Twelfth and Last in a series on the Protestant Reformation
Fr. Charles Coppens, S.J.
We have so far sketched in rapid outlines the establishment of the Reformation in most of those European lands in which it obtained permanent dominion. The situation about A.D. 1560 is thus described by Prescott in his History of Philip II:
Scarcely forty years had elapsed since Luther had thrown down the gauntlet to the Vatican by publicly burning the Papal bull at Wittenberg. Since that time, his doctrines had been received in Denmark and Sweden. In England, after a vacillation of three reigns, Protestantism, in the peculiar form which it still wears, had become the established religion of the state. The fiery cross had gone over the hills and valleys of Scotland, and thousands and ten of thousands had gathered to hear the word of life from the lips of Knox. The doctrines of Luther were spread over the northern parts of Germany, and freedom of worship was finally guaranteed there by the treaty of Passau. The Low Countries were the 'debatable land' on which the various sects of Reformers, the Lutheran, the Calvinist, the English Protestant, contended for mastery with the established Church. Calvinism was embraced by some of the cantons of Switzerland, and at Geneva its apostle had fixed his headquarters. His doctrines were widely circulated through France till the divided nation was prepared to plunge into that worst of all wars, in which the hand of brother is raised against brother. The cry of reform had passed even over the Alps, and was heard at the walls of the Vatican. It had crossed the Pyrenees; the King of Navarre declared himself a Protestant, and the spirit of the Reformation had insinuated itself secretly into Spain, and had taken hold, as we have seen, of the middle and southern provinces of the kingdom.
|Contemporary depiction of the iconoclasm of the Reformers|
Zurich, Switzerland (1584)
The more carefully one studies the Reformation, especially in its early stages, the more clearly he understands that "religious liberty" in the mind of those secretaries meant the liberty to tear down what they called the idolatrous worship of the Catholic Church, the Holy Mass, the altars, the sacred images, the monasteries of the monks, the convents of the nuns, driving out and murdering the faithful bishops and priests, and vesting the spiritual power in temporal princes, who at once proceeded to plunder whatever riches the piety of centuries had dedicated to the Divine service. This was the Reformation in a nutshell.
It was absolutely necessary for every Catholic nation to refuse and forcibly put down that species of religious liberty, and to use for the purpose inquisitions, imprisonments, banishments, executions of the leaders in heresy, etc. All this was at times carried to excess, as is always the case in civil wars as well as in foreign wars. Catholics waged war on rebellious citizens; for, in those days, heresy meant war upon the old religion, and nowhere, in no single country, did Protestantism prevail except by war. The Protestant Bishop Stubbs writes:
Where Protestantism was an idea only, as in France and Italy, it was crushed out by the Inquisition; where, in conjunction with political power, and sustained by ecclesiastical confiscation, it became a physical force, there it was lasting. It is not a pleasant view to take of the doctrinal changes, to see that where the movements toward it were pure and unworldly, it failed; where it was seconded by territorial greed and political animosity, it succeeded.
The instruments by which it [i.e. the Reformation] was accomplished were despotic monarchs, unprincipled ministers, a rapacious aristocracy, and venal, slavish parliaments. It sprung from brutal passion, was nurtured in selfish and corrupt policy, and was consummated in bloodshed and horrid crime.
The Reformation in Ireland
Ireland is a striking example of all this. If ever any land was made desolate by the burning zeal of fanatics who strove to force their own novel notions upon an unwilling population, it was the fair isle of Erin; and the crushing process was continued during three long centuries. I would not attempt to write the history of that bloody business; for to write history, a man must be cool and unperturbed by passion, and I do not see how I could keep cool while handling such a theme. I am no Irishman, nor of Irish descent; but I feel my pen warming in my hand, and my cheeks glowing, and my heart throbbing with indignation and compassion at the thought of such wrongs, such cruel and persistent violence used for generations to stamp their religion out of a faithful, heroic people.
Let a bigoted Protestant, the poet Spencer, speak in my place. He was in Ireland at the close of the Desmond rebellion, and he got three thousand acres of the confiscated Irish land as his share of the booty. He wrote:
Out of every corner of the woods and glens they [i.e. the Catholic people] came creeping forth on their hands, for their legs could not bear them; they spake like ghosts crying out of their graves; they did eat dead carrion; happy were they who could find it. In a short space, there was none almost left; and a most populous and plentiful country was suddenly void of man and beast.
This is but one scene in a tragedy of woes, more pathetic than Shakespeare's tragedy of King Lear. But all this is deeply written in the mind and the heart of the entire Irish race, and need not be recounted to prove that God has heroic servants in every age, and that He will not allow the gates of hell to prevail against His own faithful friends. Here are a few more scenes of this sad tragedy. I will give the words of D'Arcy McGee:
While the war against the Desmonds was raging in the south, under pretense of suppressing rebellion, no one could help seeing that, in reality, it was directed against the Catholic religion. If any had doubted the real objects, events which quickly followed Elizabeth's victory soon convinced them. Dermot O'Hurley, archbishop of Cashel, being taken by the victors, was brought to Dublin in 1552. Here, the Protestant primate Loftus besieged him in vain for nearly a year to deny the Pope's supremacy, and acknowledge the Queen's. Finding him of unshaken faith, he was brought out for martyrdom on Stephen's Green, adjoining the city; and there he was tied to a tree, his boots filled with combustibles, and his limbs stripped and smeared with oil and alcohol. Alternately they lighted and quenched the flames which enveloped him, prolonging his tortures through four successive days. Still remaining firm, before dawn of the fifth day, they finally consumed his last remains of life, and left his calcined bones among the ashes at the foot of his stake.* The relics gathered by some pious friends were hidden away in the half-ruined church of St. Kevin, near that outlet of Dublin called Kevinsport. In Desmond's tour of Kilmallock were then taken Patrick O'Haley, bishop of Mayo; Fr. Cornelius, a Franciscan, and some others. To extort from them confessions of the new faith, their thighs were broken with hammers, and their arms crushed by levers. They died without yielding, and the instruments of their torture were buried with them in the Franciscan convent of Askeaton. The Most Rev. Richard Creigh, primate of all Ireland, was the next victim.
Catholicity in Ireland has outlived the storm of three centuries of persecution, and has become the seed of salvation to as many millions in our age all over the earth as there were thousands of victims in the age of Queen Elizabeth and after.
The Reformation in France
The Reformation failed in Ireland because it drowned in the blood of it's victims; it also failed in France, but there it was drowned in the blood of Catholics and Huguenots alike. Spalding's History of the Reformation briefly sums up the story as follows:
The whole history of the Reformation in France may be related in two sentences: The Calvinists sought by intrigue and by force of arms to gain the ascendancy and to establish the new religion on the ruins of the old; but after a long struggle, they signally failed, and France was preserved to the Church. Long and terrible was the contest between the turbulent Protestant minority and the determined Catholic majority, to settle the momentous questions which should finally control the destinies of France; for nearly a hundred years, civil war, rendered still fiercer by the infusion of the element of religious zeal and fanaticism, waged with but brief intervals of pacification throughout the country, which it distracted and rendered desolate. Finally, the Catholics, meeting intrigue with intrigue, and repelling force by force, remained in the ascendant, and the Protestant party, once so aspiring, dwindled down into an insignificant fraction of the population.
The expression "meeting intrigue with intrigue" refers to the massacre of St. Bartholomew. The Protestants everywhere, and all along their lines of conquest, used intrigue and deceit, as we have shown in these essays; for once they were outdone in the use of that vile weapon in France, not by the Catholic Church, nor by Catholic bishops or priests, but by an unprincipled Queen dowager, Catherine de Medicis, an infidel at heart, though happening to belong to the Catholic party. We detest her wicked plot, even though without it France might have been lost to the Church, for no evil may ever be done that good may come of it. Yet, let Protestants remember, they have no right to complain that they were that time outwitted in wickedness.
The Reformation in the Netherlands
The Netherlands we will consider last. This region comprised the present kingdoms of Holland and Belgium, with some minor provinces, part of which are now in France. The country was very prosperous when the Reformation began, but it was subject to the dominion of the Spanish crown. It became restless of the foreign yoke, when the Calvinists from France, Protestant immigrants from England, the intrigue and subsidies of Elizabeth, and the Lutheran notions which the youths of Flanders brought home on their return from the German universities, made that region a hotbed of rebellion against Philip II and his Catholic governors. Civil independence was the boon in sight, the union of all the malcontents were chiefly heretics. The result was there, as in every land to which the new gospel came, a period of war, which in the Netherlands lasted about half a century. It finished in the establishment of the Dutch republic. As soon as this was established, it proceeded to stamp out Catholicity within its boundaries. The Protestant historian Menzel puts the matter thus:
The Calvinistic tenets and forms of worship were established to the exclusion of those of the Catholics and Lutherans. The cruelties practiced by the Catholics were equaled by those inflicted on the opposing party by the Reformers. The most horrid cruelties were perpetrated by Sonoi, by whom the few Catholics remaining in Holland were exterminated, A.D. 1577.
So says Menzel. But how can we believe that the remaining Catholics were few, since the first Protestant service had been held only three years before, as he informs us? Either there must have been very many, or there must have been a vast exodus of the faithful. The extent to which the Reformation had taken possession of Europe by 1570 is thus stated by Macaulay in his Criticism of Ranke's History of the Popes:
In fifty years from the day in which Luther publicly renounced communion with the Church of Rome and burned the bull of Leo before the gates of Wittenberg, Protestantism attained its highest ascendancy - an ascendancy which it soon lost, and which it has never regained. In England, Scotland, Denmark, Sweden, Livonia, Prussia, Saxony, Hesse, Wurtemburg, the Palatinate, in several cantons of Switzerland, in the northern Netherlands, the Reformation had completely triumphed, and in all other countries on this side of the Alps and the Pyrenees, it seemed on the point of triumphing.
Conclusion to the Series
We had undertaken, in this series of essays, to explain the origin of the Reformation, so as to show that it was not the work of the Holy Ghost, and of the calm, prayerful co-operation of holy men, full of that charity by which the true Church is animated; and we have finished that task, in a brief but truthful account. While many minor points, here and there occurring in our statements, will, no doubt, be controverted, our main line of thought is unassailable.
We will conclude this brief sketch of the first origin of Protestantism with some remarks of Macaulay on what we may call the second stage of the Reformation. He writes:
At first, the chances seemed to be decidedly in favor of Protestantism, but the victory remained with the Church of Rome. On every point it was successful. If we proceed another half-century, we find her victorious and dominant in France, Belgium, Bavaria, Bohemia, Austria and Hungary. Nor has Protestantism, in the course of two hundred years, been able to reconquer any portion of what it then lost. It is, moreover, not to be dissembled that this wonderful triumph of the Papacy is to be chiefly attributed, not to force of arms, but to a great reflux in public opinion.
* D'Arcy McGee's depiction of the martyrdom of Archbishop Dermot O'Hurley is not entirely correct: while the archbishop did, indeed, suffer barbarous torture, including having his legs boiled over a roaring fire, he was finally executed outside of Dublin, at Hoggen Green, by hanging.