The Reformation ushered in liberal democracy, science and industry

Martin Luther merely wanted to reform the existing church, not start a new one
Martin Luther merely wanted to reform the existing church, not start a new one

This is the first part in a six-part series on the Reformation by Dr Dingley (links to other parts below):

The Reformation is far more significant than people realise, since its long-term effects were far greater than religious controversy, which still leaves the Roman Catholic Church gasping.

That the Roman Catholic Church was corrupt and needed reform was well recognised by even its contemporary supporters. Indeed, Luther merely wanted to reform the existing church, not start a new one.

It was the resistance to reform from within and the cynical political control of monarchs from without that caused Papal resistance to reform.

The church was then an hotbed of vice (Borgia and Medici Popes) and the core of Italian political manoeuvring in the 15th and 16th centuries.

The Papacy was big political power, but also frequently under the military dictatorship of European monarchs.

Thus the Pope would have had no difficulty granting Henry VIII a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, except that her uncle was in military occupation of Rome at the time.

Religion rarely came into it if you had the money and clout, making a mockery of Christianity, much like the sale of indulgences which Luther objected to.

Even Erasmus, the greatest defender of the Church against the Reformation recognised the need for fundamental reform.

Indeed the Council of Trent (1545-63) held by Rome to decide how to respond to the Reformation accepted the need for fundamental reforms and changes, which had they accepted in 1517 may have forestalled the need for the Reformation.

Thus whilst it is true that the Reformation led to 200 years of religious wars that tore Europe apart (when none of us were particularly nice to each other) it was Rome’s resistance to reform and refusal to root out corruption that did most of the damage.

The core of the problem was just how political and material many of the interests were behind Rome’s resistance.

Not the least of these was the communications revolution, the invention of printing, beginning with the Gutenburg Bible, 1455.

Print enabled the mass production of cheap (relatively) Bibles, with a standard text that everyone could read, especially after they were translated into vernacular languages that all could read (not Latin which only a few educated and priests could read).

This changed the entire nature of religion and the ‘political’ message it conveyed – know for yourself.

Thus begins the modern world of liberal democracy, economics, science, industry and the end of the old aristocratic and priestly elite rule.

• Dr James Dingley is chair of the Francis Hutcheson Institute and author of The IRA: the Irish Republican Army

Other parts in series:

PART FOUR: The Reformation boosted science and economic success

PART THREE (May 18): Industry flourished after the Reformation

PART TWO (May 4): Papacy opposed the democracy that arose from the Reformation