It is not my intent to cause an argument over who wronged who and who was more unjust during the 16th and 17th century. Nor do I believe that the abuses by one group justifies wrong behavior by another group. Nor does this article intend to speak against the author of the blog I saw the comment in. Rather, I saw the comment and was reminded that people still believe this to be fact so I thought it should be addressed.
I do deal with some of the negative actions of Protestantism during the 16th and 17th century. This isn't a case of seeking to cast Protestants in a negative light, but rather to point out that many unquestioned assumptions constantly repeated are in fact false.
Proper dialogue requires the consideration of what happened on both sides. If a Catholic only looks at the reported evils of the Protestants without verifying them, if a Protestant only looks at the evils of Catholics without verifying them, and neither considers what actually happened, the result is going to be self-righteousness, as well as spreading misinformation.
On another blog, I saw a statement made in passing which was clearly not made in malice, but remained offensive nonetheless. In essence, it referred to the history of Protestantism and its members who died: so people could be free to worship in their own churches and have their own Bible. This kind of thing does irritate me. Why?
Essentially, because it is not true yet is repeated as true.
Freedom to worship in their own churches?
From the perspective of history and of theology this is patently false. Men like Luther had ideas of what "pure" Christianity was supposed to be, and when the Church said he erred, he claimed the whole of the Church was in error. He was never in danger of persecution, given that he lived in a region which supported him (He appealed to German nationalism which made him popular with German princes who wished to rebel against the Emperor).
Meanwhile Zwingli arose in Switzerland, had ideas of what "pure" Christianity was supposed to be, and when the Church said he erred, he claimed the whole of the Church was in error. This view did not coincide with Luther's view (Baptism and Eucharist were two areas where they widely diverged). He attempted to force Catholic cantons in Switzerland to convert by blockade, which resulted in war, and led to his death. He was no martyr.
The Anabaptists had ideas of what "pure" Christianity was supposed to be, and when the Church said he erred, they claimed the whole of the Church was in error. This view did not coincide with Luther's or Zwingli's view. (Notice a trend here?) They persecuted Catholics and non Anabaptist Protestants in their lands while they were dominant and were persecuted by Zwingli and later by Calvin and the Church of England.
Henry VIII rejected the authority of the Pope when he was denied an annulment. He declared himself the head of the Church in England and persecuted Catholics who remained loyal to the Pope. The Church of England would also persecute the Puritans and Anabaptists.
However, none of these groups or men could be said to have fought for the freedom of religion. Rather they fought for the dominance of their own religion. In all of these states, Catholics did not have the right to worship in their own churches. Indeed, in England, they made the attendance at Anglican churches mandatory. Catholic churches were looted and burnt. Monasteries were sacked. Convents were forced open, and the religious thrown out in the streets. Nuns were even sometimes forced to be married in some cases.
This doesn't mean that Catholics always behaved in an exemplary fashion in response. It was a period of intense division and hostility. I've not discussed those issues to avoid distractions and tu quoque recriminations. Since the claim was made that Protestantism means people were free to worship in their own churches, we need to look at the history which shows this view to be a myth.
Our own Bible?
The myth is that Luther discovered a Bible hidden away in a storeroom of a Monastery and read it on the sly, discovering Catholicism was wrong. The truth was less glamorous. While a Catholic Priest, he was assigned the duties of teaching Scripture at his university (which shows the Bible was not hidden away), and gradually moved away from the Catholic teaching, which seem to have been based on abuses which certain individuals did in regards to indulgences.
He was not the first person to translate the Bible into the vernacular. There were several versions of the German Bible which existed before Luther was born.
Likewise, the Catholic Church had never forbade the laity to read the Bible, though it did condemn certain translations as being filled with mistranslations and error. Also, in certain regions, where a heretical interpretation of the Bible was being put forth as authentic (The Cathars in France for example), the laity was forbidden to read their version of the Bible.
We need to remember something here. It is false to say that prior to the Reformation people were not allowed to read the Bible. More accurately, prior to the Printing Press, few Bibles were available (they had to be copied by hand, which is how all our sources of the Scripture were passed down to us), and there was little literacy.
The rise of the printing press did lead to wider distribution of books, and to literacy becoming more useful to the common man, and so the Bible was more widely distributed (the first book Gutenberg printed was the Bible).
The second problem I have with the claim that Protestantism was carried out so we might have our own Bible. The irony is many people who use this claim don't know the origin of the King James Version, also known as the "Authorized Version." Authorized by whom? Essentially, this was the Bible which was to be read in the churches, not the Geneva Bible
The Bible which was popular among the early Protestants was not the KJV. It was not Luther's Bible. It was the Geneva Bible. However, those Protestants in England who favored the state control of the Church did not like the Puritan tone the Geneva Bible took. The KJV was issued largely to counteract the opposition to authority which the Geneva Bible had.
Another interesting fact was that in England, in 1579, a law was made requiring every home to own a Bible. The KJV succeeded the Bishop's Bible which succeeded the Great Bible, which succeeded Tynsdale's translation which was banned in England in 1530.
Notice a trend here of law mandating what Bible should be read?
Unquestioned Assumptions and Bearing False Witness
There is a certain amount of anti-Catholic propaganda which still circulates, even among those Protestants who are not anti-Catholic themselves. Whether it is alleged that the Spanish Inquisition had killed 65 million people (Spain at the time had perhaps nine million people), or whether it is alleged that the Bible was locked to keep people from reading them (there were Bible chains yes, but that was to keep people from stealing pages in a time when books were rare) there are many accusations which are false but unquestioned.
Such claims do go against the commandment against bearing false witness. False Witness is not only deliberate lies. It also includes the repeating of comments which we assume are true without actually verifying they were true. If one repeats something which is false, without checking the truth of what one says, one does slander even if one does not intend to.
Unfortunately, both sides have done this. I've seen anti-Catholic literature on one hand. On the other hand, I've seen anti-Protestant literature. Both seem fraught with partial quotes which make context impossible, with works impossible to verify as sources (whether improper citations or out of date material which no longer is extant. It's one of the reasons I insist on finding an original source if possible to see such statements in context… if they even exist… before reporting it as fact).
What is to Be Done?
Ultimately, charity to our neighbor requires that we investigate a negative claim before we repeat it. If we wish to bear witness to Christ, it obligates us to be sure our words are true before we repeat them.