Ever since the sexual-abuse crisis erupted in the U.S. Roman Catholic Church in the mid-1980s, with allegations of child molestation by priests, commentators have regularly compared the problems faced by the Church to those it faced in Europe at the start of the sixteenth century, on the eve of the Protestant Reformation—problems that included sexual laxity and financial malfeasance among the clergy, and clerical contempt for the interests of the laity. Calls for change have become increasingly urgent since January, when revelations of widespread sexual misconduct and grossly negligent responses to it emerged prominently in the Boston archdiocese. Similar, if less dramatic, problems have been brought to light in New Orleans, Providence, Palm Beach, Omaha, and many other dioceses. The reform agendas now under discussion within the U.S. hierarchy involve ideas about increased lay participation in governance—ideas of the sort heard when Martin Luther confronted the Roman Catholic orthodoxy of his day. They also include such ideas as admitting women to the priesthood and permitting priests to marry.
Explicit analogies to the Reformation have become commonplace not only among commentators but also among anticlerical activists, among victims' groups, and, significantly, among ordinary lay believers. One representative expert on sexual misconduct, much quoted, is Richard Sipe, a former monk who worked at the sexual-disorders clinic at Johns Hopkins University and is now a psychotherapist based in California. Over the years Sipe has spoken regularly of "a new Reformation." "We are at 1515," he has written, "between when Martin Luther went to Rome in 1510 and 1517 when he nailed his 95 theses on the door in Wittenberg." That act can reasonably be seen as the symbolic starting point of the Reformation, when a united Christendom was rent asunder.
Historians continue to debate the causes and consequences of the Reformation, and of the forces that it unleashed. Among other things, the Reformation broke the fetters that constrained certain aspects of intellectual life during the Middle Ages. Protestants, of course, honor the event as the source of their distinctive religious traditions; many Protestant denominations celebrate Reformation Day, at the end of October, commemorating the posting of the theses at Wittenberg. And liberal Catholics invoke the word these days to emphasize the urgency of reform—changes both broad and specific that they demand from the Church. Their view is that the crisis, which exposes fault lines of both sexuality and power, is the most serious the Church has faced in 500 years—as serious as the one it faced in Luther's time.
The first Reformation was an epochal moment in the history of the Western world—and eventually, by extension, of the rest of the world. The status quo in religious affairs was brought to an end. Relations between religions and governments, not to mention among different denominations, took a variety of forms—sometimes symbiotic, often chaotic and violent. The transformations wrought in the human psyche by the Reformation, and by the Counter-Reformation it helped to provoke, continue to play themselves out. This complex historical episode, which is now often referred to simply as "the Reformation," touched everything. It altered not just the practice of religion but also the nature of society, economics, politics, education, and the law.
Commentators today, when speaking of the changes needed in the Catholic Church, generally do not have in mind the sweeping historical aftermath of the first Reformation—but they should. The Church has developed a fissure whose size most people do not fully appreciate. The steps that liberal Catholics would take to resolve some of the Church's urgent issues, steps that might quell unease or revolt in some places, would prove incendiary in others. The problem with reform, 500 years ago or today, is that people disagree—sometimes violently—on the direction it should take.
The fact is, we are at a moment as epochal as the Reformation itself—a Reformation moment not only for Catholics but for the entire Christian world. Christianity as a whole is both growing and mutating in ways that observers in the West tend not to see. For obvious reasons, news reports today are filled with material about the influence of a resurgent and sometimes angry Islam. But in its variety and vitality, in its global reach, in its association with the world's fastest-growing societies, in its shifting centers of gravity, in the way its values and practices vary from place to place—in these and other ways it is Christianity that will leave the deepest mark on the twenty-first century. The process will not necessarily be a peaceful one, and only the foolish would venture anything beyond the broadest predictions about the religious picture a century or two ahead. But the twenty-first century will almost certainly be regarded by future historians as a century in which religion replaced ideology as the prime animating and destructive force in human affairs, guiding attitudes to political liberty and obligation, concepts of nationhood, and, of course, conflicts and wars.
The original Reformation was far more than the rising up of irate lay people against corrupt and exploitative priests, and it was much more than a mere theological row. It was a far-reaching social movement that sought to return to the original sources of Christianity. It challenged the idea that divine authority should be mediated through institutions or hierarchies, and it denied the value of tradition. Instead it offered radical new notions of the supremacy of written texts (that is, the books of the Bible), interpreted by individual consciences. The Reformation made possible a religion that could be practiced privately, rather than mainly in a vast institutionalized community.