More Anti-Catholic Than Thou

The “second Reformation” introduced Reformed liturgy and teaching into Lutheran Germany. This was seen by some as a continuation of the Reformation and a purgation of Catholic remnants. The effort to carry on “further reformation” led to disputes with Lutherans. As Bodo Nischan has put it, the hottest debate in German Protestantism in the late 16th century “was the very meaning of the Reformation itself” (“Second Reformation”).

One of the hot-button issues was the fractio panis, the breaking of the bread during the Supper. It was an important moment in the Reformed Eucharistic liturgy, but rejected by Lutherans. As Nischan (“Fractio Panis”) puts it, “the fractio panis was important for Calvinists as a symbolic denial of Christ’s physical presence in the sacrament, which Lutherans affirmed.” Lutherans rejected it for the same reason. It seemed a sacrilege for the body of Christ to be broken.

The Reformed saw this as an important ritual sign distinguishing Protestant Supper from the Catholic Mass. Nischan again: “Elector John Sigismund, when explaining his conversion [to Reformed teaching], charged that in Luther’s teachings on the Lord’s Supper he ‘still had remained deeply struck in the darkness of the papacy . . . and therefore had not been able to extricate himself completely from all human teachings.’” The quasi-Catholic Eucharist was only one of several “Catholic idols” that the Reformed wanted to eliminate. They also attacked “vestments, candles, altars.”

The Lutheran Christology that supported the Lutheran understanding of real presence – the notion that the body of Christ took on the divine property of ubiquity – was attacked not merely as irrational but as quasi-Catholic: “’Ubiquity is a completely novel doctrine, not found in God’s word and completely unknown in the old church,’ charged Margrave John George in 1613. “’t opens the doors and gates to old heresies,’ argued Martin Fussel. ‘Ubiquity’ is like a Sauerteig, or poison, that eventually will destroy the entire gospel. It is a first step toward Catholic transubstantiation and amounts to a return to ‘magical consecration’ and the ‘papal mass.’”

The irenic David Pareus of Heidelberg “specifically favored the fraction rite in order to counter the blasphemous belief that Christ is actually present in the bread. Similarly, in Brandenburg the Reformed were using the fraction to contradict the Catholic superstition of a ‘newly created Christ’ who is physically hidden in the elements.”

Lutherans, of course, denied that they were perpetuating “papal superstition,” and charged that the Reformed had undermined the Supper and its assurance by denying that Christ is present. But they went further and turned the Catholic charge back against the Reformed. As Nischan summarizes, “The doctrine of the ‘real’ presence assured Lutherans that Christ, not the communicant, is the main actor in the sacrament. Its denial, they felt, made the sacrament primarily a human action, ‘a Calvinistic Bürgerzech’ as Hoe called it. This emphasis on human rather than divine action had been the very blasphemy in the Catholic mass which Martin Luther had tried to eliminate. . . . The Reformed were reintroducing an abuse that the earlier reformers had abolished in their quest for the pure gospel. The Catholic superstition, the papal Sauerteig of which Calvinists spoke, they concluded, was found not in the Lutheran doctrine of the ‘real’ presence but in the Reformed view of the sacrament, specifically in the mandatory fraction.”

We find the same charge and counter-charge in debates over the use of a baptismal exorcism. The exorcism was a normal part of the medieval Catholic baptismal rite, and retained by at least some Lutherans. Nischan notes (“Baptismal Exorcism”) that “Bucer, Zwingli, Calvin and their followers, who uniformly condemned exorcism as a ‘papal relic’ that had to be eliminated.” When the Elector John Sigismund of Brandenburg became Reformed, he explained that he did not want to turn the Lutheran church Reformed, but merely to purify the church of “Catholic” vestiges. A ferocious controversy broke out about the elimination of the exorcism.

Nischan writes, “One of the leading Lutheran proponents in this dispute was Simon Gedicke, John Sigismund’s former Lutheran court chaplain. Since the Confessio Sigismundi declared exorcism to be a ‘superstitious ceremony,’ that had to be eliminated together with other papal relics, Lutherans in Brandenburg and in Prussia defended it as a mark of confessional orthodoxy.”

Lutherans counter-charged that the desire to eliminate the exorcism was evidence of a Catholic semi-Pelagianism among the Reformed. In short, “Lutherans increasingly clung to exorcism to counter what they perceived as the Pelagian threat of the Anabaptists and Sacramentarians. For similar reasons the Reformed denounced the rite since in their view it constituted an unnecessary relic of papal magic.”

In sum, Lutheran and Reformed each took a “more anti-Catholic than thou” stance, claiming that they alone were carrying forward the true Reformation and accusing their Protestant opponents of compromising the gospel. In these polemics, “not being Catholic” has become a standard of orthodox Protestantism.

As Kevin Vanhoozer has argued, Protestantism does have a positive core, but in these debates negative definitions often come to the fore. Anti-Catholicism becomes a subordinate confessional standard, coloring, qualifying, sometimes undermining Protestant commitment to sola Scriptura.

It still does.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis.

Works cited.

Nischan, “The ‘Fractio Panis:’ A Reformed Communion Practice in Late Reformation Germany,”  Church History 53:1 (1984): 17-29.

Nischan, “The Exorcism Controversy and Baptism in the Late Reformation,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 18:1 (1987): 31-52.

Nischan, “The Second Reformation in Brandenburg: Aims and Goals,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 14:2 (1983): 173-187.