The Cardinal Can’t Get No Satisfaction


What’s most galling in reading Thomas More’s Dialogue concerning Heresies is how the author disrates Luther’s ideas by characterizing them as some toxic by-product of greed and lechery. More harps on Luther’s marriage, which to the Englishman, himself married with children, is the mortal sin, as it makes Luther, an ordained Augustinian priest and monk, an oath-breaker. And that the Reformer married an ex-nun, well, how could you take such a degenerate’s theology seriously?!

In doing a little research for something else I’m writing, I came across this quote in Alister E. McGrath’s excellent Luther’s Theology of the Cross (emphasis mine):

Even if I did all the penances possible, and many more besides, they would not be enough to atone for past sins, let along to merit salvation … [Christ’s] passion is sufficient, and more than sufficient, as a satisfaction for sins committed, to which human weakness is prone. Through this thought, I changed from great fear and anguish to happiness. I began to turn with my whole heart to this greatest good which I saw, for love of me, on the cross, his arms open and his breast opened right up to his heart. Thus I — the wretch who lacked the courage to leave the world and do penance for the satisfaction of my sins! — turned to him, and asked him to allow me to share in the satisfaction which he, the sinless one, had performed for us. He was quick to accept me and to permit his Father to totally cancel the debt which I had contracted, and which I was incapable of satisfying myself.

Now, since I have such a one to pay my debt, shall I not sleep securely in the midst of the city, even though I have not satisfied the debt which I have contracted? Yes! I shall sleep and wake as securely as if I had spent my entire life in the hermitage.

This, from Gasparo Contarini, written in 1511! Contarini, quite independently of Luther, comes within a hair’s breath of the Reformation cry sola fide!

Contarini was part of a small group of northern Italian humanists, called the Spirituali, who were seeking both reform within the church and a more intense personal piety. While his confreres opted for a life of penance in a hermitage, Gasparini stayed “in the world,” but became fearful that his moral cowardice would deprive him of justification.

That is, until his breakthrough insight.

Contarini, though a layman, was made a cardinal in 1535 (a ploy on the part of Pope Paul III to keep him from forging a permanent allegiance to the ever-growing Reformation), and eventually a bishop, and was sent to Regensburg in 1541 as a papal legate, in an attempt to find a compromise between Rome and the Evangelicals in Germany. Contarini, sympathetic to the Lutheran construal of justification by faith, composed a treatise that, again, came very close to the Reformers’ ideas (but not identical to them). Rome balked, Contarini was recalled, and the Inquisition took care of most of Contarini’s Italian fellow travelers.

It should be noted that the cardinal remained loyal to the pope until the end, ensuring that his “happiness” would be but a footnote in the history of the Reformation in Italy.

What excuse would More have found for Contarini’s “insanity”?



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