Nobody Expects the Protestant Reformation

Story Stream
recent articles

Showtime's new dramatic series "The Borgias" features the infamous Renaissance Italian clan whose lives were so sordid they make the fictional Corleones look like the Waltons. Rodrigo Borgia, the godfather of the real-life "original crime family" (as Showtime calls them), ascended the throne of Peter as Pope Alexander VI, and behaved with unstinting depravity. Christians discouraged over contemporary clerical corruption scandals might be advised to take comfort: the Church has seen far worse -- the Borgia pope's Ballet of Chestnuts, per favore? -- and survived.

But not too much comfort. The Church indeed survived, but only as a fragment of itself. Justified or not, the Protestant Reformation was an act of spiritual, and often physical, violence that brutally cleaved the body of Western Christendom. The causes of the Reformation are complex, but nobody can dispute that corruption among the Roman Catholic clergy, especially in the papal court, was the prime cause of the catastrophe.

Why didn't the Renaissance popes see what their tolerance for corruption, in themselves and within clerical ranks, threatened to do to the Church -- both to believers, and to the institution? The late historian Barbara Tuchman analyzed their self-destructive foolishness this way:

Their three outstanding attitudes -- obliviousness to the growing disaffection of constituents, primacy of self-aggrandizement, illusion of invulnerable status -- are persistent aspects of folly. While in the case of the Renaissance popes, these were bred in and exaggerated by the surrounding culture, all are independent of time and recurrent in governorship.

In other words, folly of this sort is part of human nature, and it will always afflict governing elites. Wise leaders will be aware of this weakness, and will not only remain vigilant against it, but also act to remedy manifestations of it before they can metastasize into threats against the very viability of the institution.

In Philadelphia, where I live, Catholics are reeling from a recent grand jury report revealing that the archdiocese left in place a shocking number of priests it believed had been credibly accused of abuse -- this, even though church officials had previously pledged to have cleaned house. Upon hearing this news, a New York Catholic priest said to me the idea that any diocese would still behave so recklessly after events of the past decade beggars belief. Alas, it probably would have surprised Tuchman not one bit.

In my own church, the Orthodox Church in America, the bishops of the Holy Synod are advancing a vicious, highly politicized dispute with the primate, Metropolitan Jonah. The apparent reason has to do with administrative concerns, but many believe there are deeper ideological issues in play. Whatever the case, having suffered through two successive corrupt Metropolitans who, in Jonah's words, "raped the church," the spectacle of the OCA's governing class (bishops and lay leaders) behaving with indifference to the church's real interests is sparking deadly despair among many of the faithful.

On the pro-Jonah website (which is run by friends of mine), one reader wrote to say that he was finally fed up, and had left the OCA. Another wrote to report that he has decided to shelve thoughts of seminary, saying it would be too risky to put the future of his family in the hands of such an unstable church.

Similarly, among Catholics, Father Richard Davis, a former vocations director for the Franciscan order, told religion columnist Terry Mattingly that the sex scandals in his church have young adults who are considering vowed religious life wondering if they'll be safe from sexual harassment if they visit a monastery. In my own case, realizing that solely because of institutional corruption, I would not want my sons to become priests in my own church was a catalyst for my own departure from Roman Catholicism.

Jesus himself said that the tares grow among the wheat, meaning that there is no such thing as a church of the righteous. This is a counsel against despairing of sin in the church, but too often it is taken as an excuse for complacency on the part of those charged with leadership. Besides, they may correctly judge that the sins of men, even priests and bishops, do not obviate the theological truths the Church proclaims.

What they miss, though, is that folly and corruption in the clergy make it difficult for ordinary people to take those truths seriously. In the past, religious leaders could have depended on certain factors to keep the sheep within the fold regardless of their own clerical follies. Much scandal remained safely hidden, and even when it stumbled into the public square, theological conviction and social pressure kept most believers within the fold.

Nowadays, though, changing mores and ubiquitous online media make it hard to suppress scandalous news. And as recent studies by Pew and by a team co-led by Harvard's Robert Putnam have documented, nearly one-half of all contemporary Americans have changed religions. Plus, as Putnam and his Notre Dame colleague David Campbell reveal, young adults are leaving organized religion in unprecedented numbers. It's clear that in the near future, the only Americans who will be members of churches are those who have actively chosen to be.

If this does not wake up bishops and other senior church leaders, and call them to repentance and responsible leadership, nothing will. When a culture of corruption comes to dominate churches, which depend heavily on moral authority to fulfill their mission, these institutions are in danger of failure. Bishops and other leaders who remain oblivious or indifferent to the effect their actions have on the faithful, who stupidly assume that they are at the center of the church's real business, and who think that they can afford to reform at a leisurely pace because God won't let their church die are dangerously deluded.

Ecclesia semper reformanda est -- the Church is always in need of reform, said the early Protestants. Though one can dispute the radical theological lengths to which they took reform, it is impossible to argue that the ecclesial decadence against which they reacted was urgent and real. As the march of folly through history shows, established leaders often don't recognize the seriousness of the crisis until it's too late.

Show comments Hide Comments