III. Protestantism.

From: New Views . . . (1836)
Author: O. A. Brownson
Published: James Munroe and Company 1836 Boston



  EVERY thing must have its time. The Church abused, degraded, vilified Matter, but could not annihilate it. It existed in spite of the Church. It increased in power, and at length rose against Spiritualism and demanded the restoration of its rights. This rebellion of Materialism, of the material order against the Spiritual, is Protestantism.

  Matter always exerted a great influence over the practice of the Church. In the first three centuries it was very powerful. It condemned the Gnostics and Manichreans as heretics, and was on the point of rising to empire under the form of Arianism. But the Oriental influence predominated, and the Arians became acknowledged heretics.

  After the defeat of Arianism, that noble protest in its day of Rationalism against Mysticism, of Matter against Spirit, of European against Asiatic ideas, the Church departed more and more from the Atonement, and became more and more arrogant, arbitrary, spiritualistic, papistical. Still Matter occasionally made itself heard. It could n t prevent the celibacy of the clergy, but it did maintain the unity of the race and prevented the reestablishment of a sacerdotal caste, claiming by birth a superior sanctity. It broke out too in the form of Pelagianism, that doctrine which denies that man is clean gone in iniquity, and which makes the material order count for something. Pelagius was the able defender of Humanity when it seemed to be deserted by all its friends, and his efforts were by no means unavailing.

  Matter asserted its rights and avenged itself in a less unexceptionable form in the Convents, the Monasteries and Nunneries, among the clergy of all ranks, in that gross licentiousness which led to the reformation attempted by Hildebrand; and finally it ascended—not avowedly, but in reality—the papal throne, in the person of Leo X.

  The accession of Leo X. to the papal throne is a remarkable event in the history -of the Church. It marks the predominance of material interests in the very bosom of the Church itself. It is a proof that whatever might be the theory of the Church, however different it claimed to be from all other powers, it was at this epoch in practice the same as the kingdoms of men. Poverty- ceased in its eyes to be a virtue. The poor mendicant, the bare­ footed friar, could no longer hope to become one day the spiritual head of Christendom. Spiritual gifts and graces were not now enough. High birth and royal pretensions were required; and it was not as a priest, but as a member of the princely House of Medici that Leo became Pope.

  The object of the Church had changed. It had ceased to regard the spiritual wants and welfare of mankind. It had become wealthy. It had acquired vast portions of this world’s goods, and its great care was to preserve them. Its interests had become temporal interests, and therefore it needed, not a spiritual Father, but a temporal prince. It is as a prince that Leo conducts himself. His legates to the Imperial, English and French Courts, entered into negotiations altogether as ambassadors of a temporal prince, not as the simple representatives of the Church.

  Leo himself is a sensualist, sunk in his sensual pleasures, and perhaps a great sufferer in consequence of his excesses. It is said he was an Atheist, a thing more than probable. All his tastes were worldly. Instead of the sacred books of the Church, the pious legends of Saints and Martyrs, he amused himself with the elegant but profane literature of Greece and Rome. His principal secretaries were not holy monks but eminent classical scholars. He revived and enlarged the University at Rome, encouraged human learning and the arts of civilization, completed St. Peter’s, and his reign was graced by Michael Angelo and Raphael. He engaged in wars and diplomacy and in them both had respect only to the goods of the Church, or to the interests of himself and family as temporal princes.

  Now all this was in direct opposition to the theory of the Church. Materialism was in the papal chair, but it was there as a usurper, as an illegitimate. It reigned in fact, but not in right. The Church was divided against itself. In theory it was Spiritualist, but in practice it was Materialist. It could not long survive this inconsistency, and it needed not the attacks of Luther to hasten the day of its complete destruction.

  But Materialism must have become quite powerful to have been able to usurp the papal throne itself. It was indeed too powerful to bear patiently the name of usurper; at least to be contented to reign only indirectly. It would be acknowledged as sovereign, and proclaimed legitimate. This the Church could not do. The Church could do nothing but cling to its old pretensions. To expel Materialism and return to Hildebrand was out of the question. To give up its claims, and own itself Materialist, would have been to abandon all title to even its material possessions, since it was by virtue of its spiritual character that it held them. Materialism—as it could reign in the Church only as it were by stealth—resolved to leave the Church and to reign in spite of it, against it, and even on its ruins. It protested, since it had all the power, against being called hard names, and armed itself in the person of Luther to vindicate its rights and to make its claims acknowledged.

  The dominant character of Protestantism is then the insurrection of Materialism, and what we call the Reformation is really a Revolution in favor of the material order. Spiritualism had exhausted its energies; it had done all it could for Humanity ; the time had come for the material element of our nature, which Spiritualism had neglected and gross­ ly abused, to rise from its depressed condition and contribute its share to the general progress of man­ kind. It rose, and in rising it brought up the whole series of terms the Church had disregarded. It brought up the state, civil liberty, human reason, philosophy, industry, all temporal interests.

  In Protestantism, Greece and Rome revived and again carried their victorious arms into the East. The Reformation connects us with classical antiquity, with the beautiful and graceful forms of Grecian art and literature, and with Roman eloquence and jurisprudence, as the Church had connected us with Judea, Egypt and India.

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