Was the late medieval church corrupt and ‘ripe for reform’? What were its strengths and weaknesses?
The late medieval church was the only church. At its head was the Pope. There were a number of political, religious and social contexts which precipitated reform. These were not limited to the way in which the church had, and was, conducting itself at that time.
Essays in the Cambridge Companion to the Reformation edited by Hsia suggests a multi-faceted precipitation to the Reformation. Events of the 13th to 15th centuries in Europe included the Bubonic Plague (mid 1300s), claims to the Papal Throne by of three popes (late 1300 to early 1400s), invention of the Gutenberg Press (1439), increasing dissatisfaction of serfdom by the rural population in a feudal system, increasing population after recovery from the Plague which in turn placed economic pressure on families, towns and farming.The Church was ‘selling’ indulgences to finance the building of St Peter’s Basilica and the papacy had experienced ongoing struggles with kings and princes, with Church and State sharing power and economic fortunes. The Church was seen to be an institution partaking in excesses by both rulers and people. Bishops were a political appointment and wielders of political, ecclesiastical and financial power creating jealousies and complaint. Mass was held in Latin. The Bible was not available or accessible to the laity or congregation. What was supposed to be a celibate priesthood took concubines, including popes. The moral values of clergy were being questioned by an increasingly pious people. Social justice was becoming an issue in changing demographics.
Given the combination of these, church corruption was only part of a wider cohort of interest and unrest.
The Church’s strengths were numerous. As an institution it pervaded the life of Christian lands. It was organised, structured and had the support of kings and princes who relied on the Church for consecrating ascendancy to their temporal thrones thus power, among other functions. Society was permeated by the Church socially, economically, politically and morally. Being powerful and wealthy it influenced individuals’ lives from birth to death. It also provided for rites of passage in the form of the Sacraments. The Pope also occupied St Peter’s Throne thus holding the power and infallibility of the position going back to The Rock himself, the apostle, Peter.
Weaknesses came in the form of changing demographics and perceived Church excesses as previously stated. Wars associated with power brought famine, pestilence and fiscal and fiscal depression. Society still held beliefs in magic, astrology as well as various pagan practices which were exercised concurrently with those of Christianity. Apocalyptical messages such as disturbing astrological combinations all played a part in the Christian faith at that time. There was also pastoral absenteeism on behalf of the clergy. Fraternities and monastic societies were run in an autonomous manner as were rural parishes and there was little in the way of formal theological education outside the universities of the day. These weaknesses can been seen being addressed in the subsequent Tridentine changes that the Catholic Church subsequently invoked in response to the Reformation. Around 1500 Machiavelli described Italians as owning their irreligiosity and wickedness to the Church.
Although Luther may been seen as the straw that broke the camel’s back, it could be said that his 95 theses gave public voice to the dissatisfactions and grievances of the population in a time of increasing poverty of body and soul. As for theologians, scholasticism provided an increasingly unsatisfying and empty framework in which to pursue their studies and, indeed, faith. Humanism was emerging and Erasmus’ writings were being received favourably in a growing societal mood of humanism and piety.