Schilling, Heinz: Confessional Europe

The individual confessions were nonetheless quite differently equipped to protect the church’s interests in mixed matters. Calvinist responsibility for these matters was especially explicit and instrumentally rational in the modern sense: it lay primarily with the congregational presbytery and secondarily with the synod. Where Calvinism was the established religion, both bodies coordinated their activities with those of the civil magistrates. (25) In Lutheran lands, by contrast, the powers of the local congregation were incorporated into the territorial bureaucracy, which allowed the state possibilities for influence and even control.(26) In Catholic lands most of the medieval institutions survived, though here, too, the drive for agreement and coordination can be traced in the episcopal authority, which the Council of Trent strengthened, in the new religious orders, such as the Jesuits, and above all in the state itself. (27) Best known are the Jesuits establishment of schools and universities. In 1576 Peter Canisius (1521-97) could still complain “that the Catholics have so few universities, and such poor ones.” He and others nonetheless pressed forward energetically on this front since the late sixteenth century, and gradually the gap diminished. The essential difference between Protestant and Catholic education consisted in the fact that behind the Calvinist and Lutheran efforts normally stood a territorial patron or even a national state, while in Catholic lands the main effort was borne by internationally organized religious orders, whose colleges, seminaries, and houses of study contributed to the progress of learning, including the natural sciences. (28)

Under Calvinism social welfare –care of the poor, orphans, and the sick– belonged to a special institution, the diaconate, governed by the deacons under the presbytery’s supervision. The Calvinist cities developed effective systems of district or neighborhood responsibility for a deacon, or a pair of deacons, who collected alms and supported the needy. In some places this system, which always meant supervision as well as support, became models for secular welfare institutions in the nineteenth century. Lutheranism established the “common chest” at the parish level, though this seldom led to a separate local welfare system, which instead was supplied by the territorial church and the state. Catholicism retained here, too, the medieval plurality of institutions, though with attempts to rationalize them.(29) Independently from these ecclesiastical efforts, the state became active in social welfare, especially in the German territorial states, where the political traditions favored the promotion of the common good through legislation. Hundreds of regulations and poor laws were issued, mostly based symbiotically on religious and political elements without much variation from confession-to-confession.(30)

For marriage and the family, as well as generally for relations between the sexes, confessionalization had important long-term consequences.(31) The development of modern marriage is to a large degree the history of marriage and married life as the confessional churches shaped them. Here, too, despite theological differences, the functional equivalence of the three streams of confessionalization remains valid, because the chief problem everywhere was to liberate the making of marriages from the kinfolk and bring it into the public sphere, where it could be regulated, supervised, and documented. This normally involved an obligation to announce from the pulpit intentions to marry, the introduction of church weddings –at which the consent of the bridal couple and their parents or other relations before witnesses was required– and the registration of marriages in the parish registers kept by every parish priest and pastor.

In the two Protestant churches marriage was “a worldly matter”, both based on the promises of the spouses and bound by the norms of Christian fidelity, honesty, and responsibility to one’s neighbor. The confirmation of Catholic marriage as a sacrament by the Council of Treent, by contrast, in principle excluded a secularization of marriage. It also affirmed the Catholic Church’s primary responsibility for marriage affairs and its autonomy vis-a vis the state, which the Protestants, having denied the sacramental character of marriage, could not claim. Still, as the Protestant confessions did not dare to draw the practical consequences from their desacralization of marriage in principle –relinquishing marriage and the family entirely to the state– in practice the role of religion remained primary in the Protestant lands as well. The only exceptions were the Dutch Republic and, for a time, England, where a free civil marriage was temporarily introduced respectively at the end of the sixteenth century and in the mid-seventeenth century. On the other side, the sacramental marriage bond of Tridentine Catholicism was in reality no more stable than the secular vows taken by Protestant partners, the respecting of which was strictly policed by the Calvinist presbyteries and the Lutheran consistories. It is indeed quite possible that a quantitative comparison between the annulment decrees of episcopal tribunals and the Roman Rota, on the other hand, and the Protestant divorce decrees (with which especially the Lutherans were quite stingy), would show that the secular vow as the basis of Protestant marriage was in practice more stable than the sacramental marriage of Catholicism. (32)

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