fathers were Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, Francis Bacon, David Hume, and especially, John Locke. And since Thomas Jefferson, the man who penned the Declaration of Independence, did not prescribe to any organized religion, it’s a pretty big leap to suggest that Martin Luther influenced Jefferson’s line, “all men are created equal.”

In fact, as Gordon S. Wood, professor of history at Brown University says in an article at the American Enterprise Institute, Jefferson was probably thinking more along the lines that freedom and property ownership were the keys to establishing the new republic. “Indeed, his original draft for the Declaration of Independence stated that all men are created free and independent,” notes Wood.

Calvin or St. Thomas Aquinas?

Powell also credits John Calvin’s “resistance theory” for justifying “the people’s right to disobey unjust rule.” Resistance theory, he says, “would later find expression in the Declaration of Independence.”

Of course, long before Calvin, St. Thomas Aquinas had a few things to say about just and unjust laws. So were the ideas expressed in the Declaration from Calvin, or is the real source St. Thomas?

And, let’s not forget that by the 1700’s Catholics and Jews were also present in the colonies of New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania. One of the original 13 colonies, Maryland, was even chartered as a Catholic colony.  And three of the Founding Fathers were also, in fact, Catholic.

But why should any of this stand in the way of some good spin?

Powell does end his article lamenting the sad state of the culture in the U.S. today. But this sad state, he says, is only because, “. . . the Reformation that ushered in an unprecedented appreciation of both freedom and equality, as well as a deeper and more personal relationship with God the Father, has not completed its destiny.”


Thinking about what the Powell contends, however, does make one pause. Would there really be “no United States as we know it today” without Luther, Calvin and the Reformation?  In all likelihood there would still be a United States, but, yes, it would probably be a somewhat different United States.  But then, too, the entire world might be different as well.

A Bit of History

Taking a closer look at history around the time of the Reformation from a different angle provides some perspective for these thoughts.

Long before the Declaration of Independence was written, the Catholic King and Queen of Spain financed a Catholic named Christopher Columbus in his quest to find a shorter trade route to the east by sailing west. As everyone knows, Columbus ran into the New World – the Americas.  The Reformation was still 25 years away.

The same year that Columbus set sail, Catholic Spain finally succeeded in driving the last of the Muslim invaders from their stronghold in Granada back into North Africa – the end of the Reconquista. Even so, the Moors or Saracens, as the Muslims had come to be called in the West, had not yet given up trying to conquer all of Europe.

The Islamic Threat

For the next 70-some years, the Muslims were busy building ships and organizing and training an army. They were still determined to conquer Europe in the name of Allah.

By 1565, some 50 years after Luther posted his 95 Thesis, Sultan Selim II (the Islamic Caliph was called the Sultan once Egypt fell to the Turkish Ottoman Empire in 1517) was ready to give conquering Europe another shot.

In the years following their expulsion from Spain, the Muslims continued to launch numerous attacks by sea on the Northern shores of the Mediterranean in an effort to enlarge their coffers and acquire galley slaves for their ships. But thanks to Martin Luther, Christendom had been fractured and a divided Europe was something that worked in Selim II’s favor.

Another Attempt

By 1565 the Muslims were ready to launch major simultaneous attacks on Europe by land and by sea.

A land attack was launched through the Balkans in Eastern Europe. The goal of the land attack was to advance into Slovakia, Poland, and what is now Germany.  This would enable the Muslim army to encircle Italy from the north and cut off all aid to Italy.  Once they had Italy the rest of Europe would be ripe for the taking.

Two separate massive naval attacks were also launched against Malta and the island of Cyprus. The Malta attack was repelled by the heroic Catholic Knights of Malta, but Cyprus wasn’t as lucky.

Cyprus was then part of the (Catholic) Venetian empire. The man in charge of the island’s fortress of Famagusta was General Marcantonio Bragadino.  He held the fortress of Famagusta for as long as possible but was finally forced to accept the terms of a ‘peaceful’ surrender offered by the Muslim victor, Alfa Mustafa.  The surrender turned in to a bloodbath.*

The Holy League

Luckily Pope Pius V had been sounding the alarm about the Muslim fleet build-up for some time. Finally, he sent an envoy to the Catholic King of Spain, Phillip II, asking that he join with the Venetians and the Genoese, under the papal banner, to form a Catholic ‘Holy League’ to repel what he foresaw as a coming invasion.  Phillip agreed and put his younger but illegitimate brother, Don Juan of Austria, in charge of the Holy League fleet of over 200 Spanish, Genoese, and Venetian ships.

When all was ready, Don Juan ordered the fleet to set sail. He found the Muslim fleet of over 300 ships in the Greek Gulf of Patras on October 7, 1571, and attacked.  What followed, is one of the greatest sea battles in history – the Battle of Lepanto.  Don Juan’s fleet completely destroyed the Muslim fleet in about four hours, and the Muslim navy was never a threat to Christendom again.

But even though the Muslim navy was no more, the Muslim army was still slowly advancing on land.

The Protestant countries of Western Europe paid little attention to the Muslim advance. They saw the Muslim army as a problem for the Catholic nations to deal with.  Some evidence exists that the leaders of the Protestant countries were even paid off by the Muslims.  Muslim envoys also assured the Protestant leaders that since they no longer recognized the authority of the pope that Islam did not consider them enemies!

A Muslim Blunder

Regardless, the then Sultan of all Islam, Mehmet IV, instructed his general, Kara Mustafa, not to attack Vienna.  He was concerned such an attack would unite Protestant and Catholic Europe against Islam. Italy, not Vienna, was the objective.  But for some reason Mustafa disobeyed Mehmet.  On July 7, 1683, he decided to attack Vienna with his army of more than 300,000 infantry and cavalry.  The commander of the Viennese defenses, General Lubomirski, had only 20,000 or so soldiers with which to defend the city.

When news of the attack got out, despite Mehmet’s concerns about Protestants and Catholics coming together, a Catholic Holy League relief force was assembled, led by the Catholic King Sobieski of Poland. The relief forces headed to Austria and late in the day on September 11 King Sobieski’s army engaged Mustafa’s army.

The decisive Battle of Vienna was concluded the very next day.  After long hours of furious infantry fighting, King Sobieski finally released his fearsome Polish Hussars cavalry that he had been holding back. The Muslim line broke and the siege of Vienna was lifted.

The Holy League army pursued the retreating Muslim army south through Hungary, retaking city after city. By 1686 the Holy League had retaken most of Hungary.  The Muslim plans for the conquest of Europe were at an end.

Some Speculation

Given this bit of history, it’s not unreasonable to speculate about what might have been had there been no Reformation.  What if there had been no fracture in Christendom?  Would the Muslim army have been allowed to march all way to the walls of Vienna?  Or would the nations of Europe have said ‘enough already?’  Might a united, Catholic Europe have dealt with the Islamic threat differently?  Would it maybe have even taken the war to the gates of Istanbul?  Would a Holy Roman Empire army then have taken the war into the Middle East and possibly into North Africa?  Possibly.

Taking this speculation further, had there been no Reformation, would there still have been an Enlightenment (1685-1815)? The Catholic mathematician Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) was a key individual between the Renaissance and the development of modern science. The scientific revolution then kick-started the ‘Age of Reason’ – the Enlightenment.

And one of the key figures of the Enlightenment, Jean Jacques Rousseau, started out in life as a Calvinist, converted to Catholicism (he even spent time training to become a priest), and then went back to Calvinism to regain his Geneva citizenship. So what influenced the thought processes behind his contributions to political philosophy and moral psychology?  His view that human beings are good by nature and corrupted by society is certainly more Catholic than Protestant.

So it’s not unreasonable to speculate that an ‘Enlightenment’ would still have taken place.

Revolutions and wars

Taking this speculation further still, the United States would still have been colonized. And given the treatment the colonies received from King George, they probably would still have broken away from England.  And it still might have become the Democratic Republic.  But it would be a Catholic country today.

Let’s take the speculation even further. Would there have been a French Revolution, a Russian Revolution, or even a WWI and a WWII?  How about a Korean or Vietnam War?  Would the Iranian Hostage Crises have taken place in 1981?  Or would maybe Iran and most of the Middle East now be mostly Catholic?  Would maybe even China be a Catholic country today with a democratic or parliamentary government?

What Might Have Been

And to get even more current, would there have been a September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center? Would Europe be so secular now?  Would there be so many “no-go zones” in many European countries?  And would we need to be concerned about radical Islamic terrorists today?

Such speculation is interesting, but when all is said and done, it’s probably pointless. At the same time, attributing all the good things that have happened since 1517 to Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the Reformation is just plain stupid.  Especially since what might have been just might be a lot better then what is.


* Michael Novak recounts the gruesome details of what happened at Famagusta and also describes the Battles of Lepanto and Vienna in some detail in an excellent article written in 2014 here at the National Reporter.

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest

4 thoughts on “One Last Look at the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, From a Different Angle”

  1. To anyone who can read history and think, the divide has grown.
    Once again…this pope seems to know better than those learned men who were on the scene at that time and place.

  2. Just a side comment: When one speaks of a national or cultural revolution, it is normally expected that the new replaces or at least strive against the old. In the instance of Protestantism, organization was replaced in some areas by anarchy of belief. To this day, no one can count the number of Protestant denominations. The term reformation is greatly misused.

  3. Laurence Charles Ringo

    Here’s what caught my eye in this article: Van Son’s claim that Rousseau’s view that…”human beings are good by nature and are corrupted by society is more Catholic than Protestant”…What the what? Is that in the Catechism? Since the Scriptures most DEFINITELY don’t teach that concept, from where does it come, Mr.Van Son? I await your reply. ?

    1. From The Catechism of the Catholic Church:

      405 Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it, subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin – an inclination to evil that is called “concupiscence”. Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle.

      406 The Church’s teaching on the transmission of original sin was articulated more precisely in the fifth century, especially under the impulse of St. Augustine’s reflections against Pelagianism, and in the sixteenth century, in opposition to the Protestant Reformation. Pelagius held that man could, by the natural power of free will and without the necessary help of God’s grace, lead a morally good life; he thus reduced the influence of Adam’s fault to bad example. The first Protestant reformers, on the contrary, taught that original sin has radically perverted man and destroyed his freedom; they identified the sin inherited by each man with the tendency to evil (concupiscentia), which would be insurmountable. The Church pronounced on the meaning of the data of Revelation on original sin especially at the second Council of Orange (529) and at the Council of Trent (1546).
      Martin Luther decided that Catholic Doctrine was wrong and that the Doctors or the Church who had come before him were all in error. Luther said Original Sin corrupted man completely and that it is only through God’s grace, which covers up our sinfulness, that we can enter heaven. But Luther’s doctrine is not anywhere in scripture either.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: