How the Reformation Happened, p22
I. Introductory, The Advent of Disaster Yet this lifetime before the Reformation did not immediately breed heresy. On the contrary it was a period in which men were somewhat fatigued of heresy. The Lollard movement in England shrank into insignificance: the Hussite movement in Bohemia shrank into nothing more than a local grievance.
What this new state of mind did produce was a considerable skepticism, which was much more evident in jest and epigram than in definite statement. Antique learning, notably the Grecian, was at issue with the Christian Faith, and a pride in "Humanism" (as it was called) went with a scoffing at legend AND at dogmatic truth; for the critical examination of legend was proceeding apace, and entangled in its fall was doctrine.
That was the lifetime in which, for instance, the Donation of Constantine (which had long been supposed the origin of the Pope's temporal monarchy) and the unauthentic Decretals of Mercator (some of which supported particular developments in the Papal power) were re-examined and increasingly rejected. It was the time in which a huge mass of what was apocryphal or semi-apocryphal in tradition was thoroughly searched out and discredited: too much so, as we now know. For the great scholars of this "Humanism" had no patience even with the truth that lurks in the most fantastic legend. It has required a further advance in learning to teach men that the wildest stories in life of Saint or account of shrine are often based on some real historical event, and are nearly always of service as evidence.
At the same time a new enquiry into the text of Scripture had tardily arisen, and, on the eve of the Reformation, the Hebrew books not only of the Old Testament but of the Talmud, were familiar to many, as were the Jewish arguments against the faith. As for the Greek Testament, it was the very test of scholarship and known by heart. There was another element of disturbance in that tumultous time. The Turks had begun their triumphant and disastrous advance towards the West. Garrison by garrison they ate up the Christian control of the Eastern Mediterranean; they streamed over the Balkan peninsula (Albania alone could resist them). Greece went, and when such a witness as I am describing would have been in his twenty-third year came the crash at Constantinople, the capture of that city by the Turks and the end of the Roman tradition of the Empire, after a continuous life of fifteen hundred years.
Under the pressure of all these forces one effect was lamentably apparent. European morals were for the moment breaking down.
In the midst of such confusion, that which should have served to moderate by authority and to reform by example, the Papacy, failed to play its part. Side by side with the weakening of the Papal authority there went on in Religion in this century and a half between the Black Death and Luther's first a process the character of which it is absolutely essential for us to grasp if we are to understand how the Reformation came about. That process is difficult to define because it is subtle, because it did not appear in the name of things (and it is by the names of things that men usually judge), and because it was only felt by contemporaries in the shape of a certain ill-ease of which they did not fully recognize the nature.
I will call that process "A Crystallization of Religion". By that term I mean a sort of hardening in what had been elastic and fluid, an exaggeration of routine and precise rule as opposed to latitude of movement; a growing of the letter against the spirit; a preponderance of the framework of the living organism, as against the flesh and blood thereof. One might call it "a hardening of the arteries".
The enemies of Catholic truth have used for this process which afflicted the Church during the end of the Middle Ages the term "Fossilization".
That term, of course, I deliberately reject. It is not only exaggerated, it is false. The life of the Church continued vigorous and holy; she produced great saints; her administration perpetually subserved the needs of man; Europe lived a truly Catholic life and was sane. But what may be called her official life -- hardened out of measure. With that there necessarily went a fixity of abuses. Fixity of the good even in that institution which is the supreme hope of mankind we can never have, because the nature of man is fallen; the doctrines, the holiness, the supreme spiritual value of the Catholic Church remain, but its political machinery must be subject to constant renovation. Anything which interferes with a ceaseless attention and readjustment tends to weaken the organism.
Typed and donated to this website by Prapp.