Reformation, Catholic

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Like other reform movements in the 16th century, Anabaptism owed much to the Catholic tradition. Some early Anabaptist leaders were members of the Catholic clergy, both regular (monastic) and secular (parish clergy); others had been educated in a variety of Catholic schools. All of them were products of a society powerfully influenced by Catholic thought and practice. The Reformation was an age when church and state were intertwined in the fabric of society. Most people did not question the view that God's kingdom should be built through the close collaboration of the two comprehensive institutions. As the Reformation gained ground, most reformers did not question this established belief. Yet, as change came in the religious arena, many who had hailed reformers such as Luther and Zwingli became unhappy with the speed and extent of reform; they demanded more radical change, usually a more deliberate return to what they believed to be New Testament beliefs and practices. Anabaptism was satisfied neither with the new movements nor with the traditional faith.

In its rejection of much Catholic doctrine and practice, and in its expressed discontent with Protestant reform, Anabaptism quickly gained the censure of the Catholic hierarchy, Protestant leaders, and secular authorities. Official pronouncements by ecclesiastical and political rulers denounced Anabaptists as heretics, to be punished by death. The edict issued by the imperial diet in 1529, prescribing the death penalty for Anabaptists, was supported by Catholics and Protestants alike. Records such as the Martyrs Mirror, court documents, and contemporary chronicles bear witness to Anabaptist suffering. In this respect, actions taken by Catholic and Protestant authorities were very similar.

In some areas, Anabaptists stood closer to Catholicism than did many other reform movements. For example, Anabaptists expressed dissatisfaction with Luther's emphasis upon salvation by faith alone. While they rejected what they regarded as the Catholic teaching of a "works righteousness," they insisted that good works were a necessary corollary to living faith. Anabaptists such as Menno Simons did not share Luther's uneasiness about the Epistle of James; instead, they welcomed its emphasis upon good works.

A number of Anabaptists also retained something of the Catholic monastic legacy. A de-emphasis upon acquisition of temporal possessions and a recognition of the biblical pattern of community were at least in part derived from Catholic patterns and nurtured by those who for a time had pursued the ideals of monasticism. In some Anabaptist groups, these views led to a repudiation of private property. Hutterites insisted on sharing economic possessions and on living in a closely-knit community. Anabaptist pursuit of the ideal of the congregation as a community of brothers and sisters in Christ could not be reconciled with the usual patterns of authority. It should, however, be noted that before long Anabaptists developed their own authority figures; in many instances, "elders" or "bishops" emerged to provide strong leadership that often weakened egalitarian community practices. Indeed, struggles for leadership are a prominent part of fractious tendencies noticeable in Anabaptism.

Early Anabaptism was also characterized by an emphasis upon active expressions of piety and devotion. Here too the monastic and mystic traditions made an impact. It is not accidental that devotional literature, similar to that characteristic of the devotio modern, formed an important part of Anabaptist spiritual nurture. Late medieval Catholic mysticism and piety helped to shape Anabaptism. Anabaptists, however, insisted that devotion and piety should be characteristic of all believers; there should be no special "holy" calling as in monasticism. Thus, bearing arms was forbidden to all, not just the clergy.

Anabaptist insistence on believer's baptism provided the most obvious difference between the traditional faith and Anabaptism. When the Council of Trent (Session VII, canon 13) condemned Anabaptist teaching on baptism, it was echoing a sentiment that had been expressed frequently in temporal statute and ecclesiastical pronouncement. Similarly, Anabaptists rejected the Catholic view that sacraments (ordinances) were a means of grace; rather, baptism and communion were regarded as acts in which the individual, in the midst of the believing congregation, confessed a living faith, and expressed fellowship with Christ and the church.

Anabaptism, in common with most other reform movements, emphasized scriptural authority. Many Anabaptists taught, however, that the meaning of biblical teachings could best be discerned, not in isolation and not through the magisterium (official church teaching), but rather in the community of faithful believers. At the same time, other Anabaptists placed so much emphasis upon direct illumination by the Holy Spirit that some of them were accused of subordinating biblical authority to subjective experience. Most Anabaptists, however, held to a very high view of the Scriptures, and rejected the Catholic position that insisted on a recognition of both Scripture and tradition as authoritative. A number of Anabaptists, however, reflected contemporary acceptance of the Apocrypha as a significant witness to faith and practice. In this respect Anabaptists such as Hans Denck stood closer to traditional Catholic views than did reformers such as Luther and Calvin. Menno Simons, Dirk Philips and other Anabaptist leaders often quoted from the Apocrypha; at the same time, Menno and others specifically rejected doctrines such as those of purgatory, which had been based in substantial measure upon readings of certain texts in the Apocrypha.

In their rejection of the papacy and the entire Catholic hierarchical system, Anabaptists tended to be less strident than many Protestant leaders. Anabaptists often expressed discomfort with diatribes that denounced the pope as Antichrist. Many Anabaptists readily admitted that they believed many Catholics were part of the family of God. The distinction between the church of Christ and what Menno Simons called the "church of Antichrist" was to be found in matters of belief and practice, not in specific leaders or offices.

Unlike the Anabaptists, most Protestants of the Reformation era retained Catholic views of church and state. The state was presumed to be God's instrument for implementing divine ideals; coercion in the arena of faith, buttressed by theological writing, was accepted by Catholic and Protestant for centuries. Most Anabaptists rejected the view that physical force should be used to defend or compel faith, although Münster provided a notable exception. For the Anabaptist, the believer's role in society was thus radically different from what Catholic tradition held. For most people of the Reformation era, the Anabaptist notion of separation of church and state and the insistence on religious toleration seemed dangerous and contrary to traditional views of how God's kingdom should be built upon earth. Catholics based their views of church and society upon their understanding of the Scriptures and their centuries-old traditions. Anabaptists contended that the life and teachings of Christ as portrayed in the New Testament provided the authoritative model and guide. 

See also Roman Catholic Church.


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Author(s) Peter J Klassen
Date Published 1989

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Klassen, Peter J. "Reformation, Catholic." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 31 Mar 2023.,_Catholic&oldid=121286.

APA style

Klassen, Peter J. (1989). Reformation, Catholic. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 31 March 2023, from,_Catholic&oldid=121286.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 749-750. All rights reserved.

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