This is part two in a six-part series on the Reformation by Dr Dingley (links to other parts below):
Philosophers acknowledge that modern liberal democracy stems from the Reformation.
No Reformation, no liberal democratic government. This makes the Reformation much more important than a religious spat between theologians, it’s about the political basis of modern society. And the Roman Catholic Church opposed liberalism and democracy, which it (correctly) saw as threatening its autocratic rule and that of the Kings and Lords it ordained.
The Reformation divided Europe between those who opposed authoritarian rule for a more open and democratic world and those who opposed it. One reason for this was that the Papacy was its own autocracy, ruling over the Papal States (most of mid-Italy) as an absolute monarch, in addition to heading a Church that ordained absolute monarchy throughout Europe.
The Reformation gained support where people wished to abolish absolute, elite rule and wanted modern democratic freedom of thought and movement.
The reason was simple, apart from the theological arguments there was enormous change in Europe at the time with new economic, social and political forces emerging which challenged accepted ideas of a divine order on earth, willed by God and ordained by the Pope.
Thus the Papacy was seen as representing its own vested interests along with those of established elites, who in turn supported the Pope militarily. Papal rule therefore had little to do with theology but much about economic and political power.
Previously the Papacy had got away with this because little had changed for 1000 years, implying a ‘natural, Godly order, and most people being illiterate knew no better. This changed with the invention of print (1455/6) and the Gutenberg Bible.
Previously everything had been written and re-written laboriously by hand, making books few and expensive, limiting literacy to a small elite, usually clerics and aristocrats (the Roman Catholic Church had a virtual monopoly of learning). Books made learning cheap and broke the Church’s monopoly of learning.
Mass produced, cheap, easily accessed Bibles meant everyone could read for themselves, without relying on what priests, the Church and Kings told them.
Now men could know for themselves, argue and debate, disagree with priests, Church and Kings. This was a disaster for absolute rule (Kings or Popes).
Such debate, requires an openness to and tolerance of different viewpoints, both about the Word of God and how he thought the world should be ordered.
Modern liberal democracy is born, bitterly opposed by the Papacy.
• Dr James Dingley is an academic and chair of the Francis Hutcheson Institute. He has published on conflict analysis and nationalism and is author of The IRA: the Irish Republican Army
• Other parts in series:
PART FOUR (July 12): The Reformation boosted science and economic success
PART THREE (May 18): Industry flourished after the Reformation
PART ONE (April 13): The Reformation ushered in liberal democracy, science and industry