3 Ways The Catholic Church Contributed to the Protestant “Reformation”


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 caveat, here are three 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.

The Church was in such a bad state that even humanist scholars, particularly in Germany, openly mocked the Church for her immorality and ignorance.

3. 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.

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* which is not at all the same thing as saying it was responsible for it.

8 thoughts on “3 Ways The Catholic Church Contributed to the Protestant “Reformation”

  1. Matt,

    Great post. I thought I’d let you know that you omitted reason number 4 and had a typo in the sentence: “* which is not at all the same thing as saying it was responsible for is”.

  2. Matt,

    If the reformers intention was to reform, which you admit as a possibility, what if the reason the splintering occurred was not primarily because of errors/sin on their part but the failure of the church to repent of the errors/sin you described in this post? Should they still be maligned as revolters?


    1. Thanks, Tom. I just looked up the definition of ‘revolt’ and found this: An attempt to put an end to the authority of a person or body by rebelling. So the question is, who if anyone gave the Catholic Church authority? If it wasn’t Jesus Chris, then okay. A revolt might be necessary. If it was Jesus Christ then, if this person or body is in error, only reform will do.

  3. In point number 1, there is a typo…You meant to say “focused” and not focued…Anyway, I love the post, because I just finished a class on Martin Luther at a Protestant University and it was clear after reading the story of his life that he, at some point, just went off the rails and lost all sense of deference to the authority of the church. Rather than humble himself before the authority and insist on reform, he ran away and was eventually exalted as a hero for turning his back on his vows and embracing the power that came to him from Germanic rulers who were hell bent on creating a unified Germany, fully separated from Rome.

  4. Mr. Fradd this is not a bad article, however, you should not have used Julius II as an example of simony and nepotism, he actively fought against both. He gets a very raw deal from the Humanist writers whose opinions are rarely based in historical fact. Not only was Julius a great reformer but also because of his abilities as a military commander he was able to throw off the French control over the Roman Curia that had plagued the Church since the Avignon Papacy. Julius II was a hero of the Church; he was one of the good ones.
    From the Catholic Encyclopedia, “Julius II was chiefly a soldier, and the fame attached to his name is greatly due to his re-establishment of the Pontifical States and the deliverance of Italy from its subjection to France. Still he did not forget his duties as the spiritual head of the Church. He was free from nepotism; heard Mass almost daily and often celebrated it himself; issued a strict Bull against simony at papal elections and another against duels; erected dioceses in the recently discovered American colonies of Haiti (Espanola), San Domingo, and Porto Rico; condemned the heresy of Piero de Lucca concerning the Incarnation on 7 September, 1511; made various ordinances for monastic reforms; instituted the still existing Capella Julia, a school for ecclesiastical chant which was to serve as a feeder for the Capella Palatina; and finally convoked the Fifth Lateran Council to eradicate abuses from the Church and especially from the Roman Curia, and to frustrate the designs of the schismatic cardinals who had convened their unsuccessful council first at Pisa, then at Milan (see LATERAN COUNCILS).”

    Your article is mainly correct and makes several important points. However, poor Julius has been maligned for 500 years and just thought someone should stick up for him. Thank you for all you do.

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