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HOW THE REFORMATION HAPPENED, by Hilaire Belloc
Belloc’s counter-argument on the Reformation
HOW THE REFORMATION HAPPENED
In this short book, published originally over 85 years ago, the famous English controversialist, Hilaire Belloc, presents a most interesting perspective on the Protestant Reformation – a perspective very different from most previous Protestant, Catholic and secular accounts of that great religious movement whose effects have been felt down to the present day.
This is a work of popular history, and is not to be considered a formal historical work. It has no footnotes, no list or references, and few direct quotations. It is intended to sell a story, rather than write a thesis, and should be judged in this light.
According to Protestant historians, the Reformation was an attempt by religious leaders in the 16th century to rediscover true Christianity, shorn of the false doctrines, corruption and self-serving practices of centuries of popish priests: a rebirth of Christianity in its original purity.
In the course of this, ritual and ceremony were radically simplified, prayer to the saints was abandoned, prayer for the deceased was discouraged if not forbidden, the sacraments and the Mass were abandoned, as were the devotional practices which had sustained religious life for centuries.
To many of the Catholic historians, the Reformation was quite simply the rebirth of a new heresy, like those which had afflicted the Church throughout history. The centre of this new heresy was an attack on the Church as Christ’s presence in the world, and the substitution of the right of private judgement in spiritual matters.
To secular historians, the Reformation was seen as an intellectual uprising against the tyranny of the priesthood, and a more or less inevitable consequence of the new learning which followed the Renaissance.
There are elements of all these accounts which are accurate. However Belloc argues that they underplay the most important causes of the Reformation: the condition of the Church itself.
Tracing the weaknesses in the church back to the Black Death and the weakening of papal authority during the Great Schism, when there were competing claimants to the See of Peter, then the leadership of the Church was in the hands of men who were utterly unworthy of the position which they occupied.
The moral collapse of the papacy was followed by the moral collapse of the aristocracy and the nobility.
While the Reformation was presented as a challenge to the church’s doctrines and authority, the most profound challenge was the desire of avaricious kings and princes to expropriate the resources of the church for their own personal wealth.
The reformed doctrines provided the means by which this could be achieved.
At the time when Belloc wrote this book, his argument was largely ignored. However, the more recent writings of historians like Henri Daniel-Rops and Eamon Duffy have tended to confirm Belloc’s argument.
This book is engagingly written, and for those with limited knowledge of the 16th Century history, will give a short overview of the principal causes of this event whose tragic consequences are still seen today in Europe, North America, Australia and elsewhere.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 28 No 9 (October 2015), p. 10
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