History of the Catholic Church - J. MacCaffrey

The Eve of the Reformation

The many causes which conspired to bring about the Reformation may be grouped under the various headings, literary, political and social, and religious. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries mark a period of transition from the Middle Ages to modern times. They witnessed a sharp struggle, waged between two ideals in politics, in literature and education, and in religion and morality. In this great upheaval which was characterised by its devotion to sensual pleasure and material comfort, and its demand for unrestricted liberty of investigation, and for a return to the study of nature and the natural sciences, as well as by the rise and development of national literatures and national schools of art, the Humanist movement played the most prominent part. In more senses than one the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries may be called the age of the Renaissance.

The Renaissance

The Catholic Church had never been the enemy of classical studies. On the contrary, she was always their generous patron, and it is to her care for the great literary masterpieces and to the labour of her monks that the preservation of the works of the classical authors may be attributed. With the rise of Scholasticism, however, the classics were relegated to a secondary place in the schools, and Latin, not to speak of Greek, scholarship practically disappeared from the west. The Scholastics, more anxious about the subject-matter than about the beauties of literary expression, invented for themselves a new dialect, which, however forcible in itself, must have sounded barbarous to one even remotely acquainted with the productions of the Golden Age of Roman literature, or with the writings of the early Fathers of the Western Church. In such circumstances it is not difficult to see how a reaction set in. Scholasticism could not hold the field forever, to the exclusion of other branches of study, especially since in the less competent hands of its later exponents, it had degenerated into an empty formalism. The successors of St. Thomas and St. Bonaventure had little of their earnestness, their universal knowledge and their powers of exposition, and as a result, students, growing tired of the endless disputes of the schools, turned their attention to the study of the masterpieces of pagan Greece and Rome and to the examination of the natural sciences.

The Renaissance movement began in Italy, where it owes its early success to the labours of men like Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio. Though these three men were themselves loyal to the Church, their writings, especially those of the latter two, at times so hostile to the Papacy and the monks, were harmful to religion. But their successors went much further. Many of the Humanists, influenced largely by the low moral tone of their age, aimed at nothing less than the revival of paganism pure and simple. The leaders of this school were Laurentius Valla, Beccadelli and Poggio, while others of the great supporters of the Neo-Platonic philosophy like Gemistos, Plethon, Marsuppini, and Pomponius Laetus, the founder of the Roman academy, were really pagans. Not all the Humanists, however, were hostile to Christianity. Writers like Traversari, Manetti and Vittorino da Feltre could see no opposition between Christianity and the study of the classics, and aimed at establishing complete harmony by assigning to the classics the place accorded to them so willingly by many of the early Fathers. Humanism owes its development in Italy to the presence of powerful patrons like the Popes in Rome and the de Medici family in Florence, to the establishment of academies in Florence, Rome, Naples, and Venice, to the flight of so many scholars to Italy after the capture of Constantinople in 1453, and to the introduction of the art of printing, by which the works of the classical writers could be multiplied without difficulty.

From the very beginning the Popes were friendly to the Humanist movement, but with the election of Nicholas V. (1447–55) the Popes became the most powerful patrons of the Humanist scholars. Nicholas V. recognised fully the advantages which religion might derive from the revival of letters, and that he aimed at employing the services of the Humanists in the defence of Christianity is evident from the works to which he directed the attention of scholars. Agents were dispatched by him to Greece, Turkey, Germany and France to hunt for manuscripts. No expense was spared to secure everything that could be purchased, or to have copies made where purchase was impossible. To preserve these treasures and to make them available, the Vatican library was built by orders of the Pope, library which for the number and value of its manuscripts has few rivals in the world. The policy begun by Nicholas V. was continued by most of his successors, notably by Pius II., Julius II., the patron of Bramante, Michael Angelo and Raphael, and by Leo X., who was himself one of the de Medici. Unfortunately, however, instead of the Popes succeeding in moulding the Humanist movement and giving it a religious turn, the Humanist movement exercised a baneful influence on the papal court, and helped to increase the spirit of indifference and sensuality which was only too apparent even in Rome.

From Italy the Renaissance spread into Germany, England, France, and the Netherlands. Most of the German scholars were men of high moral character, and, few of them showed any sympathy with Luther once they realised that he aimed at revolt rather than reform, In some ways, however, the relations between the Scholastics, who looked upon the enthusiasts for classical learning as dangerous, and the Humanists, who regarded the Scholastics as antiquated, helped to complicate the issues during the opening years of Luther's campaign. A dispute which broke out between Reuchlin, a professor of Heidelberg, and the Dominicans of Cologne, afforded a splendid opportunity to Ulrich von Hutten, who was an able and determined enemy of the Church to throw ridicule upon the monks and Scholastics.

But of all those connected with the German school Erasmus (1466–1536) was undoubtedly the most influential and best known. After many wanderings, during which he visited or lectured at Paris, Oxford, Rome, Bologna and Freiburg, he settled finally at Basle, where he died. In his knowledge of Greek Erasmus was surpassed by few of his contemporaries, and in the purity and ease of his Latin style he stood without a serious rival. Like many others of the Humanists he delighted in attacking the ignorance of the monks and the Scholastics, and in denouncing the abuses of the age, but, as in the case of the many would-be literary reformers of the time, his own life was far from being exemplary. Yet Erasmus was not an enemy of Christianity, nor did he desire the overthrow of ecclesiastical authority. He advocated reform, and in his advocacy of reform, and in his denunciation of antiquated educational methods he went at times too far, but in his heart Erasmus had no sympathy with the doctrinal changes put forward by Luther, and once he understood the real tendency of the Lutheran movement he took the field against it.

In France there was a sharp conflict from the beginning between the Scholastics and the Humanists. The Humanists denounced the Scholastics as patrons of old-world methods, and the Scholastics retorted by asserting that the Humanists were patrons of heresy; while in England, on the contrary, all the great advocates of classical learning, Selling, Hadley, Linacre, Colet, Bishop Fisher of Rochester, and Sir Thomas More were loyal to the Church, their devotion to which the two latter sealed with their blood.

Yet, though so many of the Humanists remained true to their religion, and though Popes and bishops were the most generous patrons of classical scholars, the movement did much to prepare men's minds for the great religious revolt. It tended to develop a spirit of restless inquiry that could ill brook any restrictions. The return to the study of nature and the natural sciences helped to push into the background the supernatural idea upon which Christianity is based, and the revival of classical learning, besides recalling memories of an early civilisation opposed in so many particulars to the genius of the Christian religion, served to raise very serious problems about the age, authenticity and value of many writings and documents hitherto accepted without question. By so doing, it created a spirit of criticism and doubt for which the theologians of the time were but poorly prepared. In a word, it was a period of transition and of intellectual unrest when new ideas were endeavouring to supplant the old ones, and when the friends of the old and the new were led into false positions owing to their inability to understand what was divine and essential in Christianity, and what was purely human and might be dropped.

Luther's movement was not the logical outcome of the Renaissance as is evident from the fact that once the early misunderstandings were removed, and once the real issues were understood, most of the Humanists in Germany, France and England remained true to the Church. Instead of regarding Luther as a friend they looked upon him as the worst enemy of their cause, and the Reformation as the death-knell of the Renaissance.

Political and Social Condition of Europe

The political and social conditions of Europe also favoured the Reformation. A great movement towards centralization might be noticed in nearly every country during the fifteenth century. France, which before this time consisted of a collection of provinces nominally subject to the king, was welded together into a united nation. A similar change took place in Spain where the union of Castile and Aragon and the conquest of the Moorish kingdom of Granada prepared the way for a united Spain. In England the disappearance of the nobility during the Wars of the Roses led to the establishment of the domination of the Tudors. As part of the same movement Henry VIII. had himself declared king instead of feudal lord of Ireland, and serious efforts were also made by him to put an end to the independence of Scotland. Similarly, in the German Empire the princes strengthened their own power at the expense of the lower nobility, the cities and the peasantry, but having secured themselves they used their increased influence to arrest the progress of centralization and to prevent the establishment of a strong imperial authority.

As a result of this centralization the kings of France, Spain and England became absolute rulers with little or no check on the exercise of their power. They resented any interference of the Pope as an insult to the national pride, and they were determined to put an end to the danger which might be apprehended from the only institution which retained any shred of independence in their kingdoms, by acquiring complete control of ecclesiastical appointments. They demanded that the Popes should allow them to nominate to ecclesiastical offices, to levy taxes on ecclesiastical property and to abolish many of the privileges of the clergy. The Popes went very far to meet the request, as, for instance, in the Concordat between Leo X. and Francis I. of France (1516), but not enough to satisfy the rulers. As a consequence, the rulers were not unwilling to lend a ready ear to the Reformers who boldly declared that the king or prince was the source of spiritual as well as of temporal jurisdiction in his own dominions.

Besides, the establishment of absolute rule led to a great oppression of the masses of the people, and the peasants were ready to revolt if only they could find leaders. In Germany this was not difficult as the lower class of nobles were themselves oppressed by the princes. Hence, in nearly every country in Europe; in Spain, Hungary, the Netherlands, and Germany a violent upheaval took place. In all such revolutions the most extreme men are certain to take a leading part, at least in the earlier stages of the movement and their wildest onslaughts on Church and State are sure to win the applause of the crowd; but there was special danger that these outbreaks might be turned into an anti-religious channel at a time when so many of the bishops, especially in Germany, were also secular princes, and when the Church appeared to be so closely identified with the very interests against which the peasants rose in rebellion. In these circumstances it was not difficult for designing men to push forward their schemes of a religious change under guise of a campaign for liberty.

Again, political causes had much to do with the spread of the Reformation. Jealousy of the House of Habsburg, especially of Charles V., who held sway over Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria and Italy, led the rulers of France who were engaged in suppressing heresy at home, to ally themselves with the Lutheran princes of Germany and to give them support against the Emperor. In Switzerland it was really the opposition to the Duke of Savoy that secured Geneva for Calvinism; in the Netherlands it was hatred for Spain; and in Scotland the Reformation was due largely to the disputes between the friends of the French and English alliances.

The invasion of Europe by the Turks under Soliman, during which they captured the island of Rhodes (1523), defeated and slew Louis II. of Hungary (1526) and appeared before the walls of Vienna (1529), was most important for the Lutheran movement, as it tied the hands of Charles V., prevented him from suppressing Luther, and made it necessary for him to come to terms with the Protestant princes. An end, however, was put to the danger from the Turks by the crusade organized by Pius V., when the Christian fleet met and destroyed the Turkish fleet at Lepanto (1571). In memory of this success, to secure which Pius V. had ordered the recitation of the Rosary throughout the Church, the Feast of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary was established.

Religious Condition of Europe

The residence at Avignon, arousing as it did the jealousy of the nations hostile to France, and the Great Western Schism with all its awful consequences, did much to weaken the authority of the Holy See and prepared the way for the break up of a united Christendom. Yet, in spite of all these reverses, had the Church been blessed with a succession of worthy Popes, burning with zeal for religion, free to devote themselves to thorough measures of reform and capable of understanding the altered political and social conditions of the world, the Papacy might have been restored to its old position of pre-eminence. But the fear of schism, the necessity of taking measures to guard Europe against Turkish invasion, the state of affairs in Italy and the difficulty of controlling the Papal states, together with the Humanist movement, occupied the attention of the Popes from Sixtus V. to Leo X., and prevented them from setting their own house in order so as to avert the threatened danger. The direct taxations imposed by the Holy See to meet its growing wants, and the indirect taxation, including as it did reservation of so many ecclesiastical appointments, the heavy fees required from the bishops and the priests on whom benefices were conferred, and the dispensations given to hold more than one benefice, created a great deal of bad feeling both amongst laymen and ecclesiastics and made some of them not unwilling to advocate a change which would secure relief.

Besides, the interference of the State led to the appointment of unworthy bishops, especially in Germany, who neglected the duty of visitation, and who even it they were anxious to restore discipline among the clergy, could do very little owing to the claims of the lay patrons of the parishes. Though many of the clergy were active and well instructed, yet the want of episcopal control, the interference of lay patrons, the absence of seminaries and the failure of the universities to give a proper ecclesiastical training, produced their natural effect on a great body of the clergy. The uncanonical appointment of abbots and superiors, the union of various monasteries under the one abbot and the total exemption of the monasteries from episcopal control did much to lower the spirit of discipline in the religious orders. Many of them undoubtedly needed reform, but it is well to note that before Luther began his campaign the work of reform was already well under weigh.