I don’t know about you all, but I’m surely looking forward to finishing up these preliminary posts on the Catholic church! What I really want to talk about is the Reformation itself – Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin and others as they boldly preached justification by faith alone and freed the common people from the abuses and bondage of religion.
But history is important and background necessary if we want to grasp the fullness of what the Reformation accomplished. As I’ve mentioned before, the Reformation didn’t just descend from thin air. It was a product of its times. And when we do finally get into the posting of the 95 theses and see the reformation beginning to gain momentum and acceptance, we’ll have a much more thorough understanding of just what’s occurring and why it’s important.
Having already looked at the structural problems present within the Medieval Catholic church, let’s cover some of the moral failures and abuses within the priesthood and the clerical hierarchy as a whole.
When discussing the abuses within the church at this time, it’s important that we don’t get tunnel vision. There were problems, yes – that can’t be denied. But the church was not 100% rotten from head to foot. Not every priest in every country was committing these scandals. The spiritual health of the leadership varied from country to country.
Three Main Categories
That being said, certain abuses were quite prevalent throughout parts of continental Europe, namely Germany and the Netherlands. The three most scandalous (and common) acts were simony, pluralism and absenteeism.
- Simony is the buying and selling of church offices. According to the books this practice was illegal, but oftentimes it was not enforced, especially when popes were in need of finances for their next crusade or building project. Generally the more prestigious positions were the ones up for sale and whomever could swing it financially received the office.
- Pluralism is the holding of multiple church offices. If you can purchase one influential church office, why stop there? Why not buy your way to the top of the hierarchical ladder? Obviously the motive behind this was not care for the souls of the people within that bishopric or diocese, just a desire for more money and more fame.
- Absenteeism is the culmination of the first two. You now hold multiple offices and since you can’t be everywhere at once, you are absent for some of them. So you hire someone out for a low wage to go handle your parish duties in these various areas and most likely never step foot there yourself.
The laity regarded these three issues as extremely scandalous. The church wasn’t taking care of God’s people anymore; it was simply using the laity to further their own wealth. In addition these three issues, there was also a general dissatisfaction with priestly immorality in the categories of greed and the breakdown of their celibate vows. When it came to greed, the rulers of Europe were just as frustrated as the reformers and everyone else at the exorbitant amounts of money Rome was requiring in the form of taxes and tithes.
Calls for Reform
Even with all these abuses, there was never a rejection of the church at large, simply calls for reform. Even when Luther arrives on the scene what he wants is reform. As late as 1522 he still had no intention of starting a new church. He simply wanted the pope to correct certain unscriptural practices within the church.
Luther wasn’t the first to address these issues within the church, nor was he alone in his concerns. In fact, when he first started attacking Rome, many people viewed him as simply another complainer about the church’s condition. Luther was driving a hard edge against the papacy, no doubt, but it actually took a few years for Pope Leo X to get around to excommunicating him.
Although Luther was concerned about the souls of the German people relevant to church abuses, it’s critical to recognize that he doesn’t stand his reformation up on moral or structural issues. He comes out swinging against theology, and to the day he dies the issues he deals with are totally theological.
Perhaps the most important church doctrine Luther ever took on was that of the Catholic salvation system – works, merit and indulgences. Obviously that is what the 95 theses are all about. Up next we’ll be getting into the Medieval understanding of salvation, sin and satisfaction – the very subjects that will spark the Reformation.