“Luther didn’t want to start a new church. He wanted to stay in the church.”
“If he truly wanted to remain in the Church, that was easy enough to do.”
“But he couldn’t--- they would have suppressed him!”
Why, yes indeed, “they” would have, as has happened with a good many priests and theologians over the course of time when they run afoul of the institutional Church and/or get out ahead of the people of God….one sad fact about the sinful people who make up the Church is that we will rarely miss an opportunity to mess things up. There is no guarantee that the institutional face of the Church will do the best thing at the most opportune time, avoiding any possible misstep. But even in the face of certain suppression, the choice to leave the Church is still that: choice.
Consider, as one example, St. Padre Pio: mystic, stigmatist, confessor and spiritual director extraordinaire, subject to suspicion, controversy, removed from priestly duties and forbidden to correspond with those with whose spiritual direction he was entrusted, but who was later canonized, and whose spiritual insights on suffering and the nature of God have enriched us all.
Consider Henri de Lubac, one of the founders of the nouvelle theologie movement, whose works were suppressed in the 1940s and who was removed from teaching posts, but who later was a theological expert for Vatican II, and whose insights into ecclesiology can be felt as some of the fresh air Jophn XXIII sought , blowing in Lumen Gentium, Gaudium et Spes and Dei Verbum .
Consider St. John of the Cross, whose reform of the Carmelites resulted in his imprisonment and torture, from which came his great mystical poetry, who was eventually both canonized and recognized as one of the great Doctors of the Church.
As I recall, Christ indicated we would—not might, would—suffer for our faith. The question is—what do we do with that suffering? Do we allow it to separate us from the Body of Christ, which after all, in this world is made up of sinners just like us, with all that implies for the potential for persecution and unjust action, within the Church as well as without.
Faced with rejection of their unique vision of Christ and His Church, each of the men above was opposed by the institutional Church of his time. None of them wanted to leave—and none of them did. They accepted the rejection of their ideas with humility trusting that in His good time God would either make clear the error of their own thinking or that of those who opposed them. In short, none of them fell into the trap of believing that because they believed their vision to be of value—in its own way a part of the Truth and therefore, somehow correct though always incomplete—that the world would be changed as they wished, when they wished and in the manner they wished. None of them fell into the trap of taking themselves too seriously, of believing themselves infallible in matters of faith and morals, even as they knew that they had encountered God in a new, real, and valuable way.
In short, they were content to witness to the Truth as they saw it within the Church, accept whatever came as a result and trust the outcome to God.
This stands in distinct contrast to the so-called Reformers—who really were rebels, for they left the Church rather than submit to her temporal authority. Not content simply to witness to the truth and let God handle the rest, they fell into the trap of sinfulness to which man has been prone since time began. With a sometimes great clarity of vision (the selling of indulgences was wrong; there was corruption among some of the clergy, the hierarchy had sometimes forgotten their mission as pastors—and none of this was the teaching of the Church), they in their enthusiasm forgot their own role: to witness and be faithful. It is God’s role to change hearts.
In a way, their faith in God faltered, really. They did not trust that He would change that which needed to be changed in His own good time and way. In a way, The Adversary used the good they saw—the things that did need reforming—as a lever to extract them from the Church by appealing to their pride and in pride they fell as we all do each time we sin.
Reform—true reform within-came and continues within the Church. And to a man, the “reformers” left….because reform was not occurring according to their preconceived notions and the voice of Christendom has been muffled ever since.
When Christ appointed Peter the head of His Church, he did not give Peter the grace of perfection. And good thing, for had it been so, we would have been ever tempted to believe that it was through our own efforts that the Church endures. One thing for sure: no Catholic can claim that the Church endures by dint of the goodness of her people, nor her shepherds! There is far too much evidence to the contrary….
Christ did, however, promise that if we remain in the Church—in Him—that she will never lead us away from God. He did not give the charism of perfection in all that the hierarchy does, but gave instead the grace that the Church will never teach error in faith and morals. And when you get right down to it, how could she, as the Body of Christ, who is her head? However, the details of implementation, we get to work out and we often—regularly--sometimes spectacularly-mess that up.
It’s worth keeping that in mind today. There is much in the institutional face of the Church today that should be changed. We are called to vigorous witness to that piece we see and to add our vision to others who with us in the Church seek God and are working out our salvation in fear and trembling. We are called to remain in the fold, to know and live the apostolic faith handed down to us, to be faithful in the sacraments and to use the grace they give us to go out to all the world proclaiming the good news and inviting others to the household of God, helping them and allowing the to help us, on our journey. And we are called to be obedient to the Church for "he who hears you (the Church) hears Me"….trusting that as hard as it may be sometimes to submit to her authority (as Padre Pio, de Lubac and John of the Cross discovered) , she will never lead us away from God. NEVER.
And we are called to trust and believe that God is sustaining and reforming His Church—and the world-- even when it doesn’t happen according to our timetable. The Church is in the process of becoming that which she already is: the spotless Bride of Christ.
As Christians, we may question, we may debate, we may explore, we may converse, we may argue, we may have difficulty with teachings of the Church, we may take polar positions on issues of great importance (and Catholics do all these things). The one thing we must not do—and the mistake Luther and the others made—is to put ourselves in the position of God and demand that reform be done our way, according to our timetable, with our ends in mind. To do so is to grasp at the prerogatives of God, seizing the fruit of the Tree. That is the way of schism and of pride, the mother of all sins.
Is it difficult to see the human face of the Church sullied by missteps? Yes, as it would have been difficult to see the face of Christ sullied by thorns and beatings. Is it difficult to be rebuffed for simply telling the truth as we see it? Yes, as it was difficult to see Christ sentenced to die for simply showing us the Father. It is difficult to remain in the Church when her human face seems to reject what we offer with sincerity and love? Yes. Yes, it is.
Protestants avoided this problem by rejecting the idea that there is any binding, temporal, institutional Church to which they owe obedience, relying instead on the spiritual dimension of the Church alone to guide them and making the Bible their only source of inspiration, for they rejected the Church and her Magesterium. This freed them to redesign their version of church in any way they wished, changing and reformulating teaching and practices and moving from one ecclesial body to another as their desires moved them; from my perspective that hasn’t worked out all that well.
Christ is both human and Divine, both Eternal and in-time. And just as He cannot be divided into the Eternal Jesus and the temporal Jesus, neither can His Body the Church. In some mystical sense the temporal Church is one with Jesus, really, truly, and indivisibly. Like it or not, Jesus established one Church, the temporal and human nature of His body on earth as well as the invisible Church of all time—and this subsists in its fullness in the Catholic Church.
No Protestant body can even attempt to make that claim, to stretch back in time to Pentecost and before…. the Body of Christ is as visible here and now as He was visible to those in first century Judea: a Church that is a body we can touch, with a voice we can hear, a conduit for grace, the source of the sacraments. God knew—Jesus knew---anyone who had ever encountered brash, enthusiastic, bumbling, sinful Peter knew—that the men He left in charge of His Church would not act perfectly in every instance. That the sins of church leaders (including Paul who, because of his ego and passion, very nearly precipitated the first schism with his public denunciation of Peter in violation of his own admonitions about fraternal correction) would complicate life for everyone was clear early on. But establish a Church He did, and appoint a vicar, He did and He told us that the Gates of Hell would not prevail against her. Moreover, He prayed that we would remain one in Him in this Church as He is one with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
Jesus simply asks us to have faith in His promise and not let pride and impatience take us out of the house and away from the family table. He asks that we take with thanksgiving all He left us—graces and warts—not pick and choose that which we prefer, shaping the Church He left into the one we want like Luther did.
Luther and the other “reformers” chose earthly influence, trying to see their (competing and often incompatible) visions implemented immediately in their own ways over obedience to the Church. They were unable—unwilling?—to exhibit the humility to trust that God would see that whatever truth they had to propose would flourish in God’s own good way and time in the Church Jesus Himself established. They did not trust God to change that which could and should be changed and to maintain that which must be maintained unchangeable within the Church that bore them, taught them, sustained them and gave them life. They chose instead to, as St. Augustine put it, rend by schism, tearing into pieces the body of Christ anew. They chose—deliberately—to violate the unity Christ over and over asked of His followers.
The same happens today in the Catholic fold. The “cafeteria” Catholic acts in the same mold as the “reformers” but without as much visibility. Their agendas—be it lay empowerment, a married priesthood, or acceptance of homosexual unions—must be implemented immediately and on their terms; otherwise the Church is obviously and irredeemably corrupt. What arrogance!
Sometimes it’s worth remembering that just because we are working for God, it doesn’t mean we are always doing God’s work. God always has a better plan than we do, if we only have the faith to leave Him to it. And remain in the Church which is the household of God, the pillar and bulwark of the Truth.