Belloc’s history of the reformation


by Hilaire Belloc (Tan Books. ISBN 978-0895554659. pp226. PB.)

Reviewed by Maurie O’Regan

As we approach the 500th anniversary of the event which triggered the Reformation – Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 theses in Wittenberg in 1517 – there is increasing interest in a deeper understanding of the causes of the Protestant Reformation which split Western Christianity, causing divisions which have not yet been resolved.How_the_Reformation_Happened_BR.jpg

Historians have been examining these events for centuries, but Hilaire Belloc’s assessment, first published in 1932, is an informed and readable account which retains both the vigour of his original writings, and remains surprisingly prescient in light of the many books and articles which have been written on the subject over the past 74 years.

Belloc was an English Catholic, with a French background, who sought to examine the causes of the Reformation, rejecting both the “Enlightenment” view that the Reformation was the inevitable result of the renaissance, the printing press and the advancement of knowledge, and the anti-clericalism of southern Europe, that it was a rejection of the narrow, bigoted views of the medieval church which still believed in miracles, indulgences and devils.

Belloc seeks to explain the Reformation in terms of both the scandalous conduct of the Catholic Church in offering plenary indulgences for donations to pay for the rebuilding of St Peter’s in Rome, and the fact that the papacy at the time was a plaything of Italian clerical politicians.

He points out that preaching this particular indulgence had been refused in a number of dioceses, not just in Germany, but even in Spain. In Luther’s own diocese, the local bishop got a “cut” of the proceeds.

In Germany, it was strongly opposed by some local churchmen, who saw it as draining money from the local church to Rome, and by the nobility, for similar reasons. The Elector of Saxony whose domain included Wittenberg saw it as interfering with an important source of his own revenue, local devotion to the collection of saints’ relics which he had accumulated. The pope’s indulgence cut across his own source of income.



Belloc acknowledges the new emerging nationalism of northern Europe which rejected the intellectual, financial and spiritual hegemony of Rome.

He also considers that the avarice of the new middle class, who cast covetous eyes on the lands and buildings of the church, significantly contributed to the crisis, particularly in England, but also in continental Europe.

While Belloc’s account is argued powerfully, I do not accept his view that in the years leading up to the Reformation, the Catholic world’s unity had been stretched to breaking point, and was ready to explode (p.48).

If that had been the case, it would have been widely noted by the many perceptive religious commentators at the time, who included Erasmus and Thomas More.

In fact, their writings convey the opposite view: that the Christian world was united until Luther provided the theological justification to break that unity. In fact, in his correspondence with Luther, whom Erasmus regarded as a friend, Erasmus pointed out that the cause of the Reformation was Luther’s own petulance and arrogance.

While Belloc rightly points to the institutional forces at work in the Reformation, he tends to ignore the role played by key participants, including Martin Luther and his fellow theologians at the University of Wittenberg, and on the other side, Pope Leo X of the famous Medici family.

The University of Wittenberg was, at the time, a new university located in rural Germany, established just 15 years before,  trying to carve out a niche for itself against the larger well-established universities of the day. Theological radicalism was one way in which this could be done.

Fr Martin Luther, then a young Augustinian friar, had been appointed a professor of theology far younger than would have been the case at a more established university.

Luther’s religious education was seriously deficient – he was ordained after just two years of theological studies – and was appointed a professor after only a few years at the university, at a time when he was also the provincial of the Augustinian friars in that part of Germany. In other words, he had been promoted too far and too fast, and it went to his head.

His contemporaries in Wittenberg were also advancing contentious teachings, but there was no local source of authority in the university to correct his views.

In the public debates which took place after Luther put forward his 95 theses in 1517, it was generally agreed that he was defeated by his orthodox opponents.

Among these were a priest and fellow professor of theology, Johann Eck, and Cardinal Cajetan. Their arguments pushed Luther to adopt more radical positions. From a starting point where Luther rejected the Roman indulgence  – with good reason -- they pushed Luther to the point where he rejected all indulgences.

From a position where he said, correctly, that God alone forgives sins, they pushed him to a position where he rejected the sacrament of confession, describing it as a human invention, and argued that man can be justified (saved) by faith alone.

From a position where he wanted the faithful to have the opportunity to receive Holy Communion under both species, they pushed him to insist that Holy Communion must be received under both.

In the course of the debates, Luther was pushed to the point where he rejected the authority of the pope, and rejected the authority of Church Councils.

Because some parts of Luther’s teaching were contrary to the teaching of the Church, he rejected the church’s teaching authority, and said that only in scripture (Sola scriptura) could the word of God be found.

This then fuelled his demand for the scriptures to be available in German, and he set about translating the New Testament into German, in the course of which he rejected a number of books of the bible which contradicted his teachings.

Martin Luther was a ferocious debater and used the most violent language against his opponents, including the pope, commanding the attention of the public and the media.

On the other side, Pope Leo’s handling of the dispute was appalling. Pope Leo, a Medici, belonged to the wealthy Florentine family which with others, had far too much influence over the renaissance church. By threatening Luther with excommunication, then excommunicating him, the pope abused his power, turning Luther into a martyr. This led directly to the Reformation.

Luther’s action in burning the Papal Bull of Excommunication in 1520 made the break permanent. Despite numerous efforts to conduct a dialogue subsequently, the die was cast, and the Reformation became a fact.



Within years of Luther’s excommunication, numerous other Protestant churches had arisen, including the Calvinists and the Anabaptists.

Luther attacked them with a force similar to that which he used against Rome, and the divisions which have characterised Protestantism since begin with Luther’s attacks.

Although no one in Rome admitted it publicly, the church in Rome knew that Leo X’s pontificate had been a disaster.

To this day, there are no monuments in Rome to Pope Leo X, and the statue which the pope had commissioned for his own tomb was recovered in the 17th century from a Roman tip, and is now to be seen in one of the rooms at a church in Rome.

It would not be far from the mark to say that the Catholic Church has been haunted by the Reformation, and subsequently, did almost everything to avert a similar break.

Belloc’s analysis of the causes of the Reformation deserves to be read and considered, as it is an informed contribution to our understanding of this tragedy. Unfortunately, it is not footnoted, so we have to take his statements on trust, and the book does not contain an index.


Using the Sacrament of Reconciliation


by John A. Kane (Sophia Institute Press. ISBN 9781928832294. PB, Pp130.)

Fr Kane was a well-known and respected priest of the archdiocese of Philadelphia in the United States, and was the first priest in the archdiocese to introduce all-night adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

This book, originally published in 1945 but republished recently by Sophia, is a treasury of wise insights into the nature of the sacrament of reconciliation, and how we should most effectively prepare to receive the graces which the sacrament offers.

Fr Kane makes clear that the sacrament depends on the disposition of the person who receives it.Confession_book.jpg

He points out that the sacrament is intimately associated with a change in heart, and a firm desire to improve one’s life, having confidence in the mercy of God.

He gently walks us through the way to prepare for confession, and points out that the need for repentance is an integral part of both the Old and the New Testament.

Jesus himself often referred to the need to every one of us to repent of our sins, and some of his most astonishing miracles, including the cure of a cripple on the Sabbath, involved not only a miraculous healing, but also the forgiveness of sin.

His instruction to the apostles laid the foundation of the sacrament: “Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven. Whose sins you retain, they are retained.” In these words, he gave the apostles and their successors his power to forgive sins.

The forgiveness is, however, truly exercised by Jesus himself, and therefore we need to pray for and accept his unlimited mercy.

Reception of the sacrament is an exercise in conversion, just as truly as baptism involves a conversion of heart and soul.

Fr Kane also deals with the fact that we all relapse, despite our good intentions. This does not mean that our repentance is not sincere, but there must be a desire for a change of heart for the sacrament to be effective.

In successive chapters, Fr Kane shows how sorrow for sin can help us overcome our sins, and how the sacrament helps us to control our natural pride.

He discusses how we can make reparation for our sins, and implement our resolution to change.

This is a spiritual classic, and will help everyone to receive this sacrament and its graces with a sound disposition.