An Unintended Reformation

On July 21, 2012, The Wall Street Journal’s Review headlined an article “The Customer As A God”.   It stated, “The move toward individual empowerment is a long, gradual revolution.  It began with the first personal computers which caught on in the 1980’s.”

Whereas this may be true in so far as technology is concerned, there is a long pre-history of human beings trying to replace God with self.  It started with Adam and Eve.

For the modern era, however, the break with the transcendent and the secularization of society began, according to Brad S. Gregory, Associate Professor of Modern European History, at Notre Dame University, with the Protestant Reformation (1517 ff).

In The Unintended Reformation: How A Religious Revolution Secularized the World Gregory traces the philosophical, and theological effects of Protestantism which, he says,  has resulted in Western Society’s capitalist- consumerist society and state hegemony over the churches.


William of Occam (c.1287-1347)

Gregory’s story begins prior to the Reformation with two very religious philosopher-theologians and Franciscan friars, John Duns Scotus (1266-1308) and William of Occam (1285-1348).  He maintains “that Scotus’ conception of univocal placed God in the same order or type of existence as His creation. This contrasted with the traditional view of God as existence itself and laid the groundwork for His eventual exit from the world of humans.  Occam, he says, further domesticated God by holding that the “ana-logical” (not comparable to creatures) description of God, taught by the Scholastics, was indeed factual.  Thus, God became only a “being” different from other beings.  God’s power and the inscrutability of his will, Gregory says, “were within the dependable order of creation and salvation which He had in fact established.”

Any universal beliefs, according to Gregory, regarding ‘Life’s Questions’ (his preferred term for commonly acknowledged truth), came to an end with the Protestant Reformation.  The Catholic Church, once recognized as the depository of the truth pertaining to Life’s Questions lost its hegemony to sola scriptura and to individualized interpretations of the Bible.  This led to doctrinal pluralism and to multiple interpretations concerning man’s identity and purpose.

Protestants rejected the reliability of reason, since Original Sin, they claimed, made the human intellect unable to discern truth.  Modern philosophy beginning in the 17th century tried to fill in the gap with sure reason.  However, Gregory says, it failed miserably since “sola ratio like sola scriptura” yielded an ever proliferating number of truth claims, some of which eliminated God altogether.

This break with formerly agreed upon truth claims led to religious pluralism which became the source of conflict and wars. Gregory points to the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) as a watershed event which caused the state to begin to regulate religion for the sake of peace which was necessary for commerce.  It also made the state the source of human rights which, as history will attest, became relative and arbitrary. For example, many states now recognize the right of homosexuals to marry with any opposing point of view deemed to be hate speech punishable by law in Europe and Canada.

Gregory shows how it also became the prerogative of the state to determine what legitimate religious practice is.  He traces state control to the principle of cuius regio, eius religio (whose kingdom, his religion) which made the princes’ religion that of the people.  Later day extensions of this state exercise of power  is evident in the Obama Administration’s Health and Human Services Mandate (2011) which narrowly defines the exemption formerly granted to Churches for laws which conflict with their religious belief.  In this case, the state is forcing the Catholic Church to provide contraception, abortions and sterilizations in its health care plans for its employees who work for Church organizations not within the structure of the Church itself. Even more to the point is the situation in Europe where a ruling by a judge in Cologne, Germany criminalized circumcision, a basic religious rite of Jews and Muslims.

The society that emerged after the Reformation, according to Gregory, was quite different from the Catholic communal form of human life it was displacing.  Christianity, he says, “was radically redefined as a private and highly circumscribed matter of individual preference.”  With traditional morality and teleology (mans’ final end) no longer universally agreed upon, Gregory contends, that one’s personal happiness became paramount leading to “an all-persuasive consumerism wedded to a staunch faith in market capitalism.”   The state had to play a primary role in making this happen.  The lack of religious restraint over avarice, once taught by the Church to be a sin, he says, “has provided increasingly unencumbered, self-constructing selves with a never ending array of stuff to fuel constantly reinforced acquisitiveness as they go about their business.”

With the removal of Christianity from the political and economic realm, the final step, as Gregory sees it, has been the secularization of knowledge.  He claims that since empirical knowledge is now the only acceptable truth, religious insight into Life’s Questions is now excluded from Western Civilization’s principal institutions where knowledge is transmitted.  He says, “The irrelevance of theology to the secular disciplines is taken for granted.” This is unfortunately true not only in the secular schools but increasingly true of those which claim religious affiliation.  The present state of many of our Catholic universities and colleges will attest to this fact since many no longer integrate their religious belief into the curriculum. Even more distressing is that some Catholic educational institutions are making religious accommodations for non-Catholic students. A New York Times article, “Muslims Thrive with Catholics in College Life (9-3-12. p. 1) relates how Dayton University has set aside prayer space for Muslims and an ablution room for pre-prayer washing.  It certainly seems that tolerance has triumphed over truth!

Gregory provides us with an indictment of Protestantism.   He shows us how the elimination of Catholic truth and its concomitant communal and sacramental view of life have radically compromised society’s connection with God, our fellow humans and even with ourselves.  The only conclusion one can reach is that religious freedom, which tolerates false belief, has been detrimental to society.   Gregory’s thesis forces theologians to rethink ecumenism and its desired outcomes. This book deserves careful consideration. But, it begs the question: where do we go from here?

Fr. Michael P. Orsi


Chaplain and Research Fellow at Ave Maria Law. Father Michael P. Orsi was ordained for the Diocese of Camden in 1976 and has a broad background in teaching and educational administration. Fr. Orsi has authored or co-authored four books and over 300 articles in more than 45 journals, magazines and newspapers. He has served as Assistant Chancellor, Assistant Vicar for Pastoral Services, Director of Family Life Bureau, and Coordinator of Pope John Paul II’s visit to New Jersey for the Diocese of Camden. He has also served as a member of The Institute for Genomic Research at the University of Pennsylvania and as a member of New Jersey’s Advisory Council on AIDS. Fr. Orsi holds a Doctorate in Education from Fordham University, two Master degrees in Theology from Saint Charles Seminary, and a Bachelor of Arts from Cathedral College. He is presently serving as Chaplain and Research Fellow in Law and Religion at Ave Maria School of Law, Naples, Florida. He is a member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. In 2005 Fr. Orsi was appointed as a Senior Research Associate to the Linacre Center for Bioethics, London, England. Fr. Orsi co-hosts a weekly radio program The Advocate which discusses law and culture on WDEO-AM 990, WMAX-AM 1440 in metro Detroit and WDEO-FM 98.5 in southwest Florida [also linked at].

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