During a friendly meeting on January 19 with an ecumenical delegation from Finland, Pope Francis affirmed his commitment to reunion with Lutheran Christians by offering an historical claim about the great German reformer: “The intention of Martin Luther five hundred years ago was to renew the Church, not divide her.” A day or so before, news had begun circulating that Vatican City would honor the five hundredth anniversary of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses with a special postage stamp. And earlier this fall, the pope praised Luther for having re-focused the Church’s attentions on the centrality of Scripture, blaming subsequent divisions between Catholics and Lutherans not on anything the reformer himself had done, but on those of us who “closed in on ourselves out of fear or bias with regard to the faith which others profess with a different accent and language.”

The pope’s recent forays into early modern history have taken him not only to Reformation Germany, but also to China and India in the days of the first Jesuit missions. On October 24, in an extended conversation with the delegates of the 36th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, our first Jesuit pope contrasted contemporary Catholicism’s concern to protect indigenous cultures with the Eurocentric, imperialistic character of the colonial-era Church. Francis claimed that while a few Jesuit missionaries of the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries had understood—following what Saint Paul himself, long before, had “clearly” understood from the Holy Spirit—“that the Gospel was to be inculturated in the Gentile peoples,” those missionaries were an exception to the rule:

Consider, for example, the experience of Matteo Ricci and Roberto de Nobili. They were pioneers, but a hegemonic conception of Roman centralism stopped that experience, interrupted it. It prevented a dialogue in which cultures were respected. And this happened because they interpreted social customs with a religious hermeneutic. Respect for the dead…was confused with idolatry.

It was not until very recently, Francis suggested, that Church leaders came to a “greater awareness … regarding indigenous peoples, to support the expression, the culture, of each one of them.”

As a Christian of the twenty-first century, I applaud and pray success for the Holy Father’s continuation of efforts by Lutherans, Catholics, and others who profess Jesus Christ to strive toward reunion in a spirit of prayerfulness and truth. I share, too, in the pope’s concerns that Christian evangelization should safeguard and strengthen the world’s richly diverse cultures, especially in the face of globalism’s often brutal march.

But as an historian, focused especially on the early modern world inhabited by Luther and the early Jesuit missionaries, I wince at the pope’s historical formulations. They do little justice to key actors and factors involved. They instrumentalize history, rather than take a receptive posture toward history’s lessons, in order to advance agendas of the present moment. While such utterances would be harmless had they appeared in one of my undergraduates’ term papers, they demand respectful critique when issued by a man bearing the title, and cachet, of a Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church.

Let us first scrutinize the pope’s claims about his fellow Jesuits, Ricci and Nobili. Ricci, who lived from 1552 to 1610, joined the Jesuits in Rome as a young man and developed a culturally adaptive approach to mission work in late Ming-dynasty China. Speaking and dressing like a Confucian scholar after years of cultural immersion and a trial-and-error apostolate, Ricci in 1601 became the first European welcomed into the emperor Wanli’s Forbidden City in the heart of Beijing. Nobili, also Italian but a generation younger than Ricci, lived from 1577 to 1656 and followed a similarly adaptive approach to mission work. He devoted his career to Hindu India and was based especially in Madurai, in what is today the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The degree to which Nobili embraced the traditions, dress, and lifestyle of the elite Brahmin caste in the region was scandalous even among his fellow Jesuits at the time, partly because of his primary rationale: He was concerned to gain a social foothold for his mission, and to reach the elites in and around Madurai with Christian teachings, and not to be shunned by them for his foreignness or, especially, for his association with poor, low-caste people. By contrast, other Catholic missionaries in the region accepted such exclusion from Hindu elite society as a necessary price for preaching Christ crucified, and “Blessed are the poor,” in that part of the world.

It is, first of all, anachronistic of the pope to attribute to these Jesuits—let alone Paul the Apostle—a project of “inculturation,” insofar as “inculturation,” especially along the bright, clear lines Francis draws, was not even conceived of until the mid-twentieth century. Despite seeing resemblances and roots, to be sure, scholars who have closely studied Ricci’s and Nobili’s approaches have been cautious about applying twentieth-century missiological frameworks to them. Francis X. Clooney, S.J., for example, has stressed that while Nobili adopted Brahmin dress, manners, and linguistic norms as a means of communicating with Hindu elites, when it came to the doctrines he sought to communicate, Nobili was staunchly Thomistic and Tridentine (some might say Eurocentric) in his understanding of the “unchanging truth” that he was, so to speak, clothing in Hindu “garb.”

More problematic, however, is the Holy Father’s remark that Ricci and Nobili’s pioneering missionary methods ran up against a “hegemonic conception of Roman centralism,” and an attendant hastiness by European missionaries overly “Roman” in orientation and perspective, to project religious significance, and especially “idolatry,” upon the culturally new and different. The pope here appears to believe, and to want others to believe, that the Holy Spirit’s true project of “inculturation” was thwarted, severely, during the era of what are called the Chinese and Malabar Rites Controversies. Following complaints from other religious orders’ missionaries (as well as from other Jesuits) and drawn-out debates in Europe over what in Chinese and Indian culture could be tolerated among the mission Christians, several popes in the early eighteenth century formally curtailed the accommodating approaches: Pope Clement XI ruled in 1715 against a number of longstanding Jesuit accommodations in China, in the bull Ex Illa Die, and his successor Pope Clement XII formalized restrictions on the Indian missions in a brief of 1734.

Regardless of who and what more accorded with the will of the Holy Spirit in these controversies—a matter beyond my historian’s ken—even a cursory examination of the individuals, events, and contexts in question reveals the tendentiousness of blaming a “hegemonic” bogeyman of “Roman centralism” for what unfolded. To begin with, it was significantly due to a reinvigorated, post-Renaissance Rome, curious about and intellectually reconciling with its own ancient, pagan past, that Italian Jesuits, formed at the Collegio Romano (today’s Gregorian), developed such pioneering approaches to mission work. It was in that very particular historical culture of Renaissance Rome that, as young men, these Jesuits had been formed by intensive, humanistic study of classical languages, literature, and history—training that provided them with foundational intellectual models and methods for their later study of Chinese and Indian languages and scholarly discourses. It is no coincidence, either, that humanistic Jesuit teachers encouraged Ricci and Nobili in the adventurous, discovery-oriented paths they chose, at a time when few Westerners—or few anywhere in the world—could conceptualize the gulfs of linguistic and cultural difference to be negotiated in Ricci’s years-long journey to Beijing or Nobili’s unlikely path to Madurai.

Furthermore, Rome played an ambivalent—not one-sidedly hostile—role leading up to the decisions of the two Clements, sometimes defending and protecting missionaries in the vein of Ricci and Nobili amidst strident opposition from other quarters of the Church. Pope Paul V, in 1615-16, authorized Jesuits in China to translate the Bible and the Mass into Mandarin, as well as to wear the hats of Confucian scholars while saying Mass. Later popes would, indeed, rule against Jesuit accommodations of rituals connected with cultic veneration of ancestors, among other practices deemed superstitious or idolatrous (this despite Jesuit protestations, which may have been disingenuous, that the rites had a purely social meaning for Confucian elites who were embracing Christianity). As for the Indian mission, Nobili’s major critics in his lifetime were other Jesuits in the country—Jesuits from Portugal, not Italy—and the Portuguese Archbishop of Goa, Cristóvão de Sá e Lisboa. The Archbishop of Goa was, in reality, directed more by the Portuguese Crown than by the Vatican, which was just beginning to attempt a centralized administration of overseas missions—and to extricate them from European imperial monarchies’ control—by instituting the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. Pope Gregory XV permitted a number of Nobili’s contested practices—such as the wearing of particular garments, or participating in ritual bathings—against the wishes of these critics, on the condition that Nobili ensure their dissociation, among Christians engaging in them, from worship of Hindu deities in “idolatrous temples.” Later, during the most contentious, climactic era of the Malabar Rites Controversy, the cause for beatification and eventual sainthood of Fr. João de Brito—a Jesuit carrying forward with Nobili’s approach, one who had taken the Tamil name Arul Anandar and become a strict vegan—advanced in Rome with the express approval of Pope Benedict XIV. And Clement XII himself, following his brief of 1734, attempted to blunt the impact of that brief on the Madurai mission, by allowing some Jesuits to continue catering to Brahmin elites, despite his concern that accommodating the caste system violated the Christian view of man.

In view of such information, what do the pope’s October remarks about “a hegemonic conception of Roman centralism” accomplish? They obscure more than they teach about a contentious but also critical and still understudied era of development in global Catholic missionary practice and ecclesial oversight and regulation. They seem also to dismiss, and gratuitously to tarnish the memory of, Church leaders of the distant past for the sake of advancing a current agenda for inculturated forms of Christianity across the world’s indigenous cultures—an agenda mapped out in greater detail in the Holy Father’s apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. There, appearing to be open to the possibility that Roman Catholicism’s ancient, and even central, rituals, creeds, and formal elements are separable from the Gospel or the Word proclaimed by the Church, Francis argues: “It is not essential to impose a specific cultural form, no matter how beautiful or ancient it may be, together with the Gospel. The message that we proclaim always has a certain cultural dress, but we in the Church … sometimes fall into a needless hallowing of our own culture.”

Such concerns may help explain the appeal that Martin Luther, with his stark emphasis on the preached Word and a radically spiritualized, ahistorical view of the Church, holds for Pope Francis. So let us turn to the historical claims of the Holy Father with which we began, about Martin Luther and the causes over time of deep divisions between Lutherans and Catholics. (They are remarks that, coming from a Pope of Rome, I cannot help but think would be eye-popping to the reformer himself.)

With respect to the simple assertion that Martin Luther intended only to renew the Church, not divide her, it is indeed the case that the historical consensus today is that the reformer had no intention of leaving the Catholic Church in 1517, when he first presented his Ninety-Five Theses to religious authorities and a wider public in and around Wittenberg. However, even scholars of the Reformation very mindful of contemporary ecumenical stakes do not deny that, very early during his reforming career, Luther became convinced that the international, visible Church as led by popes, cardinals, and bishops was irredeemably corrupt, “judaizing” in its emphasis on laws and rituals, and therefore inherently at odds with the “true,” invisible Church of all persons of sincere “faith” as he defined it.

In other words, from early on, Luther’s Reformation was centrally about separating, promptly—with the help of powerful territorial princes and city magistrates with local influence and armies at the ready—the hidden, faith-filled wheat from the papistic chaff, so to speak. Luther certainly believed in only one, true, Apostolic Church, but he redefined the Church in a direction that was inherently exclusionary of those who deferred to the papacy, affirmed seven sacraments and Christ’s institution of a consecrated priesthood, and acknowledged an active, participatory role for human free will in God’s economy of salvation. Any concern he might have had to preserve unity in the Church in a way any orthodox Catholic bishop or theologian of the sixteenth century would have recognized as such was, at best, a very secondary priority. Much more urgent for Luther was to rally other reform-minded men and women toward full acceptance of the creed his own conscience told him was the true creed—by 1530, that would have been the enumerated articles of the Augsburg Confession—and, in the process, reject communion with groups that departed in any way from that creed.

Scholars very sympathetic to Luther also acknowledge that he was incorrigibly pugnacious as well as deeply convinced his understanding of faith and of the Church was the only correct one. He sought out opportunities, often, to do battle not only with Catholics (or as he put it in 1545, “whatever riffraff belongs to His Idolatrous and Papal Holiness,” whose tongues “we should … tear out from the back, and nail them on the gallows”), but also with followers of the Swiss reformers Ulrich Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger, the more radical Anabaptists and Spiritualists, and Protestants closer to his own mind who nevertheless disagreed with him on this or that creedal article. Luther’s verve for creative name-calling and insults where all these groups were concerned was legendary in his own time, as it remains in ours. (Graduate students in Reformation history will confess to finding amusement in a website called the “Lutheran Insulter” in which real ad hominem attacks from the reformer’s writings are generated at random. While writing this paragraph, I clicked on its “Insult me again” button and was informed by Doktor Luther, as if I were Erasmus just daring to defend free will: “You foster in your heart a Lucian, or some other pig from Epicurus’ sty”—this from Luther’s Bondage of the Will of 1525.)

It is also the case that, during a time when some sixteenth-century reformers were actively engaged in the earliest ecumenical efforts to find common ground across the splintering confessions, and to strive toward the reunification of Western Christendom, Luther was relatively uninterested in such things.

Pope Francis, however, in order to push along the cause of Catholic-Lutheran reunification, casts Luther as someone who had no wish to sow discord among Christians. For the hardening sectarian divisions of the early modern era, Francis blames, instead, others who “closed in on [themselves] out of fear or bias with regard to the faith which others profess with a different accent and language.”

With all due respect to His Holiness, this explanation of what unfolded during and after Luther’s time is not only condescending to the full-blooded, spirited, and hardly faultless reformer himself. It is insulting to the intelligence of numerous theologians, apologists, and preachers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, including Robert Bellarmine and other Jesuits who devoted years of life, and heart, to clarifying and defending serious, important Catholic doctrines against serious, important Protestant challenges. And it is cavalier toward the memory not only of countless martyrs and war dead on all sides of that era’s terrible struggles, but also of numerous families, villages, even religious communities in Reformation Europe’s confessional borderlands, which were torn apart, agonizingly—while very much speaking the same language, with the same accents!—over very serious, important, real disagreements about doctrine and praxis.

A more humane, respectful attitude toward all parties involved in the Reformation, and toward contemporary ecumenical concerns, was exhibited some years ago in Communio. In an interview of 1984 entitled “Luther and the Unity of the Churches,” a young Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger responded this way—while reflecting on Luther’s legacy—to contemporary ecumenists’ efforts to explain away “as misunderstandings” the discord between Lutherans and Catholics of the distant past:

[This] seems to me like a form of rationalistic arrogance which cannot do any justice to the impassioned struggle of those men as well as the importance of the realities in question. The real issue can only lie in how far we are today able to go beyond the positions of those days and how we can arrive at insights which will overcome the past. To put it differently: unity demands new steps. It cannot be achieved by means of interpretive tricks. … Indifference appears only on the surface to be a unifying link.

Now Francis, we know, is not the professorial pope that Benedict has been. Neither is he an historian by training or even by avocation; his focus in school as a young man was chemistry, and later as a Jesuit teacher he focused on literature and psychology. He has had a busy administrative, pastoral, and politically freighted clerical career since that time. So, in fairness, we cannot expect him to speak with exceptional precision on historical themes, even where these touch on present-day ecclesial matters.

But it is not with mere imprecision that Pope Francis delves into the past. He seems to advance headlong, perhaps echoing an opinion or idea he has picked up here or there, in order to praise and blame—to glorify some (Luther the reformer, Ricci the inculturator), and to criticize or repudiate others (Roman centralists, those looking at other religions and faiths as “other”) as less mindful of the Holy Spirit than they ought to have been.

This mode of engaging with the Church’s past does not well serve the Church of the present day, mired as she is in a mass culture domineered by soundbites, 140-character tweets, the shoutings of protesters and populist political rallies, “fake news,” and perhaps most insidious of all, glibness in general. The pope, and all of us who look to the Church’s long experience for insight on how to go forward with present-day challenges, can do better.

I would suggest, where time for deeper engagement with history is not possible—i.e., amidst the busyness of pastoring, preaching, administering, managing, and so on—that churchmen and laity let sink in some words of Blessed John Henry Newman, from the Introduction to his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine:

It is difficult to complete, to finish from history … the living image of Christianity. Confused, inaccurate knowledge is no knowledge. It is the very fault we find with youths under education that they use words without meaning, that they are wanting in precision and distinctness, that they are ignorant of what they know and what they do not know. … Now our difficulty lies in getting beyond this half-knowledge of Christianity, if we make history our teacher; in obtaining from it views serviceable, ready, for belief and practice, whole views, definite answers … measures of its meaning. History is not a creed or a catechism; it gives lessons rather than rules; it does not bring out clearly on the canvass the details which were familiar to the ten thousand minds of whose combined movements it treats. Such is it from its very nature; nor can the defect ever be fully remedied.

One counsel I take from this is that we ought to learn better to honor the dead, their legacy, and the history they lived and made, by not trying to exact from them things they cannot give us—whether clear verifications of a particular Christian doctrine, or triumphal cheerleading for this or that item on a papal agenda. And when we discover more fully what gifts they do hold for us, indeed what gifts they themselves are, still, for the Church of the present, we should try harder to resist that ungracious modern instinct to re-fashion them according to our own self-image and liking.

Bronwen Catherine McShea is visiting assistant professor in history at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

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