What Was the Reformation?
The movement generally called “The Reformation” deserves a place
apart in the story of the great heresies; and that for the following
1. It was not a particular movement but a general one, i.e., it
did not propound a particular heresy which could be debated and exploded,
condemned by the authority of the Church, as had hitherto been every other
heresy or heretical movement. Nor did it, after the various heretical
propositions had been condemned, set up (as had Mohammedanism or the
Albigensian movement) a separate religion over against the old orthodoxy.
Rather did it create a certain separate
call “Protestantism.” It produced indeed a crop of heresies, but not one
heresy_and its characteristic was that all its heresies attained and
prolonged a common savour: that which we call “Protestantism” today.
2. Though the immediate fruits of the Reformation decayed, as had
those of many other heresies in the past, yet the disruption it had
produced remained and the main principle_reaction against a united
spiritual authority_so continued in vigour as both to break up our
European civilization in the West and to launch at last a general doubt,
spreading more and more widely. None of the older heresies did that, for
they were each definite. Each had proposed to supplant or to rival the
existing Catholic Church; but the Reformation movement proposed rather to
dissolve the Catholic Church_and we know what measure success has been
attained by that effort!
The most important thing about the Reformation is to understand
it. Not only to follow the story of it stage by stage_a process always
necessary to the understanding of any historical matter_but to grasp its
On this last it is easy for modern people to go wrong, and
especially modern people of the English-speaking world. The nations we
English- speaking people know are, with the exception of Ireland,
predominantly Protestant; and yet (with the exception of Great Britain and
South Africa) they harbour large Catholic minorities.
In that English-speaking world (to which this present writing is
addressed) there is full consciousness of what the Protestant spirit has
been and what it has become in its present modification. Every Catholic
who lives in that English-speaking world knows what is meant by the
Protestant temper as he knows the taste of some familiar food or drink or
the aspect of some familiar vegetation. In a less degree the large
Protestant majorities_in Great Britain it is an overwhelming Protestant
majority_have some idea of what the Catholic Church is. They know much
less about us than we know about them. That is natural, because we proceed
from older origins, because we are universal while they are regional and
because we hold a definite intellectual philosophy whereas they possess
rather an emotional and indefinite, though characteristic, spirit.
Still, though they know less about us than we know about them,
they are aware of a distinction and they feel a sharp division between
themselves and ourselves.
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 religious and moral
even sharply contrasted moral characters in their individual members. They
take this duality for granted even in the beginning. Historians who write
in English on either side of the Atlantic talk of so-and-so (even in the
early part of the sixteenth century) as a “Protestant” and so-and-
so-other as a “Catholic.” It is true that contemporaries also used these
terms, but they used the words in a very different sense and with very
different feelings. For a whole lifetime after the movement called the
“Reformation” had started (say from 1520 to 1600), men remained in an
attitude of mind which considered the whole religious quarrel in
Christendom as an
decision would be taken for all. This decision would apply to Christendom
as a whole and produce a general religious peace.
That state of mind lasted, I say, a whole long lifetime_but its
general atmosphere lasted much longer. Europe was not resigned to accept
religious disunion for yet another lifetime. The reluctant resolve to make
the best of the disaster does not become evident_as we shall see_till the
Peace of Westphalia, 130 years after Luther’s first challenge, and the
accomplished for another fifty years: say, 1690- 1700.
It is of first importance to appreciate this historical truth.
Only a few of the most bitter or ardent Reformers set out to destroy
Catholicism as a separate existing thing of which they were conscious and
which they hated. Still less did most of the Reformers set out to erect
some other united counter-religion.
They set out (as they themselves put it and as it had been put for
a century and a half before the great upheaval) “to reform.” They
professed to purify the Church and restore it to its original virtues of
directness and simplicity. They professed in their various ways (and the
various groups of them differed in almost everything except their
increasing reaction against unity) to get rid of excrescences,
superstitions and historical falsehoods_of which, heaven knows, there was
a multitude for them to attack.
On the other side, during this period of the Reformation, the
defence of orthodoxy was occupied, not so much in destroying a specific
thing (such as the spirit of Protestantism is today), as in restoring
unity. For at least sixty years, even on to eighty years_more than the
full active lifetime of even a long-lived man_the two forces at work,
Reform and Conservatism, were of this nature: interlocked, each affecting
the other and each hoping to become universal at last.
Of course, as time went on, the two parties tended to become two
hostile armies, two separate camps, and at last full separation was
accomplished. What had been a united Christendom of the West broke into
two fragments: the one to be henceforward the Protestant Culture, the
other the Catholic Culture. Each henceforward was to know itself and its
own spirit as a thing separate from and hostile to the other. Each also
grew to associate the new spirit with its own region, or nationality, of
City-State: England, Scotland, Hamburg, Zurich and what not.
After the first phase (which covered, naturally enough, about a
lifetime) came a second phase covering another lifetime. If one is to
reckon right up to the expulsion of the Catholic Stuart kings in England,
it covered rather more than a lifetime_close on one hundred years.
In this second phase the two worlds, Protestant and Catholic, are
consciously separated and consciously antagonistic one to the other. It is
a period filled with a great deal of actual physical fighting: “the
Religious Wars” in France and in Ireland, above all in the widespread
German-speaking regions of Central Europe. A good deal before this
physical struggle was over the two adversaries had “crystallized” into
permanent form. Catholic Europe had come to accept as apparently
inevitable the loss of what are now the Protestant states and cities.
Protestant Europe had lost all hope of permanently affecting with its
spirit that part of Europe which had been saved for the Faith. The new
state of affairs was fixed by the main treaties that ended the re- ligious
wars in Germany (half way between 1600 and 1700). But the struggle
continued sporadically for a good forty years more, and parts of the
frontiers between the two regions were still fluctuating even at the end
of that extra period. Things did not finally settle down into two
permanent worlds till 1688 in England, or, even, 1715, if we consider all
To get the thing clear in our minds, it is well to have fixed
dates. We may take as the origin of the open struggle the violent upheaval
connected with the name of Martin Luther in 1517. By 1600 the movement as
a general European movement had fairly well differentiated itself into a
Catholic, as against Protestant, world, and the fight had become one as to
whether the first or the second should predominate, not as to whether the
one philosophy or the other should prevail throughout our civilization;
although, as I have said, many still hoped that
tradition would die out, or that
return to it.
The second phase begins, say, as late as 1606 in England, or a few
years earlier on the Continent and ends at no precise date, but generally
speaking, during the last twenty years of the seventeenth century. It ends
in France earlier than in England. It ends among the German States_from
exhaustion more than for any other reason_even earlier than it ends in
France, but one may say that the idea of a direct religious struggle was
fading into the idea of a political struggle by 1670 or 1680 or so. The
active religious wars filled the first part of this phase, ending in
Ireland with the middle of the seventeenth century, and in Germany a few
years earlier, but the thing is still thought of as being a religious
affair as late as 1688 or even a few years later in those parts where
conflict was still maintained.
By the middle of the seventeenth century, in Cromwell’s time,
1649-58, Great Britain was definitely Protestant, and would remain
so_though possessed of a large Catholic minority. The same was true
of Holland. Scandinavia had long been made Protestant for good and all, by
her rich men, and so were many Principalities and States of the German
Empire, mainly the north. Others (mainly in the south) would clearly be
Catholic for the future_in bulk.
Of the Low Countries (what we now call Holland, and Belgium) the
north (Holland) with a very large Catholic minority was to be officially
Protestant, while the south (Belgium) was to be almost wholly Catholic
with hardly any Protestant element at all.
The Swiss Cantons divided, much as the German States did. Some
went Catholic, some Protestant. France was to be Catholic, in the main,
but with a powerful and wealthy, though not very large, Protestant
minority: 10 per cent, at the very most, probably nearer 5 per cent. Spain
and Portugal and Italy had settled down to retain for good the traditions
of Catholic Culture.
So we are about to follow the story of two successive epochs,
gradually changing in character. The first, from a little before 1520 to
around 1600, an epoch of universal debate and struggle. The second an
epoch of clearly opposed forces, becoming political as much as religious,
and more and more sharply defined into hostile camps.
When all this was over, towards the end of the seventeenth
century_1700_more than two hundred years ago_there came new developments:
the spread of doubt and an anti-Catholic spirit
less definite doctrine to challenge, there was less internal division but
an increasing general feeling that religious differences must be accepted;
a feeling which, in a larger and larger number of individuals, grew into
the, at first, secret but later avowed attitude of mind that nothing in
religion could be certain, and therefore that toleration of all such
opinions was reasonable.
Side by side with this development went the political struggle
between nations originally of Catholic culture and the regions of the new
Protestant culture. During the nineteenth century the preponderance of
power gradually fell to the Protestants, led by the two chief
anti-Catholic powers, England and Prussia, symbolized sometimes under
their capital cities as “London and Berlin.” It has been said that “London
and Berlin were the twin pillars of Protestant domination during the
nineteenth century”: and that judgment is sound.
This, then, is the general process we are about to follow. A
lifetime of fierce conflict between ideas everywhere; another lifetime of
growing regional separation, becoming more and more a political rather
than a religious conflict. Then, a century_the eighteenth_of increasing
scepticism, beneath which the characteristics of the Catholic and
Protestant culture were maintained though hidden. Then another century_the
nineteenth_during which the political struggle between the two cultures,
Catholic and Protestant, was obvious enough and during which the
Protestant culture continually increased its political power at the
expense of the Catholic, because the latter was more divided against
itself than the former. France, the leading power of Catholic culture,
was half of it anti-clerical in Napoleon’s day, when England was, as she
remains, solidly anti- Catholic.
The origins of that great movement which shook and split for
generations the spiritual world, and which we call the “Reformation,” the
preparation of the materials for that explosion which shattered
Christendom in the sixteenth century, cover two full lifetimes, at least,
before the first main act of rebellion against religious unity in 1517.
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.
There is some truth in such an attitude, but it is a very
imperfect truth. Everything has a cause, and every cause has another cause
behind it, and so on. The abandonment of Rome by the Papacy, soon after
1300, did weaken the structure of the Church but was not in itself fatal.
It is better, in seeking the main starting point, to take that awful
catastrophe, the plague called today “the Black Death” (1348-50), forty
years after the abandonment of Rome. It might even be more satisfactory to
take as a starting point the opening of the great schism, nearly thirty
years after the Black Death, after which date, for the better part of an
active lifetime, the authority of the Catholic world was almost mortally
wounded by the struggles of Popes and anti-popes, rival claimants to the
awful authority of the Holy See. Anyhow, before the Black Death, 1348-50,
and before the opening of the schism, you have to begin with the
abandonment of Rome by the Popes.
The Holy See, as the central authority of all Christendom, had
long been engaged in a mortal quarrel with the lay power of what was
called “The Empire,” that is, the Emperors of German origin who had
general, but very complicated and varied and often only shadowy,
authority, not only in the German-speaking countries, but over northern
Italy and a belt of what is now eastern France, as also over the Low
Countries and certain groups of the Slavs.
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, whose power
was the greater because he had inherited not only the old diversified rule
over the German States and the Low Countries and what we call today
eastern France, but also eastern and southern Italy. The whole of central
Europe, except the States governed immediately by the Pope in the middle
of Italy, were more or less under Frederick’s shadow, under his claim to
power. He challenged the Church. The Papacy won, and the Church was saved;
but the Papacy as a political power had become exhausted in the struggle.
As so often happens, a third party benefited by a violent duel
between two others. It was the king of France who now became the chief
force, and for seventy years, that is, during all the bulk of the
fourteenth century (from 1307 to 1377) the Pa- pacy became a French thing,
the Popes residing in Avignon (where their huge palace remains to this
day, a splendid monument of that time and its meaning) and the men elected
to fill the office of Pope being, after the change, mainly French.
This change (or rather interlude, for the change was not
permanent) fell just at the moment when a national spirit was beginning to
develop in the various regions of Europe, and particularly in France. All
the more did the peculiarly French character of the Papacy shock the
conscience of the time. The Papacy ought of its nature to be Universal.
That it should be National was shocking to the western European of that
The tendency of western Christendom to divide into separate
compartments and to lose the full unity which it had possessed for so long
was increased by the failure of the Crusades_which as long as they were
active had been a unifying force, presenting a common ideal to all
Christian chivalry. This tendency was increased also by what is called the
Hundred Years War; not that it lasted one hundred years continuously, but
that from the first battle to the last you may reckon nearly that space of
The Hundred Years War was a struggle between the French-speaking
dynasty, ruling in England and supported by the French-speaking upper
class_for all the upper class in England still spoke French even in the
late fourteenth century_and the equally French-speaking monarchy and upper
classes in France itself. The English, French-speaking royal family was
The French Capetian monarchy had descended regularly from father
to son for generations until there came a disputed succession after 1300,
soon after the Pope went to Avignon in France. The young Edward
Plantagenet, the third of that name, the French-speaking King of England,
claimed the French crown through his mother, the sister of the last King,
who had no son. The Capetian King Philip, cousin of the dead King, claimed
as a male, his lawyers inventing a plea that women could neither inherit
nor transmit the French monarchy. Edward won two remarkable campaigns,
those of Crecy and Poitiers, and nearly succeeded in establishing his
claim to be King of France. Then came a long lull in which the
Plantagenet forces were driven out of France, save in the south-west.
Later came a rally of the Plantagenets, after the usurping Lancastrian
branch of that family had made themselves Kings of England, and
consolidated their unjust power. They kindled the war in France again
(under Henry V of England) and came much nearer to success than their
forerunners, because France was in a state of civil war. Indeed, the great
soldier of this period, Henry V of England, marrying the daughter of the
King of France and saying that her brother was illegitimate, actually
succeeded in getting his little son crowned as French King. But the
dispute was not over.
We all know how that ended. It ended in the campaigns of Joan of
Arc and her successors and the collapse of the Plantagenet claim for good
and all. But the struggle had, of course, enhanced national feeling, and
every strengthening of the now growing national feeling in Christendom
made for the weakening of the old religion.
In the midst of this fell something much more important even than
such a struggle, and something which, as I have said above, had most to do
with the deplorable splitting up of Christendom into separate independent
nations. This woeful incident was the terrible plague, now called “the
Black Death.” The fearful disaster broke out in 1347 and swept the whole
of Europe from east to west. The marvel is that our civilization did not
collapse, for certainly one-third of the adult population died, and
As is always the case in great catastrophes, there was a
“time-lag” before the full effects were felt. It was in the 1370’s and the
1380’s that those effects began to be permanent and pretty much universal.
In the first place, as always happens when men are severely tried,
the less fortunate men became violently hostile towards the more
fortunate. There were risings and revolutionary movements. Prices were
disturbed, there was a snapping of continuity in a host of institutions.
The names of the old institutions were kept, but the spirit changed. For
instance, the great monasteries of Europe kept their old riches but fell
to half their numbers.
The important part of these effects of the Black Death was the
appearance of England gradually, after about a lifetime, as a country
united by a common tie. The upper classes ceased to talk French, and the
various local popular dialects coalesced into a language that was becoming
the literary language of a new nation. It is the period of
and of Chaucer.
The Black Death had not only shaken the physical and political
structure of European society. It had begun to affect the Faith itself.
Horror had bred too much despair.
Another direct result of the Black Death was the “Great Schism” in
the Papacy. The warring Kings of France and England and the rival civil
factions in France itself and the lesser authorities of the smaller states
took sides continually for the one claimant to the Papacy or the other, so
that the whole idea of a central spiritual authority was undermined.
The growth of vernacular literatures, that is of literatures no
longer generally expressed in Latin, but in the local speech (northern or
southern French, or English, or High or Low German) was another disruptive
factor. If you had said to a man one hundred years before 1347 “Why should
your prayers be in Latin? Why should not our churches use our own
language?” your question would have been ridiculed; it would have seemed
to have no meaning. When it was asked of a man in 1447, towards the
declining end of the Middle Ages, with the new vernacular languages
beginning to flourish, such a question was full of popular appeal.
In the same way opponents of central authority could point to the
Papacy as a mere local thing, an Italian, southern thing. The Pope was
becoming as much an Italian Prince as he was head of the Church. Such a
social chaos was admirably adapted for specific heresies; that is, for
particular movements questioning particular doctrines. One very favourite
opinion, founded on the social disturbances of the time, was the idea that
the right to property and office went with Grace; that authority,
political or economic, could not rightly be exercised save by men in a
State of Grace_a most convenient excuse for every kind of rebellion!
Grafted on to this quarrel were violent quar- rels between laity
and the clergy. The endowments of the Church were very large, and
corruption, both in monastic establishments and among the seculars, was
increasing. Endowment was beginning to be treated more and more as a
revenue to be disposed of for rewards or any political programme. Even one
of the best of the Popes of that time, a man fighting the corrupt habit of
uniting many endowments in one hand, himself held seven bishoprics as a
matter of course.
National and racial feeling took advantage of the confusion in
movements like that of the Hussites in Bohemia. Their pretext against the
clergy was a demand for the restoration of the cup at Communion to the
laity. They were really inspired by the hatred of the Slav against the
German. Huss is a hero in Bohemia to this day. During the Great Papal
Schism efforts had been made to restore a central authority on a firm
basis by the calling of great councils. They called on the Popes to
resign. They confirmed new appointments in the Papacy. But in the long
run, by shaking the authority of the Holy See, they weakened the idea of
authority in general.
After such confusions and such complicated discontents,
of the classics and especially a recovery of the knowledge of Greek. It
filled the later fifteenth century-_(1450-1500). At the same time the
knowledge of the physical world was spreading. The world (as we put it
now) was “expanding.” Europeans had explored the Atlantic and the African
shores, found their way to the Indies round the Cape of Good Hope, and
before the end of that century, come upon a whole new world, later to be
Through all this ferment went the continual demand: “Reform of the
Church!” “Reform of head and members!” Let the Papacy be recalled to its
full spiritual duties and let the corruption of the official Church be
purged. There was a rising, stormy cry for simplicity and reality, a
rising stormy indignation against the stagnant defence of old privileges,
a universal straining against rusted shackles no longer fitted to European
society. The cry for change by amendment, for a purification of the
clerical body and restoration of spiritual ideals, may be compared to the
cry today (centred not on religion but on economics) which demands a
spoliation of concentrated wealth for the advantage of the masses.
The spirit abroad, A.D. 1500-1510, was one in which any incident
might produce a sudden upheaval just as the incidents of military defeat,
the strain of so many years’ warfare, produced the sudden upheaval of
Bolshevism in the Russia of our day.
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.
That date, the Eve of All Saints, 1517, is not only a definite
date to mark the origin of the Reformation, but it is the true initial
moment. Thenceforward the tidal wave grew overwhelming. Till that moment
the conservative forces, however corrupt, had felt sure of themselves.
Very soon after that movement their certitude was gone. The flood had
I must here reiterate for purposes of clarity, the very first
thing for anyone to realize who wants to understand the religious
revolution which ended in what we call today “Protestantism.” That
revolution, which is generally called “The Reformation,” fell into two
fairly distinct halves, each corresponding roughly to the length of a
human life. Of these the first phase was not one of conflict between two
religions but a conflict within one religion; while the second phase was
one in which a distinct new religious culture was arising, opposed to and
separate from the Catholic culture.
The first phase, I repeat (roughly the first lifetime of the
affair), was not a conflict between “Catholics and Protestants” as we know
them now; it was a conflict within the boundaries of one Western European
body. Men on the extreme left wing, from Calvin to the Prince Palatine,
still thought in terms of “Christendom.” James I at his accession, while
denouncing the Pope as a three-headed monster, still violently affirmed
his right to be of the Church Catholic.
Till we have appreciated that, we cannot understand either the
confusion or the intense passions of the time. What began as a sort of
spiritual family quarrel and continued as a spiritual civil war, was soon
accompanied by an actual civil war in arms. But it was not a conflict
between a Protestant world and a Catholic world. That came later, and when
it came, it produced the state of affairs with which we are all familiar,
the division of the white world into two cultures, Catholic and
anti-Catholic: the breakup of Christendom by the loss of European unity.
Now the most difficult thing in the world in connection with
history, and the rarest of achievement, is the seeing of events as
contemporaries saw them, instead of seeing them through the distorting
medium of our later knowledge.
contemporaries did not. The very words used to designate the attitude
taken at the beginning of the struggle change their meanings before the
struggle has come to an end. So it is with the Catholic and Protestant; so
it is with the word “Reformation” itself.
The great religious upheaval which so swiftly turned into a
religious revolution was envisaged by the contemporaries of its origins as
an effort to put right the corruptions, errors and spiritual crimes
present in the spiritual body of Christendom. At the beginning of the
movement no one worth consideration would have contested for a moment the
necessity for reform. All were agreed that things had got into a terrible
state and threatened a worse future unless something were done. The crying
necessity for putting things right, the clamour for it, had been rising
during more than a century and was now, in the second decade of the
sixteenth century, come to a head. The situation might be compared to the
economic situation today. No one worth consideration today is content with
industrial capitalism, which has bred such enormous evils. Those evils
increase and threaten to become intolerable. Everyone is agreed that there
must be reform and change.
So far so good:_You might put it this way: there was no one born
between the years 1450-1500 who did not, by the critical date 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
generation born between 1870 and 1910, who does not know that something
drastic must be done in the economic sphere if we are to save
A temper of this kind is the preliminary condition of all major
reforms, but immediately such reforms proceed to action three characters
appear which are the concomitants of all revo- lutions, and the right
management of which alone can prevent catastrophe. The first character is
Change of every kind and every degree is proposed simultaneously,
from reforms which are manifestly just and necessary_being reversions to
the right order of things_to innovations which are criminal and mad.
The second character is that the thing to be reformed necessarily
resists. It has accumulated a vast accretion of custom, vested interests,
official organization, etc., each of which, even without direct volition,
puts a drag on reform.
Thirdly (and this is much the most important character) there
appear among the revolutionaries an increasing number
we have in the revolt against industrial capitalism men proposing all at
once every kind of remedy_guilds, partial State Socialism, the
safeguarding of small property (which is the opposite of Socialism), the
repudia- tion of interest, the debasing of currency, the maintenance of
the unemployed, complete Communism, national reform, international reform,
even anarchy. All these remedies and a hundred others are being proposed
pell-mell, conflicting one with another and producing a chaos of ideas.
In the face of that chaos all the organs of industrial capitalism
continue to function, most of them jealously struggling to preserve their
lives. The banking system, great interest-bearing loans, proletarian life,
the abuse of machinery and the mechanization of society_all these evils go
on in spite of the clamour, and more and more take up the attitude of
stubborn resistance. They put forward consciously or half consciously the
plea, “If you upset us, there will be a crash. Things may be bad, but it
looks as though you were going to make them worse. Order is the first
essential of all,” etc., etc. . . .
Meanwhile the third element is appearing quite manifestly: the
modern world is getting fuller and fuller of men who so hate industrial
capitalism that this hatred is the motive of all they do and think. They
would rather destroy society than wait for reform, and they propose
methods of reform which are worse than the evils to be remedied_they care
far more for the killing of their enemy than they do for the life of the
All this appeared in what I here call “
lasted in Europe roughly from 1517 to the end of the century, a lifetime
of a little over eighty years. In the beginning all good men with
sufficient instruction and many bad men with equally sufficient
instruction, a host of ignorant men, and not a few madmen, concentrated
upon the evils which had grown up in the religious system of Christendom.
Such were the first Reformers.
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. All who thought at all about what was going on around them
realized how perilous things were and how great was the need of reform.
Those evils may be classified as follows:_
Firstly (and least important) there was a mass of bad history and
bad historical habits due to forgetfulness of the past, to lack of
knowledge and mere routine. For instance, there was a mass of legend, most
of it beautiful, but some of it puerile and half of it false, tacked on to
true tradition. There were documents upon which men depended as
authoritative which proved to be other than what they pretended to be, for
example, the famous false Decretals, and particularly that one called the
Donation of Constantine, which, it had been thought, gave its title to the
temporal power of the Papacy. There was a mass of false relics,
demonstrably false, as for instance (among a thou- sand others) the false
relics of St. Mary Magdalen, and innumerable cases in which two or more
competing objects pretended to be the same relic. The list could be
extended indefinitely, and the increase of scholarship, the renewed
discovery of the past, particularly the study of the original Greek
documents, notably the Greek New Testament, made these evils seem
The next group of evils was more serious, for it affected the
spiritual life of the Church in its essence. It was a sort of
“crystallization” (as I have called it elsewhere) or, if the term be
preferred, an “ossification” of the clerical body in its habits, and even
in doctrinal teaching. Certain customs, harmless in themselves, and
perhaps on the whole rather good than otherwise, had come to seem more
important, especially as forms of local attachment to local shrines and
ceremonies, than the living body of the Catholic truth. It was necessary
to examine these things and to correct them in all cases, in some to get
rid of them altogether.
Thirdly, and much the most important of all, there was
worldliness, widespread among the officers of the Church, in the exact
theological sense of “worldliness”: the preference of temporal interests
A prime example of this was the vested interest in Church
endowment, which had come to be bought and sold, inherited, cadged for,
much as stocks and shares are today. We have seen how, even in the height
of the movement, one of the greatest of the reforming Popes held the
revenues of seven Bishoprics, thus deprived of their resident pastors. The
revenues of a Bishopric could be given as a salary by a King to one who
had served him, who never went near his See and lived perhaps hundreds of
miles away. It had come to be normal for a man like Wolsey, for example
(and he was only one among many others), to hold two of the first-rate
Sees of Christendom in his own hand at the same time: York and Winchester.
It had been customary for men like Campeggio, learned, virtuous and an
example in their lives to all, to draw the revenues of a Bishopric in
England while they themselves were Italians living in Italy and rarely
approaching their Sees. The Papal Courts, though their evils have been
much exaggerated, were recurrent examples, of which the worst was that of
Alexander VI’s family, a scandal of the first magnitude to all
Every kind of man would violently attack such monstrous abuses
with the same zeal as men today, both good and bad, attack the wanton
luxury of the rich contrasted with the horrible depths of modern
proletarian poverty. It was from all this that the turmoil sprang, and as
it increased in violence threatened to destroy the Christian Church
Under the impulse of this universal demand for reform, with
passions at work both constructive and destructive, it might well have
been that the unity of Christendom should have been preserved. There would
have been a great deal of wrangling, perhaps some fighting, but the
instinct for unity was so strong, the “patriotism” of Christendom was
still so living a force everywhere that, like as not, we should have ended
by the restoration of Christendom and a new and better era for our
civilization as the result of purging worldliness in the hierarchy and the
manifold corruptions against which the public con- science was seething.
There was no plan in the air at the beginning of the loud protest
during the chaotic revolutionary Lutheran outcry in the Germanies,
seconded by the humanist outcry everywhere. There was no concerted attack
on the Catholic Faith. Even those who were most instinctively its enemies
(Luther himself was not that) and men like Zwingli (who personally
hated the central doctrines of the Faith and who led the beginning of the
looting of the endowments of religion) could not organize a campaign.
There was no constructive doctrine abroad in opposition to the ancient
body of doctrine by which our fathers had lived,
appeared with a book for his in- strument, and a violent personal power of
reasoning and preaching to achieve his end. This man was a Frenchman, Jean
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 by his Bishop of much of the income
which he, Jean Calvin, himself enjoyed, he, John, set to work_and a mighty
work it was.
It would be unjust to say that the misfortunes of his family and
the bitter private money quarrel between himself and the local hierarchy
was the main driving force of Calvin’s attack. He was already on the
revolutionary side in religion; he would perhaps have been in any case a
chief figure among those who were for the destruction of the old religion.
But whatever his motive, he was certainly the founder of a new religion.
For John Calvin it was who set up a counter-Church.
He proved, if ever any man did, the power of logic_the triumph of
reason, even when abused, and the victory of intelligence over mere
instinct and feeling. He framed a complete new theology, strict and
consistent, wherein there was no room for priesthood or sacraments; he
launched an attack not anti-clerical, not of a negative kind, but
positive, just as Mohammed had done nine hundred years before. He was a
true heresiarch, and though his effect in the actual imposition of dogma
has not had a much longer life than that of Arianism yet the spiritual
mood he created has lasted on into our day. All that is lively and
effective in the Protestant temper still derives from John Calvin.
Though the iron Calvinist affirmations (the core of which was an
admission of evil into the Divine nature by the permission of but One Will
in the universe) have rusted away, yet his vision of a Moloch God remains;
and the coincident Calvinist devotion to material success, the Calvinist
antagonism to poverty and humility, survive in full strength. Usury would
not be eating up the modern world but for Calvin nor, but for Calvin,
would men debase themselves to accept inevitable doom; nor, but for
Calvin, would Communism be with us as it is today, nor, but for Calvin,
would Scientific Monism dominate as it (till recently) did the modern
world, killing the doctrine of miracle and paralysing Free Will.
This mighty French genius launched his Word nearly twenty years
after the religious revolution had begun: round that Word the battle of
Church and counter-Church was fought out; and the destruction of Christian
unity, which we call the Reformation, was essentially for more than a
century to become the product of a vivid effort, enthusiastic as early
Islam had been, to replace the ancient Christian thing by Calvin’s new
creed. It acted as all revolutions do, by the forming of “cells.” Groups
arose throughout the West, small highly disciplined societies of men,
determined to spread “the Gospel,” “the Religion”_it had many names. The
intensity of the movement grew steadily, especially in France, the country
of its founder.
The Reformation, unlike all the other great heresies, led to no
conclusion, or at least has led to none which we can as yet register,
although the first upheaval is now four hundred years behind us. The Arian
business slowly died away; but the Protestant business, though its
doctrine has disappeared, has borne permanent fruit. It has divided the
white civilization into two opposing cultures, Catholic and anti-Catholic.
But at the outset, before this result was reached, the challenge
of the reformers led to fierce civil wars. For the better part of a
lifetime it looked as though one side or the other (the traditional,
orthodox rooted Catholic culture of Europe, or the new revolutionary
Protestant thing) would certainly prevail. As a fact, neither prevailed.
Europe, after that first violent physical conflict, sank back exhausted,
registering victory to neither side and formed into those two halves which
have ever since divided the Occident. Great Britain, most of north
Germany, certain patches of Germans to the south among the Swiss cantons,
and even on the Hungarian plain, remained fixed against Catholicism; so
did the northern Netherlands, in their ruling part at least. So did
Scandinavia. The main part of the Rhine and the Danube valleys, that is,
the southern Germans, most of the Hungarians, the Poles, the Italians, the
Spaniards, the Irish, and in the main, the French, were found after the
shock still clinging to the ancestral religion which had made our great
To understand the nature of the confusion and general battle which
shook Europe is difficult indeed on account of the manifold factors
entering into the conflict.
First of all let us fix the chief dates. The active Reformation,
the eruption which followed two lifetimes of premonitory shocks and
rumblings broke out in 1517. But fighting between the two opponents did
not break out on any considerable scale for forty years. It began in
France in 1559. The French religious wars lasted for forty years: i.e.,
till just on the end of the century. Less than twenty years later the
Germans, who had hith- erto maintained a precarious balance between the
two sides, began
With the middle of the seventeenth century, i.e., 1648-49, the religious
wars in Europe ended in a stalemate.
By 1517 the nations, especially France and England, were already
half conscious of their personalities. They expressed their new patriotism
by king-worship. They followed their princes as national leaders even in
religion. Meanwhile the popular languages began to separate nations still
more as the common Latin of the Church grew less familiar. The whole
modern state was developing and the modern economic structure, and all the
while geographical discovery and physical and mathematical science were
In the midst of so many and such great forces all clashing, it is,
I say, difficult indeed to follow the battle as a whole, but I think we
can grasp it in its very largest lines if we remember certain main points.
The first is this: that the Protestant movement, which had begun
as something merely negative, an indignant revolt against the corruption
and worldliness of the official Church, was endowed with a new strength by
the creation of Calvinism, twenty years after the upheaval had begun.
Though the Lutheran forms of Protestantism covered so great an area, yet
the driving power_the centre of vitality_in Protestantism was, after
Calvin’s book had appeared in 1536, Calvin. It is the spirit of Calvin
which actively combats Catholicism wherever the struggle is fierce. It is
the spirit of Calvin that inhabited dissident sects and that lent violence
to the increasing English minority who were in reaction against the Faith.
Now Calvin was a Frenchman. His mind appealed to others indeed,
but principally and first to his compatriots; and that is why you find the
first outbreak of violence upon French soil. The religious wars, as they
are called, which broke out in France, are conducted there with greater
ferocity than elsewhere, and even when a halt is called to them, after
half a lifetime of horrors, it is a truce and not a victory. The truce was
imposed partly by the fatigue of the combatants in France and partly by
the Catholic tenacity of the capital, Paris; but it was a truce only.
Meanwhile, religious war had been staved off among the Germans
while it had been raging among the French. The turmoil of the Reformation
had led at one moment to a social revolution in some German states, but
that soon failed, and for a century after the original rebellion of
Luther, a long lifetime after the outbreak of religious civil war in
France, the Germans escaped general religious conflict in arms.
This was because the Germans had fallen into a sort of tessellated
map of free cities, smaller and larger lordships, little and big states.
The whole was under the
but the Emperor had neither income nor feudal levies sufficient to impose
his personal power. At long last the Emperor, being challenged by a
violent Bohemian (that is, Slav) revolt against him, counter attacked and
proposed to re-unite all Germans and impose not only a national unity but
a religious unity as well. He would restore Catholicism throughout the
German states and their dependencies. He all but succeeded in the attempt.
His armies were everywhere victorious, having for their most vigorous
recruitment the Spanish troops, who worked with the Emperor because the
Crowns at Madrid and Vienna were in the same family_the Hapsburgs.
But two things came in to prevent the triumph of German
Catholicism. The first was the character of a usurping family then
reigning over the little Protestant state of Sweden. It had produced a
military genius of the first order, the young Swedish King Gustavus
Adolphus. The second thing which made all the difference was the
diplomatic genius of Richelieu, who in those days directed all the policy
The Spanish power in the south beyond the Pyrenees (backed by all
the new-found wealth of the Americas, and governing half Italy), the
German power of the Empire lying to the east, together threatened France
as a nation like the claws of two pincers. Richelieu was a Catholic
cardinal. He was personally attached to the Catholic side in Europe, and
yet it was he who launched the Protestant military genius, Gustavus
Adolphus, against the German Catholic Emperor, with his Catholic Spanish
allies, just when victory was in their grasp.
For Richelieu not only discovered the genius of Gustavus Adolphus
but discovered a way of hiring that genius. Richelieu had offered him
three tubs of gold. He stood out for five_and got them.
Gustavus Adolphus could not have imagined the great future that
was in front of him when he took the French gold as a bribe to attempt the
difficult adventure of attacking the prestige and power of the Emperor.
Like Napoleon and Cromwell and Alexander and almost all the great captains
in history, he discovered his talents as he went along. He must himself
have marvelled to find how easily and completely he won his great
It is an astonishing story. The brilliant victories only lasted a
year; at the end of that year Gustavus Adolphus was killed in action at
Lutzen, near Leipsig, in 1632, but in so brief a time he very nearly
established a Protestant German Empire. He very nearly did what Bismarck
was to do two and a half centuries later; even as it was he made it for
ever impossible for Germans to be fully united again, and equally
impossible for them to return as a whole to the religion of their fathers.
He established German Protestantism so firmly that it went on from that
day to this increasing in power, until today (from Berlin) it inspires in
a new paganized form the great mass of the German peoples.
The religious wars in Germany gradually petered out. By the middle
of the seventeenth century, as I have said, a long lifetime after the
first fighting had begun in France, there was a general agreement
throughout Europe for each party to stand upon its gains, and the
religious map of Europe has remained much the same from that day to this,
that is from about 1648-49 to our own time.
Now anyone reading only the outward
first chapter of violent French religious war, its second chapter of
violent German religious war, would miss the character of the whole thing,
though he knew every battle and every leading statesman and warrior; for
there underlay that great affair another factor which was neither
doctrinal nor dynastic nor international but
factor which provoked fighting, imposed peace, and decided the ultimate
religious trend of the various communities. It is recognized by historians
but never sufficiently emphasized.
The old Catholic Europe, prior to Luther’s uprising, had been
filled with vast clerical endowments. Rents of land, feudal dues, all
manner of incomes, were fixed for the maintenance of bishoprics, cathedral
chapters, parish priests, monasteries and nunneries. Not only were there
vast incomes, but also endowments (perhaps one- fifth of all the rents of
Europe) for every sort of educational establishment, from petty local
schools to the great colleges of the universities. There were other
endowments for hospitals, others for guilds, (that is, trade unions and
associa- tions of craftsmen and merchants and shop- keepers), others for
Masses and shrines. All this corporate property was either directly
connected with the Catholic Church, or so much part of her patronage as to
be under peril of loot wherever the Catholic Church was challenged.
That is why in England there was so very little fighting. The
English people as a whole were little affected in doctrine by the early
Reformation, but the monasteries had been dis- solved and their property
had passed to the lords of the villages and the town merchants. The same
is true of many of the Swiss cantons. The French lords of villages, that
is the noble class (what are called in England “the Squires”), and the
greater nobles above them, were anxious to share in the loot.
The French Crown, dreading the increase of power which this loot
would give to the class immediately below it, resisted the movement, hence
the French religious wars; while in England a child King and two women
succeeding each other on the throne permitted the rich to get away with
the Church spoils. Hence the absence of religious wars in England.
It was this universal robbery of the Church, following upon the
religious revolution, which gave the period of conflict the character it
It would be a great error to think of the loot of the Church as a
mere crime of robbers attacking an innocent victim. The Church endowments
had come, before the Reformation, to be treated throughout the greater
part of Europe as mere property. Men would buy a clerical income for their
sons, or they would make provision for a daughter with a rich nunnery.
They would give a bishopric to a boy, purchasing a dispensation for his
lack of years. They took the revenues of monasteries wholesale to provide
incomes for laymen, putting in a
abbot, and giving him but a pittance, while the bulk of the endowment was
paid for life to the layman who had seized it.
Had not these abuses been already universal the subsequent general
loot would not have taken place. As things were, it did. What had been
temporary invasions of monastic incomes in order to provide temporary
wealth for laymen became per- manent confiscation wherever the Reformation
triumphed. Even where bishoprics survived the mass of their income was
taken away, and when the whole thing was over you may say that the Church
throughout what remained of Catholic Europe, even including Italy and
Spain, had not a half of its old revenues left. In that part of
Christendom which had broken away, the new Protestant ministers and
bishops, the new schools, the new colleges, the new hospitals, enjoyed not
a tenth of what the old endowments had yielded.
To sum up:_By the middle of the seventeenth century the religious
quarrel in Europe had been at work, most of the time under arms, for over
one hundred and thirty years. Men had now settled down to the idea that
unity could never be recovered. The economic strength of religion had, in
half of Europe, disappeared, and in the other half so shrunk that the lay
power was everywhere master. Europe had fallen into two cultures,
Catholic and Protestant; these two cultures would always be in-
stinctively and directly opposed one to the other (as they still are), but
the directly religious issue was dropping out and, in despair of a common
religion, men were concerning themselves more with temporal, above all
with dynastic and national, issues, and with the capture of opportunities
for increasing wealth by trade rather than with matters of doctrine.
After the middle of the seventeenth century, Europe had witnessed
the triumph of a Puritan- officered army in England, the triumph of the
German Protestants_through the help of France under Cardinal Richelieu_in
their effort to shake themselves free from the Catholic control of the
Emperor, and the triumph of the Dutch rebels against Catholic Spain.
Europe fell back exhausted from the purely religious struggle. The wars of
religion were at an end; they had ended in a draw: neither side had won.
Religious conflict had remained in patches. Thus England tried to kill
Catholic Ireland and France to kill French Huguenotry. But by 1700 it was
clear no more national wars of religion would arise.
Henceforward it was taken for granted that our civilization must
continue divided. There was to be a Protestant culture side by side with
the Catholic culture. Men could not lose the memory of the great past;
they did not quickly become what we have since become_nations growing
indifferent to the unity of European civilization_but the old moral unity
which came of our universal Catholicism was ruined.
Roughly speaking, the mass of Europe fell into the following form:
The Greek or Orthodox Church of the East had ceased to count.
Russia had not arisen as a power, and everywhere else the Greek Christians
were dominated by, and subject to, Moslems, so that the only map to be
considered in 1650 was one stretching from Poland on the East to the
Atlantic on the West.
In that region the Italian peninsula, divided into various states,
was wholly Catholic save for a very small population in some of the
northern mountains which had Protestant forms of worship.
The Iberian peninsula_Spain and Portugal_was also wholly Catholic.
The Empire, as it was called, that is, the body of states, most of which
spoke German and of which the moral head was the Emperor at Vienna, was
divided into Protestant states and self-governing cities, and Catholic
states and self-governing cities. The Emperor had tried to bring them all
back to Catholicism and had failed, because of the diplomacy of Richelieu.
In mere numbers, as the Protestant German population was as yet
much smaller than the Catholic. Roughly speaking, the northern German
states and cities were Protestant and the southern Catholic_not, as is
falsely pretended, because something in the northern climate or race
tended to Protestantism, but because they lay further away from the centre
of Catholic power in Vienna. Though the various “Germanies” (as the
German- speaking states and cities were called) were thus roughly divided
into Protestant North and Catholic South, there were any number of
exceptions, islands of Catholic population in the North and Protestant in
the South, and often the citizens of one city were divided in religion.
Scandinavia, that is, Denmark, Sweden and Norway, were by this
time wholly Protestant. Poland, though it had never formed part of the
Roman Empire, went Catholic after a sort of see- saw and hesitation during
the time of the religious wars. It has remained one of the most intensely
Catholic districts of the world ever since, because, like the Irish, the
Poles were violently persecuted for their religion.
The Low Countries had divided into two. The northern provinces
(which we now call Holland) had acquired their independence from their
original sovereign, the King of Spain, and, largely as a protest against
the Spanish power, proclaimed themselves officially Protestant. Their
government was Protestant and the political effect of Holland in Europe
was Protestant; but it is a great error, though a very common one, to
think that the Dutch population as a whole was Protestant. There was a
very large Catholic minority and today, of the Christian population_that
is the population so declared_over two-fifths but rather less than one-
half are Catholic.
The southern provinces of the ancient Netherlands remained solidly
of the Catholic culture. They had joined in the revolt against Spain, but
when the northern merchants and rich landowners went Calvinist in order to
emphasize the struggle with Spain, the merchants and rich men of the
southern provinces reacted strongly the other way. Today we call this
Catholic half of the Netherlands Belgium, but it included in the middle of
the seventeenth century a strip of what is today French Flanders; for
instance, the great town of Lille, the chief city of Flanders, was part of
the Catholic and still Spanish Netherlands.
The Swiss Cantons, which were gradually becoming a nation and
already mainly independent of the Empire, were divided; some were of the
Protestant culture, some of the Catholic_as they remain to this day.
France, after the compromise at the end of the religious wars and
the victory of Richelieu over the Huguenots, became officially Catholic.
The French monarchy was strongly Catholic and the mass of the nation was
of the Catholic culture. But there remained a minority of Protestants,
important in numbers (no one knows quite how many, but probably, as we saw
on a former page, less than a seventh but more than a tenth of the nation)
and far more important in wealth and social position than in numbers. The
Protestants in France were also important because they were not confined
to one district but were to be found all over the place; for instance,
Dieppe, the harbour in the north, was still a strongly Protestant town. So
was La Rochelle, the harbour on the Atlantic; so, especially, were many
prosperous southern towns such as Montpelier and Nimes. Much of the
banking and commerce of France remained in Protestant hands.
England and Scotland in 1650 had been under a common monarch for
half a century and were both officially Protestant. This English-Scotch
monarchy was strongly Protestant, and there was continual and heavy
persecution of Catholicism. But it is another common error to regard the
English nation as a whole as being already Protestant at this moment. What
was really happening was the dying down of Catholicism very gradually.
Perhaps a third of the nation was still vaguely in sympathy with the old
religion when the civil wars began, and a sixth of it was willing to make
heavy sacrifices by calling itself openly Catholic. Of the officers killed
in action on both sides, about one-sixth were estimated to be admittedly
and openly Catholics. But it was im- possible for the ordinary man to get
the Sacra- ments, and difficult even for rich men, who could afford to pay
for private chapels, fines, etc., to get Mass and the Catholic Communion.
None the less, so strong was the ancient root of Catholicism in
England that there were constant conversions, especially in the upper
classes. For nearly forty years to come it looked as though a very large,
solid minority of Catholicism might survive in England, as it had in
On the other hand, England and Scotland were not only officially
Protestant, but a growing majority had come to think of Catholicism as
alien to the interests of the country, and a very large and growing
minority was filled with a more violent hatred of Catholicism than you
could find anywhere else in Europe.
Ireland of course remained Catholic; the number of Protestants
present in Ireland, even after the plantations and the conquest by
Cromwell, was not one-twentieth of the population. But
nineteen-twentieths of the land had been taken by force from the Irish and
Catholic people and was now (1650) either in the possession of renegades
or of Protestant adventurers from Great Britain, to whom the original
owners of the land now had to pay rent or for whom they had to work at a
From this moment, the mid-seventeenth century, when elsewhere
there had arisen compromise throughout Europe in the matter of religion,
Catholicism was persecuted in Ireland in the most violent fashion, and in
a fashion which got more violent as time went on. All the power, very
nearly all the land, and most of the liquid wealth of Ireland were in the
hands not only of Protestants but of people determined to destroy
Catholicism. For a long time to come it was as though Ireland were a test;
as though the destruction of the Catholic Church in Ireland were to be a
symbol of the triumph of Protestantism and the decline of the Faith. That
destruction was nearly accomplished_but not quite.
Such was the map of Europe as the drawn battle of religious wars
had left it.
But apart from the geographical division, the effect of the long
struggle, and particularly the fact that it had been inconclusive, was on
the moral side more profound than on the geographical.
It was obvious to the eye that European culture would in future be
divided into two camps, but what only gradually entered the mind of Europe
was the fact that on account of this permanent division men were coming to
regard religion itself as a secondary thing. Political considerations, the
ambition of separate nations and separate dynasties, began to seem more
important than the separate religions men professed. It was as though
people had said to themselves, not openly, but half-consciously, “Since
all this tremendous fight has had no result, the causes which led to the
conflict were probably exaggerated.”
In the only department that counts, in the mind of man, the effect
of the religious wars and their ending in a drawn battle was that religion
as a whole was weakened. More and more men began to think in their hearts,
“One cannot arrive at the truth in these matters, but we do know what
worldly prosperity is and what poverty is, and what political power and
political weakness are. Religious doctrine belongs to an unseen world
which we do not know as thoroughly or in the same way.”
That was the prime fruit of the battles not having been won and of
the two antagonists virtually consenting to fall back on their positions.
There was still plenty of religious fervour on both sides, but in a
subtle, undeclared way it was more and more subordinated to worldly
motives, especially to patriotism and greed.
Meanwhile, though men did not observe it for a long time, a
certain result of this success which Protestantism had obtained, this
establishment and entrenching of itself over against the old religion, was
working under the surface and was soon to come clearly to light. The
Protestant culture, though it remained for another lifetime much smaller
numerically than the Catholic culture, and even as a whole poorer, had
more vitality. It had begun in a religious revolution; the eagerness of
that revolution carried on and inspired it. It had broken up old
traditions and bonds which had formed the framework of Catholic society
for hundreds of years. The social stuff of Europe was dissolved in the
Protestant culture more thoroughly than in the Catholic, and its
dissolution released energies which Catholicism had restrained, especially
the energy of competition.
All forms of innovation were naturally more favoured in the
Protestant culture than in the Catholic; both cultures advanced rapidly in
the physical sciences, in the colonization of distant lands, in the
expansion of Europe throughout the world; but the Protestants were more
vigorous in all these than were the Catholics.
To take one example: in the Protestant culture (save where it was
remote and simple) the free peasant, protected by ancient customs,
declined. He died out because the old customs which supported him against
the rich were broken up. Rich men acquired the land; great masses of men
formerly owning farms became destitute. The modern proletariat began and
the seeds of what we today call Capitalism were sown. We can see now what
an evil that was, but at the time it meant that the land was better
cultivated. New and more scientific methods were more easily applied by
the rich landowners of the new Protestant culture than by the Catholic
traditional peasantry; and, competition being unchecked, the former
Again, inquiry tended to be more free in the Protestant culture
than in the Catholic, because there was no one united authority of
doctrine; and though in the long run this was bound to lead to the
break-up of philosophy and of all sound thinking, the first effects were
stimulating and vitalizing.
But the great, the chief, example of what was happening through
the break-up of the old Catholic European unity, was the rise of banking.
Usury was practised everywhere, but in the Catholic culture it was
restricted by law and practised with difficulty. In the Protestant culture
it became a matter of course. The Protestant merchants of Holland led the
way in the beginnings of
is why the still comparatively small Protestant nations began to acquire
formidable economic strength. Their mobile capital and credit kept on
increasing compared with their total wealth. The mercantile spirit
flourished vigorously among the Dutch and English, and the universal
admission of competition continued to favour the growth of the Protestant
side of Europe.
All this increase of Protestant power was becoming clear in the
lifetime after the Peace of Westphalia (1648-50 to 1720). It was no longer
subconscious but conscious, and was felt ev- erywhere as the first third
of the eighteenth century progressed. Before the middle of that century
there was a feeling in the air that al- though Catholicism still held the
ancient thrones, with all their traditional glory and show of strength_the
Imperial Crown, the Papal States, the Spanish Monarchy with its huge
dominions over- seas, the splendid French Monarchy_yet the future
was with the Protestants, Protestantism, to use the modern phrase, was
Moreover confidence was on the Protestant side, and the Catholic
side was disheartened. One last factor was greatly in favour of the
Protestant culture: the decline of religious feeling was going on
everywhere after 1750, and this decline of religion did not,
hurt Protestant society as much as it hurt Catholic society. In Catholic
society it divided men bitterly one from the other. The sceptic was there
the enemy of his pious fellow-countryman. France, to some extent Italy,
much later Spain_but France early in the business_were divided against
themselves, while in the Protestant culture difference of opinion and
scepticism were commonplaces. Men took them for granted. They led less and
less to personal animosities and civil division.
This internal strength the Protestant culture retained on into
modern times and has only now begun to lose it, through the gradually
disintegrating effect of a false philosophy.
Rather more than a hundred and fifty years ago, but less than two
hundred_say between 1760 and 1770_it should have been clear to any close
observer of our civilization that we were entering a period in which the
anti-Catholic side of the two halves into which Christendom had split was
about to become the chief party. The Protestant culture was about to get
the upper hand and would perhaps keep it for a long time. It did as a fact
not only keep it but increased its hold for more than a full lifetime_for
something like a hundred years. Then_but not till our own times_it
The outward or political signs of this Protestant growth were
continued increase of financial, military and naval power on that side of
Europe. English commerce rapidly expanded; the Dutch continued to increase
their banking and, most important of all, England began to get hold of
India. On the military side, the Protestant Germans produced a new and
formidable army, that of Prussia, with a strong discipline crowned by
Something that was to have a great effect_the British fleet_became
far more powerful than any other, and under its protection English trade
and control over the East continually grew. By land Prussia began to win
battles and campaigns; these successes of Prussia were not continuous but
they founded a continuous tradition, and her Soldier- King, Frederick II,
was certainly one of the great captains of history.
Meanwhile the Catholic culture declined in this same political
Austria, that is, the power of the Catholic Emperor among Germans,
diminished in strength; so did the vast Spanish Empire, which included at
that time much the greater part of populated America.
These material outward signs of increasing Protestant power and
the declining power of the Catholic culture were but the effects of a
spiritual thing which was going on within. Faith was breaking down.
The Protestant culture was untroubled by this growth of
scepticism. The decline of men’s adherence to the old doctrines of
Christendom did not weaken Protestant society. The whole tone of mind in
that society called every man free to judge for himself, and the one thing
it repudiated and would not have was the authority of a common religion.
A common religion is of the nature of the Catholic culture, and so
the growing decline of belief worked havoc there. It destroyed the moral
authority of the Catholic governments, which were closely associated with
religion, and it either cast a sort of paralysis over thought and action,
as happened in Spain, or, as happened in France, violently divided men
into two camps, clerical and anti-clerical.
Still, though we can see what was at work in the eighteenth
century, the men of the time did not. England through her sea-power had
got a stranglehold on India; Prussia had established herself as a strong
power; but no one foresaw that England and Prussia would overshadow
Christendom. India was going to produce wealth and power for those who
should exploit her and, with her as a base, establish their banking power
and commerce throughout the East. Prussia was going to absorb the Germans
and overthrow Europe.
England (also through her naval power) had got hold of the French
colony of Canada; but no one in those days thought colonies of much
importance save as sources of wealth for the mother country, and Canada
had never been that for France. Later, when England lost her own colonies
in North America and they became independent, it was wrongly regarded as a
mortal blow to English power throughout the world.
Very few foresaw what the new republic in North America was going
to mean for the future; its vast and rapid expansion in numbers and wealth
immensely strengthened the position of the Protestant culture in the
world. It was much later that a certain proportion of Catholic immigrants
somewhat modified this position, but even so, the United States remained
during their astonishing increase an essentially Protestant society.
At the end of the eighteenth century and into the beginning of the
nineteenth came the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. These also
increased the general strength of Protestantism and still further weakened
the Catholic culture. They did so indirectly, and the immediate issues
were so much more exciting and so much more directly concerned men’s lives
that this ultimate and profound effect was little appreciated.
To this day there are few historians who appreciate the defeat of
Napoleon in terms of contrasting cultures in Europe. The French Revolution
was an anti-clerical movement, and Napoleon who was its heir was not
himself a believing and practicing Catholic and cannot be said to have
returned to the Faith until his death-bed. Nor, for all his genius, did he
clearly perceive that difference of religion is at the root of differences
in culture, for the generation to which he belonged had no conception of
that profound and universal judgment.
Nevertheless the truth remains that had Napoleon succeeded the
preponderating culture of Europe would have been Catholic. His Empire
inter- married with and allied to the ancient Catholic tradition of
Austria, giving the Church peace and ending the revolutionary dangers,
would have given us a united and settled Europe, where, in spite of the
very wide spread of rationalism in the wealthier classes, Europe as a
whole would have returned to the Catholic tradition.
Napoleon, however, just failed; and he failed through
miscalculating his chances in the campaign in Russia.
After his failure the process of decline, so long at work in the
Catholic culture, continued throughout all the nineteenth century. England
as the result of the defeat of Napoleon was able to expand uninterruptedly
through her now not only unquestioned but invincible sea-power. There was
no rival against her anywhere outside Europe. The Spanish Empire, already
fallen very low, was broken up, largely through the efforts of England,
which desired unimpeded trade with South and Cen- tral America. England
seized points of vantage all over the globe, some of which became
considerable local societies at first called colonies but now
Prussia, through the defeat of Napoleon, became the leading power
among the Germans; she annexed the Catholic population of the Rhine and
became the triumphant rival of the Hapsburg- Lorraine House, the Emperor
at Vienna. France fell into unceasing political experiment and breakdown,
at the root of which was the profound religious division between
There was no united Italy, and such effort as was being made to
create one was being made by anti-Catholics. Indeed, it is one of the most
amusing ironies of history that the great power which Italy has now become
was largely called into being by the sympathy Protestant Europe felt for
the original Italian rebellions against the Catholic King of Naples and
the authority of the Papal States.
One working lifetime after the defeat of Napoleon another weighty
group of events was thrown into the scale against the Catholic culture;
this was the series of crushing victories won by Prussia in the field,
between 1866 and 1871. In those five years Prussia destroyed the military
power of Catholic Austria and created a new German Empire in which the
Catholics were carefully cut off from Austria and formed into a minority
with Protestant Berlin as their centre of gravity. Prussia also suddenly
and completely defeated the French Army, took Paris and annexed what
suited her of French territory.
This last business, the Franco-Prussian War, was far the most
important of all, and might well have proved the end of the Catholic
culture in Europe, through the establishment of the Parliamentary French
Republic (which went from bad to worse in laws and morals) and from the
undermining of the confidence the French had in themselves. The new regime
in France began to ruin French civilization and increased indefinitely the
anti-Catholic faction, which obtained and kept external power over the
French people. Moreover, as a result of that war, England became stronger
still in the East, she took the place of France as the master in Egypt,
taking over the custody of the Suez Canal (which the French had made just
before their final defeat) and acquiring Cyprus.
Italy was now united but weak and despised. Spain and Portugal
had declined, it seemed, beyond all hope of recovery; and with France torn
by her religious quarrel and having the worst kind of professional
politicians in power, with the sun of Austria setting, with Prussia in
full career, with the United States now recovering from its Civil War and
more powerful and coherent than ever_rapidly becoming the richest country
in the world and with a population as rapidly expand- ing_it seemed a
matter of course that the Catholic culture would be beaten right out of
the field. The Protestant culture had become the manifest leader of white
The thing was apparent not only politically but in the economic
field as well. The new machinery which transformed life everywhere, the
new rapid communications of thought and goods and men, were mainly the
product of the Protestant culture. The nations of Catholic culture did but
copy the Protestant nations in these matters.
So it was also with institutions; the English institution of
Parliament which had arisen and was maintained under aristocratic
conditions by a governing class, was imitated everywhere. It was utterly
unsuited to societies with a strong sense of human equality, but such was
the prestige of England that men copied English institutions upon every
Meanwhile what may properly be called the test of the fortunes of
the Catholic culture, Ireland, seemed to give the signal of that culture’s
final ruin. The Irish population, long dispossessed of its land, was
halved by famine; the wealth of Catholic Ireland fell as rapidly as that
of England rose, and no one of consequence thought it was possible that
Ireland, after her awful experiences in the nineteenth century, could rise
again from the dead.
The Pope had been despoiled of his income through the seizure of
his States, and was now a prisoner in the Vatican with all the spirit of
the new Italian Government, his apparent master, more and more opposed to
religion. The educational system of Europe grew more and more divorced
from religion, and in the large Catholic countries either broke up or fell
wholly into anti-Catholic hands.
It is very difficult to say when the tide turns in the great
processes of history. But one rule may be wisely applied; the turn of the
tide comes earlier than men judging by surface phenom- ena conceive. Any
great system_the actively centralized Western Roman Empire, the Spanish
Empire, the period of Turkish rule in the East, the period of the absolute
Monarchies of Western Europe_has really begun to break down long before
the outside observer can note any change. For instance, as late as 1630
men were still talking and thinking of the Spanish power as much the
greatest thing in the world; yet it had received its death blow in Holland
a lifetime before, and was after Rocroi (1643) slowly bleeding to death.
It was and is so with the Protestant hegemony over our culture,
with the Protestant and anti- Catholic leadership of white civilization.
The tide has turned. But what was the moment of change? When was “slack
It is difficult to fix a date for these things, but a universal
rule is that, in doubt between two dates, the earlier date is to be
preferred to the later.
Many would put the years 1899-1901, the ominous Boer War, as the
turning point. Some would put it later. For my part, I should fix it round
about the years 1885-1887. It seems to me that a universal observer,
unbiased by patriotic feeling, would fix that moment_or 1890 at the
latest_as the point of flexion in the curve. The Protestant powers were
apparently greater than ever; but a reaction was stirring and in the next
generation it was bound to become apparent.
Whatever the causes and whatever the precise dates to be fixed
(certainly somewhere between 1885 and 1904) the tide was turning. It was
not turning toward the re-establishment of the Catholic culture as the
leader of Europe, let alone to the re-establishment of the Catholic Church
as the universal spirit of that culture; but the ideas and the things
which had made the opposite culture all-powerful were breaking down. This
modern decline of the Protestant hegemony and its succession by an
altogether new menace_and a new Catholic reaction against that menace_I
shall now describe.
Whatever date we assign to the summit of power in the Protestant
culture, whether we say that its decay was beginning as early as 1890 or
that it cannot be put earlier than even 1904, there is no doubt that
after this date_in other words, with the very first years of the twentieth
century_the supremacy of the Protestant culture was undermined.
The various Protestant heresies upon which it had been based, and
the general spirit of all those heresies combined, were declining;
therefore their fruit, the Protestant hegemony over Europe and the white
world, was declining also. Protes- tantism was being strangled at its
root, at its spiritual root; therefore the material fruits of that tree
were beginning to wither.
When we study in detail the process of this veiled decay in the
supremacy of the Protestant culture we find two sets of causes. The first,
and apparently the least important (though posterity may discover it to be
of great importance), was a certain recovery of confidence in a portion
(but only a portion) of the nations deriving from the Catholic culture,
and at the same time a revival of vitality in Catholic teaching.
Politically there was no reaction towards the old strength of the
Catholic culture; it was rather the other way. Ireland continued to
decline in population and wealth, and was now more subject to a Protestant
power than ever before. Poland could apparently no longer hope for
resurrection. The divisions within the Catholic culture itself grew worse
than ever. In France (which was the keystone of the whole) the quarrel
between the Church and her enemies became taken for granted and the
victory of these enemies taken for granted as well. Religion was dying out
in the elementary schools. Great tracts of the peasantry were losing their
ancestral faith; and with the decline of religion went a decline of taste
in architecture and all the arts_and worst of all in letters. The old
French lucidity of thought began to grow confused. There was no revival of
Spain, and in Italy, what with anti-clerical and Masonic Parliamentary
power and the differences between the various districts, yet another
province of Catholic culture grew weaker.
But there was already apparent some revival of religion in the
wealthier classes among all the nations of Catholic culture.
This might not seem to mean much, for the wealthier classes are a
small minority; but they influenced the universities and therefore the
literature and philosophy of their generation. Where, half a lifetime
before, anyone would have told you that Catholicism could never again
appear in the University of Paris there were evident signs that it was
again being taken very seri- ously. In all this the great Pope Leo XIII
played a chief part, seconded by him who was later to become Cardinal
Mercier. St. Thomas Aquinas was rehabilitated and the University of
Louvain became a focus of intellectual energy radiating throughout Western
Still, all this was, I repeat, of less significance than the
decline of the Protestant culture from within. The Catholic culture
continued to be divided; there were no signs of its returning to its great
r1le in the past; and though the seeds both of Irish and Polish recovery
had been sown (the former through the very important recovery of their
land by the tenacious Irish peasantry) no one could have foretold_as
indeed most cannot yet perceive_the strengthening of the Catholic culture
as a whole throughout our civilization.
There were great converts, as there have always been; there were
what is even more significant, whole groups of very eminent men, such as
Brunetiire in France, who grew less and less sympathetic with the
old-fashioned atheism and agnosticism, and who, without declaring
themselves Catholic, were clearly sympathetic with the Catholic side. But
these did not influence the main current; what really made the change was
the great internal weakness of the Protestant culture as opposed to the
Catholic. It was this decay of the opponent to the Church which began to
transform Europe and prepare men for yet another great change, which I
shall call (so as to give it a name and be able to study it later) “The
Protestant culture decayed from within from a number of causes,
all probably connected, although it is difficult to trace the connection;
all probably proceeding from what physicists call the “auto-toxic”
condition of the Protestant culture. We say that an organism has become
“auto-toxic” when it is beginning to poison itself, when it loses vigour
in its vital processes and accu- mulates secretions which continually
lessen its energies. Something of this kind was happening to the
Protestant culture towards the end of the nineteenth century and the
beginning of the twentieth.
This was the general cause of the Protestant decline, but its
action was vague and hard to grasp; on the
decline we may be more concrete and certain.
For one thing the spiritual basis of Protestantism went to pieces
through the breakdown of the Bible as a supreme authority. This breakdown
was the result of that very spirit of sceptical inquiry upon which
Protestantism had always been based. It had begun by saying, “I deny the
authority of the Church: every man must examine the credibility of every
doctrine for himself.” But it had taken as a prop (illogically enough) the
Catholic doctrine of Scriptural inspiration. That great mass of Jewish
folklore, poetry and traditional popular history and proverbial wisdom
which we call the Old Testament, that body of records of the Early Church
which we call the New Testament, the Catholic Church had declared to be
Divinely inspired. Protestantism (as we all know) turned this very
doctrine of the Church against the Church herself, and appealed to the
Bible against Catholic authority.
Hence the Bible_Old and New Testaments com- bined_became an object
of worship in itself throughout the Protestant culture. There was a great
deal of doubt and even paganism floating about before the end of the
nineteenth century in the nations of Protestant culture; but the mass of
their populations, in Germany as in England and Scandinavia, certainly in
the United States, anchored themselves to the literal interpretation of
Now historical research, research in physical science and research
in textual criticism, shook this attitude. The Protestant culture began to
go to the other extreme; from having worshipped the very text of the Bible
as something immutable and the clear voice of God, it fell to doubting
almost everything that the Bible contained.
It questioned the authenticity of the four Gospels, particularly
the two written by eye- witnesses to the life of Our Lord and more
especially that of St. John, the prime witness to the Incarnation.
It came to deny the historical value of nearly everything in the
Old Testament prior to the Babylonian exile; it denied as a matter of
course every miracle from cover to cover and every prophecy.
That a document should contain prophecy was taken to prove that it
must have been written after the event. Every inconvenient text was
labelled as an interpolation. In fine, when this spirit (which was the
very product of Protestantism itself) had done with the Bible_the very
foundation of Protestantism_it had left nothing of Protestantism but a
mass of ruins.
There was also another example of the spirit of Protestantism
destroying its own foundations, but in a different field_that of social
Protestantism had produced free competition permitting usury and
destroying the old safeguards of the small man’s property_the guild and
the village association.
In most places where it was powerful (and especially in England)
Protestantism had destroyed the peasantry altogether. It had produced
modern industrialism in its capitalistic form; it had produced modern
banking, which at last became the master of the community; but not much
more than a lifetime’s experience of industrial capitalism and of the
banker’s usurious power was enough to show that neither the one nor the
other could continue. They had bred vast social evils which went from bad
to worse, until men, without consciously appreciating the ultimate cause
of those evils (which cause is, of course, spiritual and religious) at any
rate found the evils unendurable.
But the later wealth and political power of the Protestant culture
had been based upon these very institutions, now challenged.
Industrial capitalism and the usurious banking power were the very
strength of nineteenth- century Protestant civilization. They had
especially triumphed in Victorian England. They are, at the moment in
which I write these words, still on the surface all-powerful_but we every
one of us know that their hour has struck. They have rotted from within;
and with them the Protestant hegemony which they so powerfully supported
in the generations immediately before our own.
There was yet another cause of weakening and decline in the
Protestant culture: the various parts of it tended to quarrel one with the
other. That was what one would have expected from a system at once based
upon competition and flattering human pride. The various Protestant
societies, notably the British and Prussian, were each convinced of its
own complete superiority. But you cannot have two or more superior races.
This mood of self-worship necessarily led to conflict between the
self-worshippers. They might all combine in despising the Catholic
culture, but they could not preserve unity among themselves.
The trouble was made worse by an inherent lack of plan. The
Protestant culture having begun by exaggerating the power of human reason,
was ending by abandoning human reason. It boasted its dependence upon
instinct and even upon good for- tune. There was no commoner phrase upon
the lips of Protestant Englishmen than the phrase, “We are not a logical
nation.” Each Protestant group was “God’s country”_God’s favour-ite_and
somehow or other was bound to come out on top without the bother of
thinking out a scheme for its own conduct.
Nothing more fatal for an individual or a large society in the
long run can be conceived than this blind dependence upon an assured good
fortune, and an equally blind neglect of rational processes. It opens the
door to every extravagance, material and spiritual; to conceptions of
universal dominion, world power and the rest of it, which in their effect
are mortal poisons.
All these things combined led to the great breakdown which we date
overtly from 1914 but of which the inception lay three years earlier at
least; for it was three years before the outbreak of the Great War that
the nations began to make their preparations for conflict.
In the Great War, of course, the whole of the old state of affairs
went down with a crash. So much as survived what had been the institutions
of the Protestant hegemony_control by the banks, the levying of general
usury through international loans, the wholly competitive industrial
system, the unchecked exploitation of a vast proletariat by a small
capitalist class_only survived precariously, propped up by every sort of
device, and that in only a few societies. In the mass of our civilization
these things rapidly disappeared. The main political institution which
had gone with them_parliaments composed of professional politicians and
calling themselves “representative”_went down the same road. Our
civilization began to enter a period of political experiments, including
despotisms, each of which experiments may be and probably is ephemeral,
but all of which are, at any rate, a complete break with the immediate
The old white world wherein a divided and distracted Catholic
culture was overshadowed by a triumphant and powerful Protestant culture
was no more.
But let it be noted that this breakdown of the older anti-Catholic
thing, the Protestant culture, shows no sign of being followed by an
hegemony of the Catholic culture. There is no sign as yet of a reaction
towards the domination of Catholic ideas_the full restoration of the Faith
by which Europe and all our civilization can alone be saved.
It nearly always happens that when you get rid of one evil you
find yourself faced with another hitherto unsuspected; and so it is now
with the breakdown of the Protestant hegemony. We are entering a new
phase, “The Modern Phase,” as I have called it, in which very different
problems face the Eternal Church and a very different enemy will challenge
her existence and the salvation of the world which depends upon her. What
that modern phase is I shall now attempt to analyse.