Every Member Ministry

Remember how the Second Vatican Council affirmed the priesthood of believers?

The baptized, by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are consecrated as a spiritual house and a holy priesthood, in order that through all those works which are those of the Christian man they may offer spiritual sacrifices and proclaim the power of Him who has called them out of darkness into His marvelous light. (Lumen Gentium 2.10)

Look where it leads:

Here is part of what the pope said:

And today Lutherans and Catholics, Protestants, all of us agree on the doctrine of justification. On this point, which is very important, he did not err.

No, no, no. Now see, this infuriates me as an apologist (and former Protestant). It is one thing to have to correct this nonsense when it comes from the late Anglican bishop Tony Palmer. But from the pope? I defend the poor man, but at times he exasperates me.

Turns out Lutherans and Roman Catholics don’t agree:

Now, it is true, that some consensus has been reached between Catholics and Lutherans on justification. But it is not at all true to say, as Pope Francis does, that we all “agree” now, as though there are no differences to speak of. And for him to say that Luther “did not err” on justification is just flat baloney.

I mean, for heaven’s sake, Luther taught justification by faith alone. The Council of Trent condemned this error. Was Trent wrong? Or was Pope Leo X wrong in Exsurge Domine?

Leo X condemned Martin Luther’s view that the sacraments give pardoning grace

Leo X condemned Martin Luther’s teaching that sin remains after baptism

Leo X condemned Martin Luther’s view that a just man sins in doing a good work

And in its Canons on Justification, the Council of Trent pronounced an anathema on the following views of Luther:

Canon 5 anathematized the view that Adam’s sin destroyed free will

Canon 7 anathematized the view that good works before justification are sinful

Canon 9 anathematized justification by faith alone

Canon 11 anathematized imputed righteousness

Canon 25 anathematized the view that good works are venial sins even for the just man

There are important differences between Protestants and Catholics, and ecumenism is of no use if we don’t treat them honestly. We can’t just pretend they are not there and wish them away. If Luther “did not err,” did the Church err? Should we all become Protestants?

Trent was right; Leo X was right. Luther did indeed err; and in this particular statement, so did Pope Francis. I love Pope Francis; he’s my Father; but no, no, no. He was wrong.

Move over papal audacity. Say hello to lay audacity.

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You Can’t Claim the Reformation and the First Gross (think German) Awakening

While the Gospel Allies put on the mantle of Luther — LUTHER!!! (that antinomian, beer drinking, potty mouth) — they should really be reading Garry Wills on the problem with evangelicalism. As I’ve been trying to say for some time, revivalism is antithetical to reformation. The church (as in reform the church) matters to Luther and Calvin. The parachurch is at the heart of revivals and the Gospel Coalition. To that end, consider the following:

Evangelicalism tends to break out of any single denomination—think of the preachers from various bodies at Cane Ridge. It is fissiparous even in its most favorable environments—think of Methodism branching into the Disciples of Christ, the Holiness Movement, the African Methodist Episcopal Church. (Whitefield, it should be remembered, was an ordained Anglican.) Evangelicalism is a style—Mark Noll calls it a “value system.” It can affect even some “high church” bodies or members. There are Pentecostalists among Roman Catholics. (Phyllis Schlafly, it should be remembered, was a Catholic, as Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon are. Bannon showed his allegiance in his 2014 Skype address to the Institute for Human Dignity at the Vatican.)

Given this description of evangelical style, two things should be noticed. America is, or likes to think of itself as, a “do-it-yourself democracy.” Many of the traits I have been listing are ones Americans will fancy themselves as embodying (or wanting to). People who hit the sawdust trail are working a kind of do-it-yourself salvation. The credentialing by the people is what all presidents claim. No wonder Noll thinks of evangelical religion (despite its roots in Wesley’s England) as native to America, as giving America its most recognizable God. Calvin said God “elects” his chosen ones. In America we choose to elect our leaders. The crowd credentials the preacher. Historians rightly observe that our national political conventions have borrowed elements from revivals.

The Allies should be especially mindful, as the crowds gather this week that “crowds credential preachers.”

How to Observe Reformation

If you are Roman Catholic, forget Martin Luther and remember Thomas More:

We should not celebrate the Reformation, because we cannot celebrate the defense of erroneous conscience held up against the authority of the Church. As St. Thomas More rightly said in his “Dialogue on Conscience,” taken down by his daughter Meg: “But indeed, if on the other side a man would in a matter take away by himself upon his own mind alone, or with some few, or with never so many, against an evident truth appearing by the common faith of Christendom, this conscience is very damnable.” He may have had Luther in mind.

More did not stand on his own private interpretation of the faith, but rested firmly on the authority of Christendom and, as Chesterton put it, the democracy of the dead: “But go we now to them that are dead before, and that are I trust in heaven, I am sure that it is not the fewer part of them that all the time while they lived, thought in some of the things, the way that I think now.”

More is a crucial example of standing firm in a rightly formed conscience. We should remember why he died and not let his witness remain in vain. He stood on the ground of the Church’s timeless teaching, anchored in Scripture and the witness of the saints. If we divorce conscience from authority, we will end in moral chaos. As Cardinal Ratzinger asked in his lucid work, On Conscience: “Does God speak to men in a contradictory manner? Does He contradict Himself? Does He forbid one person, even to the point of martyrdom, to do something that He allows or even requires of another?” These are crucial questions we must face.

Rather than celebrating the defender of erroneous conscience, let’s remember and invoke the true martyr of conscience, who died upholding the unity of the faith.

But, if you’re Roman Catholic, you follow the pope, right?

In light of the current controversy on conscience, it is troubling that Luther is now upheld as genuine reformer. The most troubling is from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in its Resources for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and throughout the year 2017: “Separating that which is polemical from the theological insights of the Reformation, Catholics are now able to hear Luther’s challenge for the Church of today, recognising him as a ‘witness to the gospel’ (From Conflict to Communion 29). And so after centuries of mutual condemnations and vilification, in 2017 Lutheran and Catholic Christians will for the first time commemorate together the beginning of the Reformation.” The Vatican also announced a commemorative stamp (which to me sounds like the United States issuing a stamp commemorating the burning the White House by British troops).

Pope Francis has spoken of Luther several times in the past year, including in an inflight press conference returning from Armenia: “I think that the intentions of Martin Luther were not mistaken. He was a reformer. Perhaps some methods were not correct.” In response I ask, what did Luther reform? Francis pointed to two things in his journey to Sweden. The Reformation “helped give greater centrality to sacred scripture in the Church’s life,” but it did so by advocating the flawed notion of sola scriptura. Francis also pointed to Luther’s concept of sola gratia, which “reminds us that God always takes the initiative, prior to any human response, even as he seeks to awaken that response.” While the priority of God’s initiative is true and there are similarities to Catholic teaching in this teaching (that faith is a free gift that cannot be merited), Luther denied our cooperation with grace, our ability to grow in sanctification and merit, and that we fall from grace through mortal sin. Francis also noted, while speaking to an ecumenical delegation from Finland: “In this spirit, we recalled in Lund that the intention of Martin Luther 500 years ago was to renew the Church, not divide Her.” Most recently he spoke of how we now know “how to appreciate the spiritual and theological gifts that we have received from the Reformation.”

Doesn’t the magisterium know more and better than Dr. R. Jared Staudt?

That Was Then

Here‘s why the church excommunicated Luther almost five centuries ago:

1. Separation of justification from sanctification.
2. Extrinsic, forensic, imputed justification.
3. Fiduciary faith.
4. Private judgment over against ecclesial infallibility.
5. Rejection of seven deuterocanonical books.
6. Denial of venial sin.
7. Denial of merit.
8. Sola Scriptura and radically private judgment: “if we are all priests . . . why should we not also have the power to test and judge what is right or wrong in matters of faith?”
9. Denial that the pope has the right to call a council.
10. Only justified men can do good works.
11. Denial of the sacrament of ordination.
12. Denial of exclusively priestly absolution. Anyone in the Christian community can grant absolution.
13. God has not instituted the office of bishop.
14. God has not instituted the office of the papacy.
15. Priests have no special, indelible character.
16. Temporal authorities have power over the Church; even bishops and popes: “The pope should have no authority over the emperor”.
17. Vows of celibacy are wrong and should be abolished.
18. Denial of papal infallibility.
19. Unrighteous priests or popes lose their authority.
20. The keys of the kingdom were not just given to Peter.
21. Private judgment of every individual to determine matters of faith.
22. Denial that the pope has the right to confirm a council.
23. Denial that the Church has the right to demand celibacy of certain callings.
24. God has not instituted the vocation of monk
25. Feast days should be abolished.
26. Fasts should be strictly optional.
27. Canonization of saints is thoroughly corrupt and should stop.
28. Confirmation is not a sacrament.
29. Indulgences should be abolished.
30. Dispensations should be abolished.
31. Philosophy (Aristotle as prime example) is an unsavory, detrimental influence on Christianity.
32. Transubstantiation is “a monstrous idea.”
33. The Church cannot institute sacraments.
34. Denial that the Mass is a good work.
35. Denial that the Mass is a true sacrifice.
36. Denial of the sacramental notion of ex opere operato.
37. Denial that penance is a sacrament.
38. Assertion that the Catholic Church had “completely abolished” the practice of penance.
39. Claim that the Church had abolished faith as an aspect of penance.
40. Denial of apostolic succession.
41. Any layman who can should call a general council.
42. Penitential works are worthless.
43. The seven sacraments lack any biblical proof.
44. Marriage is not a sacrament.
45. Annulments are a senseless concept and the Church has no right to grant them.
46. Whether divorce is allowable is an open question.
47. Divorced persons should be allowed to remarry.
48. Jesus allowed divorce when one partner committed adultery.
49. The priest’s daily office is “vain repetition.”
50. Extreme unction is not a sacrament (the only two sacraments are baptism and the Eucharist).

What about now?

If Lutheran teachings and practices don’t result in excommunication today, it likely has something to do with situations like this:

“Life is full of ambiguity”, Cardinal Cupich said, but the “important thing is to bring an attitude of discernment to a situation.” He then referred to a “wonderful article” by Professor Rocco Buttiglione in L’Osservatore Romano some months ago, “who situated historically that document in terms of the ongoing development of the teaching of the Church.” (Professor Buttiglione’s essay has since been refuted).

He ended by saying “there are enough voices out there in which the Holy Father doesn’t have to in any way have to defend a teaching document of the Church. It’s up to those who have doubts and questions to have conversion in their lives.”

Controversial passages never passed

But defenders of the Dubia argue that Cardinal Cupich’s comment that the controversial propositions in question were “voted on by two-thirds of the bishops” is especially problematic.

It is often forgotten, they point out, that despite the strenuous efforts by the Synod secretariat and others to manipulate and jostle the synod fathers into accepting the most controversial propositions (allegations detailed in my book The Rigging of a Vatican Synod?), none of the three most controversial propositions managed to obtain a two-thirds majority during the first, Extraordinary Synod on the Family, in October 2014.

One of them was a proposition relating to the “Kasper proposal” of admitting the divorced and remarried to holy Communion after a period of penitence. That failed to pass, and only a proposition calling for “careful reflection and respectful accompaniment” of remarried divorcees made it through.

Under such circumstances, they would normally therefore have been rejected.

In spite of this, the Pope controversially broke with custom, which he can do, and authoritatively insisted that all three rejected proposition be kept in the document, thereby enabling them to be carried over into the working document for the Ordinary Synod on the Family the following year.

Not to worry, the more ambiguity, the more it’s the church Christ founded. If only the consequences for souls dependent on faithful ministers of the gospel and reliable expositors of sacred mysteries were so ambiguous.

Protestantism as Trump

While Pope Francis is commemorating Martin Luther in Sweden, Karl Keating is doing what apologists do — deriding Protestantism:

We commemorate December 7, the “day that will live in infamy,” because it was the prelude to a long and costly war. Again, there was heroism, but we wish that heroism had never needed to be called up.

We commemorate Bastille Day and the October Revolution not because what came from them, the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution, were good but precisely because they were evil, and we want to remember that evil so that it won’t return in another guise. . . .

I see nothing to celebrate in the Protestant Reformation. It was the greatest disaster the West suffered over the last millennium. It brought theological confusion, political turmoil, and decades of war. The religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries killed about three percent of the world’s population, the same proportion that died in World War II. The religious wars would not have occurred had the Reformation not occurred.

But unlike the critics of Trump, Keating acknowledges that the other candidate has problems:

Much was wrong in the Catholic Church of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Personal morality was lax (though not matching today’s laxity), and corruption was widespread among the clergy and was particularly scandalous the higher one’s gaze went up the hierarchical ladder. One should keep in mind, though, that, however bad things were in the decades before Luther took out his hammer, they had been worse in the tenth century. If there were a few “bad popes” in Luther’s era, there were worse popes, and more of them, five or six centuries earlier.

The Church of the tenth century desperately needed reform, not revolution, though it might have fallen into the latter if reform hadn’t come about. But reform did come about, and the Church not only soldiered on but prospered. The result was the High Middle Ages, the era in which Catholic principles most effectively (but still inadequately) undergirded Western society.

By the turn of the 1500s a once-again-complacent Christendom was in trouble. It again needed reform, but what it got was the Reformation.

What Keating doesn’t answer is whether his communion ever experienced reform, or if his very different interpretation of the Reformation compared to Pope Francis is another indication that calls for reform, like the poor, are always with us.

Nothing Could Possibly Go Wrong

Didn’t the Reformation start with objections to the cash nexus between grace and financial contributions? So how much did the Council of Trent reform ecclesiastical abuses in the light of recent announcements about new criteria for becoming a saint?

To approve a miracle, at least 5 out of the 7 members of the body of medical experts within the congregation must approve, or 4 out of 6, depending on the size of the group, as opposed to a simple majority.

In case a miracle report is rejected on the first go-around, it may only be reexamined a total of three times.

In order to reexamine a miracle claim, new members must be named to the consulting body.

The president of the consulting body may only be confirmed to one additional five-year term after the original mandate expires.

While in the past payments to experts could be made in person by cash or check, now the experts must be paid exclusively through a bank transfer.

I don’t know about you, but my impression of the miraculous is that if part of a group of believers thinks an unusual event was not miraculous, then it probably was not. Generally speaking, the works of God are pretty straight forward to those with eyes of faith (questions about ongoing miracles notwithstanding). And do we really need science to tell validate a miracle? Isn’t faith sufficient?

But the kicker is the financial aspect to these policy changes:

In his book “Merchants in the Temple,” Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi charged the congregation was among the most reluctant Vatican offices to cooperate with new transparency measures imposed as part of Francis’s project of Vatican reform, and asserted that the average cost of a sainthood cause was about $550,000.

U.S. Catholic officials traditionally have used $250,000 as a benchmark for the cost of a cause from the initial investigation on a diocesan level, to a canonization Mass in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, though that cost can increase depending in part of how many people take part in the canonization ceremony and the logistics of organizing the event.

In March, Pope Francis had already approved a new set of financial procedures for the congregation, outlining procedures for handling contributions and specifying which authorities are charged with overseeing the flow of money.

Also notice that even though the path to sainthood has become more — let’s say — complicated, those already saints stay saints:

The new rules are not retroactive, and hence they do not invalidate any beatifications or canonizations performed under earlier procedures.

Fulton Sheen’s advocates are no doubt disappointed.

For any apologist out there, this is the sort of thing that makes no sense to a Protestant (and is truly audacious). We do concede that sainthood can be bought. The price that Jesus paid with his precious blood is worth more than all the silver and gold you can put in a Vatican bank safe. So yes, there is a payment for sanctity. But it is entirely beyond the economic calculations of this world.

One might think that after five hundred years, Roman Catholic bishops might have learned that lesson.

Ecclesiastical Upgrade

Kathy Schiffer summarizes the most recent batch of reflections by evangelical converts to Rome. Here are the main reasons:

The contributors to Evangelical Exodus were influenced by diverse factors, notably the biblical canon, Christian orthodoxy, and the two concerns most frequently cited by Protestants: sola scriptura (all truth can be found in the Scriptures) and sola fide (man is saved by faith alone). Doug also named Beauty as one of the factors which led him and his fellow seminarians to a new appreciation for the Catholic Church. “In Protestantism,” Doug said, “there’s a tendency to dismiss any reason other than the intellectual. But as human beings, we’re both physical and spiritual creatures. In the Catholic Church, he found, intellect and reason are respected; but the Catholic Church is also more beautiful and more historical. There is an attractive package which draws the spirit, combining art and music and beauty, a long history, and tradition, with solid intellectual arguments.”

When Martin Luther broke with the church, he feared for his soul. He worried about his sins. He needed an alien righteousness to cover his transgressions which haunted him everywhere he went.

Why do Protestants who go to Rome never seem to sense the spiritual angst that motivated Luther? They’ve gone to a church that teaches if you die in mortal sin you risk going to hell. They now are in a communion where mortal and venial sins are numerous and the prospects of purgatory are real. But these “converted” folks seem to operate with the assumption that they were already “saved” as a Protestant but now have found a better version of Christianity, like going from Windows 8 to Windows 10, from Bill Hybels to John Paul II.

Give Protestants credit. We worry about salvation. We learned that worry from the church in Rome. Where did that worry go on the other side of the Tiber? It seemed to get lost in the efforts to preserve Christendom, the papal states, the West, and to win the culture wars.

Why Did Christ Die?

Was it because sin is so heinous or because humans need a cosmic flannel graph to illustrate God’s displeasure over sin (I don’t think he is weeping about it)? Machen thinks the former:

The atoning death of Christ, and that alone, has presented sinners as righteous in God’s sight; the Lord Jesus has paid the full penalty of their sins, and clothed them with His perfect righteousness before the judgment seat of God. But Christ has done for Christians even far more than that. He has given to them not only a new and right relation to God, but a new life in God’s presence for evermore. He has saved them from the power as well as from the guilt of sin. The New Testament does not end with the death of Christ; it does not end with the triumphant words of Jesus on the Cross, “It is finished.” The death was followed by the resurrection, and the resurrection like the death was for our sakes. Jesus rose from the dead into a new life of glory and power, and into that life He brings those for whom He died. The Christian, on the basis of Christ’s redeeming work, not only has died unto sin, but also lives unto God. (Christianity and Liberalism)

But what if God can change you apart from the death and resurrection of Christ?

In the midst of this crisis, (that went on for more than a year,) I came across the teaching of Martin Luther and his followers, who, when confronted with the same apparently insoluble problem, issued a ruling that was, essentially, against God. Human nature was hopelessly corrupt, top to bottom and god Himself has no power to alter it. They described the human soul as a dung heap, over which the grace of God falls like a deep covering of snow, that changes nothing of the underlying corruption.

This nauseating and plainly wicked doctrine – essentially nihilistic – so infuriated me that I realized in a flash that it was an insult, not to me in my failings, but to God’s infinite perfection and power. My very fury at this insult made me understand at last what the Church had always held: that it is not my power, but the power of God that will change me into this “perfect” new thing. This promise was true, and it had much more to do with Him than with me.

If God can change us, why would he need to send his son to die on the cross?

But if Machen and Luther are right about the extent of sin and the irredeemable character of fallen humans apart from an alien righteousness imputed to them and received by faith, then what incentives do people have to be good?

We cannot “earn” God’s love but, alas, too often we reject it. And it is up to us to use the gifts God has given to us—including our inherent rationality as well as the Church and the aids to faith and reason it provides—to orient ourselves to the good. Through hard work we can develop our character (habits of virtue or vice that go far toward determining who we are) such that we will recognize and say “yes” to God’s will. The saint does not achieve salvation through mere right conduct, but the saint’s conduct, both spiritual and physical, help him to surrender fully to God and do His will. In doing the right thing for the right reason we orient ourselves toward what is right and thereby recognize and accept God.

. . . Good works help develop within us habits that enable us to distinguish between good and evil; good works make it more likely that we will choose the good, even when it brings with it pain and death. This, I submit, is not some prideful claim to earning one’s own salvation, but rather a recognition of both the dignity and the weakness of the human person. We have within us an impulse toward the good, which we too often ignore. We have written on our hearts a knowledge of God’s will, which we also too often ignore. By both thinking and doing right we can embrace the good, opening ourselves to the grace offered by God—who is beyond our full knowledge but who has created within us a soul capable of recognizing His will.

If we have goodness, or an openness to the good within us, why exactly did Christ have to die?

Somethings don’t develop or change. Christianity doesn’t make humanism Christian.

My Jaws Just Got Tighter

A few days ago, Terry Mattingly, of gotcha journalism fame, mocked the Washington Post for inserting a hyphen into Marco Rubio’s comments about Jesus. Here’s the quotation:

For the next few minutes, Rubio sounded more like a Sunday school teacher than a presidential candidate holding an early January town hall. He talked about John the Baptist, he referred to Jesus as “God-made man,” and he explained his yearning to share “eternity with my creator.”

Mattingly thinks that hyphen shows how little the Washington Post’s reporters know about Nicene Christianity (even though without the hyphen it the phrase “God made man” sounds strange when applied to the eternal son of God):

…for Trinitarian Christians, Jesus is not a “man,” “God-made” but, rather, “God made man” (or perhaps “God, made man”).

This may seem like rather picky stuff, and it is. However, it’s hard to name a more central doctrine in the Christian faith than the Holy Trinity. Wasn’t there someone on the Post copy desk who has taken Christianity 101, or was this simply a bad day when it came time to handle this particular piece of copy?

Now, it’s possible that the original copy for this story actually stated that Rubio “referred to Jesus as ‘God – made man’ ” and that turned into you know what?

So, will the heretical hyphen simply vanish in the online version of this story? Here is hoping that the Post editors actually do the right thing and, perhaps with the help of someone at the Catholic University of America, produce a correction. I cannot wait to read it.

Applying that logic to the church instead of newspapers, what does Mr. Mattingly think about Pope Francis’ decision to celebrate the Protestant Reformation (posted by Rod Dreher)?

Nearly 500 years ago, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of a German church, beginning the Protestant Reformation that led millions to break with the Roman Catholic Church and ushered in more than a century of conflict and war.

On Monday, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis will participate in a joint Lutheran-Catholic worship service in Sweden this October, kicking off a series of events planned for 2017 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

The effort to mend relations with Protestants has been on the agenda of many popes before Francis, but it is a delicate endeavor. The worship service in Sweden was billed by its sponsors, the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation, as a “commemoration,” not as a “celebration,” in order to avoid any inappropriate note of triumphalism. Some Catholics have criticized the notion of a pope celebrating the anniversary of a schism.

Some of those Roman Catholics who object to Lutheranism almost as much as the Obedience Boys do say this about the pope’s recent warming up to Lutherans:

According to Edward Pentin, a group of Lutheran pilgrims were given communion in St. Peter’s Basilica itself this week. What is significant here is that communion was offered to them unilaterally by the celebrants of the Mass — the Lutherans themselves were expecting to receive only a blessing, and the celebrants knew they were not Catholics.

It is scarcely possible that this happened without the knowledge of the Basilica authorities. Are we now seeing the practical effects of Francis’ ambivalent words on holy communion for Lutherans?

You would also think that if you knew your Canons of Trent the way Mattingly expects the Post’s reporters to know the Nicene Creed or the way we might expect the pope to know conciliar teaching, you wouldn’t be all that ready to celebrate Martin Luther. After all, Luther not only disobeyed the magisterium, but was inhuman:

Before the bar of every rational and decent person, does Luther not convict himself of utter inhumanity?

Before the bar of all that is reasonable in moral exhortation – from parental to educational to civil and criminal, does he not convict himself of a crime against all law? Is he, therefore, anarchical?

Before the bar of Catholic Dogma, supreme criterion on earth of what we know is and is not part of and/or in harmony with the Deposit of Faith, does he not convict himself of heresy?

Before the God whom we ought to honor, to whom we ought to ascribe only what is good and true and fitting, does he not convict himself of great blasphemies, greater even than the Gnostics who first attempted to ruin the Church? For the Gnostics distinguished two gods, one good and one evil. Does not Luther add to the evil by subtracting from the number of Gods, folding that Evil, which all right reason and right faith and common decency vomit out as execrable, into the one God?

So why would a Roman Catholic pontiff make amends with a church (a liberal one at that) started by such a person as Luther? And why wouldn’t Mattingly apply the same standards to Rome as he does to Washington?

Those Were The Days

Makes you wonder why some want more religion in politics or why others object to Luther’s meager efforts at reform:

On Sunday May 9, 1527, an army descending from Lombardy reached the Janiculum. The Emperor, Charles V, enraged at Pope Clement VII’s political alliance with his adversary, the King of France, Francis I, had moved an army against the capital of Christendom. That evening the sun set for the last time on the dazzling beauties of Renaissance Rome. About 20,000 men, Italians, Spaniards and Germans, among whom were the Landsknecht mercenaries, of the Lutheran faith, were preparing to launch an attack on the Eternal City. Their commander had given them license to sack the city. All night long the warning bell of Campidoglio rang out calling the Romans to arms, but it was already too late to improvise an effective defense. At dawn on the 6th of May, favoured by a thick fog, the Landsknechts launched an assault on the walls, between St. Onofrio and Santo Spirito.

The Swiss Guards lined up around the Vatican Obelisk, resolute in their vow to remain faithful unto death. The last of them sacrificed their lives at the high altar in St. Peter’s Basilica. Their resistance allowed the Pope along with some cardinals the chance of escape. Across the Passetto di Borgo, the connecting road between the Vatican and Castel Sant’Angelo, Clement VII reached the fortress, the only bastion left against the enemy. From the height of the terraces, the Pope witnessed the terrible slaughter which initiated with the massacre of those who were crowding around the gates of the Castle looking for refuge, while the sick of Santo Spirito Hospital in Sassia were massacred, pierced by spears and swords.

This unlimited license to steal and kill lasted eight days and the occupation of the city nine months. We read in a Veneto account of May 10, 1527, reported by Ludwig von Pastor “Hell is nothing in comparison with the appearance Rome currently presents” (The History of Popes, Desclée, Rome 1942m, vol. IV, 2, p.261). The religious were the main victims of the Landsknechts’ fury. Cardinals’ palaces were plundered, churches profaned, priests and monks killed or made slaves, nuns raped and sold at markets. Obscene parodies of religious ceremonies were seen, chalices for Mass were used to get drunk amidst blasphemies, Sacred Hosts were roasted in a pan and fed to animals, the tombs of saints were violated, heads of the Apostles, such as St. Andrew, were used for playing football on the streets. A donkey was dressed up in ecclesiastical robes and led to the altar of a church. The priest who refused to give it Communion was hacked to pieces. The City was outraged in its religious symbols and in its most sacred memories”. (see also André Chastel, The Sack of Rome, Einaudi, Turin, 1983; Umberto Roberto, Roma capta. The Sack of the City from the Gauls to the Landsknechts, Laterza, Bari 2012).

Clement VII, of the Medici family, had paid no attention to his predecessor, Hadrian VI’s appeal for a radical reform of the Church. Martin Luther had been spreading his heresies for ten years, but the Roman Papal States continued to be immersed in relativism and hedonism. Not all Romans though were corrupt and effeminate, as the historian Gregorovius seems to believe. Not corrupt, were the nobles Giulio Vallati, Giambattista Savelli and Pierpaolo Tebaldi who hoisted a flag with the insignia “Pro Fide et Patria” and held the last heroic stance at Ponte Sisto. and neither were the students at Capranica College, who hastened to Santo Spirito and died defending the Pope in danger.

It is to that mass slaughter, the Roman ecclesiastical Institute owes its name “Almo”. Clement VII survived and governed the Church until 1534, confronting the Anglican schism following the Lutheran one, but witnessing the sack of the City and being powerless to do anything, was for him, much harder than death itself.

On October 17, 1528, the imperial troops abandoned a city in ruins. A Spanish eyewitness gives us a terrifying picture of the City a month after the Sack: “In Rome, the capital of Christendom, not one bell is ringing, the churches are not open, Mass is not being said and there are no Sundays nor feast days. The rich merchant shops are used as horse stables, the most splendid palaces are devastated, many houses burnt, in others the doors and windows broken up and taken away, the streets transformed into dung-heaps. The stench of cadavers is horrible: men and beasts have the same burials; in churches I saw bodies gnawed at by dogs. I don’t know how else to compare this, other than to the destruction of Jerusalem. Now I recognize the justice of God, who doesn’t forget even if He arrives late. In Rome all sins were committed quite openly: sodomy, simony, idolatry, hypocrisy and deceit; thus we cannot believe that this all happened by chance; but for Divine justice”. (L. von Pastor, History of Popes, cit. p. 278).

Pope Clement VII commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, conceivably to immortalize the dramas the Church had undergone during those years. Everyone understood that it was a chastisement from Heaven. There were no lack of premonitory warnings: lightening striking the Vatican and the appearance of a hermit, Brandano da Petroio, venerated by the crowds as “Christ’s Madman”, who, on Holy Thursday 1527, while Clement VII was blessing the crowds in St. Peter’s shouted: “sodomite bastard, for your sins Rome will be destroyed. Confess and convert, for in 14 days the wrath of God will fall upon you and the City.”

The year before, at the end of August, the Christian army had been defeated by the Ottomans on the field of Mohacs. The Hungarian King, Louis II Jagiellon died in battle and Suleiman the Magnificent’s army occupied Buda. The Islamic wave in Europe seemed unstoppable.

Yet, the hour of chastisement was, as always, the hour of mercy. The men of the Church understood how foolishly they had followed the allurements of pleasures and power. After the terrible Sack, life changed profoundly. The pleasure-seeking Rome of the Renaissance turned into the austere and penitent Rome of the Counter-Reformation.

Shrugs only go so far.