Everybody seems to be marking the fifth centenary of Martin Luther’s famous protest against the sale of Indulgences in their own way so I thought I might share a few thoughts of my own on the matter. As many of you know, I come from a family of mixed English and Irish ancestry, both Anglican and Roman Catholic, and so my experience of the Reformation and the subsequent wars of religion (whose last frontier were the streets of Belfast) is an Anglo-Irish one. The island of Ireland is uniquely divided along religious lines and as I have grown older I have come to share Iris Murdoch’s contempt of Ireland, particularly Irish religion. Even Lord Carson, who became the lynchpin of the Unionist cause, found Ireland’s Orange culture distasteful. Terence O’Neill, an Irish gentleman of impeccable character and antient lineage, wrote with painful regret in his autobiography of how his attempt to bring about a peaceful solution to Ulster’s age old problem had been “wrecked by wicked men.” These wicked men, and Ian Paisley was certainly one of them, were partisans of the Reformation, the minority who lived in fear that the papist bog trotters would steal into their homes at night and smother them as they slept; who marched triumphantly down the Gavaghy Road on the Masonic Twelfth to celebrate the brutal suppression of the old Gaelic order; and from whose churches, grim sermon halls, had been banished all beauty and comfort.
What of their enemies? Well, the Protestant paranoia about Home Rule was justified in the days when the Republic was a brutal, theocratic state. The corruption of the Papal Communion in Ireland was so deep and its influence so great that nobody can say that it was ever a force for good for the Irish people. False imprisonment of young women; the physical and sexual abuse of children in schools run by religious orders and by secular priests; the discrimination against Protestants; the ignorance; the philistinism; the cruelty; and the hypocrisy. And why? Why were the Irish people interminably loyal to an institution that was ashamed of them, and oppressed them incomparably harsher than the British? When he visited Phoenix Park in 1979, John Paul II remarked disingenuously that the Irish people had always enjoyed the affection of the “apostolic see!” Since when? Did Adrian IV demonstrate affection for the Irish people when he ordered the Norman conquest of Ireland? Or Cardinal Rinuccini, whose abortive mission to the Irish Confederates was later exposed as a plot to re-establish Popery in England? Or, most infamously, pope Innocent XI who was secretly funding William III of Orange against James II, against Irish sovereignty and against Catholic ownership of land!
I suppose that’s all political, though. I would view the Reformation much less favourably if what the reformers had attacked bore any resemblance to the Gospel. As it happened, much of what they attacked was false or superstitious anyway. People are only going to tolerate false doctrine and corruption for so long before they revolt. That’s why the Reformation happened. It’s also why Protestantism is on its way out. Rome won’t be far behind. What does Western Christianity offer to people but worldliness? And the Western confessions, large and small, have embraced worldliness because they have been cut off from the Orthodox Church for a thousand years. Putrefaction has come slowly but in the end the balm accords with the relics.