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Where the Rot Started?

It is an honor to have had Dale Van Kley review my book, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Reformation Secularized Society ["Where the Rot Started?", March/April]. I am pleased that such a distinguished historian thinks the book has "many virtues" and "eloquently describes" contemporary problems. I am also grateful to him for noting the importance of Jansenism's indirect contribution to anticlerical laicité in the modern Catholic world (although it may be doubted whether either Jansenism or the Jesuit and papal responses to it would have unfolded as they did absent the extreme Catholic sensitization to soteriological issues in the wake of the Reformation). At the same time, certain aspects of his review left me puzzled. Others seem to me historically problematic.

First, the review, starting with its title, gives no indication of the book's recurrent emphasis on "the late medieval church's many real, pervasive, and undeniable problems" (all quotations in this paragraph are mine from the book). I make clear that all was not well with late medieval Catholicism, and that the Reformation is not somehow solely responsible for what ensued. The "chasm" between medieval Christian prescriptions and practices, ideals and realities, is a major theme in three chapters and integral to the book's argument. The Reformation sought to address problems that started long before Luther; "sins were everywhere" among late medieval Christians and indeed "medieval Christendom failed." It was the character of Christendom itself, intertwined as it was with all areas of human life—and not something initiated only with the Reformation—that made the subsequent unresolved religious disagreements and religio-political conflicts the secularizing springboards of modernity in both ideological and institutional terms.

Second, Van Kley's characterization of the book as a "tract for our times" that is "not a work of 'pure' historical analysis" ignores the ...

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