Over the past few months, I’ve been doing some reading about the history of Roman Catholicism. While the events of Vatican II have been of special interest to me, I’ve tried to read a bit more widely about the evolution of the church in Rome from its beginnings until the present. Though dated, I’ve appreciated Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Riddle of Roman Catholicism.
In his chapter “The Tragic Necessity of the Reformation,” Pelikan notes that there were both moral and theological failings that the Reformers were seeking to correct. Regarding the former, their criticism was well taken, at least implicitly. Pelikan notes:
Trent’s legislation against these abuses and the work of the newly created Society of Jesus enabled the papacy to clean house. Anyone who based his support of the Reformation primarily on moral grounds, therefore, lost half of his case as a result of these reforms. He would lose much of the other half if he studied the similarity between moral conditions in Roman Catholic lands and those in Protestant lands since the Reformation. By its reactions on this front, the reform movement in Roman Catholicism has substantiated the Reformation claim that the church was in need of a house cleaning. (Pg. 51; bold emphasis mine.)
But with regard to the theological failings of the Roman church, a sad irony happened at Trent. Pelikan continues:
All the more tragic, therefore, was the Roman reaction on the front which was most important to the reformers, the message and teaching of the church. This had to be reformed according to the word of God; unless it was, no moral improvement would be able to alter the basic problem. Rome’s reactions were the doctrinal decrees of the Council of Trent and the Roman Catechism based upon those decrees. In these decrees, the Council of Trent selected and elevated to official status the notion of justification by faith plus works, which was only one of the doctrines of justification in the medieval theologians and ancient fathers. When the reformers attacked this notion in the name of the doctrine of justification by faith alone – a doctrine also attested to by some medieval theologians and ancient fathers – Rome reacted by canonizing one trend in preference to all the others. What had previously been permitted (justification by faith and works), now became required. What had previously been permitted also (justification by faith alone), now became forbidden. (Pgs. 51-52; bold emphasis added.)
Pelikan then concludes: “In condemning the Protestant Reformation, the Council of Trent condemned part of its own catholic tradition.” (Pg. 52)
Christ Reformed Church