The Necessity of a Reformation
The corruption and abuses of the Latin church had long been the complaint of the best men, and even of general councils. A reformation of the head and the members was the watchword at Pisa, Constance, and Basel, but remained a pium desiderium for a whole century.
Let us briefly review the dark side in the condition of the church at the beginning of the sixteenth century.
The papacy was secularized, and changed into a selfish tyranny whose yoke became more and more unbearable. The scandal of the papal schism had indeed been removed, but papal morals, after a temporary improvement, became worse than ever during the years 1492 to 1521. Alexander VI. was a monster of iniquity; Julius II. was a politician and warrior rather than a chief shepherd of souls; and Leo X. took far more interest in the revival of heathen literature and art than in religion, and is said to have even doubted the truth of the gospel history.
No wonder that many cardinals and priests followed the scandalous example of the popes, and weakened the respect of the laity for the clergy. The writings of contemporary scholars, preachers and satirists are full of complaints and exposures of the ignorance, vulgarity and immorality of priests and monks. Simony and nepotism were shamefully practiced. Celibacy was a foul fountain of unchastity and uncleanness. The bishoprics were monopolized by the youngest sons of princes and nobles without regard to qualification. Geiler of Kaisersberg, a stern preacher of moral reform at Strassburg (d. 1510), charges all Germany with promoting ignorant and worldly men to the chief dignities, simply on account of their high connections. Thomas Murner complains that the devil had introduced the nobility into the clergy, and monopolized for them the bishoprics. Plurality of office and absence from the diocese were common. Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz was at the same time archbishop of Magdeburg and bishop of Halberstadt. Cardinal Wolsey was archbishop of York while chancellor of England, received stipends from the kings of France and Spain and the doge of Venice, and had a train of five hundred servants. James V. of Scotland (1528-1542) provided for his illegitimate children by making them abbots of Holyrood House, Kelso, Melrose, Coldingham and St. Andrews, and intrusted royal favorites with bishoprics.
Discipline was nearly ruined. Whole monastic establishments and orders had become nurseries of ignorance and superstition, idleness and dissipation, and were the objects of contempt and ridicule, as may be seen from the controversy of Reuchlin with the Dominicans, the writings of Erasmus, and the Epistolae Virorum Obscurorum.
Theology was a maze of scholastic subtleties, Aristotelian dialectics and idle speculations, but ignored the great doctrines of the gospel. Carlstadt, the older colleague of Luther, confessed that he had been doctor of divinity before he had seen a complete copy of the Bible. Education was confined to priests and nobles. The mass of the laity could neither read nor write, and had no access to the word of God except the Scripture lessons from the pulpit.
The priest's chief duty was to perform, by his magic words, the miracle of transubstantiation, and to offer the sacrifice of the mass for the living and the dead in a foreign tongue. Many did it mechanically, or with a skeptical reservation, especially in Italy. Preaching was neglected, and had reference, mostly, to indulgences, alms, pilgrimages and processions. The churches were overloaded with good and bad pictures, with real and fictitious relics. Saint-worship and image-worship, superstitious rites and ceremonies obstructed the direct worship of God in spirit and in truth.
Piety which should proceed from a living union of the soul with Christ and a consecration of character, was turned outward and reduced to a round of mechanical performances such as the recital of Paternosters and Avemarias, fasting, alms-giving, confession to the priest, and pilgrimage to a holy shrine. Good works were measured by the quantity rather than the quality, and vitiated by the principle of meritoriousness which appealed to the selfish motive of reward. Remission of sin could be bought with money; a shameful traffic in indulgences was carried on under the Pope's sanction for filthy lucre as well as for the building of St. Peter's Dome, and caused that outburst of moral indignation which was the beginning of the Reformation and of the fearful judgment on the Church of Rome.
This is a one-sided, but not an exaggerated description. It is true as far as it goes, and needs only to be supplemented by the bright side which we shall present in the next section.
Honest Roman Catholic scholars, while maintaining the infallibility and consequent doctrinal irreformability of their church, admit in strong terms the decay of discipline and the necessity of a moral reform in the sixteenth century.
The best proof is furnished by a pope of exceptional integrity, Adrian VI., who made an extraordinary confession of the papal and clerical corruption to the Diet of Nuernberg in 1522, and tried earnestly, though in vain, to reform his court. The Council of Trent was called not only for the extirpation of heresy, but in part also "for the reformation of the clergy and Christian people;" and Pope Pius IV., in the bull of confirmation, likewise declares that one of the objects of the Council was "the correction of morals and the restoration of ecclesiastical discipline."
On the other hand, it must be admitted that the church was more than once in a far worse condition, during the papal schism in the fourteenth, and especially in the tenth and eleventh centuries; and yet she was reformed by Pope Hildebrand and his successors without a split and without an alteration of the Catholic Creed.
Why could not the same be done in the sixteenth century? Because the Roman church in the critical moment resisted reform with all her might, and forced the issue: either no reformation at all, or a reformation in opposition to Rome.
The guilt of the western schism is divided between the two parties, as the guilt of the eastern schism is; although no human tribunal can measure the share of responsibility. Much is due, no doubt, to the violence and extravagance of the Protestant opposition, but still more to the intolerance and stubbornness of the Roman resistance. The papal court used against the Reformation for a long time only the carnal weapons of political influence, diplomatic intrigue, secular wealth, haughty pride, scholastic philosophy, crushing authority, and bloody persecution. It repeated the course of the Jewish hierarchy, which crucified the Messiah and cast the apostles out of the synagogue.
But we must look beyond this partial justification, and view the matter in the light of the results of the Reformation.
It was evidently the design of Providence to develop a new type of Christianity outside of the restraints of the papacy, and the history of three centuries is the best explanation and vindication of that design. Every movement in history must be judged by its fruits.
The elements of such an advance movement were all at work before Luther and Zwingli protested against papal indulgences.