The Devil is in the Details

The Great Heresies, by Hilaire Belloc

No one can deny that the evils provoking reform in the Church were deep-rooted and widespread.  They threatened the very life of Christendom itself.

In this post I will examine Belloc’s treatment of the Reformation.  As has been the case for all of my posts on this general topic, I will not examine or discuss the theological issues (beyond the historical impacts).  In this post, I will not even examine the impacts on the culture and tradition.

Instead, I will examine the story itself, the history of the Reformation as seen by Belloc.  Through this history, one might find a window to our own times – a window, perhaps, to the roots of every reform movement that has the potential to evolve into one that is revolutionary.

Now, both Catholics and Protestants today tend to commit a capital historical error.  They tend to regard Catholicism on the one side, Protestantism on the other, as two mainly opposed religions and moral systems, producing, from the very origins of the movement, opposed and even sharply contrasted moral characters in their individual members. (Emphasis in original.)

This was not how the primary actors thought of themselves at the time.  To summarize: Belloc offers that from 1517 until about 1600, the movement known as the “Reformation” was seen as a quarrel within Christendom; a debate that would come to some kind of ultimate decision resulting in general religious peace and unity.

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Failing this, and after the Thirty Year’s War and the Eighty Years’ War – wars pitting Catholics against Protestants – the Peace of Westphalia was an attempt to make the best of the disunion; the separation was made complete about fifty years after these treaties, by about 1700.  Belloc describes the time since 1700 for the Catholics as one of increasing doubt and even an anti-Catholic spirit; for the Protestants as one of accepting all forms of religious differences.

Only a few of the most ardent Reformers had an intention to destroy Catholicism; even fewer had the objective to set out a counter-religion.  The majority of the “Reformers” had as their objective to “reform.”

You might put it this way: there was no one born between the years 1450 – 1500 who did not, by the critical date of 1517, when the explosion took place, see that something had to be done, and in proportion to their integrity and knowledge were men eager that something should be done….

On the other side, the objective of those defending orthodoxy was in restoring unity.  Unfortunately, as is the case in many reforms movements that butt up against powerful interests with different objectives, the devil is in the details.

The stages of the revolution – and, perhaps, of all reform movements that are unable to avoid catastrophe: first, “reforms which are manifestly just and necessary” are proposed – in order to correct “innovations which are criminal and mad”; second, the thing to be reformed necessarily resists; third – the stage when proposed reform turns to revolution:

…there appear among the revolutionaries an increasing number who are not so much concerned to set right the evils which have grown up in the thing to be reformed, as filled with a passionate hatred for the thing itself – its essential, its good, that by which it has a right to survive. (Emphasis in original.)

The origins of what is now known as the Reformation can be traced perhaps two-hundred years before Luther’s infamous act:

Many have taken as the starting point of the affair the abandonment of Rome by the Papacy and its establishment at Avignon, more than two hundred years before Luther’s outbreak.

Belloc describes this view as having some truth, but an imperfect truth.  Instead, he sees as the main starting point the plague, “the Black Death” of 1348 – 1350.  The origins might even be traced to an event thirty years after this, with the opening of the great schism (Western Schism) – a struggle of Popes and anti-popes.

Let’s take each of these in turn:

The Avignon Papacy was the period from 1309 to 1376 during which seven successive popes resided in Avignon (then in the Kingdom of Arles, part of the Holy Roman Empire, now in France) rather than in Rome. The situation arose from the conflict between the papacy and the French crown.

Clement V, a Frenchman, was elected Pope in 1305.  He refused to move to Rome, instead establishing Avignon as the home of his court in 1309.  Subsequent popes, all French and each in turn under ever-increasing influence from the French Crown, remained in Avignon.

The Black Death was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 75 to 200 million people in Eurasia and peaking in Europe from 1346 to 1353….The plague created a series of religious, social, and economic upheavals, which had profound effects on the course of European history.

It is estimated that the Black Death killed something like 30–60% of Europe’s total population – up to 80% along the Mediterranean and perhaps 20% in Germany and England.  Regarding an attitude toward religion, the horror of the Black Death bred despair.

The Western Schism or Papal Schism was a split within the Catholic Church lasting from 1378 to 1417 in which three men simultaneously claimed to be the true pope. Driven by politics rather than any theological disagreement, the schism was ended by the Council of Constance (1414–1418).

The schism in the Western Roman Church resulted from the return of the papacy to Rome under Gregory XI on January 17, 1377, ending the Avignon Papacy, which had developed a reputation for corruption that estranged major parts of Western Christendom.

In order to secure reconciliation, the Roman Pope Gregory XII was forced to resign in 1415.  He was the last pope to resign from office until the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI in early 2013.

Returning to Belloc, he offers the pre-history to the Avignon Papacy; it is a history buried in the competing power and authority between Church and Emperor:

A lifetime before the Popes left Rome this struggle had been coming to a climax under one of the most intelligent and most dangerous men that ever ruled in Christendom, the Emperor Frederick II….

All of Central Europe, except the states governed directly by the Pope in the middle of Italy, was under his authority.  Frederick II challenged the Church; the Papacy won, but was weakened in the process.  With a weakened Church and a weakened Holy Roman Emperor, France took advantage.  Hence, the Avignon Papacy.

Now we come to 1517: Luther did not intend a concerted attack on the Catholic Faith; “men like Zwingli could not organize a campaign,” despite the fact that he hated the central doctrines of the faith and began the looting of the endowments of the Church. Instead, Belloc points to another individual who could be considered as the one to set up a counter church:

This man was a Frenchman, John Cauvin (or Calvin), the son of an ecclesiastical official, steward and lawyer to the See of Noyon.  After the excommunication of his father for embezzlement and the confiscation of his Bishop of much of the income which he, John Calvin, enjoyed, he, John, set to work – and a mighty work it was.

What was the result?  Opportunities for the laity to get their hands on the wealth of the Church; Church leaders protective of their worldly power and worldly wealth; neither side willing to give up to compromise what they might gain in the struggle; culminating in a treaty that enshrined a dis-united Europe.


The incident that provoked an explosion was a minor and insignificant one – but as a date of origin it is tremendous.  I mean, of course, the protest of Luther against the abuse (and, for that matter, against the use) of indulgences.

Jacques Barzun points to the Great War as the suicide blow of the modern west and therefore some see the gunshot on 28 June 1914 that felled Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand as the precipitating event.  Just as Belloc has done with the history of the Reformation and its effects on Christendom, historians today point to events both before and after this gunshot (and subsequent war) as the key event, the precipitating action, etc., which forever changed the trajectory that classical liberalism promised.

One cannot say of Gavrilo Princip “for want of a bullet the west might have been saved,” just as one cannot say of Luther “for want of a nail, a kingdom might have been saved.”


Belloc describes the mood of the time: a desire to purge the “worldliness in the hierarchy and the manifold corruptions against which the public conscience was seething.”

The west is going through another struggle, a struggle for the future of the west as an entity with some form of identifiable culture and tradition.  Many men, “in proportion to their integrity and knowledge” know that something should be done…yet…nothing is done as those with a vested interest in maintaining (even destroying) the system are unwilling to address “the manifold corruptions against which the public conscience [is] seething.”

Reprinted with permission from Bionic Mosquito.