The Catholic Church on the Eve of Reform

In the years preceding the Church reforms of the 15th century there were many abuses of Church office, and degeneration among the clergy and the laity. This is not to say that the Church on the eve of reform was totally degenerate. On the contrary, there were many important saints during this period, and several important theological works of literature. The degeneration of this time can be attributed to the effects of the Black Death, and subsequently those of the Renaissance.

During this period (14th-15th centuries) there were vastly different ideologies concerning what a reformation should encompass. On the one hand there were the protestant reformers and on the other there was the Catholic Church itself. The Catholic Church’s idea of reform was to fix all of the existing institutions that had become corrupt. The protestants’ idea of reform was far more radical, and entailed the abolition of these institutions. The Catholic Church did eventually accomplish its ends in self-reform at the Council of Trent which took place from 1545 to 1563.

Concerning the actual condition of the Church, various abuses had sneaked in. Mass attendance was not at its greatest, but people still had religious fervor. Attraction to the more dramatic aspects of religion was popular. Preachers drew in thousands of people, among which were St. Vincent Ferrer, St. John Capistano, St. Bernadino of Siena, and the unfortunate Girolamo Savonarola who was a fanatic that even took control of Florence with his rhetoric, but met a grisly end. In this period there was also a lot of superstition and a focus on death. These may be attributed to the disastrous effects of the Black Death, which shook everybody’s belief in God and in the Church. The Renaissance played an important part in the secularization of society and the general degeneration of religious fervor as well. The Popes of the Renaissance were especially focused on things that were of little religious significance, such as art, wealth, and power. Possibly the most notorious Pope, Alexander VI, was from this period. Wars of this time were often savage and cruel. It was common practice to slaughter all of the inhabitants of a city under siege if they did not surrender. There were also many cruel rulers and monarchs during this time. Some priests even refused Holy Communion to those sentenced to death.

Among the clergy there was a great desire for money. This was not always due to greed because churches were often destitute and priests had no way of funding themselves. This may be an effect of poor Mass attendance during this time, as churches survived off of donations from the congregation. There was also the abuse of absenteeism. Bishops and priests held offices for the incomes that they produced, but were not actually present to perform their duties. At one point priests were so absent that they were urged to celebrate Mass at least four times a year when they should have been celebrating it every single day. There were no seminaries until the Council of Trent instituted them, so priests were often not properly educated in theology. This made it difficult for them to defend against the heresies of the protestants.

Despite all of these abuses, there were many saintly people from this period that are still venerated. Very important was St. Joan of Arc, who led the French in retaliation against the English during the Hundred Years’ War. Her most notable victory was at the siege of Orléans in 1429. Also there was St. Bridget of Sweden and St. Catherine of Siena, who encouraged Pope Gregory XI to move the papacy from Avignon back to Rome, which he did. St. Colette was another important figure. She was very involved in Monastic reform, but soon discovered that the Church was desperately in need of all-encompassing reform, which sadly she knew she could not accomplish. Important literary works of this period include The Art of Contemplation by Raymond Lull, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, and Treatise on the Ten Commandments by Jean de Gerson.

Although this period saw the Church in desperate need of reform, it was not by any means totally corrupt. One of the most widely known saints of all time, St. Joan of Arc, was active in this period. In addition to the radical reform of the protestants, there were attempts (ultimately successful ones) to reform the Church in a way that kept all of its traditional institutions. The Black Death, and subsequently the Renaissance, may also have played an important part in the overall degeneration of piety at this time.


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