The Unintended Reformation:

Beyond the Catholic-Protestant divide

posted by Brenna Moore

The epigraph of Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation comes from an essay that Jacques Maritain wrote for the Review of Politics in 1942 entitled “The End of Machiavellianism.” In it, Maritain evinces some of his own realist, even tragic sensibilities—his hunch that human beings often do not deliver on the grand promises that they make, and that what may have appeared so good long, long ago can bear rotten fruit centuries later. Although tracing the distant and historical causes of contemporary problems can be like trying to identify “in a river’s mouth,” as Maritain writes, “which waters come from which glaciers and which tributaries,” if we are to have any chance of understanding ourselves, the work cannot be avoided. The epigraph offers a glimpse into Gregory’s intentions and his inspiration, and it helps explain why he would read his area of specialization, the Reformation, in darker terms than some of his American colleagues. For Jacques Maritain, the Protestant reformers set in motion the modern, rationalist thinking that severed the ontological bonds between the realness of the world and the intellectual capacities of the knower. For Gregory, the tragedy of the Reformation was not the content of the reformers’ ideas but the unsolved and unsatisfying contestations between Catholics and Protestants. These debates were left unfinished, and have since trickled down to create our diverse, increasingly polarized society, left with no common values other than the belief that the “acquisition of consumer goods is the presumptive means to happiness.”

Gregory claims that most scholarly readings of the Reformation and secularization are positive. He sets out to challenge this tendency, claiming that his project is only the beginning of a “formidable” climb. But Gregory’s “teleology in reverse,” as Victoria Kahn describes it in her recent review, is well-charted territory, as many others have noted; the passing acknowledgement of Maritain offers a hint of Gregory’s connections to long traditions of Catholic discussion of the tragedies of the sixteenth-century reforms and of their continuance in modernity. This line of thinking is in fact the marker of late-modern Catholic intellectual life. In my “Medieval Modernisms” graduate seminar at Fordham, for instance, the question is not whether nineteenth- and twentieth-century Catholics viewed the Reformation and what followed in terms of decay, but more specifically how and why, and in what manner they attempted to recuperate those elements of pre-modern Christianity that had been lost.

Situating Gregory’s book within this richly-populated community highlights an aspect of Gregory’s project not yet discussed by the rapidly multiplying critical reviews of the text. With this twentieth-century European Catholic scholarly tradition as a backdrop, it appears all the more remarkable that Gregory did not follow its lead in thinking through the role of Christianity’s relationship to non-Christian religions in the making of modernity. Modern civilization, including secularization and consumerism, is incomprehensible when defined as a debate between Protestants and Catholics alone. Christians’ encounters with religious others shaped their own self-understanding in the early modern period and beyond, and the interactions between religiously diverse people must be central to any genealogy of our present. These encounters—sometimes violent, sometimes deeply humane—between Catholics and Jews, between missionaries and those they met on the frontier, between the orientalists and their archives, have to be at the center (or at least included somewhere!) of any analysis of the Christian roots of contemporary global capitalism and consumerism. Maritain and his cohort faced this head-on. José Casanova and Saba Mahmood have leveled similar critiques at Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. In short, it is impossible to understand the historical trajectory of Christianity without understanding its contact with non-Christian others. Why does Gregory, like Taylor, bracket all of this? Had he not, what difference might it have made for the conclusions of The Unintended Reformation?

John W. O’Malley’s work has shown that few areas of sixteenth-century Catholicism were more significant than the intense upheavals caused by the missionary activity that began with the Portuguese and Spanish conquests and explorations and lasted through the seventeenth century. Catholics, he argues, were not always as fixated on Protestant reforms as we tend to assume (hence his preference for the label “early modern Catholicism” rather than “the Counter-Reformation”). We know that Catholics engaged the unfamiliar peoples and traditions that they encountered on the mission field in widely divergent ways, but it is undeniable that a sense of the civilizational superiority of Christianity underwrote their missionary endeavors. This went hand in hand with European economic and political conquest throughout the world. To know about our global economic and cultural present, then, we have to take seriously the power that Christianity had to animate early modern hegemonic projects, as well as their lasting effects in terms of the unequal distribution of wealth and resources. Gregory mentions sweatshops, pollution, endemic poverty, and more, but there is no mention of Christianity’s entanglements with colonialism, and its contemporary legacy that had a lasting impact on precisely these issues.

This omission is all the more striking in that Gregory identifies the events of the Reformation (Catholic and Protestant) as “coercive, persecutory, and violent,” “catastrophically destructive,” and an “unintended disaster that has fundamentally shaped the subsequent course of Western history.” But by framing the violence as having been limited to a doctrinal struggle between Catholics and Protestants, he seems to suggest that, had Catholics been left to themselves and had the reformers never cracked their metaphysical unity, things would never have gotten so out of hand. We know, however, from the countless tragic stories of violence and coercion on the mission field in this same period that the Reformation did not animate all early modern Catholic violence. Furthermore, this kind of coercive Catholicism, the exertion of the Church’s will on non-Catholics, also had to do with their ongoing negotiation with Jews and Judaism that went on throughout Christian history, enduring well into the twentieth century. Consider, for example, Georges Sorel’s fantasies of the uncorrupted Latin roots of medieval Christendom, which shored up authoritarian attempts to purge Europe of difference. The decision of “medieval modernists” like Sorel’s friend Maritain to dedicate their lives to undoing this kind of coercive Catholicism and its assertion of its own superiority, especially in relation to Judaism, represents a major change and a crucial chapter in the history Catholicism and the making of modernity.

An honest appraisal of Christianity’s relationships with other religious traditions would also have helped add to Gregory’s otherwise compelling and thought-provoking analysis of the Netherlands. He claims that the Netherlands was the first nation to calm the doctrinal disputes of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and that it did so by staying out of them. By not establishing a state church, the Netherlands encouraged people instead to share in a will to be industrious and to prosper, regardless of religious convictions. This quieted the conflicts and was “good for business.” The quest for more and more material things encouraged people to discipline themselves (the “industrious revolution”) and pursue happiness through the acquisition of personal belongings, bracketing, and eventually ignoring, religious difference. The sin of avarice was recast as the virtue of self-interest. The good life came to consist in “the goods life,” the industrial capitalism and contemporary consumerism that today hold together ideologically and theologically divided individuals. I loved this part of Gregory’s book. But to gain a fuller picture of the story, we must acknowledge that that the Netherlands in the early modern period was a refuge for Jews who, expelled from Spain and Portugal, could openly practice their religion there. Many Jewish families, like Spinoza’s ancestors, fled there after the Edict of Toleration was issued in 1579. Keeping this in mind gives us a more complicated picture of what exactly was at stake and for whom, at the time and in subsequent centuries. There are times when Gregory’s analysis seems to suggest that the doctrinal disputes that play a central role in his account were not necessary, that they need not have happened, though they did; but if we think about all of the others with whom Christians were negotiating at the time, this is a harder stance to take.

I suspect that Gregory does not want to discuss Christianity’s encounter with religious others, particularly those that were violent and coercive, because this would steer his narrative in precisely the wrong direction: that of seeing Christianity as the source of all that is oppressive and backwards, and of waiting, so to speak, for the bright light of secular modernity to come and clear things up. This is precisely the teleology that he wants to avoid. I agree with him (as do many others) on this completely; we cannot lean only on these old progressive models of secular history, but there are more than these two options available.

To find another path, perhaps like the one that Adrian Pabst yearns for in his own review, we again have to consider Christianity’s relations with others. To go back to the early modern era, scholars such as Guy Stoumsa have shown that some sixteenth-century missionaries, like the Jesuit José de Acosta and the Dominican Bartolomé de las Casas, were less coercive than most of their contemporaries. They spent most of their time in the mission field chronicling the languages and religious texts and practices of the cultures that they encountered. Although not perfect, these Catholic priests laid some of the groundwork for later developments in comparative religion, paving the way for a multicultural thinking that is not merely tolerant of or indifferent to religious difference, as Gregory tells it, but profoundly interested in learning about and from traditions different from one’s own. This tradition of humanistic learning rooted in the mission field and later developments in orientalism also suggest an alternative to the “hyperpluralism” that Gregory believes leads to a life dedicated to shopping alone. Even on the Protestant side, Denise Spellberg’s new book on Thomas Jefferson has shown that his fascination with Islamic law, religion, and culture prompted him to include Muslims in his liberal vision of American citizenship. Later, Jacques Maritain’s good friend, the Dominican theologian Georges Anawati, would found the famous Dominican École Biblique in Cairo, a center where the study of Islam could be pursued without any ulterior interest in proselytization. Another recuperative project occupied certain medievalists, such as Marie-Therese d’Alverny, who dedicated their lives to exploring the interactions between medieval Islamic and Christian scholars, a pursuit through which they sought to bring to light the history of a more pluralistic, tolerant Europe.

Doesn’t this kind of commitment to humanistic inquiry, the use of comparative theology to cross chasms of difference, run counter to both apathy and a life of pure “acquisitiveness” in which all that matters is shopping? There is a robust counter-history to the one that Gregory tells. Indeed, the positive efforts to resist the determinative grip of consumerism are constantly cast aside in his text. Not only humanistic learning, but even human rights offer Gregory no hope: “Human rights cannot serve as a stable shared basis for morality in a society riven by fundamental disagreement about what ‘human’ means, as is apparent from the abortion debate.” His inspiration, Jacques Maritain, would disagree. Maritain played a key role in the drafting of and promotion of human rights in the postwar period. He believed that faith, despite religious and cultural “hyperpluralism” (Gregory’s term), enabled people to work together for the common good. Later in life, Maritain commended and supported friends of all different ideological persuasions in their work on behalf of human dignity. His correspondence with the secular Jewish organizer Saul Alisnky testifies to his capacity to cross difference for political and social projects promoting human rights.

Gregory refuses all of these counter-narratives: human rights, humanistic inquiry into religious difference, and the stories of all of the American and European men and women who have dedicated their lives, not to shopping, but to combating the dehumanizing effects of capitalism—who have led the fights for maternity leave, social security, the creation of the welfare program, unionization, and so on. Yet Gregory’s sense of failure and despair connects with something that I deeply admire about the social thought of European Catholicism. Maritain and his colleagues claimed that it was an ethical imperative never to avert one’s eyes from the darker aspects of human history: if one avoids them, one can never effectively struggle against them. (Maritain’s godfather Léon Bloy said that humans wore a “frightful mask” to hide from just this.) And Gregory is good on this score. He raises ethically powerful critiques of our society—a society in which in which we are “spared from having to see the workers who make [our] stuff and the factory conditions in which they toil”—and makes visible its darker underpinnings. Even so, this almost exclusive attention to failure is also a profound liability. It can generate a politics of apathy that casts aspersions on humanity and drains all possible solutions of their power. In paying attention to Christianity’s encounters with religious and cultural others, we see sources of greater humanity and hope for the future, as well as an even darker story of Catholicism’s own entanglements in the violence of global capitalism. We, as historians, must begin to acknowledge those others with whom Christians were constantly negotiating—in their archives, in their fantasies, in the mission field, and as friends. We will never understand Christianity’s path into modernity without them.

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