The next time I post on this stream we will begin to enter the life and works of Martin Luther himself and the events we know collectively as The Protestant Reformation. As we close the build-up to October 31, 1517, there is a legitimate question of whether the break-up of the Roman-Latin Western Church was an inevitability. My opinion: the explosion in learning and science would have triggered some sort of intellectual revolution in matters of Church doctrine and discipline: linguists and Church scholars would have eventually questioned the literal nature and egregiously poor translations of the official Vulgate Latin text of the Bible, for example, in the fashion of the Renaissance Catholic scholar Erasmus [1469-1536].
It was Luther’s claim that the Church needed reform in capite et membris, [Latin, “in head and members.”], that is, at the top and the bottom. Our last several posts examined the “membris” and found many of them anxious for reform, if somewhat disorganized and disjointed. The failure of the last century before Luther was primarily a matter of the “capite,” the papacy and the college of bishops. By the early 1400’s the papacy was in shambles, with three separate men claiming the Chair of Peter. During this period, as the Church wrestled with a solution, the ancient concept of bishops’ exercising a collective authority over the Church returned to the forum of university thought. Termed Conciliarism, the legal concept of universal bishops exercising an ultimate authority in the Church was the guiding principle for the Council of Constance [1414-1418]. How well did the last three Councils address reform of the capite before 1517?
The Council of Constance was a wild and woolly affair, involving the discrediting and exiling of all three claimants to the papacy. The Council finally elected Martin V as valid successor of Peter but exercised its conciliar power to extract a commitment from Martin and presumably his successors to call a church-wide council of bishops periodically, at intervals of five or ten years. Having concluded the Great Schism of multiple popes, the Council turned its attention to reform, or at least its perception of what reform looked like. It attacked the ideas of John Wycliffe (England) and Jan Hus (Czechoslovakia); Wycliffe was the father of the “Lollards” and Hus the champion of the chalice for the faithful at Mass. Wycliffe was long dead; Hus had been invited to the Council under safe passage, which was revoked by the Council, and he was burned alive. This did not augur well for future advocates of Church reform.
Martin V was anxious to restore the papacy to its previous preeminence and delayed calling another Council until near death in 1431. It is a measure of its disarray and poor attendance that the Council of Basel-Ferara-Florence [1431-1449] lingered nearly two decades and divided into at least two distinct councils, one of which attempted to excommunicate the pope over the issues of Conciliarism and reunion with the Eastern Orthodox Church. At the very least, this council soured the thought of another one for six decades.
Of more interest is the Fifth Council of the Lateran [1512-1517]. The very dates of this Council speak volumes; it dissolved in the same year that Luther came to prominence. As a Council, Lateran V did little. The historian Carlos Eire put it this way: “In essence, all that the Fifth Lateran Council seemed to accomplish was to confirm the death of Conciliarism and the weakness of the high clergy, leaving nothing in its wake but missed opportunities for reform, along with censure and dissent.” (Carlos M.N. Eire, Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650, p. 115) In fairness, Lateran V did address standards for pawnshops.
Eire, in his conclusion of the state of Catholicism on the eve of Luther, summarizes conditions well: “At the end of the Middle Ages, then, Catholic reformers were more or less on their own. This is not to say that reform could not take place, but rather that it was difficult to for any reformer to have an impact beyond a local level. Without papal or conciliar support, the best anyone could do was to focus on one’s immediate environment.” [p. 115]
It is no accident that most of the medieval reformers adopted some degree of poverty into their religious agendas, i.e., the absolute poverty of Jesus, who had “no place to lay his head.” Laity, religious, and a fair number of clergy longed for a Church whose leaders, structures, and preoccupations spoke of Jesus as he appeared in the newly printed Bibles that were now circulating through all levels of society in local translations. Were the leaders of the Church oblivious to this?
I would say that the hierarchical Church of late medieval times carried a different paradigm or model from local soul seekers. Way back in this stream I described the papacy of Boniface VIII and his encyclical Unam Sanctam in 1302, which claimed that all spiritual and secular power ultimately resided with the Bishop of Rome. It is easy to scoff at such a claim today, but Boniface saw himself and his office as a protector of world order, a role that a few of his predecessors had necessarily assumed, such as St. Gregory the Great in the 500’s. His mistake, I believe, was identifying himself as the Vicar of the Trinity and not the vicar of Christ, who saved by serving others to the point of giving up his very life. The claim to ultimate worldly supremacy was discredited in Boniface’s own lifetime, but his successors understood themselves as enjoying supreme spiritual authority and rigorously protecting Church practice and thought. If this involved the suppression of pious practice and original writing and thought on the natures and health of the Church, such was the price of doing business.
It is also true that a “follow the money” factor played into the separation of leaders from laity. Popes were elected from among the richest families of the day, such as the Borgias and the Medici’s. Bishops—often appointed by kings and regional sovereigns--depended heavily upon the benefices or wealth of their dioceses, often holding multiple dioceses at the same time they worked for the popes in the legal work of the Church. To reform in the fashion of the return to Christ’s poverty would mean financial and social ruin for the upper tiers of the hierarchy.
As noted above, Catholic reformers were generally locally based and attempts by the Inquisition to censor their views sorely limited their influence. What makes the Lutheran Reformation different is the perfect storm of a scholarly Catholic monk, torn by his own doubts about salvation, scandalized by the Rome of his day and its questionable practices [e.g., the sale of indulgences], deeply influenced by his reading of the Bible [notably St. Paul], and protected by local German princes by the reach of the Inquisition. Next week we will begin walking in Luther’s shoes to understand his motives and actions intended to reform the Catholic Church.
There are thousands of books written about Luther, and for our purposes here I am recommending Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (2017) as well as the Reformations work by Dr. Eire cited above.