What Hath Madonna to do with Geneva? Thoughts for Reformation Day

A lot of this is pure speculation, especially about Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone, of whom I know next to nothing for sure (web research brings both curse and blessing), other than that she is obviously extremely talented and just as obviously extremely anti-Christian.

I suppose the fact that I think there is some continuity between Madonna and the Reformation in Sixteenth-century Europe will bring great satisfaction to any number of Roman Catholics (if there are any who care what I think) who have always known that the heart of Protestantism was nothing more than libertine rebellion. We’ve seen Roman Catholics attempt this interpretation, for example, in E. Michael Jones’ Degenerate Moderns: Modernity As Rationalized Sexual Misbehavior.

Well, I’m not underwriting Ciccone’s entire ethic here. I am wondering out loud, however, to what extent her own background in Roman Catholicism–a Roman Catholicism transmitted from her father, “a strict Italian Catholic who raised his family in an atmosphere of religious observance” might be similar to what inspired a catholic monk to write tracts about the spirituality of changing diapers. Roman Catholic spirituality has surely changed in the last five hundred years, and has different permutations as it is transmitted through various groups in various settings. But it is hard for me to listen to “the material girl” living “in the material world” and not wonder if the same otherworldly ideal that was suffocating life in late medieval Europe was not affecting family life in conservative Catholic families in Michigan in the late 50s.

When we speak of the Reformation today, and this would equally be true of secular historians as well as many Christians, we commonly claim to be speaking about “theology.” But look at the first three theses nailed on that door 489 years ago:

  1. Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite, willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.
  2. This word cannot be understood to mean sacramental penance, i.e., confession and satisfaction, which is administered by the priests.
  3. Yet it means not inward repentance only; nay, there is no inward repentance which does not outwardly work divers mortifications of the flesh.

So here we have the beginning of the beginning of the Reformation and what do we find? An attack on the mandated practices of society. A denial of the authority over men’s behavior. An attack on any retreat to an inward world. A demand for a new life–not a life for some in the monastery, but a life to be lived by all, everyone who was formerly under the mandates of their village priest.

This new vision of life is based on a new vision of God. This too comes to view right away. Thesis #5: “The pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring that it has been remitted by God and by assenting to God’s remission.” So there is no one to go to to get God to be forgiving to you. Rather, God is the one who is already abounding in forgiveness and others should assure you of that fact. There is no condemnation that you need to get someone to spare you from. God forgives.

We miss what was going on because we think of church fundraising as such a minor issue in life. It is a minor issue in our lives. But in the sixteenth-century we were talking about the economy of a civil kingdom that had international revenue sources. When Luther wrote [in theses 81-88] that:

This unbridled preaching of pardons [in exchange for money] makes it no easy matter, even for learned men, to rescue the reverence due to the pope from slander, or even from the shrewd questionings of the laity.To wit: — “Why does not the pope empty purgatory, for the sake of holy love and of the dire need of the souls that are there, if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a Church? The former reasons would be most just; the latter is most trivial.”

Again: — “Why are mortuary and anniversary masses for the dead continued, and why does he not return or permit the withdrawal of the endowments founded on their behalf, since it is wrong to pray for the redeemed?”

Again: — “What is this new piety of God and the pope, that for money they allow a man who is impious and their enemy to buy out of purgatory the pious soul of a friend of God, and do not rather, because of that pious and beloved soul’s own need, free it for pure love’s sake?”

Again: — “Why are the penitential canons long since in actual fact and through disuse abrogated and dead, now satisfied by the granting of indulgences, as though they were still alive and in force?”

Again: — “Why does not the pope, whose wealth is to-day greater than the riches of the richest, build just this one church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of poor believers?”

Again: — “What is it that the pope remits, and what participation does he grant to those who, by perfect contrition, have a right to full remission and participation?”

Again: — “What greater blessing could come to the Church than if the pope were to do a hundred times a day what he now does once, and bestow on every believer these remissions and participations?”

–when he wrote these things he was attacking international trade. These statements are more like, today, destroying federal currency or spreading claims that a bank is insolvent (both of which are totally illegal in the US, the First Amendment notwithstanding).

But perhaps by mentioning such great public issues, I’m digressing from the personal liberation that got me thinking about Madonna and Geneva. Well, perhaps I am, but given the facts of household budgeting, I can’t help but think that discussions of whether or not to liberate Grandma from a thousand years of flaming torments or put food on the table might not have some personal ramifications. It was an international issue for the Pope and cardinals and kings and princes, but I imagine Luther as a pastor might have witnessed the issue from a more personal level.

In any case, Luther’s “theological writings” are stuffed with direct this-worldy concerns about personal liberation from crippling ideals that were, in fact, inhuman slaveries.

Thus it is true, as men say, that parents, although they had nothing else to do, could attain salvation by training their own children; if they rightly train them to God’s service, they will indeed have both hands full of good works to do. For what else are here the hungry, thirsty, naked, imprisoned, sick, strangers, than the souls of your own children? with whom God makes of your house a hospital, and sets you over them as chief nurse, to wait on them, to give them good words and works as meat and drink, that they may learn to trust, believe and fear God, and to place their hope on Him, to honor His Name, not to swear nor curse, to mortify themselves by praying, fasting, watching, working, to attend worship and to hear God’s Word, and to keep the Sabbath, that they may learn to despise temporal things, to bear misfortune calmly, and not to fear death nor to love this life.See, what great lessons are these, how many good works you have before you in your home, with your child, that needs all these things like a hungry, thirsty, naked, poor, imprisoned, sick soul. O what a blessed marriage and home were that where such parents were to be found! Truly it would be a real Church, a chosen cloister, yea, a paradise. Of such says Psalm cxxviii:

“Blessed are they that fear God, and walk in His Commandments; thou shalt eat of the labor of thine hands; therefore thou shalt be happy, and it shall be well with thee. Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine in thine house, and thy children shall be as the young scions of laden olive trees about thy table. Behold, thus shall the man be blessed, that feareth the Lord,” etc.

Where are such parents? Where are they that ask after good works? Here none wishes to come. Why? God has commanded it; the devil, flesh and blood pull away from it; it makes no show, therefore it counts for nothing. Here this husband runs to St. James, that wife vows a pilgrimage to Our Lady; no one vows that he will properly govern and teach himself and his child to the honor of God; he leaves behind those whom God has commanded him to keep in body and soul, and would serve God in some other place, which has not been commanded him. Such perversity no bishop forbids, no preacher corrects; nay, for covetousness’ sake they confirm it and daily only invent more pilgrimages, elevations of saints, indulgence-fairs. God have pity on such blindness.

So what is the life God loves? What is the life that is just in his sight? The life of the monastary? The life of celibacy and self-abnegation? No. The life of Christian normalcy–the life of husbands, wives, parents children. A life without the oppresive guilt felt because one resists being celibate and single and poor and alone.

This is no rare thing in the writings of the Reformation. And even the more theoretical issues have behind them these basic issues. One should never think of the debates over the presence of Christ in the Lord’s supper without thinking of the power of a ruler to put God in a processional under his own control and watch his people bow to him/it.

So while I don’t think it is a just response, when someone goes by the name “Madonna” and occasionally makes a point of including her confirmation name (“Veronica”) as part of her identity, and makes a point blasphemously liberating a priest from a confessional or doing projects with names like “sex,” I wonder if there isn’t a connection.

It is intriguing to me that Madonna was also her mother’s name. She died when our Madonna was only five. Madonna ascended in importance in the late medieval age precisely because God was so cold and distant and angry people were looking for an iintermediary who was more sympathetc. Even if devoid of sex, at least everyone could still admit that she was a mother in a family. That’s as close to real life as anyone was going to get among the saints.

Of course, Madonna’s response is not really an affirmation of any world beyond that of Hollywood/media-financed fantasy. In the real world, not many people can expose themselves in erotica and have any sort of life they want. Luther’s ideal was, by any account, pagan or Christian, more attainable and helpful for more people.

Be that as it may, while the Church will always have to respond to pansexual ideals that can be presented more attractively than any sermon, we should probably be careful in how we react. Pagan hedonism is not the only form of paganism. There is a pagan asceticism as well that when, mixed with Christian ideals, can produce a world in which people believe they are second class, and due for a few centuries in Purgatory at least, all for the crime of falling in love and getting married.

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