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By Mary Noll Venables


The Reformation Question

What does Catholic mean?

Who or what is a Catholic? Is it the entire church or only the Western part of it? Must a Catholic be loyal to the pope, or could she defend the faith against the pope? Can a Protestant be Catholic? And does the meaning of the word "Catholic" even matter?

Diarmaid MacCulloch replies that in early modern Europe, the meaning of the word was central to the Reformation—and, he maintains, Reformation history is essential to European and world history. He goes so far as to claim that it's impossible to comprehend the modern world without knowing the 16th-century roots of divisions between Protestants and Catholics. In particular, he provocatively contends, the Reformation background is essential to grasp the distinctive character of the United States. He identifies Scotch-Irish Presbyterianism as the dominant influence on American culture, explaining American religiosity as the fruit of Reformed Christian faith that was transplanted from the edges of the British Isles to North America.

MacCulloch covers the familiar ground of survey texts with ease and grace, offering the reader a well-paced and broad introduction. But he also follows the story well beyond the bounds of the Reformation narrowly construed, extending the narrative into Eastern Europe, Catholic renewal, and the 17th century. He offers lively sketches of the major characters en route, describing Martin Luther as the guarantor of a good night out on the town but declining to say the same of "buttoned-up" John Calvin. He also does a fine job untangling complicated theology, particularly regarding the Eucharist. It takes an exceptionally talented historian to clarify why Protestant church unity floundered on whether the host is broken (Reformed) or elevated (Lutheran) without getting bogged down in pages of explanation. (A useful touch for the novice Reformation student is an appendix with the Nicene Creed, the Apostles' Creed, the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Hail Mary.)

To demonstrate the church's ...

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