The Modern Church: A Synthesis of Martin Luther and Henry VIII

The Modern Church: A Synthesis of Martin Luther and Henry VIII

C.T. Rossi January 13, 2017

I want to say to you, about myself, that I am a child of this age, a child of unfaith and scepticism, and probably (indeed I know it) shall remain so to the end of my life. – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I find it on any showing quite ludicrous to suppose that, for nineteen of Christendom’s twenty centuries, Christians were credulous idiots ready to believe any tomfoolery the Bible fostered. . . For one thing, it would seem to me that our twentieth century, far from being notable for scientific scepticism, is one of the most credulous eras in all history. It is not that people believe in nothing – which would be bad enough – but that they believe in anything – which is really terrible. – Malcolm Muggeridge

While Amoris Laetitia is turning hot the ecclesial cold war between novelty and tradition that erupted in the wake of Vatican II, there is still a tendency to be myopic about our times. Ross Douthat has pronounced that the battle over Amoris Laetitia has reached the level of “genuinely historic theological controversy (Jesuit-Jansenist level, at least, if not quite Arian-Athanasian).” We see the speck, but we do not see the beam. Worse than Jansenism, worse than Arian heresy, for the past 500 years, the Church has been torn apart – certainly by Modernism, that heresy of “synthesis,” but also by Modernism’s close cousin, modernity.

Modernity is the admixture of two different heresies: Martin Luther’s attack on Catholic theology, which rent the individual Christian from the Church, and Henry VIII’s attack on the Church’s teaching concerning the jurisdictional boundaries between Church and State. Though contemporaries, Luther and Henry were enemies. Henry penned his famous attack on Luther in 1521, “In Defense of the Seven Sacraments (Assertio septem Sacramentorum adversus Martin Lutherum),” which won the English king the title “Defender of the Faith” (Fidei defensor) from Pope Leo X. Luther responded by showing his mettle: a world-class foul mouth and penchant for ad hominem attacks, responding to Henry’s reasoned arguments simply by calling him “a pig, dolt, and liar who deserved, among other things, to be covered in excrement.” Yet despite the personal dislike these two men had for each other, they unleashed the tandem of forces destined to destroy Christendom: Luther’s isolated individualism and Henry’s monolithic state were amalgamated into the twin pillars of modern secularism.

In the early 16th century, few could understand what was happening. Not surprisingly, one was St. Thomas More.

More additionally expressed concern to his son-in-law William Roper that because of complacent Catholic attitudes, the war against Luther would not be won: “I pray God … that some of us, as high as we seem to sit upon the mountains, treading heretics under our feet like ants, live not the day, that we gladly would wish to be at league and composition with them, to let them have their churches quietly to themselves; so that they would be content to let us have ours quietly to ourselves.” – Roper’s Life of More

More was not a theologian, but a lawyer. For him, law was not an end in itself, but an indispensable aid in assisting individuals and societies to attain their proper temporal and spiritual ends. He believed – consistent with the Gelasian theory of the two swords – that the Church and the State had different roles and different jurisdictions. More understood that harmony between the two was essential and that if the balance were disturbed, man would suffer evils to body and soul.

While Thomas More is best known for his defense of the papacy, which led to his execution, More had an earlier disagreement with Henry VIII wherein he, ironically, claimed that Henry had given the papacy an unduly large role in temporal affairs. Though an enemy of Tudor totalitarianism, the great saint and scholar was no ultramontanist.

In recent years, we seemingly have seen the Roman pontiff ambiguously; indirectly; unofficially; and, by way of proxy, all but officially approve the attempted Kasperite transvaluation of adultery from mortal sin into a mulligan-worthy bad break. The mechanism of this “mercy” is a counterfeit version of “conscience,” warped to look more Lutheran than Catholic. The meme of Pope Francis as Luther is no joke; rather, it captures the hopes of some (the Kasperites) and the fears of others (serious Catholics) within the Church.

While Kasperism’s deformed theology has been well documented, what has received less attention is Cardinal Kasper’s completely misguided approach to Church-State relations. Formerly, the Church understood that the proper realm of the Church was the administration of the divine law, while the State administered the natural law. In other words, the Church preserved and promulgated the Good News for the salvation of souls; the State took care for the temporal common good of its citizenry (which oftentimes could contain non-Christians). While the framework of the Church’s thought was theological, the common good was rooted in natural law – rational precepts that Christians, Jews, and pagans were bound to acknowledge.

In a journal article from 1990, Cardinal Kasper praises the post-Vatican II practice of addressing the secular world in theological language rather than in terms of the Natural law:

[W]e Christians cannot counter the threat to humanity merely by an appeal to a minimal consensus founded in natural law. We must respond with all the concrete fullness and the concentrated strength of our Christian faith, and mobilize all its forces against the powers of injustice, violence, and death. – “The Theological Foundations Of Human Rights,” The Jurist 50 (1990), 148-166

In typical Kasperspeak, the cardinal criticized the “abstract foundation” of former practice in favor of “concrete realization.” The idea that it is more effective to address “the world” in theological language is idiotic, naïve, and disingenuous. Why? Because the “concrete realization” is that if I am an avowed Jew or Muslim or Buddhist or Hindu or agnostic or atheist, chances are, I don’t give a flying fig about what Jesus said or did, nor about the theological position His Church may take on issues. On the other hand, an appeal to natural reason demands respect from the rational non-Christian (and if your interlocutor isn’t reasonable, should you really be dialoguing in the first place?). What Kasper’s theory of Church-State dialogue does is sideline the Church as an intellectual and cultural force.

For the muddled modern mind, not knowing how to talk about a subject belies not knowing how to act, either. While Pope Francis’s actions (and inactions) have led to his earning crypto-Lutheran credentials in some quarters, his foray into launching an investigation into the internal affairs of the Sovereign Military Order of the Knights of Malta might earn him another meme as Pope Henry VIII, destroyer of the Gelasian two-swords theory.

Rather than lament what seems to be a clash between the Knights of Malta and the Vatican, we should view current developments as a blessing. The theological errors of Luther have become inextricably intertwined with the jurisdictional errors of Henry, and both need to be addressed before salvation history can move on. When the new Christian springtime does come, it will be rooted in the soil of the perennial teachings of the Church, both theological and social.

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2 comments on “The Modern Church: A Synthesis of Martin Luther and Henry VIII

  1. It’s an interesting concept. Rossi writes well, even cleverly in a spot or two.

    I’ll critique only one argument. Salvation “history” is never static. It’s measured one soul at a time at the particular judgment and usually not happily. That something might inhibit its “moving on” objectively makes no sense.

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