Comparison and History of the Catholic Church

Did Early Modern (c. 1450-1700) Catholics have a better appreciation of the ‘need’ for rituals than Protestants?


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The years 1450 to 1700 were a time of great transition and contradiction in Europe. The intellectual, scientific, and cultural enlightenment of the Renaissance was blooming prodigiously, yet the dominant societal force was almost invariably religion, particularly Roman Catholicism, whose sole domination gave way to an uneasy – at best – power-sharing relationship with its so-called bastard child, Protestantism, whose birth was circa 1517. Though Protestantism was a just reaction to the hypocritical corruption and tyranny of the bloated Catholic bureaucracy, whose raison d’etre had become as much about the perpetuation of its own control over Western civilization than about spirituality and enlightenment, both strains of Christianity nevertheless were intensely patriarchal, hierarchical, and structured, and as such relied heavily on a variety of traditions and rituals to perpetuate social and religious continuity and stability during a time of turmoil. It was a two-way dynamic, also – it is difficult to overestimate the degree to which common people in the Early Modern period framed their existence and its meaning through Christianity:

The pattern of the cosmos, the history and destiny of the world, and the ordering of social, political and domestic relations were all explained in biblical and theological terms. … Faith and ritual affected people at many different levels, making spiritual, intellectual, emotional and visceral appeals. Public and private affairs alike were deeply infused by religion.[1]

Given that the notion of separation of church and state was foreign to commoners and even most educated people of the time, the line between the Church and governments was blurry or nonexistent, and thus the Church occupied the metaphysical and psychological persona and space of The Great Father Figure, with whom interaction was governed by, and who maintained order and meted out blessings and punishments through a variety of rituals: prescribed rites, ceremonies, and sacraments. These ranged from the mundane to the sublime; the vulgar to the dignified and were interwoven into the fabric of everyday life for tens of millions of people during the aforementioned 250 years. While doubtlessly there was much sincerity of intention from the Church (Catholic or Protestant in variety) in terms of attempting to bring spiritual edification to its followers, the Church also had what seemed to be an almost genetically encoded need to exert and perpetuate its power. Rituals were a key component these ongoing efforts, because after all, “ritualization is first and foremost a strategy for the construction of certain types of power relationships effective within particular social organizations,”[2] in this case power and relationships that were both benevolent and punitive in both nature and habit.

Though the average citizen was still devoutly religious and found much solace in religious practices and rituals, the Catholic Church’s fortunes had ebbed somewhat by 1450 in comparison to the virtually unrestricted power it had enjoyed for several centuries prior. The devastating human cost of the bubonic plague, a.k.a. The Black Death, had not only severely undermined the conventional economic structures that held Europe together, but had also severely undermined the populations’ faith in the power of Catholic Church. The Church, despite predictable assurances and dicta proclaiming their power over sickness and death as the living representative of Christ on earth, was utterly powerless to curtail the shocking and inescapably vast tragedy of the Black Plague. Between 1347 and 1351, it is estimated that the Plague killed between a third and half of Europe’s entire population – tens of millions of people. The Church promised they could cure the sick and banish the disease, but they of course could not, as their entrenched hostility to science had left them with a blind spot with respect to medicine, to say nothing of their complicity in perpetuating the socioeconomic structures which facilitated unsanitary living conditions suffered by most common people – the chief reason for the spread of the Plague. Ironically, however, the morose and somber zeitgeist that was predominant in Europe after the Black Plague, the result of the collective grief of a civilization having lost a colossal part of itself, resulted in some people clinging even more tightly to the structures and rituals of their religion. Though life itself was fragile, fleeting, and often seemed to unfold with a cavalier cruelty, the structure and order of religious ritual provided the belief, authentic or not, that there was some structure and order to the greater universe. “…Sterility, bankruptcy, or death could strike anyone at any time, but rituals provided a countervailing principle of order… Rituals brought the cosmic order into daily life by giving person access to divine power.” [3] Nonetheless, the inescapable conclusion drawn by many people was that the Church, rituals or no rituals, was impotent to stop the greatest human tragedy anyone had experienced. As such, the atmosphere in the decades comprising the tumultuous wake following the Plague was one in which people were far more willing and interested in secular and scientific approaches to problems like disease, poverty, and other common woes. This shift contributed heavily to both the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation itself.

The advent of the Renaissance, agreed upon by most scholars as being around the middle of the 15th century, coincided with what is termed Early Modern Catholicism, a religion that found itself directly competing for the people’s relevance and trust with subversive elements within Renaissance science, art, and literature which began in Italy and quickly spread throughout Europe. Some elements of the Renaissance were intentionally subversive in attacking the Church; others had subversive effects inasmuch as the scientific or philosophical conclusions they reached were not in accord with Church doctrines. In particular, scientific advancements rooted in the use of empiricism – which demanded verifiable, tangible proof instead of faith in abstractions or religious dogma – presented a direct challenge to the authority of the Church. The collective work of a succession of scientists, including Copernicus, Gilbert, Kepler, Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, and Newton, seriously undermined a variety of official Church positions that seem ludicrous in retrospect, such as the insistence that the solar system – and indeed, the universe – revolved around the Earth. The Catholic Church’s reaction to the shifting tides was its own rather fierce effort to reassert its power and relevance in both earthly and spiritual domains through a variety of methods ranging from clumsy and violent suppression of ideas it deemed impertinent or blasphemous, to a Reformation within itself (the Council of Trent, 1545-1563) to counter the great schism in Christianity caused by the Protestant Reformation. A constant theme, though, was a perpetual Catholic insistence on the use and value of rituals both for less noble purposes of control and power, as well as more noble humanitarian and spiritual purposes. Even the Protestants, breaking so strongly with the Catholics as they did, recognized the value of rituals and utilized them to both perpetuate and increase their numbers and institutional strength as they competed with Catholics to win the souls and minds of the Renaissance-era Europeans. To understand these rituals is to understand, at least from one perspective, an era so far removed from our own that it is difficult for many people to comprehend the times as much beyond ornate barbarism. Europe of the era was more than such a one-dimensional reality; it was, as all history is, a history of human beings struggling to make sense of their lives, people who “during the Early Modern period exhibited a highly sophisticated sensitivity to rituals. As the English jurist, John Selden put it in his Table Talk (London, 1689), ‘to know what was generally believed in all ages, the way is to consult the liturgies.’”[4] Indeed we shall, paying close attention to whether Catholics or Protestants seemed to have a better comprehension of why people might embrace and/or cling to ritual.


After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church ascended to the role of the most powerful and far-reaching organization on the planet, thanks in part to the vestigial influence it inherited from its incestuous intertwinement with the civic element of the Roman Empire itself –Emperor Flavius Theodosius had declared Christianity the state religion in 391 A.D., an extremely fortuitous turn of events given the centuries of vicious persecution endured by Christians at the hands of the Roman government. However, the Catholic Church claimed its legitimacy and roots as far back as the initial years after Christ’s death, holding the (later controversial) institutional conviction that its papal lineage was descended directly from the apostle (and later saint) Peter, whom is considered under Catholic tradition to be the first Pope. The Pope was, and is considered to this day to be the Vicar of Christ, acting on His behalf and wielding His authority; the Pope carries the official title ‘Vicar of Christ and the Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church.’ In keeping with such an inflated sense of importance, the Pope is considered infallible, a state of perfection the Church maintains was and is granted by Jesus himself:

Christ endowed the Church’s shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals. The exercise of this charism takes several forms… The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful — who confirms his brethren in the faith he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals…. When the Church through its supreme Magisterium [the Pope] proposes a doctrine ‘for belief as being divinely revealed,’ and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions ‘must be adhered to with the obedience of faith.’[5]

Other relevant tenets of Catholicism included the notion of a separation of man from God due to sin. The Church offered a chance to be reunited with God through a combination of faith and good works, and served as an essential intermediary between man and God/Christ. The byzantine structures and rituals of the Church served as means of manifesting the means for reconnection and for better or for worse, the Church – from the Pope on down – has always had an authoritarian and arbitrary control over what those means were and are, including the invention and perpetuation of any number of rituals which are not necessarily literally prescribed by Biblical texts (though the Catholics would argue they in fact are). Nonetheless, the Church believes the infallibility of the Pope endows it with the power to do whatever it deems fit to enable mankind to reconnect and reunite with God through the Church, which is a sine qua non intermediary between God and man – in fact, according to Catholic doctrine, “the Church’s first purpose is to be the sacrament of the inner union of men with God.”[6]

The sacraments, plural, are in fact a key component of Catholic ritual, and are considered actions that are integral demonstrations and requirements of faith. ‘Sacramentals,’ or signs and symbols that manifest spiritual power, often went hand in hand with the sacraments. The sacraments were intended to confer the grace of the Holy Spirit on the faithful; sacramentals were intended to facilitate cooperation with God by serving as reminders of His glory. There are seven sacraments:

Baptism – the initial sacrament, involving the immersion in or pouring of water on the head of a newborn. It is intended to free the person from original sin and ‘mark’ the person as belonging to Christ and embark him or her on a Christian path.
Confirmation – the second chronological sacrament, intended to signify a deepening and solidifying of a person’s walk with Christ and membership in the Church. It is generally administered to young adults who have undertaken biblical study and church-sponsored activities to deepen their faith and illustrate their commitment to good works.
The Eucharist – unlike the first two sacraments, the Eucharist is administered numerous times – weekly participation is generally considered mandatory, if not obligatory. Perhaps the most important Catholic sacrament, the Eucharist involves the sharing of bread and wine between Church and churchgoer to honor Christ’s sacrifice of his body and blood in a ritual He described to his disciples during the Last Supper (Matthew 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20). The Catholic Church holds that during this ritual, the bread and wine literally become, in every manner except physical appearance, the body and blood of Christ — and invokes the spiritual ramifications therein. This divine process is known as transubstantiation; the bread and wine are transformed into both the physical and spiritual substance of Jesus’ body and blood.
Reconciliation – known currently as the confession process and consists of a priest bestowing spiritual healing on a person who has increased his or her distance from God by sinning; it involves four elements: the confession of sin; the person’s authentic contrition and wish to reconcile; the priest’s recommendation for penance, i.e., what the person can do to make up for the sin(s); and lastly, the priest’s absolution. This sacrament, more than any other, cements the Church’s mandatory role as an intermediary between God and man.
Anointing of the Sick – a special blessing and spiritual healing administered to a sick person, which also includes last rites for the dying.
Holy Orders – the sacrament by which a lay believer is endowed with the privileges, powers, and responsibilities of church leader, specifically a bishop, priest, or deacon. Only a bishop can administer this particular sacrament.
Matrimony – a couple marries in the presence of a church official, though by tradition the couple is understood to be administering the sacrament to one another. Once a couple has accepted the sacrament of marriage, the Church holds that the union cannot be dissolved.

Though ostensibly purely religious or spiritual in nature, the sacraments in fact touched every major rite of passage in a person’s life – birth, the transition to adulthood, marriage, sickness, and death, as well as everything in between – the temptation to sin, the acts and consequences of sin, the celebration of the idea that Jesus gave his life so that sin would not permanently estrange mankind from God. In addition to mandating participation in the sacraments, the Catholic Church also recognized the value of allowing them to intermix and intermingle with the various local secular (and sometimes even pagan!) customs and celebrations that went along with the same rites of passage. In this way, the church made itself indispensable by insinuating itself into every facet of daily life. And for good measure, the church fortified its societal value by declaring itself indispensable for good measure, on no less an authority than the Son of God Himself.

If the sacraments were the ritualistic cornerstones of the Church’s religious and social interaction with the flock, then sacramentals were the symbols and tools used to facilitate the rituals, and in some cases assumed ritual elements themselves. Sacramentals included such actions as the making of the sign of the cross to bless oneself; the use of holy water to bless a physical space, object, or another person; the display of blessed icons; and exorcisms. Though linked in some sense, the sacramentals were not necessarily dependent on sacraments’ ceremony within churches, i.e., they permeated everyday life outside of the church, thereby extending its authority. The words of a modern Catholic, theologian Scott Hahn, perhaps best sum up the best intention these Early Modern Catholic rituals and their elements: “God [has] a particular and characteristic way of dealing with His people down through the ages. He made covenants with them, and he always sealed these covenants not with an abstract lecture on the nature of salvation and law, but with an outward sign, a physical sign.”[7] Perhaps, then, the sacraments and sacramentals were the physical symbols of these covenants. But benevolent as they may have been in intent, they were not always benevolently exercised – or exorcised, as it were – in practice.

Indeed, the latter sacramental in the aforementioned list, exorcism, was a way in which the Church wielded the punitive element of its vast power over its followers. To challenge the role of the church in any way was an act of heresy punishable in any number of fashions ranging in magnitude from excommunication to exorcism to execution. For a religious institution priding itself – publicly, at least – on facilitating spiritual redemption and forgiveness of sin, the Church unfortunately was an active participant in a litany of barbaric and genocidal pursuits that relied on the circular logic of its own self-declared absolute spiritual authority to legitimize activities that as often as not had to do with irrational, cruel, or selfish human agendas, more than bona fide efforts spiritual edification or purification. (Regrettably, the former was often cloaked in the guise of the latter.) Nothing if not consistent in its methodology, the Church utilized a panoply of rituals, of varying degrees of formality compared to the sacraments, including sacramentals in an arbitrary fashion, to maintain order and mete out justice. According to Church writings, “One of the most remarkable effects of sacramentals is the virtue to drive away evil spirits whose mysterious and baleful operations affect sometimes the physical activity of man. To combat this occult power the Church has recourse to exorcism, and sacramentals.”[8]

Exorcism, though certainly more rare than, say, weekly celebrations of the Eucharist, provided ample pageantry, drama, and the ability to instill fear and awe in the populations which, despite the advances of the Renaissance, were still heavily steeped in superstition. One particularly noteworthy (and gruesome) story is recounted in great detail within a 1703 report entitled The Cheats and Illusions of Romish Priests and Exorcists, delivered to the Archbishop of Canterbury in England to foment anti-Catholic sentiments amongst Protestants. The report, translated from French to English, describes the unfortunate fate of a one Father Urbain Grandier, the Catholic parish priest of St.-Pierre-du-Marche in Loudun, France, who was accused of witchcraft in 1630 by a group of nuns. The sisters claimed Grandier had wielded his considerable spiritual authority to command demons to possess them and force them to exhibit a variety of unholy behavior. In reality, Grandier was guilty of indiscreet disregard of his vows of celibacy and otherwise living a more ostentatious life than the Church deemed proper for a priest, which had made him some enemies within the Church hierarchy and local community. To complicate matters, Grandier had earned the specific wrath of his superior, Cardinal Richelieu, about whom Grandier had penned an unflattering and acerbic tract. The nuns made a public spectacle of their putative possession; “They uttered cries so horrible and so loud that nothing like it was ever heard before. They made use of expressions so indecent as to shame the most debauched of men, while their acts, both in exposing themselves and inviting lewd behavior from those present would have astonished the inmates of the lowest brothels in the country.”[9] An exorcist was dispatched who, not coincidentally, was an enemy of Grandier, and in addition to conducting the exorcism ritual in public, he also urged the nuns – who were faking the entire spectacle – to continue and heighten the freakishness of their antics. He was soon joined by other exorcism “experts” from Loudon and within short order, thousands of people were watching daily as the exorcists shouted, read Bible verses, sprinkled holy water, genuflected, and theatrically performed sections of the Catholic Rite of Exorcism, a codified, specific, and comprehensive ritual of its own. In short order, the public outcry against Grandier became so overwhelming that the Cardinal was ‘forced’ to arrest him. He was tortured brutally by a surgeon ordered to probe for the ‘Devil’s Mark,’ an arbitrary defined body feature which could be anything from a mole to a birthmark, supposedly serving as evidence the Devil had branded his servant: “the barbarous surgeon would make them see that the other parts of [Grandier’s] body were very sensible, he turned the probe at the other end, which was very sharp pointed, and thrust it to the very bone; and then the abundance of people [outside] heard complaints so bitter, and cries so piercing, that they [were] moved…to the heart.”[10] It only got worse from there. The Cardinal refused to allow Grandier a civil trial and instead, forged a confessional document which – laughable now, but frightening at the time – was a contract between Satan and Grandier bearing ‘signatures’ of hellish figures such as Astaroth, Beelzebub, and Leviathan, and Lucifer himself. (See Figure A.) The Cardinal deemed this evidence enough to deny Grandier any recourse through the government courts and his tribunal sentenced Grandier to a horrific form of torture known as ‘the boots,’ which were “wedges that fitted the legs from ankles to knees. The torturer used a large, heavy hammer to pound the wedges, driving them closer together. At each strike, the inquisitor repeated the question. The wedges lacerated flesh and crushed bone, sometimes so thoroughly that marrow gushed out and the legs were rendered useless.”[11] Grandier confessed nothing under the torture – which was carried out by the local priests. He cried out to God that his accusers were hypocrites with their own agenda, enraging the priests, who tried to silence him by dumping holy water on him. Eventually, the sadistic priests were so enraged by their failure to extract any information about ‘accomplices’ out of him that they burned him alive — and conscious (generally, the victim was at least strangled to unconsciousness first), in front of a huge crowd.

In this, one of far too many examples in the Early Modern Era, the grotesque rituals of exorcism and witchcraft, one as ungrounded in rational science as the other, had served a dual purpose – to reinforce the Church’s position as a mighty force against the Devil, who ostensibly roamed the earth in search of victims and accomplices, and also to send a clear message to those who were listening that it was both unwise to stray too far from the Church’s teachings and even less wise to cross paths with Cardinal Richelieu, who clearly had no qualms about vulgar and public displays of power. The Church could be benevolent if the flock toed the line, i.e., the seven sacraments, but indescribably cruel and merciless when threatened or insulted – utilizing the same symbols and rituals employed in its benevolent acts. Of course, without a public appetite for grotesque spectacle – hardly unique to the Early Modern period, the Church rituals would not have been quite so effective. In any case, the success of the Church’s carrot-and-stick approach to herding the flock can hardly be doubted.

Another self-justified ritual that the Catholic Church utilized to ensure its own relevance and staying power was the system of indulgences. Indulgences were pardons granted by the church for all or part of a temporal punishment mandated by sins, as opposed to the eternal punishment, pardon for which was granted by the sacraments of baptism and reconciliation. As the Church states,

An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.[12]

An arbitrary penance for temporal punishment, for example 10 days of feeding the poor because one had suffered from impure thoughts, was assigned as part of reconciliation, but an indulgence granted by the Church – who believed it had an inexhaustible bank account of spiritual goodwill — could dispense with any such temporal punishment if it chose to. Indulgences were usually meted out in time measurements: days, weeks, etc. Further complicating matters was the Church’s belief that those believers who died without having dispense with the totality of accumulated punishments for their temporal sins would have to wait in Purgatory – a halfway house of sorts between earth and Heaven – until those temporal sins were paid off. The Church granted itself the power to bestow indulgences not just to individuals for their own sins, but also to family members on behalf of relatives whose souls were believed to be Purgatory’s state of limbo.

If this paradigm were not already complicated and suspect as it was, the Church further muddied the practical and moral aspects of indulgences by allowing money to enter into the equation. The most notorious example, in fact, was one of the straws that broke the proverbial camel’s back and helped cause the Protestant Reformation. In 1517, Pope Leo X announced that indulgences would be awarded to those Catholics who gave alms to assist in the spectacularly ambitious (and expensive) rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The project had not been undertaken for entirely spiritual motivations; Pope Julius II, a notorious egomaniac, had wished for a burial place whose grandeur would match his own sense of self-importance, given the association with St. Peter himself. The notion of even using the term ‘alms’ in conjunction with the project was also suspect, given the Church was not exactly known for being impoverished; if any financial strain was present, it was of the Church’s own making. Nonetheless, the sale of these indulgences was sanctioned blessed by the Vicar of Christ, who appointed a loyal lieutenant to tour Europe collecting money. This most enthusiastic salesperson was a Dominican Friar named Johan Tetzel, who was Leo’s commissioner of indulgences for Germany. The certificates he issued (see Figure B) provoked outrage from many fellow Catholic figures (or at least those who possessed enough personal power to dare challenge the Church) because of their suspect language: “By the authority of all the saints, and in mercy towards you, I absolve you from all sins and misdeeds and remit all punishments for ten days.” Some took this to mean the Church was willing to forgive sins in advance and therefore was sanctioning sinful behavior; worse, the language was inconsistent with Catholic theology, insofar as indulgences were intended to render unnecessary the punishments mandated by temporal sin. (The sin itself was already forgiven and required no absolution; penance was the requirement and the indulgences were penance vouchers, if you will.) In addition the muddled theology, Tetzel’s marketing campaign was shameless. As he traveled around Europe gleefully raising money, he employed the slogan “as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”[13] For many Catholics, even the most loyal and faithful, the rituals had become detached from their spiritual moorings.


One church figure who found the selling of indulgences repugnant was Martin Luther, a Franciscan monk and priest at the Castle Church in Saxony. He was deeply concerned that those with more money could buy their, or their dead relatives’, way out punishment for temporal sins, or worse, that some of the poor – who would often travel to the Vatican to donate what little money they had – were being exploited by the Church instead of receiving its blessings without the strings of money. A bold man, Luther preached three sermons criticizing the current method of administering indulgences between 1516 and 1517. Indulgences were not Luther’s only point of deep disagreement with the Church. He believed the Church’s self-perceived role as mediator between God and man, and the rituals it employed in that role, had become dangerously distorted and had lost their spiritual authority. Accordingly, he wrote his 95 Theses, which gained widespread distribution throughout Europe within two months, thanks to a new invention of the Renaissance – the printing press. 95 Theses directly challenged the Church, accusing it of greed and debasing itself by overindulgence in worldly matters, and asked for a debate and clarification from the Church regarding the theological basis for the administration of indulgences. (Luther was careful not to assert that the Pope did not have the right to grant them, just that the methodology was suspect and corrupt.) Additionally, and perhaps more shockingly, Luther openly questioned the infallibility and supreme authority of the papacy. Pope Leo X was outraged and demanded on several occasions that Luther recant and declare his submission to the Church, but Luther refused and Leo excommunicated him in January 1521, then declared him a heretic and banned his writings in July of the same year. Luther was spared a more gruesome fate, a la witch, by virtue of his good relationship with Elector Frederick of Saxony, who was expected to become the next Holy Roman Emperor and whose good graces Pope Leo wished to maintain. Frederick arranged to have Luther taken into protective custody, and Luther spent the remainder of his life dependent upon the protection of sympathetic princes.

Luther’s boldness unleashed a series of transformations known as the Protestant Reformation, that had profound political effects on Europe that would reverberate for years to come in clashes of Protestants vs. Catholics – many of them bloody. But from a religious and social perspective, Luther ushered in a re-examination, and ultimately, a reorganization of the way Christianity defined and facilitated the relationship between God and man, including the role and use of rituals. The essence of Luther’s grievances was not necessarily his objection to indulgences, though perhaps they were the catalyst. Luther represented a new philosophy, which eventually was embodied in the various offshoots of Protestantism, all of which refused to accept that the Church was a required intermediary between God and man, nor were the arbitrary and complex procedures – often manifested in required rituals such as the sacraments – necessary for salvation or the maintenance of faith. In essence, the Church had become more style than substance. Eventually, due to the philosophical groundwork laid by theologians such as St. Augustine and expounded upon and propagated by Luther, the Protestant movement came to hold salvation was earned by the act of faith alone, not faith and good works as the Catholic Church insisted. Luther wrote:

Beware, therefore, that the external pomp of work

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