Reforming the Present
Dacia Maraini on power and reform
"The 13th Century Had Already Had Its Luther."
Had I lived in Luther’s time I think I would have sided with him: against the corruption of the Church, the sale of indulgences, against the idea that religion must force its way into the world with weapons, against any mediation between God and Man. Before being Luther’s, such ideas had been the word of Christ, only that the Church had lost sight of them, while Luther echoed them and put them into practice.
Looking back on history, one appreciates how ideas degrade always in the same way and predictably so: great ideas start out as revolutionary, generous and explosive, enthusing sufferers, calling for justice for the body and soul. However, when these great and generous thoughts, these beautiful utopias of love and equality, become intertwined with power, they turn into something else, often openly contradicting their original spiritual motives.
The dawn of Christianity was revolutionary, rejecting hate, war, upholding forgiveness, rejecting values such as property and money – Jesus walked barefoot and did not own a house – condemning the prevarication of man on man, enacting justice and even getting to the point of practicing gender equality. Without ever resorting to theories, just with a few actions and very few words, Christ condemned slavery and the idea of women being both impure and inferior. I would like to remind you that after His resurrection, the young Jesus of Nazareth was seen by two women and told them: go and tell my disciples that have been risen from the dead. This is a revolutionary act, albeit a symbolic one, because at the time women were not thought to be able to bear witness; according to both Greek and Jewish traditions women were considered inferior, minors for ever, with no responsibility, to be protected and controlled. With but a few words, Christ erased the practice whereby women could be discriminated against as witnesses blatantly disproving the ancient patriarchal misogyny.
So when the Christian church shed what it used to be, a group of simple, poor believers trusting in God and their neighbours, and became a centre of absolute power which imposed from above how subjects should act, what they should do and how they should pray, live and die. The more the power the more means needed to preserve it: weapons, prisons, courts, the use of torture – and in fact it was Pope Innocent IV who in 1252 issued the bull Ad Extirpanda allowing torture on people suspected of heresy.
I believe this is where religion became unhealthy, lost its spirituality and focused on conservation and defence of power with all and any means. Christ would have been horrified and would have rejected the Holy Inquisition, the Crusades, torture and the burning heretics at the stake. Just as Saint Francis and Saint Claire did later, risking their lives for it.
The Church had already known dissenters: there had been the Albigenses, the Cathars which were killed en masse with a rather un-Christian–like rage. Then Giordano Bruno and Peter Waldo: all considered heretics, sentenced and sent to burn on the stake as soon as possible.
Despite maintaining its wealth, its unhealthy alliances with the established powers of the time, the Church also needed its critics. It avoided them, tried to silence them, but then was forced to accept them, often having to make them saints: “Promoveatur ut amoveatur “.
The 13th century had already had its Luther: Francis of Assisis, who had strongly criticized the Church for its worldly behaviour, but Francis had not wanted to split the Church. Possibly because he was more humble, or because at the time there were no countries prepared to take him as the symbol of a new religion, which is what happened later with Luther.
Francis tried to reform the Church from within but only partly succeeded. Likewise, Saint Claire, the first woman to write a female Rule, an extraordinary thinker who lived according to her principles, in absolute poverty and according to democratic rules inside the convent, against the opinion of the ecclesiastic authorities.
Soon after their deaths the Church made them saints because of their great popularity. The Church also shredded their wills and everything returned to what it had been. In spite of this forced reconciliation, the two saints bore an enormous influence and the Church could not have continued without their example of spirituality.
Luther did not wish to reform the Church from within: he took it full front and waged a war. Luckily for him he was backed by many nations who wanted self government and not be under the Roman Church. They helped him shape and strengthen his ideas without being caught, judged and burnt at the stake as would have happened had he lacked political backing.
What was the outcome? Italy which had been in the forefront of the most modern experiments in the fields of science, philosophy of humanist freedoms in the time of the Renaissance, halted its development half way to obey the Church which had reverted to being dominant and intolerant. Think of Giordano Bruno, burnt alive at the stake in Piazza Campo Marzio, or Galileo Galilei, humiliated and forced to renege on his own discoveries.
Instead of reacting to the Lutheran Reform with another enlightened reform from within, the Church reacted by making rules stricter in the most traditional of ways, going back to being authoritarian and immobile. I consider the Counter-Reformation as one of the worst misfortunes befallen on our country: let us not forget that the Italian language was blossoming and its popular spread was stopped. With the Counter-Reformation schools, universities, churches and courts reverted to speaking Latin. Vulgar or vernacular Italian remained limited to the populace and was only spoken. Latin was used for the written language of the Academy which for centuries stifled the development of a popular or folk literature.
Luther was right although, as always happens to all great and generous ideas, his thoughts were attributed political and economic meanings which they did not originally have. Such new meanings deformed the original strength, gave rise to wars which had nothing to do with the religious spirit, but with money, property, power, repression and domination.
Dacai Maraini, born in 1936, is considered one of most important contemporary writers in Italy. Her work includes novels, essays, and poetry, as well as plays and scripts. In 1996 she was honored with the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic.