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IX. Renaissance & Reformation

Desiderius Erasmus
Catholics like Desiderius Erasmus (pictured) and St. Thomas More were masters of the classical liberal arts and avoided the errors of their day.

In past lessons, we have studied the steady development of the classical liberal arts curriculum from the earliest days of human civilization through the growth of the Catholic Church in Europe in the 1300s. In this lesson, we will jump ahead to the first great assault made on the classical liberal arts. This assault took place over a period of time, from the 14th through the 17th centuries and is contained within two events identified by historians as the Renaissance and the Reformation.

The Renaissance

When we examine the terms used by historians it becomes clear that the Catholic Church is not very well liked. As Catholics, we might call the period from the fall of Rome to the Protestant Reformation the “Golden Age” of world history. However, when we look to the history books we find this period referred to as the Middle age, implying it merely stood between two more important periods to which it was referred. We find the cultural and political rebellion against the medieval Church called the Renaissance, which means “rebirth” and implies that something had been lost or dead before. Lastly, the widespread rebellion against Catholicism in the religious sphere is called the Reformation, which implies purification and improvement. In our study of history, we have seen the birth of the Christian Church, the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Catholic-European civilization. Apparently historians judge this to be a bad thing!

On one hand, there were a number of things lost that might have needed a renewal. We see in this period a rebirth of sculpture, painting and art that was indeed lost throughout the medieval world. This is not surprising when we consider that art always flourishes where men have peace and wealth. The art and literature of classical Greek culture flourished after the Persian Wars ended and all of Greece’s foreign enemies were pushed back. Roman arts flourished during the Pax Romana when imported slaves took on much of the labor in and around Rome, freeing citizens for leisure studies. However, after enduring centuries of persecution and oppression and then facing the challenge of Christianizing Europe, we cannnot expect the Christian Church to have been a source of great artistic achievement. Once, however, the dust settled, the arts were “reborn”, and this was a wonderful thing. We are all familiar with Renaissance artists: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello, Van Eyck, etc..

However, in the realms of philosophy and education, what was reborn was the interest in man and life on this side of the grave, as opposed to the medieval interest in God and what lay across the river, so to speak. This movement is known as humanism.

We learned earlier in this course that the Greeks were known for the development (not invention!) of the art of Logic, while the Romans were the world’s teachers in Rhetoric. This fact guides us in understanding the Renaissance. Inasmuch as the medieval world was guided by the Scholastics and their analytical pursuit of truth it was an age that looked less to the needs of the body, or of the state than other ages. The center of what we might call the Middle ages was the Church, not the State.

As Catholic Europe embraced the Scholastic view of life and looked to heaven, the Italians maintained their devotion to the world and studies they knew. For them, Caesar and Cicero remained the models of human virtue and those studies which led to action were the most desirable. Rhetoric requires an audience and through history served the courts and political life. The Roman focus was not set on theology and metaphysics but on moral philosophy, poetry and rhetoric. This, then, was the rebirth that took place philosophically and educationally. The center of what we might call the Renaissance was the State, not the Church.

This reality is most evident in the representatives of each group and the subjects upon which they wrote. Representing the Middle Ages we find St. Francis, St. Dominic, St. Thomas, St. Bonaventure writing on God, the soul, prayer, angels, virtues and vices, etc.. Representing the Renaissance we find Machiavelli and Thomas More writing on politics, Copernicus and Galileo on physical sciences, Petrarch on his own internal conflicts, loves, etc.. Even in authors that stood between the two movements, like Dante, we find the local and material mixed inseparably with the universal and spiritual.

The Reformation

While the cultural movement known as the Renaissance spread from Italy throughout Europe, it either brought with it or was joined to an individualistic and worldly religious movement. As the regard for meaning and fulfillment in the present world increasingly occupied men’s thoughts, traditional views concerning the primacy and authority of the Church came into question. The history of the Reformation usually centers on Martin Luther, but he is only a representative, maybe even a caricature, of a much broader (and evil) movement that pervaded every sphere of life. The Reformation is little more than the application of Renaissance principles in an extreme and disobedient manner, similar to Peter Abelard’s misuse of Scholasticism studied earlier.

We always have to be careful in discussing the Reformation because, as in many circles today, the Church deserved much of the abuse it received. The Church was plagued with corrupt leaders, schisms, controversies and more. There was just cause for a spirit of anti-Catholicism among many. This is not the appropriate place to discuss all of the details of these problems or the events of the Reformation. It is enough to know that the corruption was ready as a pile of dry sticks and Renaissance thought entered as a spark to ignite the rebellion.

Inasmuch as the “here and now” received greater estimation from men, those who ruled the land also grew in power. It is here that the nationalism known in later European history had its origin. The Reformation would never have found the support and protection it needed to carry out its rebellion were it not for worldly rulers eager to push the Church out from its borders and confiscate the lands she owned. So, rather than crediting the success of the Reformation to the Holy Spirit’s work in restoring the true Gospel as though it were surrounded with signs, miracles and peaceful deliverances, we must acknowledge that the Reformation was accomplished by the weapons of the flesh. One of the strongest arguments I ever heard against the Reformation was that for such a massive event as it was and for all the talk of the Holy Spirit’s guidance and selection of its leaders, there are no records of anything supernatural being done to confirm these claims. God gave miracles to Moses, Daniel, the Apostles and the Catholic saints but none to the Reformers.

We see the secular nature of the Reformation best in its English manifestation. The English Reformation centered around one man: King Henry VIII. Again, we cannot afford to dive into details here, but it is enough to say that while the Reformation spread through Europe a dispute broke out between the King of England and the Church at Rome. Henry VIII had no heir and wanted his marriage annulled. The Church refused. Henry “reformed”. Henry used an English law that forbade obedience to a foreign ruler to be applied to the Pope and thus to condemn the clergy who would not side with him! The result of Henry’s power trip was the foundation of the Church of England (note the secular focus) and the publication of what are now known as the Articles of Religion (their number varied over time).

What is most shocking of this is that in the end, the head of the Church in England was the king himself. Thus, the Church of England would from this point on follow the king, rather than vice versa. This, however, is impossible because it makes the Church subservient to the king, whose policies and programs must change, which means that religious doctrine and practice can no longer be “catholic” and constant, but now are as unstable as the secular throne itself.

Later, when the articles were finalized, this was set in writing:

Article XXXVII: The Queen’s Majesty hath the chief power in this realm of England and other her dominions, unto whom the chief government of all estates of this realm, whether they be ecclesiastical or civil, in all causes doth appertain, and is not nor ought to be subject to any foreign jurisdiction.

Where we attribute to the Queen’s Majesty the chief government, by which titles we understand the minds of some slanderous folks to be offended, we give not to our princes the ministering either of God’s word or of sacraments, the which thing the Injunctions also lately set forth by Elizabeth our Queen doth most plainly testify: but only that prerogative which we see to have been given always to all godly princes in Holy Scriptures by God himself, that is, that they should rule all estates and degrees committed to their charge by God, whether they be temporal, and restrain with the civil sword the stubborn and evil-doers.

The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this realm of England.

The Reformation was hardly of a spiritual nature. Its entanglement with secular concerns was not only a source of many of its manifestations, but also the means by which it executed its reforms. While a more detailed study would reveal many helpful lessons for Catholics (including the martyrdom of St. Thomas More) we must keep the focus on education and move on.

Maintaining Balance

We must clarify again that the Renaissance was not entirely evil. There was no question that, while the Church had maintained the True and the Good, it was in need of a revival of Beauty. The challenges of the era caused the Church to focus on the priorities of truth-seeking by means of Scholastic education and attention was hardly given to worldly cares. However, before we beat up the medieval Church, let’s remember the litany of saints it nurtured as well. We cannot imagine Catholic life today without St. Francis, St. Dominic, St. Anthony of Padua and, of course, Sts. Thomas and Bonaventure. They were all members in good standing of the medieval Catholic Church.

The Church, likewise was no enemy to the renewal of classical studies. The Church Fathers were among the most highly renowned classical scholars, but they often lived off of Greek and Latin studies treasured up before their conversion to Christianity. The Vatican Library was founded in the 15th century for the very purpose of protecting classical literature and artwork for future study and enjoyment. The time had come to determine exactly what a Christian classical studies program might look like and that took some time.

Nevertheless, many of the brightest stars of the Renaissance were faithful sons of the Church: Petrarch, Dante, Thomas More, Leonardo, Michelangelo and many more. Even at the time of the Reformation, there were humanist critics who remained loyal to the Church, the most famous of whom was Erasmus.

Furthermore, the Church was not opposed to the increased attention to humane affairs. As was said above, the Renaissance and Reformation, along with its attacks on Catholicism cannot be understood rightly in a historical vacuum. Was there corruption in the Church? Yes. However, it was because the Church’s charity and sacrifice that Christianity was in Germany, Switzerland and England in the first place. It was not the Apostles who evangelized the northern regions of barbarian Europe, but Catholic missionaries. Were pagan influences present in the Church? Yes. However, this was because there were pagans now in the Church! To complain of the pagan influences and assimilations would be comparable to complaining that modern churches embrace holidays like Mother’s Day, the 4th of July, etc.. They were an inseparable part of the culture at the time and, when not intrinsically evil, were welcomed. Protestant Churches do the same today.


The Reformation was an abuse of the principles of the Renaissance, which were neither good nor bad. The desire for a renewal of classical artistic and literary studies was a matter of the times in Christian Europe. The Reformation consisted of a complex and dangerous marriage of religious and civil ambitions. In our next lesson, we will look at the Scientific Revolution and the overall effects these three movements had on education.

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