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Calvin's war on the Catholic Church

By Alan Austin - posted Monday, 20 July 2009


Almost 500 years ago John Calvin led the most cataclysmic revolution in the history of Christendom. Could it be that the organisation which today most closely reflects Calvin's vision is the church he sought to destroy?

If so, who would be more shocked? Sixteenth century Roman Catholics or Calvin himself?

John Calvin was born in July 1509, 500 years ago this month. He abandoned the Catholic Church in his teens and fought it for the rest of his 54 years. He provided most of the theological fuel for the fires of the Protestant Reformation sparked earlier by Martin Luther.

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In at least eight important respects the Catholic Church today manifests the French theologian’s teaching as emphatically as - if not more than - the Protestant churches founded on his precepts.

The Vatican’s strict moral teaching would cause John Calvin’s usually stern visage to radiate with joy. Calvin compiled long lists of forbidden behaviour, including sex before marriage, adultery, homosexuality, abortion, drinking and gambling.

Calvin affirmed support for refugees and other disadvantaged groups. He would heartily endorse the work of Catholic agencies assisting the poor.

Calvin resoundingly supported excommunicating heretics. Even death sentences he defended as necessary to honour God. He insisted that “we spare not kin, nor blood of any, and forget all humanity when the matter is to combat for His glory”.

He would be aghast at the wishy-washy Uniting Church in Australia - an amalgam of the Calvinist Presbyterian and Methodist churches - for its appalling tolerance of sacrilege in the name of inclusivism and diversity. The Vatican’s inquisition, now known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, would warm his heart.

In these three areas - strict morality, aiding the poor and official exclusions - there was probably never much conflict between Calvin and the Catholic heirarchy.

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But in five other areas it can be argued that the Vatican has come around to Calvin's position.

Central to his theology were beliefs that God is alive and active in history, that sinful humanity is in need of redemption and that this is found through repentance and faith in God’s son, Jesus Christ.

Yes, this theology dates back to Augustine. But the church in the 1500s had moved well away from proclaiming this. It had drifted towards salvation via rituals, pilgrimages, relics and cash payments.

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About the Author

Alan Austin is an Australian freelance journalist currently based in Nīmes in the South of France. His special interests are overseas development, Indigenous affairs and the interface between the religious communities and secular government. As a freelance writer, Alan has worked for many media outlets over the years and been published in most Australian newspapers. He worked for eight years with ABC Radio and Television’s religious broadcasts unit and seven years with World Vision. His most recent part-time appointment was with the Uniting Church magazine Crosslight.

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