As the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation looms ever closer, there is more and more talk about whether the rift between Protestants and Roman Catholics can be healed and even if the Reformation can be officially declared as over (see, for example, this recent article). Spearheading reconciliatory efforts between the two is, of course, Pope Francis who has been heavily involved in ecumenical initiatives from the start of his pontificate. He has even gone so far as to praise Martin Luther as a Reformer of the church.
I remain a bit dubious as to the true intentions of Pope Francis. He does, after all, belong to the Jesuit society, the order established by Ignatius of Loyola to combat the spread of Protestantism in the sixteenth century. Not only that, but Francis has clearly articulated his views on Luther, Calvin, and the Reformation in a book (that to my knowledge is, strangely enough, unavailable in English translation) that he wrote to explain his own sense of mission in terms of his vocation as a Jesuit. Here (translated from the original Italian with emphasis added) is what Francis reveals about his true feelings toward the Reformers:
Calvin was the great thinker of the Reformation, the one who organized it and brought it onto a cultural, societal, and ecclesial level; he shaped an organization of which Luther had not conceived. Luther, the impetuous German who had probably planned something much different than giving birth to a national Church, was re-read and re-organized by that cold Frenchman, a Latin genius versed in jurisprudence, that was Calvin. Luther was seen as a heretic. Calvin, in addition, as a schismatic. Let me explain: heresy – to use Chesterton’s definition – is a good idea gone insane. When the Church is unable to heal from the insanity, then it transforms into schism. Schism involves rupture, division, separation, independent consolidation; it progresses step by step until it finally gains autonomy. Saint Ignatius and his successors will fight against this schismatic heresy.
And what is the Calvinist schism that will provoke the struggle of Ignatius and the first Jesuits? It is a schism that affects three areas: man, society and the Church. In man, Calvinism provokes schism between reason and emotion. It separates reason from the heart. On the emotional level, and under the influence of Luther, the man of that century suffered anguish regarding his own salvation. And, according to Calvin, it was unnecessary to concern oneself with that anguish. All that mattered was attending to the issues of knowledge and will. Here begins the Calvinist squalor: a rigid discipline combined with a great mistrust in that which is essential to human life, whose foundation is faith in the total corruption of human nature that can be controlled only by overriding human action…
The Calvinist schism also affects society. Society will remain divided because of it. As producers of salvation, Calvin, obviously, privileges the bourgeoisie classes. This implies and involves a revolutionary disdain of the peoples. There are no peoples nor nations, and instead there comes to be an international bourgeoisie. With this schismatic attitude Calvin is the true father of liberalism that was a political blow to the heart of the peoples, to their way of being and of expressing themselves, to their culture, to their civil, political, artistic and religious ways of being. Fundamentally, this Calvinist-schismatic-liberal thought claims the power of rebellion, which today we would call the rebellion of the proletariat. In the final analysis, Marxism is the inevitable child of liberalism…
Third, the Calvinist schism injures the Church. The ecclesial community is reduced to a social class, and as a result, Calvin decapitates…the people of God from unity with the Father. He decapitates all of the confraternities from their occupations, depriving them of their saints. And, suppressing the Mass, he deprives people of the mediation of Christ who is truly present there…
In the end Calvin tried to save man whom Luther’s perspective had cast into anguish. In Luther we can see the intention to save man from Renaissance paganism; but that intention had evolved into an “insane idea”, that is, heresy. Calvin, as a result, with the legislative coldness that characterized him, takes the anguished Lutheran view and proceeds in the following way: man is corrupt, therefore, discipline. From this develops what we know as “the Protestant rigor”. This proposes signs of salvation different from those of Catholicism…work for the sake of accumulation. It’s almost as if this notion identifies the fruit of one’s work as the sign of salvation. We could simplify it (as a bit of a caricature) with this axiom: “You will be saved if you acquire the riches that can be obtained through work”…
If we start from the position of Luther, and if we are consistent, there are only two possibilities that during the course of history can be chosen: either man dissolves into his anguish and becomes nothing (and this is the consequence of atheistic existentialism), or man, always starting from that same anguish and corruption, takes a leap into the abyss and declares himself “superman” (this is Nietzsche’s option). In the end, Nietzsche resurrects Hobbes in the sense that the ultimate meaning of man is power. Such dominion is possible only when love is opposed by instituting a rupture, in man, between reason and the heart. A similar power, as ultimate meaning, entails the death of God. This has to do with a paganism that, in the case of Nazism and Marxism, assumes an organized form in political systems. The Lutheran perspective, because it is built on the divorce between faith and religion (indeed it conceives faith as the only salvation and accuses religion – religious acts, piety and so on – of being a mere manipulation of God), begets divorce and schism: it involves every kind of individualism that, on a social level, affirms its own hegemony. In each case, every hegemony, whether religious, political, social or spiritual, finds its origin here.
This is a very different Pope Francis than the one we see in the public persona that he has adopted. Indeed, these statements may seem shocking to those accustomed to the typical ‘warm’ and ‘welcoming’ language that he utilizes in ecumenical dialogues. So let me just recapitulate the highlights for the sake of clarity and emphasis:
- Francis calls Luther a heretic and Calvin a heretical schismatic.
- Francis thinks that Calvin, in particular, and the ‘Calvinism’ he created, engendered schisms in human psychology, in society, and in the church.
- Francis asserts that Calvin “decapitated” the church and “deprived” people of Christ.
- Francis opines that Calvin fathered liberalism (whose ultimate end was Marxism), encouraged greed, and pillaged the unique cultural, artistic, and religious riches of various societies (You get the impression that Francis really dislikes Calvin!).
- Together, the legacy of Luther and Calvin, and the Reformation that they initiated, is responsible for the majority, if not all, of the societal and religious ills that still plague the world today: psychological anguish, existential despair, atheism, paganism, Nazism, Marxism, the will to power and dominance, and every other kind of religious, political, social, or spiritual hegemony that exists.
In opposition to all of this, Francis depicts himself as standing in the tradition of Ignatius and the other early Jesuits, combatting the various ills inflicted on the world by the Reformers and fighting for the unity of the “Hierarchical Holy Mother Church”, that is, the Church of Rome. Let us make no mistake here: Francis is staunchly opposed to the legacy of the Reformers and is fiercely committed to reuniting all churches under the authority of the Roman papacy. As he himself stated in a general audience in 2014:
No Church is healthy if the faithful, the deacons and the priests are not united to the bishop. This Church, that is not united to the bishop, is a sick Church. Jesus wanted this union of all the faithful with the bishop, including the deacons and priests. And this they do aware that it is precisely in the bishop that the bond is made visible with each Church, with the Apostles and with all other communities, united to their bishops and the Pope in the one Church of the Lord Jesus, that is our Hierarchical Holy Mother Church.
Thus, when I read of the pope’s ecumenical endeavours and listen to his conciliatory speech, I am left either with doubts as to his sincerity or, perhaps more often, suspicions as to his ultimate intentions. From all that I seen of Pope Francis behind the curtains, so to speak (and, more importantly, in his own words!), I can only conclude that he will be satisfied with nothing less than a full return of Protestants to Mother Rome. As I have mentioned in a previous post, those familiar with the Jesuit tradition know that the kind of inclusive, all-embracing language employed by Francis is a characteristic Jesuit strategem aimed at ‘conquering the heretics’ by winning their respect, admiration, and love. Given that evangelicals like Timothy George are acclaiming the pope as “Our Francis too”, it would appear that the pope’s strategy is working flawlessly. Let us not think, however, that Francis will be content with a mere ‘reconciled diversity’, as though he envisions that Protestants and Catholics could simply ‘agree to disagree’ yet still love each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. No, Pope Francis’ Jesuit mission will not be fulfilled until the work of Luther and Calvin is completely overcome and all Christians – including Protestants – are “united to their bishops and the Pope in the one Church of the Lord Jesus, that is our Hierarchical Holy Mother Church”.
This is what Pope Francis truly thinks about the Protestant Reformation.
 Translated from J.M. Bergoglio, 2014. Chi sono i Gesuiti? Storia della Compagnia di Gesù. Bologna: EMI, pp.22-23, 25-27, 32-34.