Brad Gregory
Brad Gregory
The Reformation that began in Christianity 500 years ago — and the sometimes-violent divisions that followed — led to modern secularism.

That’s the case University of Notre Dame historian Brad Gregory made Dec. 11 at the inaugural Archbishop’s Lecture, an effort by the Archdiocese of Portland to increase the octane of faith knowledge in western Oregon. About 190 people, many of them 20- and 30-somethings, attended the lecture, held at Aquinas Hall across from Holy Rosary Church in Northeast Portland.

During the Reformation era, religion went from being the major influence on every part of European life to becoming “an unprecedented problem,” said Gregory, who taught at Stanford before heading to Notre Dame. He specializes in the effect of the Reformation on the modern world.

In pre-Reformation Europe, faith was not a separate compartment of life, Gregory said. Instead, it informed politics, law, social identity and relationships. Christianity effected how people worked and sold, bought and learned.

But people of faith showed their shortcomings, which sparked reformers of many kinds, including Catholic heroes like St. Catherine of Siena and Erasmus. The problems of corruption also got under the skin of a scrupulous Augustinian friar teaching in a small German town.

Martin Luther — who would soon defy pope and emperor — was little known early in 1517. He was devout and anxious about his own salvation. Luther did not set out to divide the church, but his declarations about the primacy of Scripture and the nature of salvation were published on relatively new printing presses and soon he was the most read man in Europe. His position on the Bible made it possible for people to counter papal teaching.

“Luther started the Reformation without intending to, but it quickly escaped his control,” Gregory said.

Everything was in the air. Factions within the Protestant movement argued about matters like the extent of human freedom, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the nature of the Eucharist and the role of baptism. The movement inspired German peasants to rebel against their overlords.

Gregory said Luther was like a stone thrown in a pond, sending ripples outward in all directions.

The Reformation spread out of Germany and Switzerland, forcing political authorities all over Europe to choose between Catholic and Protestant factions. Conflict ensued.

“The wars of religion should be called ‘more than wars of religion,’ since religion was about so much,” Gregory said. The battles destroyed homes and caused suffering and economic collapse. Thousands became refugees.

“When people agree that religion is to be the basis of civilization but can’t agree about its content, they are headed for trouble,” Gregory said. “What do you do when your basis of life is also a source of so much trouble?”

An exhausted Europe sought a new answer and in the 17th century, society began to restrain religion. It was not what the reformers had wanted, but Europe became secularized. Many individuals were still religious, but religion’s influence on public life declined.

“Western society is largely about secularization, because religion became such a problem,” said Gregory. Individual choice in religion, and all matters, became the watchword of the day in this period, which happens to be when the United States was formed. Religion was tolerated, so long as it did not poke too far into public life.

In Holland, religious uniformity was replaced by a national zeal for business, leading not only to a powerful Dutch empire, but to the rise of consumerism. The British, and then the Americans, imitated the Dutch model, in which religion was constrained from interfering with business.

This marketplace-focused result of the Reformation has caused other modern strife, including global climate change, Gregory said.

Gregory explained that his work is meant to trace historical causes, not glorify Catholicism. Pre-Reformation Christendom fell short in many ways, he said. “It is a mistake for Catholics,” he concluded, “to look back at the Middle Ages as a golden era.”

“We should take great pride in the rich theological intellectual tradition of the Catholic Church,” Archbishop Alexander Sample told the crowd. The archbishop explained that the Catholic tradition includes bold intellectual inquiry, not blind adherence.