In 1510, the young Augustinian monk Martin Luther was sent to Rome on an errand for his order. He'd dreamed all his life of visiting the Eternal City where Saints Peter and Paul had preached and been martyred, Paul beheaded and Peter crucified upside down in Nero's circus. He was thrilled at the thought of praying and celebrating mass in the great churches of Rome.
Instead, as historian Heiko Oberman writes:
Later he remembered clearly the shock and horror he had felt in Rome upon hearing for the first time in his life flagrant blasphemies uttered in public. He was deeply shocked by the casual mockery of saints and everything he held sacred. He could not laugh when he heard priests joking about the sacrament of the Eucharist.
For instance, the humanist priest Erasmus spoke of his own experiences in Rome:
With my own ears I heard the most loathsome blasphemies against Christ and his apostles. Many acquaintances of mine have heard priests of the curia uttering disgusting words so loudly, even during mass, that all around them could hear it.
In the late Middle Ages bishops were mainly drawn from the nobility, and (very often) not because they possessed any spiritual qualifications, but because they could purchase their positions.
There are all sorts of examples of wealthy families gaining control of ecclesiastical affairs in a particular area and ruling there for years and years. Often these bishops didn’t even reside in the dioceses they ruled. Apparently they viewed their "realm" primarily as a source of income -- income they could use to pursue their political ambitions or spend on gambling and other entertainments.
Certainly, some were shining lights. But many were not.
For instance, by the time Albert of Brandenberg was 23 years of age, he already held the sees of Magdeburg and Halberstadt and wanted the archbishopric of Mainz as well. He needed money to pay the installation fees and knew he would also have to pay pope Leo X for the irregularity of holding three sees simultaneously. One historian describes the situation:
The negotiations of Albert with the pope were conducted through the German banking house of Fugger, which had a monopoly on papal finances in Germany. When the Church needed funds in advance of her revenues, she borrowed at usurious rates from the sixteenth-century Rothschilds or Morgans. Indulgences were issued in order to replay the debts, and the Fuggers supervised the collection.
Knowing the role they would ultimately play, Albert turned to them for the initial negotiations. He was informed that the pope demanded twelve thousand ducats for the twelve apostles. Albert offered seven thousand for the seven deadly sins. They compromised on ten thousand, presumably not for the Ten Commandments.
The first occupant of what came to be known as the "Chair of St. Peter" was a man who, when he first perceived who Jesus was, fell to his knees and cried out, "Lord, depart from me for I am a sinful man." A man who finished his course as a martyr. This kind of man.
As for Leo X, the man who occupied the Chair of St. Peter at the time of the Protestant revolt? Historian J.N.D. Kelly describes him as "a devious and double-tongued politician and inveterate nepotist."
And that was on a good day. Another Reformation historian writes,
[Leo X was] as elegant and as indolent as a Persian cat. His chief preeminence lay in his ability to squander the resources of the Holy See on carnivals, war, gambling, and the chase [hunting].
There's no getting around it. It’s clear that the Church's hierarchy at that time was sick from top to bottom -- so sick that St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) advised good Catholics against going to Rome, lest they be corrupted. Whatever you do, unless you want your faith destroyed, don't go to Rome!
Fine, tell me I'm exaggerating the situation.
But then explain the confession of Pope Hadrian VI, who immediately followed Leo X as bishop of Rome and served during the early events of the Reformation.
We know that for years there have been many abominable offences in spiritual matters and violations of the Commandments committed at this Holy See, yes, that everything has in fact been perverted…. The first thing that must be done is to reform the curia, the origin of all the evil.
Catholic historian Hilaire Belloc puts the final nail in the coffin:
No one can deny that the evils provoking reform in the Church were deep-rooted and widespread. They threatened the very life of Christendom itself. All who thought at all about what was going on around them realized how perilous things were and how great was the need of reform….Every kind of man would violently attack such monstrous abuses...
There are more historical and culture forces that could be listed and described, the rise of the middle class, for instance. But you do the math:
The invention of the printing press leading to a rapid increase in literacy throughout Christendom and an explosion of new theological ideas, pamphlets, tracts, books (see Part I). The simultaneous rise of an educational philosophy that mocked the official doctors of the Church and emphasized going back to the Bible and the Fathers to read them with fresh eyes (see Part II). A growing emphasis on religion as something personal. Individualism and resentment of centralized authority in government as well as in the Church. Anti-papal sentiment on the rise throughout Catholic Europe (see Part III).
And then... A Church in desperate need of spiritual and moral reform.
Given all this, even though as a Catholic I view the Reformation as one of the saddest cases of throwing the baby out with the bathwater in the history of the world, it doesn't surprise me that it happened. Not in the least. It would have taken a miracle not to happen.
The atmosphere was right. Luther struck the match with his attacks on Church abuses, which soon became attacks on Catholic teaching from top to bottom, and the explosion occurred. The Reformers rejected the idea that Christ had established a unified spiritual authority on earth (see What Was the Reformation?). In the process the Church was shattered and its visible unity has never been recovered.
It's time now to begin to look at the two doctrinal issues that form the heart of the reformers dispute with Church, the two doctrinal issues that remain to this day the essence of the dispute between Protestantism and Catholicism.
And I'm not talking about holy water and statues in the church.
To be continued...