The Diffident Reginald Pole: Part 1

This is the first of a series of posts on Cardinal Reginald Pole, the theologically schizophrenic Catholic theologian during the 16th Century Reformation. He was initially sympathetic with the Reformational perspective of justification by faith alone, and was placed in a difficult position when the Pope called on him to convene the Council of Trent. The subsequent Tridentine decrees regarding justification forced him to choose between his soteriological positions and his loyalty to Rome. He chose the latter and eventually became Archbishop of Canterbury under Bloody Mary. He never wanted to have to clarify his views, and never wanted the spotlight or a position of leadership. These things were thrust upon him, and the result was a broken man. If only his soteriology had trumped his ecclesiology instead…


An uneasy and unsatisfied curiosity remains to the historians of Reginald Pole. At once resolute and timid, confident and diffident, deliberate and painfully reticent, Pole’s bewildering sojourn exhibits the complexity of themes, theologies, and personal pilgrimages that so plagued his conscience. These very inconsistencies, however, are what make Reginald Pole such an appealing subject for dissection. His life, career, and theology beg for a unity which so far has proven elusive to modern attempts at identifying a consistent unifying theme. One recent proposal is that Pole was a man of loyalty.(1) This is certainly true. But where did his loyalties lie and how did he reconcile opposing loyalties? And, perhaps most importantly, why? Pole was clearly a man of opposing loyalties. The crux of contemporary scholarship lies in the reasons for his choosing one loyalty over another. Indeed, this has become the foremost point of debate and the central theme for biographers.

Identifying Pole’s theology of justification in particular is a microcosm for the difficulty in understanding Pole in general. He was quite obviously reticent to express his views in written form, and did so only after much pressure from his superiors. The Tridentine statements on justification were overwhelmingly burdensome for the Cardinal, and both he and the Council grew increasingly unable to accept his nuanced positions. Neither side was satisfied with Pole and his constant reluctance to be assertive and unwavering. Eleven years after Pole’s death, a document entitled A Treatise of Justification (1568) and was attributed as having been “Founde among the writinges of Cardinal Pole.” The title page, nor anywhere else in the treatie, does not directly attribute the work to Pole’s authorship, but it clearly gives just such an impression.

The Treatie was unashamedly the offspring of Trent is its expression of the doctrine of justification. The title page indicates that the writings of Pole in which this work was found were actually “remaining in the custodie” of M. Henrie Pyning, the lately deceased secretary to the Cardinal. The clear implication is that it was intended to be received by the readership as a work of Pole, and to promote his deference to the Church of Rome over his former, and now condemned, views of justification.

Recent scholarship, however, has rightly questioned whether A Treatie of Justification was indeed authored by Pole. There would appear to be much circumstantial and critical evidence for this conclusion, the most obvious of which is that the work is not actually and directly attributed to him. Moreover, the form of the treatise is not typical for Pole in that it is overtly scholastic in its presentation as well as in its methodology.(2). It was more typical for Pole as a matter of both presentation and method, to be exegetical and to derive his argument primarily from the Scriptures. There are, however, several departures from the Tridentine theology of justification which, though not explicated at any length in the work itself, indicate some measure of uncomfortable discord with the Tridentine conclusions. It can reasonably be asserted, therefore, that although Pole possessed the work, it may not be directly attributable to his authorship with complete confidence.(3) However, attributing the authorship to Pole lends veracity to the notion that his ecclesiology did indeed trump his soteriology.

The work may be an expression of his fidelity to Rome, and therefore an explication of the aspects of the Tridentine theology of justification with which he agreed. One would not expect him to expound his now condemned perspectives on justification since his purpose may have been to illustrate his submission to Rome and not just an avoidance of the Inquisition. Incidentally, no reasonable theories have been proffered by those who tend toward the denial of the veracity of Pole’s authorship.

Be this as it may, the Treatie of Justification has not been adequately summarized and criticized in its relation to the Tridentine decrees, at least not in modern scholarship. This essay then, shall endeavor to provide a written comparison of the Treatie to the Tridentine soteriology, the question of authorship not withstanding. Though the various historians of Pole and Trent have their respective, and probably justified, conclusions on the dubious authorship of the Treatie, no significant work is in print which examines the content of the Treatie as its primary focus, even though such a comparison is not an overly burdensome task. This paper endeavors to meet that void.

1. Dermot Fenlon, Heresy and Obedience in Tridentine Italy: Cardinal Pole and the Counter Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), 283 “. . . loyalty, in the end, was his most signal virtue.”

2. This reason is most persuasive according to both Fenlon, op. cit., 198, and also to J. Fischer, “Essai Historique sur les Idees Reformatrices Des Cardinaux Jean Pierre Carafa (1476–1559) et Reginald Pole (1500–58),” Ph. D. Diss. (Paris: University of Paris, 1957), 364 n53. Although Fischer rejects Pole’s authorship of the work, he does argue that his views of justification were in reality not different from those of the Council. Fenlon disagrees quite strongly with Fischer at this point.

3. Fenlon rightly argues that for this reason the Treatie on Justification is not directly helpful in elucidating Pole’s theology of justification. Fenlon then turns his attention to “certain positive indications that Pole [did alter] his ideas on justification, so as to bring them into line with the decision of the Council.” Clearly, by 1554 he had indeed adopted the Tridentine soteriological decrees.