Late Medieval Catholic Crises: Structural Weakness

St. Peters Square, Vatican

The 499th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses on the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg is now just around the corner, yay!

So let’s take these next couple weeks to follow the history of the Medieval Catholic Church right up to that spiritually life-changing night of October 31, 1517.

As we’ve noted previously, the need for reformation within the church began at least as far back as the 13th century with the reign of Pope Boniface VIII. Our last post brought us right up to the decisive year of 1309 when many of the problems within the church began to come to light.

The spiritual problems within the Catholic church of the latter Middle Ages fall into two general categories:

  1. Structural weakness 
  2. Moral failure

Here we’ll take a look at the serious blows dealt to the church that greatly weakened its influence, and next we’ll discuss some of the abuses and moral failures within the hierarchical system of the church. And that will lead us right up to Luther’s theological struggles and his subsequent setting of the world on fire!

Structural Weakness

The church experienced two crises within the latter Middle Ages which shook its structure to the very foundation.  As a result of these crises, the church’s influence and authority over the common people was called into question, and people became aware that there were problems within the church. These two events are known as “the Babylonian captivity of the church” and “the great papal schism.” Let’s take a look at them in greater detail.

  1. The first crisis is the time period known as “the Babylonian captivity of the church,” when the papacy up and moved from Italy to Avignon, France (1309-1377). It was said that the purpose of the move was to keep an eye on the politics of France and England due to their rise in power.

However, many people found it rather strange that something as important as the papacy would need to change locations. It seemed as though something suspicious might be afoot. It was really this move that began to foster a question in people’s minds. It was not a question of whether or not the pope was the spiritual head of the church, but of how spiritual the head and the church really were.

Then in 1377 the pope was pressured into returning to Rome. A few months later he died and a new Italian pope was elected. This is where the second crisis comes in – the papal schism of 1378.

  1. The papal schism (1378-1417) erupted because the Italians wanted an Italian pope since the papacy had returned to that country, but many in the College of Cardinals were French and therefore wanted a French pope. And so it happened that shortly after the election of Urban VI in Italy, Pope Clement VII was elected back in Avignon, and after a strange series of events, a third pope, Alexander V, was elected at Pisa.

The church was thrown into turmoil. Which of these popes was really the successor of St. Peter? Who were kings and rulers supposed to talk to if they needed pardons or edicts for their countries or a bishopric filled? A crisis indeed. It was not until 1417 that the Council of Constance convened in order to end the schism. The three reigning popes either resigned or were excommunicated, and the council elected Pope Martin V as the one true pope.

One Hundred Years Between

The Council of Constance was very significant to the history of the reformation for  a number of reasons which we’ll discuss in future posts. But for now, just take note of the date of the council – 1417. What’s going to happen in exactly 100 years? Yes, Luther’s going to post his 95 theses. Notice that a full century before that, the influence of the church was already beginning to crumble and the structure as well as the spiritual integrity of the church were being called into question.

Now, we can fast forward 100 years and understand some of the issues Luther was facing when he posted his 95 theses on the door of Castle Church and began the Reformation.  While none of these emerging tensions and turmoils led defacto to the reformation, they do give us an arena and a context in which we can more easily understand why the reformation was needed and what it accomplished. 

As we will see, Luther was neither the first person nor the last  to speak out against a church that no longer cared for the souls of God’s people. However, he was the first to have the courage and the passion to get a reformation underway.

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