The first major Church reform of the second millennium dates to the end of the eleventh century. In my last post a few weeks ago, I introduced the papacies of Leo IX and Gregory VII. Leo (r. 1049-1054) and Gregory (r. 1073-1085) are the most significant figures in what history refers to as The Gregorian Reform. Raising the memories of this era is a two-edged sword for Catholicism, for studies of reform movements inevitably throw light on sins and errors in the Church that needed reform in the first place. On the other hand, particularly in Gregory’s case, the reform strengthened the governing role of the papacy and institutionalized some its most sacred practices, notably the practice of clerical celibacy in the West.
I bring Gregory into our stream on the Protestant Reformation four centuries down the road because many of Gregory’s causes were partially or totally reversed by Luther and Protestant thinkers who followed over four centuries later. Gregory is remembered for an elongated struggle with King Henry IV known as the Investiture Controversy (there is an excellent full explanation here.) At stake was the tradition of kings appointing bishops. Gregory came to see that the increasing submission of clergy to secular power limited the effectiveness of popes to exercise institutional powers and reforms within the Church. Gregory’s excommunication of King Henry for what he saw as undue interference in church matters led to the famous Canossa incident, where Henry was forced to wait several days in the snow outside Gregory’s residence for absolution. Gregory died before a lasting understanding of Church and civil boundaries was achieved, but he had successfully strengthened the hands of future Bishops of Rome.
Gregory’s other major contribution was his enforcement of the rule of celibacy for the ordained clergy. Celibacy was not a foundational universal norm, but the early Church quickly identified chastity with the imitation of Christ and St. Paul, and by the Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.) the mandate for celibacy was put to the floor, though not approved. There was a sense at the time of Nicaea that lifelong celibacy, because of its ascetical components, was more appropriate to groups of intensely committed religious, such as monks and hermits. Suffice to say that until the early middle ages the observance of celibacy among parish clergy was uneven. [The future Pope John XXIII, rescuing Jews in Bulgaria during World War II, was taken aback at the lackadaisical observance of clerical celibacy in Bulgaria even at this date. Encountering a priest with a mistress and children, he reportedly said, “If you can’t be chaste, be careful.”]
Gregory came to the papal office at a time when Church Law—or Canon Law, as we call it today—was becoming better organized and recognized as a unifying force in its own right. In 1074 Gregory summoned a council at the Church of St. John in Rome and successfully gathered promises and professions of clerical continence and the discontinuation of the sale of church offices. The year 1074 is often given as the origin of clerical celibacy, though it is more accurate to say that date marks the beginning of stricter enforcement.
Gregory’s work plays a major role in the Protestant Reformation of later time. Gregory’s model of church-state relations defined the state—with kings and princes—as helpers in matters of Church discipline and belief. When Joan of Arc was found guilty of heresy in 1431, for example, she was, in the words of her church court, “turned over to the secular arm” [i.e., civil authorities] for the actual execution by burning. One of the responsibilities of the state, in Catholic thought at the time, was assistance in suppressing heresy and other movements inimical to Catholic belief.
One might expect, then, that when Luther posted his 95 theses in 1517, the normal procedure would have followed, and they were attempted. After several overtures and debates, a papal approved assembly, the “Diet of Worms,” ordered Luther’s arrest, assuming the cooperation of the German region in carrying forth the work of “the secular arm.” Fortunately for Luther, local German authorities stepped in, not only to protect Luther but to provide him with safe and secure lodgings where he could develop his texts and recommendations for general Church reform. Later, the state would provide him with an empty monastery where he and his new wife (16 years his junior and a former nun) would bring six children into the world.
Luther, it seemed, was much liked and respected by the populace and his local rulers. If Luther was upset by the sale of indulgences, German princes had grown tired of Church taxation. In England, as we will see later, Henry VIII became frustrated with the Church’s hand in his dynastic dilemma of producing a son. Czechoslovakia felt stirrings of democracy and resented the clericalism of the Mass in which only the priest drank from the chalice. The Czechs were already upset that their national hero of Church reform, Jan Hus, had been burned in 1415 at the Council of Constance
Gregory VII’s vision of church-state cooperation was one of the first casualties of the Protestant Reformation. With a growing sense of national and regional pride, many secular entities began to put distance between themselves and Rome. As the Protestant Reformation unfolded with divisions within itself, the saying cuius regio, eius religio became common (“whose leader, his religion.”) Not all regions of Europe disengaged from Rome; France, “Daughter of the Church,” was an ally till the French Revolution of 1789. But the papacy’s control of affairs of state and society declined precipitously after Luther, and by 1870 when revolutionaries established a government for the entire Italian peninsula, the papacy turned its energies totally to internal governance of the Church.
Luther would also question Gregory’s contention that all priests of the Latin Western Rite live in unmarried celibacy. Monastic spirituality undoubtedly influenced Gregory, who envisioned the collective spirituality of the monastery as a template for a holy priesthood. Luther, himself a member of the Augustinian Order which required vows of celibacy, did not find to his satisfaction adequate Biblical proof for this Roman discipline. The matter of ministerial celibacy divides Catholics and Protestant Churches to this day, and is an issue we will return to in Reformation considerations.
Thanksgiving SubstitutionRead Now
Happy Thanksgiving to all. As I am enjoying a Hudson Valley Thanksgiving, I will leave you with a link to an interesting essay on Martin Luther from the Washington Post, "Nobody Listened to Luther at First." This replaces the usual Thursday Reformation post by me. I will return for the next sequential Reformation Installment on November 30.
It is very easy to underestimate the influence of monasteries on the spiritual and political life of the Church. Monasteries made their first primitive appearance in the fourth century, provided structure in the Roman West through the “Dark Ages,” and blossomed throughout the medieval era. Monks had immense influence upon pastoral care of the faithful, notably in the development of moral theology and practice. It was the Irish monks who developed the concept of repeatable sacramental celebration of forgiveness and absolution, in the form we celebrate Penance today. The monks and their monasteries were such major forces in the Medieval Church that the monastic institution itself became a major target of Protestant reformers, including Luther himself.
The idea of a monastery was originally a flight from the temptation of the world, specifically the declining religious fervor of Constantine’s Rome. Early hermits migrated to the deserts and isolated regions to fast, pray, and do penance for their sins. Early monastic life encompassed men and women in adjoining structures, and evolved through the first millennium from isolated individuals to little villages of huts to the massive monasteries like Cluny, France, the largest Church structure in the world till the construction of St. Peter’s in Rome in the 1500’s. Cluny did not escape the fury of Protestants or the French Revolution, and only 10% remains today. Cluny’s later fate is a significant hint of how monastic idealism impacted Reformation debates.
Monasteries were usually erected in locations far from distractions, such as cities. Thus, the typical monastery served as a spiritual center for the countryside, and the bond between monk and layman in such settings was close. Medieval historians over my lifetime have come to appreciate the intense grass roots piety of peasants and laborers, and the remarkable ways that laity established their own group identities. In many cases lay communities clustered near to existing monasteries; in many other cases, these bands of spirituals wandered about doing good to save their souls from hell fire, a major medieval preoccupation. The Franciscans, for their part, developed from the penitential brotherhoods common to their time.
The monks, for their part, contributed to the renewal of the eleventh century and far beyond in several ways. Most significantly, the monasteries as a rule came to espouse the idea that affective spirituality was preferable to scholastic theology. They were early adherents of a maxim written in later Medieval times by Thomas a Kempis in his classic The Imitation of Christ: “I would much rather feel compunction than know its spelling.” As brilliant as medieval philosophy and theology would prove to be, its pastoral influence would never surpass the piety of monks and laity who turned to the spiritual writers among the Church Fathers, not the rationalists, and to the Gospels and the example of Jesus Christ. Many popular devotions flowed from this religious attitude—the rosary and the stations of the cross come to mind immediately, as well as devotion to the Holy Eucharist. The focus on the Bible should set your radar pinging. As early as the eleventh century there was a “democratization” of spiritual experience in terms of prioritizing the direct words of Jesus in one’s prayer and belief, as opposed to dependence upon the routine of Church liturgy and parish life. The emphasis upon personal devotion and Scripture will become a major factor in Luther’s theology of Sola Scriptura, “by Scripture alone [is man saved.]”
Despite the distance and solitude sought in monasteries, monks were not necessarily isolated from Rome. Our focus today falls upon the successor of the reform pope Leo IX, a monk named Hildebrand who may or may not have lived in the Cluny monastery. Hildebrand, an extraordinary leader, shared the passions of his time for a Church reform. He was brought to Rome by the future Leo IX, and then elected in his own right under the name (St.) Gregory VII and reigned from 1073-1085. “The Gregorian Reform Era” was a marriage of the reform movement mentioned above to a papal effort to consolidate Church Law and the primacy of the papacy and independence from civil kings and rulers in such matters as the appointment of bishops and even the election of popes themselves.
When I return from my Thanksgiving Trip, Page 6 of the Reformation will look closely at Gregory VII’s influence in his own day (he was the first pope to strictly enforce celibacy, for example), his relations with the kings of his time, and his role in setting the stage for one of Western Christianity’s most controversial ventures, the Crusades.
We often think of the Reformation as a purely religious/doctrinal event, or that the event is the sole invention or inspiration of one disgruntled monk, Martin Luther. Luther was the historical spark, to be sure, but it is better to look at the Reformation as a tectonic shift in Western European civilization which impacted every aspect of life, not simply “church matters.” Some aspects of the Reformation were dreadful, such as the 50,000,000 (est.) death toll of the “Religious Wars” which did not end until 1648. Continuing to our own time is the division of the Body of Christ, a scandal when one considers Jesus’ prayer that all may be one.
That said, the study of the Reformation provides us with an intimate immersion into the thoughts, spirituality, and ways of life of our forefathers. The Europe of 1517 was beholden to both the Medieval Age and the Renaissance Era, or as some might say, “the medieval and the modern.” This is why the events of the sixteenth century were so brutal in every sense of the word. As we will see later, Luther was deeply immersed in traditional Church wisdom as a Scripture scholar and teacher. Ironically it was his devotion to the Church’s past that led him to such radical proposals for its future; for example, his affinity for St. Paul and St. Augustine. He believed that the “innovative” medieval philosophy [scholasticism] introduced by St. Thomas Aquinas’ reading of the pagan Aristotle (which Thomas received from Moslems, no less!) was an exercise in sterile logic that distracted from the more venerable teachings of Paul and Augustine, who spoke to the essentials of salvation.
We tend to think of reform as “forward looking,” but if I read Church history correctly, much of what is called reform is undertaken under the theological term Ressourcement, a return to the original writings and teachings of ancient days. The idea here is that the past is key to the future. If there was malaise in the Church in 1517, or in 1962 for that matter, Church scholarship would ideally go back to historical roots for keys to solving present-day ills. Ressourcement was a common method employed by the theologians and bishops of Vatican II, sometimes under the name “new theology.” A portion of today’s post is devoted to an early Ressourcement gone awry.
The idea of returning to the sources as a method of renewing the Church dates to the first true self-conscious efforts of the Church to reform, specifically the eleventh century, famous for the Gregorian reform (of Pope Gregory VII). The eleventh century is probably the first time the Western European Church resembled something you or I would recognize today. The early pillars of the medieval era were visible—the growth of cities, universities, dioceses, systematic thought, philosophical/theological writings, a well-founded attempt at maintaining law and order in the secular and clerical order. The papacy had not reached the zenith of its power, but individual popes were stronger than in the ninth century, when the popes depended heavily upon Charlemagne and his kingdom for protection. Eleventh-century Europe was still plagued by Viking attacks, though another feature of the time was the development of sizeable kingdoms and states that we would later recognize as France, England, Spain, Germany, etc.
The moral condition of the Church became a matter of concern for thoughtful leaders in the second half of the eleventh century. Popes and other churchmen may have needed the help of kings a few centuries earlier simply to remain in office, but after 1000 A.D. the German royalty was virtually controlling papal elections and appointing bishops. In truth, many Catholics perceived King Henry III, for example, as an agent of reform. Despite the intrusion of a secular ruler into the business of the Church, there is considerable evidence today that Henry III was motivated in part by honest reforming instincts; he was hailed for his attempts to stamp out simony, the sale of church offices, particularly the office of bishop.
The first pope in Henry III’s time whose election was regarded as “untainted” was Leo IX (r. 1048-1054). Leo’s reputation was that of a reformer, and he was known for his strong opposition to simony and clerical marriage. He and his assistant, Cardinal Humbert, believed that a reformed papacy would take the lead in reforming the entire Church. Leo defined the papacy as “the earthly and kingly empire of the royal priesthood of the holy Roman see.” In 1054 Humbert journeyed to Constantinople and demanded that the Eastern Patriarch, Michael Cerularius, accept this universal reign of the Roman pope. Michael refused, and Humbert excommunicated him, a rather dramatic act given that Humbert was armed with nothing but his papers in hostile territory.
Leo could make majestic papal claims in part because he believed he had both the legal and spiritual right to do so. Reform popes from Leo IX forward depended heavily upon a written privilege known as the Donation of Constantine, one of history’s most famous forgeries. The Donation was written in the fifth century A.D., but only gained circulation in the eighth, and significant impact in the eleventh. It purported to be an award by the Emperor Constantine of power and land (much of Western Europe, in fact) to the See of Rome and its bishop. Constantine, you may remember, moved the capital of the Roman Empire east to Byzantium and renamed it after himself (modern Istanbul) in the fourth century. By 1400 the document was proven to be a forgery, but admittedly its earlier bestowal of power upon the papacy proved to be very helpful to Leo IX and his successors. Leo and the popes that followed him believed the Donation to be legitimate, as did Dante in the early fourteenth century, who wrote: "Ah, Constantine, how much evil was born, / not from your conversion, but from that donation / that the first wealthy Pope received from you!"
Dante, a late medievalist looking back, gives us his thumbnail critique of the relationship between the secular and the spiritual thrones that became cemented in the eleventh century. In the case of Henry III and Pope Leo IX, the relationship served both parties well, as king and pope shared reformist agendas. But what would happen if enmity broke out between the two? Leo’s successors would need the full provisions of the Donation to exercise authority. Such a circumstance occurred almost immediately after the passing of Leo and Henry, under the pope who gives the name to the Gregorian Era. Templates of reform and papal authority would become well entrenched in the eleventh century and would play significant roles in Luther’s thinking and the Catholic response.
For those going further into the library: I am indebted overall to Steven Ozment’s The Age of Reform, 1250-1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe (1981) and today in particular to the introduction by I.S. Robinson to The Papal Reform of the Eleventh Century: Lives of Pope Leo IX and Pope Gregory VII (2004).
Reformation: Page 2Read Now
The more reading and thinking I undertake on the subject of the Protestant Reformation, several things are becoming clearer: (1) Martin Luther did not burst forth from the blue; history within the Catholic Church was bubbling toward an eruption for at least several hundred years; (2) the 1517+ division of Western Christianity stands testament to the interlocking of culture, politics, science, and theology; and (3) the Protestant Reformation is not the first or even the greatest division of the Christian Church. Christianity at the time of Luther was already divided between Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy (the “Eastern Orthodox Church” though the adjective eastern is not in the formal title.) The Protestant Reformation makes sense only against the backdrop of these three realities.
With respect to history and significant ordering, it is best to look at this primal break in the Christian family, that of East and West. Like the Protestant Reformation, there is a flashpoint, the mutual excommunications issued by Roman Catholicism—Leo IX through Cardinal Humbert—and the Patriarch [Archbishop] of Constantinople [now Istanbul], Michael Cerularius in 1054. But again, the dating does not tell the full story of the break. Various history books and scholars date the subtle roots of the schism as far back as the fourth century, which coincides with the age of the Christological Councils (all held in the East) and the Emperor Constantine’s decision to move the seat of the Roman Empire East to Byzantium, which was renamed Constantinople. As the cream of the Empire’s military and administrative system moved East, Rome became increasingly vulnerable to barbarians, and was itself sacked by Alaric’s tribe in 410 A.D. and later visited by Attila the Hun.
In making such a move, Constantine and his successors were relocating from the raw knuckled Latin European West to the Grecian elegance of the East, a land of high culture, erudition, and a more Platonic or ideal philosophical way of thinking. The evolution of theology—and the fourth and fifth centuries were indeed the age of the formation of our Creeds—was not exempt from this Eastern influence (the Nicene Creed’s term consubstantial is a labored Latin derivation of the more elegant and descriptive Greek homoousios, or “same substance.”)
It is not hard to imagine that the Eastern see of Constantinople—along with other major Eastern sees including Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Antioch—began a consolidation of thought, practice, and, admittedly, superiority over the Western half of Christianity, which it considered something of a backwater in every sense of the word. As the West was entering upon the dark ages, the impression of the Eastern half seemed justified. Eastern Christianity, which looked to the Patriarch of Constantinople as “first among equals” with his episcopal brethren, found the assertions of authority of the Bishop of Rome offensive and overreaching. In the last of the Christological councils, Chalcedon in 451 A.D., Pope Leo I did not attend, but instead submitted the formula we know today: that Jesus Christ, though having two distinct natures, divine and human—has one operational persona/consciousness. The human Jesus is not a battleground of divine and human impulse. The brilliance of Leo’s assertion carried the day theologically for Christianity in the fifth century, but not everyone in the East was happy about the assertion of power by the Bishop of Rome or the theological justifications asserted.
The Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.) is as good a place as any to explain why the East and the West would eventually split. The East, for reasons of culture, philosophy, belief, and liturgy, approached Christian doctrine in a much more mystical fashion than the pragmatic West. The Eastern image of Christ emphasizes his place in the Trinity, whereas we tend more to the human Jesus offering himself on the cross for our sins. I got my theological comeuppance on Eastern theology when I had the good fortune to visit the Orthodox Church of the Savior on The Spilled Blood in Russia this summer. I had assumed the “blood” in the title was Christ’s, but it was that of Russian Emperor Alexander II, who was assassinated on the site in 1881.
The blogsite for the Church on the Spilled Blood comments on the building’s appearance, indicating in so many words that the design is “in your face,” particularly considering the date of construction, post-1881. The new emperor who constructed this church wanted to make a statement to his subjects that Russia was losing its soul to modernity. [See photos below.] This is a classic theological theme of the Orthodox Church, which has a profound reverence for history. Orthodox thinking holds that the early centuries of Christianity, particularly the era of the Christological Councils, hold preeminence in the Christian life. As I understand it, the Orthodox do not recognize councils beyond the seventh as truly Ecumenical.
After several more centuries of increasing division, the flash point of division arrived in 1054. For simplicity sake, the two intractable issues identified consistently are the Bishop of Rome’s claim to authority over the Patriarch of Constantinople and a long-standing dispute about the Creed’s teaching on the Trinity. This dispute has continued through history as the filioque controversy. Western Christianity, in the Nicene Creed, declares that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, though the phrase “and the son” (filioque in Latin) was added late in the first millennium. The Orthodox view this formulation as an aberrant theology of the Trinity.
And thus, the major division of Christendom, West and East, the Roman Catholic West and the Orthodox East was formalized. The Orthodox retain the seven sacraments, the Scriptures, and the teachings of the Christological Councils. The Orthodox venerate the Virgin Mary and the saints. [Ironically, there is at least one saint canonized by both churches, St. Maximus the Confessor.] But catastrophes and poor judgment have set back the cause of reunification. The worst may have been the Fourth Crusade; see my review of The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople (2004); Western Crusaders massacred this holy city and looted perhaps the most beautiful seat of religious and secular culture in the world at that time.
Constantinople, as a church power, fell for the last time to the Islamic Turks in 1453, a blow that despite everything cast a pall over Western Christendom. The Orthodox Church today composes the second largest Christian body on the planet, with most adherents living in Russia, Greece, and Eastern Europe. After Vatican II and his election to the papacy, Pope John Paul II labored to improve relations with the Orthodox. However, the Eastern Church has been reluctant to associate itself with what it considers the decadent and modernist ways of Western Christianity and Western culture in general, a characteristic dating far back into its history. This stance has been enhanced, no doubt, by its setting in Russia.
The Great Schism of 1054 and the events that followed were well known to Catholics in the sixteenth century, and certainly to those seeking reform. The breech of East and West was a demonstration that the Church could divide on matters of principle. Leaders of the Protestant Reformation, then, did not need fear that they were following an unproven path, though their causes might differ from Orthodox sensitivities.
About thirty years ago there was a loose network of ministers around the country who were rallying to warn the populace that Halloween was the work of the devil and originated with pagan orgies and whatever. As the movement was gaining some circulation, and parents were warned against letting their children consort with witches, our local NPR affiliate asked my diocese to provide a spokesperson to, uh, defend Halloween, perhaps provide an alternative history. Back then I was asked to handle such media requests, and I dutifully sat by my phone—in a Daytona Beach motel room, now that I think of it—waiting for “All Things Considered” to connect. The interview was not earthshaking. I explained that the name Halloween was derived from the old English “All Hallows Eve,” the night vigil before the feast of the hallowed souls in heaven, All Saints Day, on November 1. I added that All Saints and All Souls became paired feasts in the Church calendar.
A few days later I was in the chancery for something when a priest officer stopped me and said he had caught the interview on NPR. I asked what he thought about it, and he replied very quickly, “You sounded like a kid who wanted to keep his Halloween candy.” Whatever the truth of his observation, and there was at least a little bit, I soon forgot it as I’m sure the 17 listeners did, too. Then, in 2015, I read one of the finest histories I have come across, Medieval Christianity: A New History (2015) by Kevin Madigan of Harvard Divinity School. For our purposes Madigan’s description of the late Middle Ages and the emergence of Luther brings to light a rarely discussed aspect of the time: the immense fear of death and dying that dominated religious practice and devotion.
The fifteenth century is often thought of as the gateway to the Renaissance and ultimately to the Enlightenment. This is the century of Christopher Columbus, the printing press, rediscovery of the ancient classics, and the collapse of Constantinople at the hands of Islam. The Church had ended the Great Schism (a separate entry coming soon) in the Council of Constance, and most religious orders enjoyed a renewal or resurgence.
What has been overlooked in Medieval history is the actual mood of believers in the decades prior to Luther’s appearance in 1517. While it is true that several thinkers had come to question the entire enterprise of organized religion, notably Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) and earlier Marsilius of Padua (1275-1342), the latter’s writing having gained notoriety after his death through the printing press, the thinking of such men did not generally penetrate to the general populace of those committed to Christianity in some way, shape, or form.
In his final chapter, “Late Medieval Piety and Its Problems,” (pp. 418-435) Madigan reminds us that Western Europe had never quite shaken the trauma of the Black Death (1348-1349) and other traumas. Death was never far from the mind, and Madigan writes that “it has sometimes been suggested that the medieval church was treasured above all as an intercessor for the dead.” (p. 418) Records still exist for the large number of Mass stipends requested and paid for between 1350 and 1500. Given the struggles at the highest levels of the Church, the quest for personal religious experience turned from cathedral to mysticism, or as Madigan puts it, “efforts to achieve unmediated experience of the presence of the divine.”
The impact of mysticism upon the Church and the Reformation can hardly be exaggerated. Religious experience was becoming “democratized” as more Christians turned inward to find their ultimate experience of God. Some of them began to write in their own parlance, not Latin, and the printing press provided greater access to religious works for the laity. Many famous mystics were women, and most are not commonly known, nor their influence explored in Catholic catechetics today. Among the most famous are Hildegarde of Bingen (named a Doctor of the Church in 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI), Meister Eckhart, Elizabeth of Schonau, Mechtild of Magdeburg, and Marguerite Porete. Marguerite is a good example of the perplexity facing the Church with this grassroots development of independent pray-ers and thinkers. Poor Marguerite was burned with her book The Mirror of Simple Souls in 1310 by the Inquisition but her religious order privately preserved her texts through the age of the printing press and in 1927 the Catholic Church granted an imprimatur to The Mirror of Simple Souls.
The primary preoccupation of most Catholics was the avoidance of hell and the diminishment of time in Purgatory, where the punishments were reputed to be equal but temporary. Purgatory had fascinated thinkers as early as St. Benedict’s Rule in the Dark Ages, and there was considerable speculation about the time and intensity of its punishments. Over time the Church came to teach that one could work off the residual punishments of sin before death by a combination of prayer and good works. Crusaders, for example, were granted a plenary indulgence (full remission) freeing them of the residual reparations due to God.
Madigan suggests that the religious enthusiasm of the pre-Reformation era was driven by an effort to make reparation by the intensity and number of good works, such as Mass stipends and the various prayers and good works prescribed for partial or full indulgences. Taken to extremes—as it often was—many Christians believed that by their own works they could achieve salvation; this attitude, known as from Augustine’s day as Pelagianism, had been condemned by St. Augustine but made a strong comeback in later Medieval times. The issue of indulgences took on a commercial impetus which meshed conveniently with the desperate desires to the faithful to save their own souls or those of loved ones. The early sixteenth century project to build St. Peter’s Church in Rome was financed by the direct sale of indulgences; remember “When the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from Purgatory springs.”
The campaign to build St. Peter’s was a serious abuse, later reformed, though not in time to defuse Luther’s bitter attacks on the practice. Moreover, the frantic efforts to avoid fiery afterlife, according to Madigan, would give way to depression: no one really knew how many Masses, pilgrimages, indulgences, prayers, etc. were necessary to assure salvation, and even Luther himself, a scrupulously observant monk, came to doubt if any of his monastic exercises were truly efficacious. The breakthrough for Luther—one with strong roots in the democratization of mysticism—was an intense metaphysical belief in God’s power and desire to save. “By faith, not works” became a theological summary statement of the internal transition taking place among those who had grown attuned to an unmediated experience of God.