The Western church of the late middle ages (1200-1500) to a great extent was characterized by worldliness and vice. Hence, the medieval period is often portrayed in the history of the Christendom as an era of darkness. In the 16th century, starting with Martin Luther in Germany, there occurred a series of renewal efforts in Europe, which eventually led to a Reformation Movement. Unfortunately, the events that happened during the reformation divided the Christendom, broadly into Protestants and Roman Catholics. Nevertheless, the Reformation brought about the much needed purging of the Western church. This short paper attempts to find out why a Reformation did not happen much earlier than the 16th century in spite of the desperate need for reform in the church. In other words, “What factors delayed the Reformation until the 16th century?” is the question discussed in the paper.
2. THE WESTERN CHURCH IN THE LATE MIDDLE AGES
The spiritual status of the church became worse during the 14th and 15th centuries. Many factors could be attributed to this decline. The papacy that witnessed its high point in the 11th and 12th centuries saw a steep fall. The papal quarters were abound with controversies, personality clashes, scandals and gross immorality. Instead of giving spiritual leadership to the church, the popes were often entangled in conflicts with local princes and engrossed themselves in secular activities. F. Hrangkhuma writes, “The papacy was secularised, and changed into a selfish tyranny whose rule was more and more unbearable.”1 Pope Boniface VIII in his famous bull Unam Sanctum (1302), insisted that all rulers were subject to him and that it was necessary for salvation for every human being to be subject to the pope.2 Many popes were immoral. It is said that half of the popes between 1447 and 1517 had fathered illegitimate children. Similarly, the popes accumulated huge wealth and much of their time and efforts were focussed towards maintaining their estates. Such being the condition of the popes, one can very well imagine the status of the priests and other church men. The cardinals, the bishops, and the clergy were all corrupt and their corruption appeared in many forms. Simony, Nepotism, and absenteeism were widely prevalent.3 It is sad to observe that even monasteries were infected by many of these vices and immorality.
The religious life of the common man of this period was dominated by superstitions and unscriptural rituals. Saints’ worship and patronage, relics, pilgrimages to shrines and penance were the order of the day. The sale of indulgences which came into practice during the time of crusades were also used to exploit people. The religious life became too sacramental in nature that the common man was most often a mere spectator and not a participant in the church. The leaders of the church, instead of condemning these, continued to promote them for accumulating wealth and consolidating their power over lay people. Philip McNair comments, “It is difficult to form an objective picture of the corruption of the clergy in the century before the Reformation…But corruption is one thing, official sanction of corruption is quite another. The heart of the rotten condition of the Catholic church lay in papal protection and promotion of abuses.”4
3. FACTORS THAT LIKELY DELAYED AN EARLY REFORMATION
The need for reformation was deeply felt in many quarters of the church almost one century before Martin Luther set out with his reformation agenda (1517). There were several attempts made by individuals and groups throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, from within the hierarchy as well as fringes, to reform and renew the church. Unfortunately, these efforts did not produce much results. However, in historical hindsight, one could very well consider them as the forerunners of the 16th century Reformation.5 In this section, I will attempt to analyze the factors that hindered the commencement of Reformation until the 16th century.
3.1 The Power of Papacy
Generally, the popes exercised greater authority and power over the church and state. He exercised a moral rule which bound every prince and every kingdom.6 Pope’s supremacy was gradually challenged during the 14th and 15th centuries. In fact, during the Babylonian captivity (1305-1377), the council became more authoritative than the papacy. However, this situation changed after the council of Constance and papalism reasserted itself until the rise of nationalism in the 16th century. As long as the popes held unlimited power over the church, it was difficult to initiate reforms. Any dissent was suppressed immediately with strong actions. Unlike them, the church reformers of the 16th century lived at a time when papacy’s power was on the decline due to rise of nationalism. Some of the 16th century reformers received help and support from their sovereign rulers to reforms.7 This advantage was not available for the reformers of the 14th and 15th centuries.
3.2 The Failure of the Conciliar Movement
When there happened a schism in the papacy (1378-1417), it was felt that the only way to restore the unity of the church was to summon a council. The councils which were held in Pisa (1409) and Constance (1414-1418) successfully resolved the papal schism and dealt with many heresies. The councils also began to introduce some administrative reforms. The conciliar movement soon gained prominence over the papacy and many were hopeful of seeing radical changes. Unfortunately, this movement promised many a reform but attained very little. Owen Chadwick comments, “Those councils gave the idea of reformation such an airing, that it could never be forgotten. They talked frankly, clamored for change, advertised abuses, suggested remedies, evoked claims and an idealism which they had then failed to satisfy.”8 In sum, the movement multiplied discontent and restlessness among public but failed to initiate reforms. The major reason for the failure of the Conciliar movement in bringing about the much needed reform was due to its inability to stand against national and vested interests. By 1450, the movement almost ceased to exist as papacy reasserted its supremacy again through Martin V.
3.3 The Limitations of the Reforming Monks and Humanists
During the 15th century, some of the monks formed separate houses dedicated to the strict observance of morality and discipline in their effort to reform monastic orders. Reform efforts were seen among the Franciscans, Dominicans and Augustinians. This movement was called the ‘Observantine Movement.’ Although these efforts helped the monasteries to be revived, it had very little impact on the lay people or the church hierarchy.9 Similarly, another group of people who attempted reforms during the late middle ages is the group called Christian Humanists (products of renaissance). They used ridicule, sarcasm and irony in their denunciations of the evils of the church, and promoted education and learning to restore the purity of the church. Nicholas of Cusa, Wessel Gansfort and Erasmus were some of the prominent Christian humanists of the 15th century.10 The humanists, in general, based their piety on education, learning and moral self-control. They certainly influenced the thinking of the 16th century reformers. It is remarked that ‘Erasmus laid the egg but Luther hatched it.’ However, their influence was very much limited to the elite people of the society. The Humanists neither had the spiritual power to appeal to the common man nor had the theological framework to challenge the evil beliefs promoted by the church hierarchy.
3.4 Doctrines Untouched
In the late middle ages, every one desired reform. ‘Reform in the head and members’ was the watchword. However, there were diverse opinions about what to reform and how to reform. Reformation meant different things to different people. When churchmen spoke of reformation they were almost always thinking of administrative, legal or moral reformations, hardly ever of doctrinal reformations.11 The question, “Is the Catholic church true in what its claims?” did not occupy the minds of people. The Catholic church over a period of time developed a theology to support many of its religious practices – cult of saints, relics, pilgrimages, indulgences, etc. People hardly questioned them. They were not able to see the connection between false beliefs and corrupted practices. However, there were some fringe groups like the Waldensians, the Lollards and the Hussites, who challenged many of the false beliefs of the church. Unfortunately, they were immediately branded as heretics and punished. Even those who sincerely desired reform did not see the theological errors of the church pointed out by the Lollards and Hussites. Not many in the mainstream Catholic church felt the need for doctrinal reforms until Protestant Reformation.
3.5 Fragmentation and Diversity of the Church
The church was too fragmented and diverse to initiate any reform. There existed no agreement among the princes, popes and council members. In one way or the other, they were all absorbed into the politics of hierarchy. Self interests forced popes, cardinals, bishops, and secular rulers to preserve their own rights and revenues.12 Internal conflicts and fragmentation certainly affected the prospects of reform. There was no unity among even those who genuinely desired reformation of the church. Evan Cameron comments, “The essential point is that the challenges to the church, like the church itself, were fragmented and diverse. Those people (private or layman) who criticized the political church were often quite ordinary in their religious outlook; those who critical or innovative religious views were usually politically obedient.”13
3.6 Wars, Plagues and People’s Unfulfilled Spiritual Yearnings
The Europeans of the 14th and 15th century were often afflicted by internal wars and plagues. The rise of Islamic Turks also threatened them. People generally felt a desperate need to seek divine help. The Catholic church could not satisfy the spiritual yearnings of the needy people. The common man had no alternative but to turn to saints and relics for peace and protection.14
The radical message of the gospel was not yet available to them. The gospel of grace and peace was unknown. Nevertheless, this vacuum prepared the way for the Protestant Reformation in the following century. The Protestant faith provided a vibrant alternative to the Catholic faith.
3.7 Lack of Awareness and Education
Although the impact of renaissance learning was evident among some, the majority of the people during the 15th century were still ignorant and uneducated. Even among the clergy many lacked learning and proper training. This situation drastically changed at the turn of the 16th century. There was knowledge explosion with the coming of printing press and multiplication of libraries all over Europe. This enabled the ideas of reformation to reach every nook and corner of Europe at a rapid pace. Many historians have identified this as one of the main reasons for the success of reformations of the 16th century.15 Hence, it may be stated that Christian Europe was just being prepared in the 15th century to receive the radical message of the 16th century reformers.
The church of the 14th and 15th centuries was as corrupt as the church of the 16th century. In spite of this, the Reformation of the church (as it happened in the 16th century) did not happen. Although there were several reformation attempts during the late middle ages, they did not materialise into a Reformation Movement. There were several factors that most likely hindered this development. One cannot be too certain about these factors. Nevertheless, a look at the dynamics of the socio-religious and political context of the late middle ages makes one think that Christian Europe was not ready for a Reformation Movement until the dawn of the 16th century. What caused the delay is a combination of philosophical, theological and social factors.
1F. Hrangkhuma, An Introduction to Church History (Bangalore: Theological Book Trust, 2002), 176.
2Howard F. Vos, Exploring Church History (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1994), 73.
3Hrangkhuma, An Introduction to Church History, 177-181.
4Philip McNair, “Seeds of Renewal,” in Tim Dowley (ed.), The History of Christianity (Oxford: A Lion Handbook, 1990), 352.
5Carl S. Meyer, The Church: From Pentecost to the Present (Chicago: Moody press, 1973), 173.
6R. Tudor Jones, The Great Reformation (Leicester: IVP, 1985), 9.
7Owen Chadwick, The Reformation (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1981), 27.
8Chadwick, The Reformation, 20.
9Evan Cameron, The European Reformation (oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 40-41.
10Meyer, The Church: From Pentecost to the Present, 140.
11Chadwick, The Reformation, 12-13.
12Cameron, The European Reformation, 38-39.
13Cameron, The European Reformation, 69.
14Jones, The Great Reformation, 23.
15Chadwick, The Reformation, 29.
By Sam K. John