I think Luther must have chuckled as General Clarke's U.S. Army surged up the Italian peninsula and liberated Rome in June of 1944. It would have amazed and probably perplexed the reformers no end to see that the spiritual descendants of Luther would be liberating the Pope from their brethren. Yet the images that emerge from that time ways encapsulate some of the key features of modernity and help us understand its trajectory.
When Max Weber published his book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber was formally stating what was apparent to anyone with eyes to see. By the end of the 19th Century, when modernity was already in full swing and despite starting from behind economically, the Protestant world had surged ahead of the Catholic, both economically and technically, producing the worlds most "modern" societies. These societies weren't just wealthier, but were qualitatively different in that they had broken with the agrarian past and had become industrial. But even the term industrial doesn't really convey the depth of their transformation. The "wealth" of these nations was in many ways byproduct of a broad and deep cultural infrastructure which advanced science and the arts, commercialised their application and spread their benefits far and wide.
Weber attributed a lot of the success of Protestantism to the unintended economic effects of Calvinism--and scholars have debated him about the assertion--but what whatever the cause there was a clear quantitative and qualitative difference in wealth between the Catholic and Protestant worlds. It's all the more surprising given the fact that the foundations of modernity were put in place by Catholicism in Renaissance Northern Italy.
This interesting paper gives an idea of the degree of economic divergence between the Catholic and Protestant worlds.
But what this data does not convey is how of the "wealth effect" in Catholic countries is due to the transfer of knowledge from Protestant countries. Take, for example, the inventions of the steam engine, locomotive and telegraph. These inventions have probably been the most transformative elements in the transition to modernity. All were originated, proved and made commercially successful in a Protestant milieu and then copied around the world. The copiers avoiding the research, development and risks costs in bringing an idea to fruition. They are essentially "free riders" with regard to Protestant product development and while it would be impossible to objectively quantify, my intuitive guess is that Catholic economic development would be far less developed if it weren't for this. This is not to say that the Catholic world did not provide important contributions to modernity it's just that it did it so as a junior partner. Material modernity is primarily a product of Protestantism.
Which raises an interesting question: would modernity have developed if Protestantism had been quashed by the Counter-Reformation. This, of course, is a speculative line of thought but in my opinion a theologically 'rigid" Catholicism would have made material modernity difficult while a "slack" poorly disciplined Catholicism would of been open to its development, albeit at a slower pace. Catholicism laid down the foundations of modernity but was unable to build on this due to its internal tensions. (More on that in another post.) Indeed, what would see to support this view is the data in the first table above. While there are other factors involved, Catholic and Protestant Per Capita-GDP's start to converge about the 1960's, the time when Catholic religious practice began to collapse.
The other thing to remember here is that while intellectual modernity was making inroads the "Negative World" , a West which was hostile to Christianity, was not really a feature of modern society until relatively recently. For much of modernity, religious faith and technological progress were not an issue for the majority of the population. Indeed, what I think best symbolises peak Protestant modernity is the Apollo 8 reading of Genesis. Mainstream Western culture, except a few atheists, saw anything wrong with public expressions of faith while orbiting the moon: There was no intellectual incompatibility between belief in the Almighty and the cultural, economic and industrial powerhouse that bought the Apollo program to fruition. They were one and the same.
The fact of the matter matter is that the Reformation did not only change the religious landscape of the Western world but initiated what would eventually become a profound economic, material and cultural divergence, and which would result in the Catholic world becoming largely irrelevant in the shaping of modernity. (France is a complex divergence which I won't go into at the moment.)
And this is best exemplified by the events of the Second World War, where the Catholic countries of Europe were subjugated or neutral to the events (due to powerlessness or fear) and South America was indifferent. It was left to the Protestant powers (who had the means and the will) to liberate the seat of Catholicism and shape the course of events. In essence its fate was was determined by other powers.
Weber felt that Protestantism was inadvertently able to direct religious impulses toward economic activity, but I felt that it's effect was much more encompassing. Protestantism turned Christianity towards the mundane things in life thereby transforming them and it modulated modernity into a form which was compatible with it. The wealth was "by-product". But that is not to say that the Protestant modernity was without fault. Particularly in the field of economics, great wealth rubbed shoulders with extreme poverty and exploitation of the working class. In many ways it was the midwife of Socialism. But overall it forged a world which was honest, efficient and wealthy.
This is why the collapse of "spound" Protestantism is THE tragedy of the 20th Century, primarily because modernity has become "uncoupled" from what would be considered "traditional" Christianity. We are now entering a post-Protestant modernity which is repudiating the the modulating influences of the past and the "Globohomo" world that we now inhabit is primarily as a result of the collapse of "sound" Protestantism, particularly of its managerial class, which now practices a form of Protestantism--if it practices it at all--which would have horrified the Reformers.