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The “heroes and heretics” who changed the Church and the world

Phillip Campbell discusses his book on some of the pivotal men and women of the Reformation era.

Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher (CNS composite photo/Public domain)

The 500th anniversary of the day Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany—marking the beginning of the Protestant Reformation—was remembered on October 31, 2017. Pope Francis himself participated in multiple activities to mark the occasion, beginning with a common prayer service with the leadership of the Lutheran World Federation in Sweden the previous year.

While some celebrate “Reformation Day,” others do not, seeing it as the beginning of a major rupture of Christ’s church, clearly at odds with the wishes of Her divine founder: “… that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you …” (John 17:21)

In conjunction with Reformation Day, Catholic educator, historian, and author Phillip Campbell published Heroes & Heretics of the Reformation (TAN Books), a book examining major figures of the Protestant Reformation and their impact on the Church and European society. Chapters are devoted to significant Protestant figures, such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, as well the many Catholic leaders, saints, and martyrs of the era.

Phillip Campbell recently spoke with CWR about his book.

CWR: Please tell us a little about your background.

Phillip Campbell: I live in southern Michigan and have been in Michigan my entire life. I was baptized Catholic but not raised in a religious family. I converted to Christianity as a teenager but the study of history led me to reconcile with the Catholic Church in 2002. Shortly thereafter I decided to pursue education, but I was really turned off by the public schools and went into alternative education, teaching online for Homeschool Connections or at the St. Augustine program in Ann Arbor. It was my success as a teacher that led me to transition into writing books to educate people about history.

CWR: What aspect of history interests you most, and why does it appeal to you?

Campbell: When I first started studying history I was definitely a student of the Middle Ages, just because of its wonderful art, colorful characters, and the Catholicity of the era. But the more I learn the more I love every era of history. Ancient Rome, Greece, Mesopotamia, early modern…I have yet to find an era of history I am not interested in, and I’ve taught and written about almost everything.

CWR: Why did you want to write Heroes and Heretics of the Reformation? What does it add to the existing literature on this topic?

Campbell: I have always been fascinated by the Reformation era and how it fundamentally altered the course of Western Civilization. Whether considered historically or from a religious standpoint, the modern cultural landscape in the West is not understandable without this epoch.

There’s been so much written on this era over the years it’s hard to compete with existing literature. That being said, in Heroes and Heretics [my goal was to balance] a studious, scholarly approach while ensuring it is accessible to the layman. The stories and ideologies of the era are presented as a series of interwoven biographical studies in the spirit of Belloc’s Characters of the Reformation, as I have always found that history is much more understandable when it is personal.

CWR: Let’s touch on the few people featured in your book, starting with Martin Luther. Describe his temperament and background, and some of reasons he broke with the Catholic Church.

Campbell: Luther is a fascinating character study, regardless of what you think about his theology. He was both fascinated and terrified by the concept of God’s omnipotence. People speculate about the degree to which his view of God was influenced by his poor relationship with his abusive father. It’s hard to say. But he definitely felt the full weight of the sheer horror of being a finite being in the face of an infinitely powerful God.

He initially joined the priesthood based on a rash vow he took in fear during a thunderstorm. He was absolutely insistent that the power of God be preserved and acknowledged at all times, but in a sort of disordered way that had no place for any human mediation. Luther was never comfortable with the idea of saints, priests, the Church, etc. as mediators of God’s grace. Though as a Catholic he affirmed them, one can tell that it was with a kind of mental reservation. He seemed to feel deeply that this concept of mediation was a challenge and affront to God’s power. This finally came to a head with the question of indulgences, which were supremely offensive to Luther and became the occasion of his break with the Church.

CWR: England had strong Catholic history up until the time of King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I.  Touch on who they were, some of the issues that led Henry to break with Rome, and how they attempted to eradicate Roman Catholicism from England.

Campbell: King Henry VIII started out his reign as a loyal son of the Church but chose the path of rupture when Pope Clement VII refused to grant him an annulment from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, so Henry could marry Anne Boleyn. This was only possible by adopting the essentially Protestant position that the pope did not have the jurisdiction over the administration of the sacraments that he claimed—even though at the time Henry did not view this as an adoption of Protestantism, but rather a restoration of the “true” Catholic faith in England.

At any rate, under Henry and his daughter Elizabeth, Catholicism would be eradicated by the prohibition of the Mass, the closure of the monasteries, the doctrine of the Royal Supremacy (that the monarch of England is the head of the English Church) and subtle changes to English worship which gradually washed away many pious Catholic customs from the minds of the English.

CWR: Talk about the Council of Trent, and some of the key “heroes” who made it happen and attempted to implement its reforms.

Campbell: Trent was a pivotal moment in the life of the Catholic Church. It reaffirmed traditional Catholic teaching, elucidated answers to the Protestant attack, and defined the orientation of Catholicism for the next four centuries. Many in the Church at the time recognized the need for an ecumenical council to answer the challenge posed by Protestantism; the man who brought the Council to fruition was Pope Paul III. One amazing thing readers will learn from this book is just how many political obstacles there were to getting Trent summoned.

But Paul III had the vision to see it through, and the wisdom to get the right people in the right places to move the heavy bureaucracy of the Church in the right direction. Other notables from the era are St. Charles Borromeo, who was entrusted with the task of implementing all the reforms of the Council in Milan with the effect of turning it into a “model diocese” for other bishops to emulate. There are so many others we could enumerate—Pope St. Pius V, pope in the immediate aftermath of Trent, who reformed the liturgical life of the Church and was the last sainted pope until the 20th century.

CWR: The political and economic interests of the elites often led one to support either the Catholic or Protestant side.

Campbell: We are so used to thinking of religion as a private matter that we forget how intertwined religion, politics, the economy, and society were in the past. In the late Medieval world, the religious question was also a social one. Monasteries owned millions of acres of land throughout Europe. The pope was an important political figure as well as a religious leader. The Christian faith was ubiquitous. Radical changes to the religious order necessarily implied the potential of vast social disorder.

Elites definitely had social and economic considerations in mind when choosing sides. For example, Francis I of France, though Catholic, initially threw his support behind the Lutheran movement because he knew it would destabilize the kingdom of his rival, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. King Henry VIII’s rejection of Rome meant not only break with the pope, but it also made possible one of the largest and most lucrative land grabs in European history. When Spain wanted to invade England in 1588, Queen Elizabeth’s propagandists associated Catholicism with foreign intrigue and successfully mobilized the entire English populace against Spain. In Germany, princes who sided with Luther found themselves able to expropriate Church property to enrich themselves. There are so many examples.

CWR: During the era of the Reformation, a man could be imprisoned or executed for expressing an opposing theological opinion from those in power. This may seem unbelievable to someone today. How was the mindset different in this era?

Campbell: The answer is two-fold. First, following on our last point, religion was intertwined with society as a whole. So expressing a contrarian religious opinion did not just mean one had an opposing viewpoint, but that one was actually threatening the social order, sometimes to the point of treason. It ensured that religious questions were never totally confined to the religious realm.

Second, and perhaps more fundamental, people in the Reformation still believed truth was important. A differing religious view was not just someone’s harmless opinion; it was a pernicious error that led countless souls to hell. And people still took that seriously. If you believed hell was real, and you knew someone was leading people into it by their heterodox teaching, how would you react?

CWR: Europe was nearly invaded and conquered by Muslims from the south during this time. How did this threat affect the Reformation?

Campbell: It could not have a come at a worse time. For many decades, it prevented Emperor Charles V from giving full attention to the Protestant crisis, as he was always fighting wars on multiple fronts. But on the other hand, it did serve as a point of unity for the Catholic kingdoms that were able to rally together at the behest of Pope St. Pius V to defeat the Turks in the Mediterranean at the Battle of Lepanto.

CWR: The Catholic Church was blessed by many saints during the time of the Reformation, both martyrs and those who labored for the true reform the Protestants said they were seeking.  Could you touch on a few of your favorite of these Catholic saints, and the good work they accomplished?

Campbell: I love St. Peter Canisius, the saint with whom I chose to open this book. He chose to combat the errors of his day by patient scholarship and reasoned discourse—and by education. He spent his life founding schools. As an educator myself, this is very dear to my heart. Of course, I love the greats like St. Ignatius Loyola and Pope St. Pius V, both of whom were instrumental in the pivoting the Church towards her Counter-Reformation stance. Also, although she is certainly not a saint, I have to say I have always had a soft spot in my heart for the tragic story of Mary, Queen of Scots. I devoted an entire chapter to her in the book.

CWR: Talk about the most famous Catholic martyrs of this period.

Campbell: The English martyrs come to mind, especially the Benedictine martyrs killed by Henry VIII during the monastic closures, but also St. Edmund Campion, “God’s braggart,” to whom I devoted an entire chapter. Also of worthy mention is St. Fidelis of Sigmaringen, a Capuchin friar murdered by Protestants in Switzerland. And, of course, there are St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, renowned martyrs of the English Church, who suffered death for disagreeing with the claims of Henry VIII.

CWR: Last year, Christians recalled the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation.  Pope Francis himself participated in some of these events. What were your thoughts on these observances; which did you think appropriate, and which concerned you?

Campbell: The Reformation needs to be remembered, but as Catholics we cannot “celebrate” it. Our Lord said the Church should be one, and we cannot celebrate something that objectively rent the unity of the Catholic faith. I think an appropriate attitude is one of somber reflection. It should be remembered, but with study and pious remembrance, so that we can avoid the errors of that period and also work for the full formal reconciliation of Christians who remain outside the Catholic fold.

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About Jim Graves 238 Articles
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.


  1. Life is dynamic. Change is inevitable. Heroes and heretics try to spend their lives in worldbuilding.

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