Church in the 14th and 15th Century

 

 

The 14th and 15th Centuries: The Church in Moral Crisis

 

 

 

 

The Church in Moral Crisis: Prelude to the Reformation

 

Though most students would have some knowledge of the great schism between East and West, few are aware of the historical rifts that occurred within the Roman church between the 13th and 15th centuries. Religious life suffered as a consequence of the schism, for "Christendom looked upon the scandal helpless and depressed, and yet impotent to remove it. With two sections of Christendom each declaring the other lost, each cursing and denouncing the other, men soberly asked who was saved" (Flick, 1930: 293). Doubt and confusion caused many to question the legitimacy and true holiness of the church as an institution. In the West, the excesses that affected the church ultimately called for radical reform through that movement which we now identify with the Protestant Reformation.

This period of moral decline was instrumental in leading to a Western Schism within Christendom, in which three Popes and anti-Popes concurrently contested control over the See of Peter. The popes refused to convene councils to effect reform, and they failed to bring about reform themselves, rather busying themselves with Italian politics and being patrons of the arts. "Thus the papacy emerged as something between an Italian city-state and a European power, without forgetting at the same time the claim to be the vice-regent of Christ. The pope often could not make up his own mind whether he was the successor of Peter or of Caesar. Such vacillation had much to do with the rise and success... of the Reformation" (Bainton, 1952: 15). By the mid-fifteenth century the Church was in urgent need of drastic reform which, when effected, would have lasting impact on the religious and secular history of Europe.

At the death of Nicholas IV in 1292 there was a deadlock in the sacred college of Cardinals which was to last for twenty-seven months before his successor could be elected. The two ruling factions in Italian politics were represented by the powerful Orsini and Colonna families who vied for control of the Papacy. At this time there were only nine cardinals left in that college, three giving their allegiance to the Orsinis, three to the Colonna family, and three were seemingly independent. Pope Nicholas had been an Orsini and they would not accept the loss of papal control. The Colonnas were determined to take it away from them, and they put pressure on the three remaining independent cardinals who were unwilling to offend either family, both of whom had a history of murder and assassination throughout the streets of Rome.

The cardinals squabbled over who should be elected Pope until the plague came to Rome in early in 1294, forcing them to withdraw to the mountains of Perugia in central Italy, still deadlocked. One of the non-partisan cardinals was Cardinal Gaetani who was considered to be a great canon lawyer. He was a cold, calculating, corpulent man with the determination of an assassin. To break the deadlock in his own insidious way, Gaetani told the senior cardinal present, Latino Malabranca, the Cardinal of Ostia that he had received a prophetic letter from a holy eccentric hermit, Peter of Morone, which predicted the punishment of God upon all of them if a Pope were not soon elected.

Malabranca, who was intensely superstitious, took the forgery which Gaetani had given to him with devout seriousness. On the 5th July 1294, after prayful contemplation, he called the handful of cardinals together and read them the letter which he believed had come from the holy hermit. He became so carried away by his own eloquence and his own convictions that he proposed that the hermit Peter of Morone be elected the next Pope. The deadlock was broken by the logic of demonstrating to Colonna and Orsini alike that neither of them needed to prevent the other from winning.

Neither the Colonnas nor the Orsinis bothered to journey to Abruzzi to meet the new Pope, to kiss his feet as every tradition of the sacred college required. However Cardinal Gaetani did pay his homage, taking with him the King of Naples and an enormous following of ordinary people:

    In a bleak cave in the Abruzzi mountains, Gaetani told the holy hermit that he had been made Vicar of Christ on earth. The confused frightened old man, who had never seen so many people in his life, nodded to the statement because Gaetani had bellowed at him from that great height, in those rich and beautiful scarlet robes covering the barrel chest and hogshead belly, commanding that Peter now nod his head to signify his acceptance of God's glory. Emaciated, hardly understanding Latin, much less the condition, Peter accepted the rulership of Christendom filled with mortal terror because he would have to leave his cave. He refused to go to Rome. He would rule from Naples. At Gaetani's suggestion, he chose the name Celestine V. From that day forward, Gaetani served the Pope as his lawyer and soothed him by creating a replica of the hermit's mountain cell in the castle Nuovo, which had become the Lateran palace of Naples (Condon, 1984: 24).

Cardinal Gaetani began systematically to ingratiate himself with Celestine - and finally convinced the confused and befuddled pontiff that God really wanted him to resign from the papacy. Fearing that unless he abdicated he would lose his immortal soul, Celestine agreed, and announced his renunciation to his cardinals. Gaetani was elected to the papacy ten days later as the compromise candidate, consecrated and crowned at St. Peter's in Rome, taking the name of Boniface VIII. His first act as Pope was to order the arrest of Celestine, whom he sentenced to death.

As a cardinal Gaetani had acquired rich cities and adjoining territories - and as Pontiff Boniface continued to amass wealth and power which was to bring him into direct confrontation with the Colonnas, who ruled their territory from the hilltop city of Palestrina, twenty-two miles east of Rome. The Colonnas tried to instigate a revolt against the Pontiff by claiming that Boniface's election was invalid as he had usurped power that rightly belonged to Celestine. At the same time, Stephen Colonna attacked and plundered the Pope's gold which was being sent to Caserta to buy yet another city for the Gaetani dynasty. Boniface, blind with fury, threw two of the Colonna cardinals into prison.

The Colonna offered to return the gold but Boniface wanted not only revenge on Stephen Colonna but also the Colonnas' destruction by installing garrisons inside the Colonna cities. This option was totally unacceptable to the Colonna and the next day, Colonna messengers posted manifestos attacking the legitimacy of Boniface's election all over Rome, leaving one tacked to the high altar of St. Peter's. In response, Boniface issued a papal bull, In Excelso Throno, which charged the two imprisoned Colonna cardinals with heresy, excommunicated them and every member of the family. Boniface then announced a religious crusade against the Colonna, using money from all over Europe which had been intended to finance the Crusades in the Holy Land to buy the Knights Templar to crush the Colonna strongholds. An order went out that the Colonna women and children were to be killed or sold into slavery. With the help of his mercenary army, by 1299 all the Colonna cities had been captured. Palestrina was completely razed to the ground, and the Colonna family went to France in exile where they were given refuge by French nobility.

Boniface's fury turned against the French monarch and he forbade him to tax the French clergy. The French king reacted vehemently, and he in turn forbade the export of all money to the Pope. The king prohibited foreigners from living in France, which excluded members of the curia:

    Warming to his task, he called an estates-general to charge the Pope with infidelity, loss of the Holy Land, the murder of Celestine V, heresy, fornication, simony, sodomy, sorcery, and idolatry in a list of twenty-nine charges - all of them the sort employed when some faction wants to rid the Church of a Pope, many of them quite valid. The only weapon Boniface had was the solemn excommunication of the King of France, which would release the French people from their allegiance to the king. The publication of this fatal bull was planned for 8 September, 1303 from Agnani, the Pope's summer palace (Condon, 1984: 26).

The bull had to be stopped at any cost. The king sent 2000 troops into Italy under the leadership of Sciarra Colonna into Italy to storm Agnani, Boniface's family stronghold, with the orders to capture Boniface and bring him to France for judgement. Under treachery, Colonna gained access with his troops and with drawn sword, Colonna found the eighty year old pontiff seated on his throne dressed in his pontifical regalia, with the three-tiered tiara on his head, cross in one hand and keys to St. Peter's in the other. Mockingly, Sciarra Colonna ordered his men to strip Boniface naked. Sciarra pressed the tiara down Boniface's eyes, knocked him down, had his men drag him by the feet across down a granite stairway. He was then thrown into a narrow, dark prison where he was beaten, and as a final indignity Sciarra ordered his soldiers to urinate on him. Two nights later, supporters of the Pontiff were able to repel the French and rescued Boniface. But the ill-treatment meted out to him was too much; in sick and debilitated health, he commenced his journey back to the Vatican which he reached on 18 September. There he was to die twenty-four days later.

One of the more important and telling pronouncements of Pope Boniface VIII had been written to Philip IV of France in 1302. It was named Unam Sanctam and is one of the most extreme and arrogant statements of papal superiority over spiritual and temporal matters and gives us an significant insight into the prevalent model of Church at this time of ecclesial history. Read the following and fascinating extract from Unam Sanctam and reflect on the paradigm of Church that existed at the turn of the 14th century :

    We are compelled, our faith urging us, to believe and to hold - and we do firmly believe and simply confess - that there is one holy catholic and apostolic church, outside of which there is neither salvation nor remission of sins; her Spouse proclaiming it in the canticles: "My dove, my undefiled is but one, she is the choice one of her that bare her;" which represents one mystic body, of which body the head is Christ; but of Christ, God. In this church there is one Lord, one faith and one baptism. There was one ark of Noah, indeed, at the time of the flood, symbolizing one church; and this being finished in one cubit had, namely, one Noah as helmsman and commander. And, with the exception of this ark, all things existing upon the earth were, as we read, destroyed. This church, moreover, we venerate as the only one, the Lord saying through His prophet: "Deliver my soul from the sword, my darling from the power of the dog." He prayed at the same time for His soul - that is, for Himself the Head - and for His body - which body, namely, he called the one and only church on account of the unity of the faith promised, of the sacraments, and of the love of the church. She is that seamless garment of the Lord which was not cut but which fell by lot. Therefore of this one and only church there is one body and one head - not two heads as if it were a monster: - Christ, namely, and the vicar of Christ, St. Peter, and the successor of Peter. For the Lord Himself said to Peter, Feed my sheep. My sheep, He said, using a general term, and not designating these or those particular sheep; from which it is plain that He committed to Him all His sheep. If, then, the Greeks or others say that they were not committed to the care of Peter and his successors, they necessarily confess that they are not of the sheep of Christ; for the Lord says, in John, that there is one fold, one shepherd and one only. We are told by the word of the gospel that in this His fold there are two swords, - a spiritual, namely, and a temporal. For when the apostles said "Behold here are two swords" - when, namely, the apostles were speaking in the church - the Lord did not reply that this was too much, but enough. Surely he who denies that the temporal sword is in the power of Peter wrongly interprets the word of the Lord when He says: "Put up thy sword in its scabbard." Both swords, the spiritual and the material, therefore, are in the power of the church; the one, indeed, to be wielded for the church, the other by the church; the one by the hand of the priest, the other by the hand of kings and knights, but at the will and sufferance of the priest. One sword, moreover, ought to be under the other, and the temporal authority to be subjected to the spiritual. For when the apostle says "there is no power but God, and the powers that are of God are ordained," they would not be ordained unless sword were under sword and the lesser one, as it were, were led by the other to great deeds. Whoever, therefore, resists this power thus ordained by God, resists the ordination of God, unless he makes believe, like the Manichean, that there are two beginnings. This we consider false and heretical, since by the testimony of Moses, not "in the beginnings," but "in the beginning" God created the Heavens and the earth. Indeed we declare, announce and define, that it is altogther necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman pontiff. The Lateran, Nov. 14, in our 8th year. As a perpetual memorial of this matter. (Ernest F. Henderson, 1912: 435-37).

After Boniface's death, the new Pope, Benedict X, did not last long, dying within ten months of his election. After many months of intense bargaining Bertrand de Got, Archbishop of Bordeaux and a confidant of the king of France, was elected. This Frenchman, who took the name Clement V, was never to set his foot on Italian soil; he was crowned in Lyons in November 1305 and finally in 1309 settled in Avignon which became the papal court from which the Pope and his Curia ruled. Clement was to be succeeded by six French Popes who, at the resolution of the French king, remained in France. For the next sixty-eight years the seat of ecclesial power was to remain in Avignon, not returning to Rome till 1377 during the pontificate of Gregory VI, who died through apparent poisoning.

The Italians were desperate to retain the papacy within Italy, and threatened the lives of the sixteen cardinals gathered in Rome to elect Gregory's successor. Italy had become impoverished since the papacy had moved to Avignon, with monies from about two million tourists going to the French since Clement's election. Feeling under pressure the conclave chose the safest Pope - Archbishop Bartolomeo Prigano of Bari, a Neapolitan who had been vice chancellor at the University of Avignon. Prigano took the name of Urban VI.

His autocratic manner coupled with an unbalanced personality was to lead to his downfall. He proved himself to be highly unpopular and the cardinals, now in safe territory, met and declared the election to be null and void on the ground that they had been coerced into electing him in fear of the violence of the Roman mob:

    It seems hard to believe but they elected in his place a brute named Robert, Cardinal of Geneva - he who was called the Butcher of Cesena because he had ordered his troops to put 3000 women and children to the sword when they objected to the rape of sixty women by his transient soldiers. The Butcher took the name of Clement VII, whereupon Urban VI excommunicated him; then he excommunicated Urban, and the great schism of the Church had begun. There were two Popes who ruled Christendom simultaneously: Urban in Rome, Clement at Avignon. The Cossa family's advocate, Piero Tomacelli, succeeded Urban as Boniface IX (Condon, 1984: 29).

It took considerable monies to keep the bureaucracy of the Church functioning, so Boniface tried to strengthen the Roman Church by selling various ecclesial offices and benefices, particularly special indulgences during Jubilee years. He gained enormous wealth from the Jubilees of 1390 and 1400, and under his pontificate simony reached its great climax through the sale of indulgences. Boniface rapaciously piled tax upon tax, graft upon graft, simony upon simony, taxing the patrons, papal states and properties, and requiring substantial fees from those elected to political or ecclesial office. Everything that was secular or religious was for sale, and ultimately it was out of this worldly environment that urgent calls came for reformation and church renewal.
 

 

The REFORMATION of the 15th and 16th CENTURIES

 

One of the dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church states that the Church is always in a state of renewal (Ecclesia semper reformanda est). From the twelfth century onwards, we note the resurgence of various groups calling for radical changes within the practices of Christian worship. Through your own investigations, you may wish to explore the relationships between them and the established church. In what way did the Cathars, the Albigensians, the Waldensians, and others try to correct the ills of the Church? Why did they fail, and end up condemned by the "official" Church?

      • The Cathars
      • The Albigensians
      • The Waldensians

The age saw the introduction of the Inquisition, which acted as a protective arm ensuring the supremacy and purity of the 'official' teachings against the radicalism of these primitive reformers. It is interesting to note that Augustine in the 4th century had approved the use of torture in specific cases where the salvation of souls was concerned. His rationale was based on the premise that if secular powers used torture for mere temporal gains, then how more justified would the church be to use brutality for the sake of salvation! Such also was the rationale used by the founders of the most infamous of the Church's agencies of control. Through the establishment of the Inquisition, at the dawn of the Reformation the Church protected its own temporal and spiritual supremacy.

I have listed below some key personalities that have reshaped the cultural, political, and religious landscape of Pre-Reformation Europe. You may wish to follow up in your own readings on the contribution and impact made in these two centuries by the inventiveness, dynamism and genius of such diverse pioneers as:

      • Johannes Gutenberg (1400-1468)
      • Savonarola (1439-1498)
      • Christopher Columbus (1451-1506)
      • Niccola Machiavelli (1469-1527)
      • Nicholaus Copernicus (1473-1543)

They all lived in the same epoch of the 15th and 16th century, and through their inventive genius, courage and political skill they were to make a unique and lasting impact on the spiritual, geographical, scientific, as well as political and ecclesial horizons of their time. You may wish to explore the state of leadership in church and state at this time: the debauchery of the Borgias culminating in the reign of the profligate Pope Alexander VI; the conquests and concerns of the warrior Pope, Julius II (who somehow has won strange exoneration in history through his patronage of Michaelangelo), the iron-willed Pontiffs of the Counter-Reformation, Paul IV, Pius IV, and Pius V. It was a time when Italians monopolized European banking, and money transformed values, ecclesial and secular, even celebrated in medieval poetry:

    Money makes the man, Money makes the stupid pass for bright... Money buys the pleasure-giving women, Money keeps the soul in bliss, The world and fortune being ruled by it, Which even opens, if you want, the doors of paradise. So wise he seems to me who piles up What more than any other virtue Conquers gloom and leavens the whole spirit (Lauro Martines, 1979: 83).

Below I have indicated the key personalities that influenced political and ecclesial history events during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It was also a period of headstrong political leadership unafraid to challenge the power of the Rome weakened by inept and corrupt leadership. Some, like Henry VIII (1509-1547) and Elizabeth I (1558-1603), stood in heretical opposition to Rome for a variety of personal as well as political motives. Others, like Philip II (1555-1598), Ferdinand I (1556-1564) and Christian III (1536-1559), allied themselves to Rome against the voices of Reformation. By 1565 Europe was to be rent by cataclysmic religious wars costing the lives of hundreds of thousands, tearing the religious and political harmony of Europe apart.

In considering the institutional nature (model or paradigms) of "Church" as it had developed by the sixteenth century, what do you think is the element that attracted reaction from the following personalities? Again, via your own readings you may wish to follow up the main "contribution" that the following have made to the reformation process:

      • Martin Luther (1483 - 1546)
      • Zwingli (1484 - 1556)
      • Calvin (1509 - 1564)
      • Henry VIII (1509 - 1547)
      • Charles V (1519 - 1556)
      • Christian III (1536 - 1559)
      • Phillip II (1555 - 1598)
      • Elizabeth I (1558 - 1603)


The age of Reformation had begun with a promise of new hope and new vision - and this is still reflected in the middle years of Erasmus of Rotterdam. Yet this period of history belongs to three men of diverse personality, religious conviction, and action: Martin Luther (1483-1546), Zwingli (1484-1556) and Calvin (1509-1564). Through their work and efforts, the history of the church was to take a direction which ultimately was to witness the political disintegration of the bilateral duality of church and state.

Although every school child has learnt that: "In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue" and discovered the New World, not too many children have learnt that it was also the same year in which the infamous Borgia Pope, Alexander VI, ascended the papal throne. I have listed the names of the 12 Popes who lived in this period of cataclysmic tension of Reformation and Counter Reformation between 1492 and 1572. You may want to read up on the main theological/cultural tension or contribution that marked the pontificate of each of the following:

      • Alexander VI (1492-1503)
      • Pius III (1503)
      • Julius II (1503-1513)
      • Leo X (1513-1521)
      • Hadrian VI (1522-1523)
      • Clement VIII (1523-1534)
      • Paul III (1534-1549)
      • Julius III (1550-1555)
      • Marcellus II (1555)
      • Paul IV (1555-1559)
      • Pius IV (1559-1565)
      • Pius V (1566-1572)

 



The next section explores From the Industrial Age to the Church of the Modern Era
 

Return to Ecclesiology Home Page.

 

 
Return to Yuri Koszarycz Home Page