Text: Romans 1:1-17 (“made right by faith”)
Last week as I followed the news, I wondered if Alberta’s Council of Catholic School Superintendents was playing a Halloween trick on the province.
Halloween is just two days away, and this year it has an extra significance. This year hundreds of millions of people around the world will not only wear costumes and go trick or treating on October 31. They will also mark the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation.
Legend has it that on October 31, 1517 Martin Luther nailed a document filled with criticisms of the leadership of the Church to a cathedral door in the German city of Wittenberg. Like almost everyone else in Western Europe, Luther was a member of the Roman Catholic Church.
There are other events that could be used to mark the start of the European rebellion against Church authority. But most historians mark the beginning of the Reformation — a movement that split the Church into Catholic and Protestant wings — with Luther’s action 500 years ago this Tuesday.
Luther and other Reformers ended a Catholic monopoly in Europe and helped to create Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, and other denominations, like the United Church of Canada.
Luther’s dispute with the Catholic leadership was sparked by the church practice of selling salvation. To finance the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the Church sold indulgences throughout Europe. These were tokens whose purchase, the church claimed, could rescue one’s dead loved ones from the horror of purgatory and expedite their entrance into heaven.
In contrast to this, Luther argued that salvation came from faith through the power of Grace. In his reading of the Bible, there was nothing one could do to earn salvation. Instead, salvation was a gift of God, and this wonderful news was the heart of a trusting life. It was the core of Christian faith.
In the years that followed, Luther’s moves away from Catholic teaching went further. Along with other Reformers, he rejected Papal authority, used German in worship instead of Latin, and created churches that were more open to social change than the Roman Church.
For the next 100 years, Europe was racked by religious conflicts that resulted in millions of deaths. Happily, when peace treaties were signed in 1648, toleration slowly spread across Europe. Today, Christian-majority countries often contain scores of different denominations; and they usually compete by peaceful means.
The Protestant Reformation challenged hierarchical authority and opened the way to new learnings. This is not to say that Luther was a liberal. His writings included some that were viciously anti-Semitic, and he held other ideas that today we might label as misguided or intolerant. Still, the Reformation accelerated many of the changes that moved Europe into the modern era.
But the Reformation did not do away with the Roman Church. Five hundred years after Luther, the Catholic Church is still the largest religious denomination in the world, including here in Alberta. And although the Catholic Church is different today than it was in 1517, it is still an institution that many would like to see reformed.
This morning in talking about the Reformation, I also talk about the Alberta Council of Catholic School Superintendents because of a controversy last week over sex education between the Council and the provincial government.
Catholic leaders are worried about a rewrite of Alberta’s school curriculum. Despite being funded by the province, Catholic leaders don’t want their schools to teach about safe sex, consent in marriage, contraception, and human rights for sexual and gender minorities. They claim that such ideas violate “the Catholic faith.”
All the doctrines of the Catholic Church used to be pre-modern. But over the last 150 years, Catholicism has accommodated science. So, there is no clash between the government and Catholic leaders on subjects like physics or geology. But sex education is different. The Catholic church still clings to pre-modern moral codes. It doesn’t allow women to become priests and it denounces birth control and homosexuality. While Catholic leaders no longer use Latin in worship and no longer teach that the sun revolves around the earth, they proclaim a morality that would not have been out of place five hundred or 3,000 years ago.
Everyone is entitled to their beliefs, but to call such beliefs “faith-based” misses the mark. In common speech, faith often refers to belief. But in the sense that Paul uses the word in our reading this morning, faith is about the basis for our beliefs. Faith equals trust, and it is unavoidable. We hold most of our beliefs on faith because no one has the time or ability to verify all the facts presented to us by authority figures. So, a key question for faith is whether we have good reasons to respect our authorities.
I’ll use a trivial example. Twice in the books of the Hebrew Bible, the authors include a list of birds they consider unfit to eat. But the lists in both Leviticus and Deuteronomy include bats even though bats are not birds.
Like most birds, bats fly. But bats are mammals because they have hair and not feathers, they produce milk for their babies, and so on. I know this not because I have studied bats, but because I was taught this in school. Like almost all the other things I believe, my beliefs about bats flow not from personal examination but from faith. Further, I consider my trust in the findings of scientists about bats to be reasonable.
When Leviticus and Deuteronomy were written 2500 years ago, there were no scientists who systematically examined and classified life forms; and so, I can understand why the biblical authors would consider bats to be birds.
Back then, it was reasonable to put one’s faith in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. If you wanted to know about bats, there were no better sources. But to trust in the them today for knowledge of bats today is no longer reasonable.
The same thing applies to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church on morality. In Europe one thousand years ago, the church was the only source of wisdom available. But today we live in pluralistic and science-based society. Today, it is no longer reasonable to put one’s faith solely on the teachings of an institution like the Catholic Church especially given its history of corruption and war. To do so is not faith. It is anxiety, and as such it is no longer reasonable.
In the face of the Reformation, the Catholic Church carried out its own reforms. Since then it has continued to change. But the Catholic Church has not changed much on issues relating to family, gender, and sex.
I pray that compassionate and wise leaders like Pope Francis will lead the Catholic Church towards science- and rights-based teachings in this area. I hope it will put aside the patriarchal mores of the pre-modern world. Catholic leaders, of course, have the right to hold patriarchal beliefs. And I understand why many of us cling to ancient morality in the face of radical social change. But these same leaders do not have the right to use public money to teach ideas many of us consider to be outmoded and harmful. The issue hinges not on faith but on its opposite, anxiety. It is about not using public money to foist anxious doctrines on vulnerable children.
I don’t believe the Catholic superintendents are consciously using the 500th anniversary of the Reformation to pull a Halloween trick on Alberta. But by seeking public support to teach against safe sex, contraception, and human rights for sexual minorities they remind us how churches sometimes get stuck in idolatry and of why churches are called to a continuous process of reformation.
I close with a letter written by the Rev. Brian Kiely of the Unitarian Church of Edmonton that was published by the Edmonton Journal this Friday. He wrote:
“A broad and open sex education program is about countering the bullying of those who are different by giving good and accurate information. It is about protecting people from forced sexual activities. It is about teaching children to have pride in their bodies and their sexuality. It is about erasing the shame so many religions have heaped on this most fundamental human dimension. And it is about compassion.”
To his words, I will only add, “Long live the Reformation!”