Almost 499 years ago a German monk posted his grievances with the state of the Church. The fallout led to a fracturing of Western Christianity, thousands of sects, and religious wars whose wounds still aren’t healed. As Protestantism reaches its 500th anniversary, I want to look at how we got here. One of my earliest steps toward Catholicism was the belief that Christianity is not meant to be so fractured. And while I certainly think most Protestants are Christian, I think they are missing out on the fullness of the faith—the sacraments, the history, the rooted understanding, the universality. I am standing at a window in a warm, cozy cabin, looking out at my family in an ice storm. They are dressed warm and might survive, but wouldn’t the night be better if we were all home together? Why won’t they come back in?
Understanding the causes that led to the Protestant Reformation has only left me more confused. There are so many factors. Social, political, economic, technological, and philosophical changes all seem to merge to where such a break seemed inevitable. And while my summaries will contain massive generalizations, I hope that by looking at the wider picture, that list at Wittenberg will make more sense.
It feels fruitless, but I’m committing to spending this next year praying for reunification, for the protesting to end, for the fractures to mend, for everyone to come back home. But I also want to do so with charity, to recognize the real grievances others have, and to not broadly vilify Protestant movements. This is a struggle for me, because I know many Protestants who are knowledgeable and sincere in their faith. I won’t want to dismiss their devotion or passion, but I also cannot say we’re all equal when I believe that the Church has the fullness of truth. For me, placing things in a bigger picture helps me understand the forces working in both camps and hopefully keeps me from characterizing all Protestants as sixteenth-century “pretended reformers.” So I’ve looking into the social, political, and religious scenes in Europe that led to the Reformation and the causes and consequences of the early Protestant movements.