Is the Reformation Over? A Perspective from the Heart of Roman Catholicism

Is the Reformation Over?

As we approach the 499th anniversary of the commencement of the Reformation on 31 October, it is already rumoured that next year, in commemoration of its 500th anniversary, Pope Francis may declare (perhaps jointly with Protestant leaders) the ‘official’ end of the Reformation. Should this happen, it would not come as a surprise (at least to me) given the general trajectory of ecumenical initiatives promoted on both sides of the Tiber (e.g. the Lutheran-Catholic joint declaration on justification, Evangelicals and Catholics Together). I believe, however, that those of us who remain strongly committed to the Reformation’s central convictions – sola Scripturasolus Christussola gratiasola fidesoli Deo gloria – should think carefully about how we might respond, even if the Pope (or others) do not make such a declaration. Some evangelical leaders have already drafted a clear reformation-over-nollstatement, appropriately entitled Is the Reformation Over? A Statement of Evangelical Convictions, which I would encourage everyone to read and, if motivated to do so, sign in support. Although this may be a somewhat unpopular view in today’s ecumenical climate, I am convinced that the Reformation is not over, and that the 500th anniversary of its inception next year provides us Protestants with a wonderful opportunity to reiterate the fundamental concerns that we continue to have in relation to contemporary Roman Catholicism.

Admittedly, part of my perspective on this is due to the many years I have spent living and ministering in Italy under the Vatican’s shadow. I have witnessed first-hand the almost total absence of the gospel in Italy’s churches and in people’s hearts. My experience in Italy does not, I think, incline me to an unfair bias against Catholicism; rather, it has provided me with, as it were, an ‘insider’s’ perspective on the actual condition of the contemporary Roman Church, at least with what pertains to its heart and center. As Timothy George wisely states:

[S]ome of the deep misgivings concerning evangelical-Catholic rapprochement have been expressed by evangelical leaders in countries such as Italy, Spain, and others in Latin America where Catholicism is the dominant tradition. It is important for evangelicals engaged in dialogue with Roman Catholics in North America to remember that some of their evangelical brothers and sisters in other parts of the world may lack enthusiasm for what they consider ‘armchair ecumenism’ due to their own indigenous experience of isolation, hostility, and even persecution. Such evangelical critics, however resistant and reactionary their views may seem, cannot be omitted from any true consideration of catholicity.[1]

Therefore, what I would like to provide in this post (and in those that will follow) is the perspective on Roman Catholicism that Italian Protestants – who have for centuries confronted the reality of its full political, cultural, and religious force – can offer to the rest of the Protestant world. It is my hope that this perspective will alert us to some of the issues that may not be evident to those outside of Italy.

The Land of the Missed Reformation

In 2014, as Italian evangelical leader Leonardo De Chirico reports, leaders representing nearly all of Italy’s evangelicals drafted a statement rejecting any participation in ecumenism with Rome due to their conviction that Catholicism still stands “in need of radical reformation according to the Word of God”. Before disregarding their misgivings, it is important to realise that many Italian Protestants think of their country as the land of the ‘missed Reformation’. In contrast with many ‘armchair’ ecumenicists living elsewhere, Italian evangelicals inhabit a society that, according to Waldensian historian Giorgio Tourn, continues to be “fundamentally determined” by the Counter-Reformation.[2] It would be erroneous to assert that the Reformation left Italy virtually untouched, for its influence actually made extensive inroads throughout the peninsula. Nevertheless, political and religious repression quickly crushed the majority of Protestant incursions, particularly in the north where the Waldensians endured unspeakable horrors. Italian Protestants attest that from that point on – through the Risorgimento to modern secularism – Catholicism has always demonstrated an astonishing ability to overcome challenges to its authority in Italian society, adapting to new circumstances and maintaining, though often diversely manifesting, its influence.[3]

Roman Catholicism as an Imperial Power

Culturally speaking, Italian evangelicals also inveigh against Catholicism as an “imperial” institution that claims not only the spiritual authority of a church but also the earthly power of an empire. This cannot be dismissed as merely polemical, for the Vatican does in fact constitute a sovereign state with its own juridical structure, autonomous territory, diplomatic standing, flag, currency, and army.[4] Certainly, many of these elements only possess symbolic force. Nevertheless, they contribute to Catholicism’s status in Italian society as a comprehensive system that impacts not only questions of faith and religion but also matters of politics and culture. Although most Italians do not consciously submit to ecclesial authority, Catholicism so permeates their culture that it constitutes an integral element of their identity, rendering all other religious options either irrelevant or alien to what it means to be Italian. For many Italian evangelicals, therefore, the ‘missed Reformation’ does not constitute a historical curiosity but a quotidian reality palpably experienced as inner conflict, social ostracism, and legal discrimination. Nevertheless, most do not wish to surrender their distinct identity and vocation by assimilating into Catholicism, for they earnestly desire to see a reformation akin to that of the sixteenth century finally make a lasting and significant impact on their country.

Conclusion

If we listen to the perspective of Italian Protestants, we may be a little more reticent in making or affirming sweeping declarations of the end of the Reformation. Indeed, such a statement would seem, at least in Italy, quite strange given the fact that the Reformation never fully took root there! Whereas encouraging signs of change in Catholicism may be found elsewhere, it seems evident to me (and the vast majority of Italian Protestants) that, at least from a historical and cultural perspective, the Reformation in Italy is far from over.

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[1] Timothy George, 2004. ‘Between the Pope and Billy Graham: Evangelicals and Catholics in Dialogue’ in Pilgrims on the Sawdust Trail: Evangelical Ecumenism and the Quest for Christian Identity. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, p.133.

[2] Giorgio Tourn, 1998. Italiani e Protestantesimo: un incontro impossibile? Torino: Claudiana, p.25.

[3] F. Ferrario and P. Gajewski, 2007. Il Protestantesimo Contemporaneo: storia e attualità. Rome: Carocci, pp.9-71.

[4] Corrado Augias, 2015. Tra Cesare e Dio: come la rivoluzione di Papa Francesco cambierà gli italiani. Milan: Best Bur, p.18.

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