BONUS ONLINE CONTENT: The road not taken II

GASPARO CONTARINI was born in 1483 into a noble Venetian family.  Following his student days at Padua, he lived a strict religious life with his two friends Tommaso Giustiniani and Vincenzo Quirini.  In 1511 Contarini had a spiritual experience which convinced him of the insufficiency of human merits to achieve justification and of the necessity for the action of divine grace.  While Contarini's two friends entered a religious order, Contarini resolved to live a Christian life in the world.  He entered the diplomatic service of the Republic of Venice and in 1521 attended the Diet of Worms as a Venetian envoy.

In his capacity as a professional diplomat, Contarini familiarized himself with the main tenets of Lutheran theology.  Partly as a result of his own religious experience and partly as a result of his own appreciation for the theology of Augustine, Contarini was sympathetic to the appeal of Luther, though he felt that he could not agree with it. 

On May 20, 1535, Pope Paul III elevated Contarini, who was still a layman, to the College of Cardinals.  A number of other cardinals were created at the same time including Reginald Pole, Gian Pietro Carafa, and Jacopo Sadoleto.  Even Erasmus was considered for this honor.  Pope Paul had a clear perception of the desperate situation of the papacy and saw that heroic measures must be taken.  He asked the new cardinals to investigate the state of the church.

The cardinals met in 1536 for the first time and offered their report, the Consilium de Emendanda Ecclesiae, in 1538.  They urged the pope to use his power with restraint, though they did not exalt the power of a general council of the church over that of the pope.  They were profoundly split, however, in their attitude toward the crisis in the church.  Contarini and Sadoleto felt that it was not too late for compromise and reunion.  Carafa felt that the time for compromise was past. 

Getting back together?

The assignment of Contarini as papal legate to the colloquy of Regensburg in 1541, which continued a theological discussion that had been suspended at Worms in late 1540, was an indication that Pope Paul III entertained serious hopes for significant progress toward reunion. The years immediately preceding the convocation of the Colloquy had been filled with increased activity aimed at the final reconciliation of Protestant and Roman Catholic Christians.  The initiator of this policy was in large measure Emperor Charles V.  The threat of an impending conflict with France made it desirable for the emperor to have a united empire behind him.  The religious controversy which divided Germany only served to weaken the position of Charles and to strengthen that of his opponent, Francis I, the king of France. Contarini entered Regensburg on March 12, 1541.  His arrival was greeted with enthusiasm, especially by the Protestant delegates to the conference.  The atmosphere, which had been heavy with suspicion and distrust, seemed to lighten perceptibly. 

On April 21, 1541, the theological discussions between the German Protestant and Catholic theologians resumed.  The foundation for the ensuing debate was the Regensburg Book, twenty-three articles composed by Protestant Martin Bucer and Catholic Johann Gropper at Worms. The Catholic theologians were required to report twice a day to Cardinal Contarini, once in the morning and once in the evening.  This enabled the legate to keep his fingers on the pulse of the debate.

The discussion proceeded quite smoothly.  Within a very few days the theologians of both parties had reached an agreement on the first four articles of the Regensburg Book, the articles dealing with the original state of humankind, free will, the cause of sin, and the nature of original sin.  On May 2 the representatives reached an agreement on article 5, the chapter dealing with justification.  This article spoke of a double justice and had been written in its final form by Cardinal Contarini himself.

Contarini felt the acceptance of article 5 to be an event of great significance.  Therefore he sent copies of the chapter on justification to his friends.  The reception accorded the formula was almost universally chilly.  Only two cardinals, the evangelical Pole and the hopelessly untheological Bembo, were willing to defend it.  Cardinal Gonzaga commissioned his theological adviser to write a critique of article 5 and send it to Contarini.  On May 25, 1541, Contarini replied to this criticism in his famous Epistola de Iustifcatione, an eloquent essay in defense of the doctrine of double justice.  Contarini's defense failed to convince the members of the papal curia, who perceived--rightly, as it happens--that this formulation deviated from the central medieval tradition at several important points.  Nevertheless, they did not interrupt the course of the discussions at Regensburg.

Although the Protestant and Roman Catholic theologians were able to agree on article 5, they found themselves at odds on several of the other chapters.  Articles 6 and 9, dealing with the church and its teaching authority, proved to be a troublesome source of disagreement.  The Protestant theologians were convinced that a council of the church could err; the Catholic theologians were just as firmly convinced that it could not.  Contarini, sensing a storm in the offing, had the discussion of these articles postponed to the end of the colloquy.

The conference that died

This maneuver delayed the final breakdown of negotiations, but it did not prevent it.  As soon as the theologians reached article 14, the chapter dealing with the doctrine of the Eucharist, it became painfully obvious to all that the disagreements between the two parties were of a fundamental nature.  The Catholic theologians were determined to defend to the last man the doctrine of transubstantiation as it had been authoritatively articulated by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.  The Protestant theologians were just as thoroughly determined to oppose it as a distortion of the truly Christian understanding of the real presence of Christ in the sacrament. 

Contarini, who up to this point had been sensitive to the feelings of the Protestant divines, stood his ground against them.  As far as he was concerned, the doctrine of transubstantiation was not a negotiable matter. 

Gropper, Catholic bishop Julius von Pflug, Melanchthon and Bucer were able by much blowing on the dying embers of the conference to keep it going until May 22, 1541.  But their finest efforts merely forestalled the inevitable.  It was an ironic afternote when on June 8, 1541, a communiqué arrived from Rome rejecting the disputed article on justification.  The conference was already dead.  When Contarini died in 1542, the Roman church had already begun the process of turning its face away from the hope of reconciliation and toward the implacable and uncompromising policies of Carafa.


mag coversChristian History’s 2015–2017 four-part Reformation series is available as a four-pack. This set includes issue #115 Luther Leads the Way; issue #118 The People’s Reformation; issue #120 Calvin, Councils, and Confessions; and issue#122 The Catholic Reformation. Get your set today. These also make good gifts.


By David C. Steinmetz

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #122 in 2017]

David C. Steinmetz (1936-2015) was Amos Regan Kearns Distinguished Professor Emeritus of the History of Christianity at Duke Divinity School. This is adapted from his book Reformers in the Wings (Oxford, 2001), 23-31. Used by permission.
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