In 1517 Martin Luther touched off a revolution when he drew up Ninety-five Theses for debate. In them he questioned church practices, specifically the practice of granting indulgences—popularly believed to grant forgiveness of sin and remission of punishment. Luther himself had come to believe in the primacy of faith over good works and in the priesthood of individual believers.
The Protestant Reformation
After the great break of the sixteenth century, both Protestantism and Catholicism became important elements in the formation of modern nationalism. Neither Protestants nor Catholics were always patriots. French Protestants sought help from the English enemy, and French Catholics from the Spanish enemy. But where a specific religion became identified with a given political unit, religious feeling and patriotic feeling reinforced each other. This is most evident where a political unit had to struggle for its independence.
The German sociologist Max Weber explored this question in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, first published in 1904. What started Weber’s exploration was evidence suggesting that in his own day German Protestants had a proportionately greater interest in the world of business, and German Catholics a proportionately smaller interest, than their ratio in the German population would lead one to expect.
The Reformation has often been interpreted, especially by Protestants, as peculiarly modern, forward-looking, and democratic—as distinguished from the stagnant and class-conscious Middle Ages.
This view seems to gain support from the fact that those parts of the West that in the last three centuries have been most prosperous, that have seemed to have worked out democratic government most successfully, and that have often made the most striking contributions to science, technology, and culture were predominantly Protestant.
If anything, revulsion against the Protestant tendency toward the “priesthood of the believer” hardened Catholic doctrines into a firmer insistence on the miraculous power of the priesthood. Protestant variation promoted Catholic uniformity. Not even on indulgences did the church yield; interpreted as a spiritual rather than a monetary transaction, indulgences were reaffirmed by the Council of Trent.
The greatest of these clerical orders by far was the Society of Jesus, founded in 1540 by the Spaniard Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556). Loyola, who had been a soldier, turned to religion after receiving a painful wound in battle. From the first the Jesuits were the soldiery of the Catholic church; their leader bore the title of general, and a military discipline was laid down in Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, which set the rules for the order.