Several years ago I read Elisabeth Gleason’s Gasparo Contarini: Venice, Rome, and Reform (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1993) and gained a respect for the man which is as great if not greater than that which I have for his Protestant counterparts.
Contarini, a Roman Catholic (RCC) priest, was a member of the Italian spirituali — that group of RCC priests who held to a largely protestant view of justification. Prior to Trent, they were free to do so. The Church had no previous declarations regarding justification. He sought reform in the RCC ranks in terms of morality, polity, and even theology.
But when he ultimately had to choose between his ecclesiology and his soteriology, he chose the former. And therein lies the tragedy of Gasparo Contarini (and Reginald Pole, for that matter). Those who held to a doctrine of justification sola fide were accused of developing a fictitious concept of justification, of â€œsuggesting that the believer lives in a sort of Walter Mitty world in which he is treated as righteous when he actually nothing of the sortâ€ (thank Alister McGrath, Justification by Faith, for this analogy) by the more traditional Catholics who lumped justification and sanctification together into one definition. Interestingly, Gian Pietro Carafa (who would later become pope), Cardinal Reginald Pole (who would later convene Trent and serve as Archibishop of Canterbury under Bloody Mary), and Contarini were all members of this spirituali movement at one time. When push came to shove, they abandoned these views — publicly, if not privately — and chose the RCC over their view of justification. Other spirituali such as Pietro Martire Vermigli and Bernardino Occhino chose to retain their sola fide views of justification and flee.
Anyway, Contarini had a gracious way about him. He was a man whose demeanor and scholarship I respect. He was honest about his personal faults as well as the faults of the RCC. He was a member of the Pope’s very own Consilium de Emendanda Ecclesia, a group appointed to investigate ways the RCC could institute moral and political reforms in 1537. You can read my summary of their findings here. There is much to admire about the man, even much to emulate in scholarship in service of God. Yet in the end his allegiance to RCC was greater than his allegiance to justification sola fide.
Then a few days ago this book crossed my desk: Constance M. Furey, Erasmus, Contarini, and the Religious Republic of Letters (Cambridge: CUP, 2006). I haven’t finished it yet, but here is part of the publisher’s blurb:
…analyzing a unique realm of spiritualized scholarship that cannot fit easily into any conventional intellectual chronology. By analyzing the lives, work, and correspondence of Erasmus, Thomas More, Margaret More Roper, Reginald Pole, Gasparo Contarini, and Vittoria Colonna, this book demonstrates how these Catholic men and women of letters created a distinctive kind of religious community rooted in friendship and spiritualized scholarship. By spanning the too frequently respected gap between humanist reformers in northern and southern Europe, the book uncovers a widespread, if previously less visible, network that exhibited concerns we still grapple with today.
ahhh, community, friendship, spiritualized scholarship. Sort of a 16th Century T4G. I’m now accepting recommendations for the name of their website.