Summary: On the eve of the Protestant Revolution/reformation, there was both piety and corruption in the Church.
Thursday of the 22nd Week in Course 2017
St. Paul’s prayer for the Colossians, and for us, is simple and yet profound: “that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, to lead a life worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.” If we are not making progress in that direction, then we are not centered on living and doing God’s will, but rather our own. Victory is not found in the defeat of political opponents, or even of the enemy in war, by our own power. No, the true victory is over the evil one who seeks to destroy us individually, and even more to destroy the Body of Christ, the Church. We need to remember that this victory is only possible through the power of the Cross of Christ. And only when our self-will is crucified will we grow as images of Jesus and Mary. Note that it was after a fruitless night of fishing that professional fisherman Peter’s obedience to what seemed an amateur’s command by Christ resulted in a great catch of fish.
Last week we began to consider the power of Christ manifest in the sixteenth century through the Protestant revolution being followed by the Catholic Reformation. Let me give an overview so we can consider the historical sweep of events.
First, nobody can reasonably claim that in 1500 the Church was perfect as a human institution. The Church is a human institution with a divine foundation and divine guidance. The Church cannot err in her teaching on faith and morals, but the leaders of the Church, flawed human beings like you and me, frequently erred in their personal faith and morals. An ancient saying is always true: Ecclesia semper reformanda est. The Church is ever being reformed.
These personal sins, the seven deadly sins, if emulated across the hierarchy, can create an ethos of corruption, a real structural sin. The love of money and power were behind a lot of it. Late medieval “church bureaucracy was expensive, as were the lifestyles of some of its officeholders, especially certain popes and their curia.” It meant they tended to tax everything. And those lavish lifestyles and that consuming greed were a scandal to the priests and parishioners who were living in poverty so the high clerics could conspicuously consume. Moreover, bishops and abbots, if they played the political game, could buy into multiple benefices, like two or three dioceses, to increase their income.
The call of Christ to poverty, celibacy and obedience is a call to everyone to some degree. But some priests and monks disregarded their vows and wound up with wives or mistresses and children. The temptation to nepotism, to favoritism, meant that there were perhaps several generations of clerics siphoning off the donations of the faithful for less than salutary purposes.
Now there was holiness in the Church also, for not all were corrupted. The Renaissance art and literature was enriched by contributions from the clergy and people. There were dynamic lay movements, and there were uncorrupted religious houses. But there was abundant superstition, self-justification, and simony. James Hitchcock writes that on the eve of Luther’s revolt, “the Catholic Church simultaneously manifested both deep piety and corruption.”
And there was a reforming trend developing. Despite the constant attempt by France to be the master of Europe, and of the papacy, the papal residence had returned to Rome. St. Catherine of Siena is given major credit for this restoration. Two popes supported the Fifth Lateran Council, which issued some important decrees, including the requirement that the local bishop give permission for the publication of books. They also required documentation that clerics be competent to preach. There was much in this reforming trend to give hope, but just seven months later, Luther began his revolt.
When we get too full of ourselves, as many of the people involved in the sixteenth century Church did, we forget the words of Peter, “I am a sinful man.” In those moments, Jesus will not depart, and we must not lose hope. Even in disaster the power of God can triumph.