Did Catholic theology cause Secular Humanism?
Part 4 - The Renaissance

The Middle Ages and the Renaissance

From an artistic and cultural position the Renaissance was a triumph. However, from a spiritual and moral perspective, which is really the only thing that matters in the eyes of God, it was a total disaster. Francis Schaeffer was right that the Renaissance was a mess and that there were tons of problems with Christianity during that time. Catholics admit it. It fueled the Reformation. There were some bad Popes. Thankfully, no doctrinal changes were made by bad Popes. God kept them quiet on doctrine.

Francis A. Schaeffer was wrong when he said that humanism is a result of the Church's acceptance of Aquinas. The Renaissance movement disdained Aquinas. Aquinas's theology didn't facilitate the Renaissance. Leaders of the Renaissance ignored Aquinas' purification of Aristotle. They went back to the Greek philosophy and took off in a completely different direction. A non-Christian direction.

Pope Benedict said:

In all honesty, one must observe that in the late Middle Ages we find trends in theology which would sunder this synthesis between the Greek ... and ... Christian spirit. In contrast with the so-called intellectualism of Augustine and Thomas, there arose with Duns Scotus a voluntarism which, in its later developments, led to the claim that we can only know God's voluntas ordinata.

The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1905 says this about the Renaissance:

But the Renaissance had indulged its "pride of state, of knowledge, and of system" with disastrous consequences to our Christian inheritance. It trampled on the Middle Ages and failed to understand that in them which was truly original. The Latin of Cicero which urban VIII cultivated, the metres of Horace, did grievous wrong to the prose and verse of our church offices, so far as they were altered. The showy architecture now designed, though sometimes magnificent, was not inspired by religion; before long it sank to the rococo and the grotesque; and it filled the churches with pagan monuments to disedifying celebrities. In painting we descend from the heaven of Fra Angelico to the "corregiosity" of Corregio, may, lower still, for Venus too often masquerades as the Madonna. Christian art became a thing of the past when the Gothic cathedral was looked upon as barbarous even by such champions of the Faith as Bossuet and Fenelon. Never did a poet inspired by Renaissance models...rise to the sublimity of the "Dies Irae" .... the Renaissance... was not large or liberal enough to absorb the Middle Ages. Hence its failure at the beginning as a philosophic movement, its lack of the deepest human motives, its superficiality and its pedantries; hence, afterwards, its fall into the commonplace, and the extinction of art in vulgarity, of literature in empty rhetoric. Hence, finally, the need of a French Revolution to teach it that life was something more serious than a "Carneval de Venise", and of Romanticism to discover, among the ruined choirs and in the neglected shrines which men had scornfully passed by, tokens of that mighty medieval genius,... misunderstanding of which was the folly, and the spoiling of its achievements the crime, that we must charge upon the Renaissance in the day of its power. "It remained for a later age", says one who glorified it, "to conceive the true method of effecting a scientific reconciliation of Christian sentiment with the imagery, the legends, the theories about the world, of pagan poetry and philosophy" (Pater, "Renaissance", 49). Not less did it become the task of Goethe, Scott, Chateaubriand, Ruskin, of Friedrich Schlegel and the best German critics, to show that European culture, divorced from the Middle Ages, would have been a pale reflection of dead antiquity.

But there were some bright lights. Wikipedia says:

The scholarship of Erasmus, given to the world in a lively Latin, was universal and often profound. It was also honestly Christian; to make Holy Scripture known and understood was the supreme purpose he kept in view. And thus the "prince of humanists" could remain Catholic, while looking for a moral restoration, during the whirlwind of Luther's revolt. In him the Renaissance had cast away its paganism ...

St. Ignatius, who began his order in Paris, who walked the same streets with Erasmus, Calvin, and Rabelais, did the most astonishing feat recorded in modern history. He reformed the Church ... when the papacy sunk to its lowest ebb.

Another consideration is that Islam was coming in strong against Christian Europe. The Turks were taking over everything in sight. Most secular historians would say that the largest factor in the arrest of Islam's encroachment of Europe was Europe's rapid development of culture, industrialization, and materialism. Which coincidentally, was the result of decadent humanism. Of course the Renaissance was an affront to Christianity, but it was a greater affront to the Turks, which it stopped dead in its tracks. God was able to use evil of the Renaissance to arrest a greater evil.

The Jesuits were also a bright light during that time. But they could not stave off the punishments that would inevitably fall upon the Renaissance movement which had taken our Lord and Saviour for granted. In Italy, the Renaissance ended in 1527 with the sack of Rome by the Germans. Cardinal Cajetan said "it was a just judgment on the Romans." The pagan Renaissance fell, stricken to death. In France, the Renaissance ended with the French Revolution, and in Germany it ended with the Reformation.

There was a long period of strife, peasant wars and hardship which followed for both Catholics and Reformers. Erasmus was a key humanist who had a great influence on Martin Luther. They were in close contact for many years, until Erasmus refused to join the Reform. In some respects Erasmus was the father of the reform even though he remained a Catholic. He saw the need for reform. In fact all holy people of the period saw a need for reform. Unfortunately, we had a string of lousy Popes and they dropped the ball.

Bad Popes

Historians would say there have been about 12 morally corrupt Popes out of 266 Popes that start from the time of Christ. Probably the worst Pope was Alexander VI (1492-1503). He had several illegitimate children before and during his reign as Pope. He was into bribery, deceit, debauchery and anything else you could imagine. This is right when Martin Luther was on the scene. Pope Innocent VII (1484-1492) and Pope Leo X (1513-1521) were from the Borgia and Medici families which were kind of like the Sopranos of the middle ages. These three Popes contributed significantly to the unrest that led to the Reformation. Nicholas V didn't help with his lavishness. Paul II and Sixtus IV were also not great.

Erasmus, the best known humanist in history, was a key influence on Luther's Reform

It’s a bummer that Pope Alexander VI was being a jerk right when he should have been listening to Erasmus and reforming the Church. This lack of attention to Erasmus contributed hugely to the Protestant Reformation. Also the Black Plague had wiped out most of the good priests and the quality of priests dropped. There was the schism where the Pope moved to Avignon France for most of the 1300's. There was the anti Pope and a few other things made the time ripe for an explosion. However, during that time there were some fantastic Catholic Saints like Catherine of Sienna who told the Pope to leave France and return to Rome...and he did!

Some will point to the bad Popes as proof that God did not institute the Papacy with Peter. The Catholic Church claims that its teaching is infallible, but it does not claim that its people are not indefectible. Even Jesus chose a bad disciple, Judas. We don't say "Hey Jesus can't be the Saviour, he had a bad disciple." Ten of the disciples deserted him. What is really amazing regarding the bad Popes is that they stayed silent of issues of faith and morals. They could have defined all kinds of crazy doctrines in the name of their teaching authority, but they didn't. Catholics think this is a testimony in favor of the Papacy. These bad Popes did not define any doctrines. Catholics think this is part of God's infallibility promise. Not only will God direct Popes in their teaching, but He'll also shut them up about dumb (heretical) teaching too. Catholics believe God protected his Church during those periods when there were bad Popes. We believe He meant what He said:

...you are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in Heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (Mat 16:18)

It should be noted that 78 Popes are Canonized Saints and 10 more are beatified, which means they were awesome Popes. Certainly, Catholicism had its share of humanists who went too far. But this is true of any denomination. Protestant countries after the Reformation had just as many humanists who went too far.

The Catholic Church has cleaned up its act tremendously between the Reformation and now. We still have a long way to go. Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict said "the Church of the future may very well be quite a lot smaller, and more faithful." I'm OK with that.

Music of the Middle Ages

An Evangelical friend of mine said that Catholic music of the Renaissance was about nature and Humanism. He cited the Catholic Vivaldi's Four Seasons. He said it was not at all as holy as Bach who was Lutheran. Catholics do not count Vivaldi as a religious composer. His "Four Seasons" was a secular work, and so to pit Vivaldi against Bach is not really fair. The Catholic Church always produced great liturgical music (on par with Bach) which communicated the Truths of the Apostolic Faith. The medieval rites of the Catholic Church show this. Compare Bach to Schubert and the other Catholic composers of his time. All drew from the same Baroque tradition and, if anything, Bach (though a Lutheran) mirrored Catholic forms ...which is why several of his patrons who were Calvinists refused to use Bach for church services, claiming that his music was "too Catholic." 

Not all of the Humanism of the Middle Ages was bad

There were many demonstrations of holiness and greatness in Art during the middle ages. (Michelangelo's Pieta, Da Vinci's Last Supper, Mozart's Requiem etc.) It is true that these people were often times not into the life of Faith but it is pretty hard to deny the God given inspiration found in these classic and Godly works. All artists are a bit messed up, Catholic, Protestants and even me.

Petrarch (1300's AD) and others are a demonstration that music, art and poetry that glorifies God can also revere his creation. As long as it worships the Creator and not the Creator.

Secular Humanism worships creation, not the Creator
The Devil always mocks holiness.

The devil always mocks purity. Secular humanism distorts a true reverence for nature. It is kind of the same way that same sex marriage mocks and distorts the beauty of a marriage between man and woman. But we should not abolish God's institution of marriage just because the devil is mocking it. If we did we would be empowering the devil. Neither should we abolish the truths from God that were revealed to ancient Greece before the time of Jesus. The cliché is "don't throw the baby out with the bath water" and This is what Francis Schaeffer did when he proposed an historical witch hunt for Christians who love nature.

Schaeffer criticizes the post Reform world and non-Catholic Christians just as much as he criticizes early Catholics. So obviously the Reform did not solve the problem. Perhaps, because it was not addressing the right problem.

The Reform's contribution to humanism

Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, et al were in many ways children of medieval humanism. They liberalized divorce and remarriage, which had been very strict in Catholicism.  They shunned the Catholic Church which also meant the rejection of learning and so philosophy was eclipsed for 200 years before they realized that they were losing ground to the secularist pagans of the Renaissance. Then they developed Protestant scholasticism to revive the intellectual life. It can be said that Protestant desire to read original texts in the original languages (because all the Catholic accumulated intervening learning of the past was considered to be corruption) actually laid the foundation of the revival of paganism in the Renaissance. Some Catholic theologians have said that Luther hatched the egg that Erasmus laid and the basilisk Voltaire crawled out. The Reformers created a climate in which all religion was personal, and only the state represented the community. The King or Prince became the supreme authority in whatever "church" structure survived, but even that became oppressive so in many places, Protestants became independent of the "state religion." Secular values replaced religious ones in the public life and God was banished from public square which led to the "separation of Church and State" which both Catholics and Protestants understand to be a disaster. To combat these problems Francis Schaeffer is calling for "a reform of the Reform."

The Reformation did not escape many of the same kinds of corruptions that it was accusing Catholic courts of practicing. Martin Luther was disgusted with the conduct of many of fellow Protestants who had authority. Church historian John Laux writes:

...in his own Wittenberg, where Protestant Princes confiscated the wealthiest bishopbrics and monasteries for their own use…while the preachers often suffered the direst want. Irreligiousness, immortality and vices of all sorts flourished...

In a 1545 letter to his wife Martin Luther writes about the Reform...

Let us get out of this Sodom. I prefer to wander about homeless and to beg my bread from door to door than to poison my poor last days by the spectacle of all these disorders. We experience it daily that the people are seven times worse today than ever before under the Papacy; they are more avaricious, more unchaste, more envious, more intemperate, more dishonest... [John Laux, CHURCH HISTORY, p.431]

I found a great article by The Family Research Council in the US, which is a non-denominational conservative think tank. Here is an excerpt:

[Russel Kirk]... highlighted the Protestant character, which encouraged self-reliance and "godly endeavor in the secular realm"[16] as well as the Reformation's tendency toward democracy. These features of Protestantism led Kirk to speculate on its particular contribution to American political order, asking whether the Protestant spirit in fact "created" American [secular] civilization.

16. Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order (1974; Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2003) 236.

In many respects Francis Schaeffer's "Reform of the Reformation" is a return to a Catholic approach

  1. He wanted to reinstate moral absolutes (which he acknowledges to be articulated by Greek Philosophy)
  2. Schaeffer wanted Evangelicals to take back art (which is what Catholicism did during the middle ages)
  3. He wanted Evangelicals to take back politics (he called this Dominionism, which is what Catholicism did after Constantine)
  4. He wanted Evangelicals to understand that the full use of the intellect is completely consistent with a life of faith and that both the intellect and faith will arrive at the same Truth, because Truth is Truth. (this is the Catholic exegesis form of theological analysis)

So naturally we are in favour of these proposed reform to the Reformation. But where we differ from Mr. Schaeffer is that we don't think the Catholic Church is to blame for the problem of Secular Humanism. It is not a surprisethat Schaeffer's son says that his father (Francis A. Schaeffer) got closer and closer to becoming Catholic as he finished his life, and that he would have become Catholic if he had lived longer.

In his last days, Frances A. Schaeffer came closer and closer to converting to Catholicism. His last book was called "The Great Evangelical Disaster."

Listen to this recording of his son Frank talk about his father's change of heart towards the Catholic Church. Click here.

His son Frank converted to the Orthodox Church in the early 90's. That is about as close as you can get to Catholic.


In summary, we say to Evangelicals, by all means listen to Schaeffer's call to action, and join us in our assertion that morals are absolute values that are defined by God and articulated in the Holy Bible. Join us and let’s get involved in politics together. Evangelicals and faithful Catholics alike voted against John Kerry who wanted to gut marriage and legalize human cloning experimentation. Join us in our fight against abortion and euthanasia.

Let’s fight together against secular humanism and stop pointing fingers at each other as to its roots.  I say "join us in taking back art into the Christian realm". And we also say let us embrace together the roots of Christian theology which are found in the apostle John's writings in the book of Revelation, which was embraced by the earliest Christians and which was embraced by the Protestant and reformers and Catholics alike, who unanimously revered Augustine and Aquinas as the greatest pillars in Christian thought. If anything has laid a foundation for the current rise of Human Secularism, it is the lack of unity and resolve found among Christians of all denominations to work together in the name of Christ. So let's come together and fight this thing.

The rest of this series of articles:

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