The Church, being not a museum of saints but a hospital for sinners, is always in need of reform. This was true in the apostolic age, it is true in our own, and it was true in the age of the infamous (or famous; depending whose side you’re on) Martin Luther.
But it’s my contention (as I mentioned in an earlier post) that what was brought about in the 16th century by Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and company was not a reform, but a revolt.
Why? Because ‘reform’ means to make changes in order to make something better. And while this may have been the intention of the revolters, it most certainly wasn’t the outcome, which splintered christendom into a myriad of competing sects.
With that as my caveat, here are four ways the Church contributed* to the Protestant “reformation”.
1. Immorality and Political Power
By the 16th century, many churchmen seemed to have forgotten their spiritual duties. The cardinals, even in Rome were living openly immoral lives while the Popes focued their energies on gaining and extending their political power.
2. Nepotism and Simony
Churchmen at all levels practiced nepotism (favoring friends and family by giving them bishoprics, etc.) and simony (the buying and selling of ecclesiastical privileges). For example, in order to ensure that he would be Pope, Julius II engaged in bribery. His election only took a few hours and the only votes he didn’t receive were his own and that of his main opponent, Georges d’Amboise.
3. Mocked by Humanist Scholars
The Church was in such a bad state that even humanist scholars, particularly in Germany, openly mocked the Church for her immorality and ignorance.
4. Abuse of Indulgences
While Pope Leo X (reigned from 1513 – 1521) should have urged churchmen to repent and to begin living moral lives, he did not. What he did do was make a deal with Albert of Brandenburg, (archbishop of Magneburg in Germany) who was requesting that the Holy Father also make him archbishop of Mainz (another city in Germany).
The Pope said he would allow it if Albert paid an enormous amount of money to the Roman curia. To help Albert, the Pope allowed him to take one half of the funds raised in the indulgences for St. Peter’s basilica and use it to pay the debt.
Now, Instead of telling people to repent of their sins and go to confession, the preachers who were sent throughout Europe focused mainly (if not exclusively) on how much people needed to pay. These preachers spoke as if the simple giving of money could buy them an indulgence or for family members still in purgatory.
Dominican friar Johann Tetzel had a rhyme he would use to manipulate people into giving money: “When copper coin in coffer rings, The soul from purgatory springs.”
Don’t Brush Under the Rug
These truths aren’t something we as Catholics should attempt to explain away or brush under the rug. Rather, we should acknowledge them honestly, recognizing that none of this invalidates the claims of the Catholic Church—anymore than the sins of Judas (an apostle chosen by Christ!) invalidate the truth of apostolic authority.
Finally, it’s interesting to note that, even during the darkest days of the Catholic Church, the deposit of faith handed down through the apostles was never changed. Popes may have been (and sometimes were) fornicators, gluttens, and thieves, but none the Church’s official teaching on these things were ever altered.
May God continue to protect his Church.
* which is not at all the same thing as saying it was responsible for it.
My research for these five points was taken from the following Catholic Textbook:
Rollin A. Lasseter and Christopher Zehnder (eds), Light to the Nations: The History of Christian Civilization (Ventura, California: Catholic Textbook Project, 2014),