History Of Catholic Church - Renaissance & Reformation

History Of Catholic Church – Renaissance & Reformation

The history of the Catholic Church is a narrative rich with transformation, conflict, and enlightenment, particularly during two pivotal epochs: the Renaissance and the Reformation. These periods were not just times of artistic and cultural rebirth; they were also eras of profound religious upheaval and introspection within the Church.

The Renaissance opened the door to individual thinking. The Reformation was one of the results of this new emphasis on individualism.

Renaissance: A Confluence of Faith and Humanism

The fourteenth century saw major changes in many people’s thinking. Society, politics, economics, art and Christianity were all undergoing major transformations as the feudal, Church dominated society was being buried or reinvented. Individualism and humanism were coming to the fore as citizens started looking towards themselves for answers, rather than to God or Religious institutions.

In Northern Europe, these changes radically affected religious life. The Renaissance occurred simultaneously with the discovery of the New World and many scientific discoveries that seriously harmed the credibility of the Church and made many of her dogmas seem ridiculous. The Earth was no longer the center of the galaxy or flat, and the Church was less and less the center of people’s lives.

St. Francis of Assisi founded the Franciscans in Italy during his lifetime (1182-1226). The Franciscans promoted a more individualistic style of worship and relationship with God.

Italy became the heart and soul of the Renaissance.

In England, John Wycliffe (1325-1384) had also begun to challenge the teaching of the Roman Church. He taught against transubstantiation (the belief that the bread and wine turn into Christ’s body and blood during the mass), proclaimed Christ the head of the Church instead of the Pope, and claimed the Bible as the sole authority for believers instead of the Church. John Wycliffe translated the New Testament into English and made it available to the people.

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Catholic Church had many problems with the low level of morality among its clergy. Many were living extravagantly, had illegitimate children, and were more interested in secular power than church affairs.

In 1305, Pope Clement V moved the papacy from Rome to Avignon, France. This move was more the result of the influence of the King of France than any religious reason. Pope Gregory XI moved the papal seat back to Rome in 1377, and when he died, two Popes were elected, one in France and the other in Rome.

How did the Renaissance impact the Catholic Church?

The growing nations of Europe were simultaneously becoming more nationalistic and resenting the high taxation that they were required to pay to Rome. European political leaders embraced the Reformation as a way to break away from Rome and the Church’s taxation and ownership of vast tracts of land upon which they paid no tax.

By 1500, new markets were opening up around the world for merchants. The Church’s prohibitions on charging interest and forming guilds (unions) were limiting restrictions on doing new business. Theologians, such as Erasmus of Rotterdam, were translating the Bible from the original languages and challenging the Church on the differences between her and the New Testament Church of the Bible.

Key figures of the Reformation

The Reformation, ignited in the early 16th century, was a response to the perceived excesses and doctrinal disputes within the Catholic Church. It was a period marked by significant religious strife and the fragmentation of Christendom.

The first Reformer was Martin Luther, born in 1483. His father wanted him to study law, but Martin chose to study for the ministry and became a monk. He taught theology at the University of Wittenburg, Germany, but became increasingly troubled by the corruption within the Church. In 1516, he became convinced that salvation was available only through faith in Christ. One of the ways that the Church raised money was through the sale of indulgences (a reduction in time spent in purgatory, a place where sins were purged before you were admitted to heaven). Archbishop Albert controlled two provinces at the time. (Even though the Church officially limited these offices to one province) When he was campaigning to control a third, Pope Leo X offered it to him for a large sum of money. The Archbishop set about raising the funds by selling indulgences.

In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the church door in Wittenburg. He harshly criticized the abuses of the indulgence system and challenged the necessity of priests to administer sacraments, believing in the priesthood of the believer. In 1518, he was called before the Diet of Augsburg, where he repeated his assertion that the scriptures were the sole authority for believers, not the Pope. Luther was eventually excommunicated, and his books were burned, but the German princes liked what he was doing and protected his life.

John Calvin (1509-64) was the other main figure in this new Protestant movement. By 1550, he had many followers in Holland, Switzerland, Scotland, and France. Luther may have started the Reformation, but Calvin gave it a structure. Calvin, a French citizen, wrote the “Institutes of the Christian Religion” in an effort to win King Francis of France over to the new ideas of the Reformation. Calvin believed that the Holy Spirit irresistibly draws people to God. He asserted that the Church and government were both agents of God and should cooperate.

England became a part of the Reformation through politics rather than theological debate. King Henry VIII (1509-47) needed an heir to the throne and, with his wife, was unable to produce one. The Pope would not grant a divorce, and so Henry convinced Parliament to declare him head of the Church in England. Henry’s daughter, Mary Tudor, was a staunch Catholic who persecuted the Protestants. When Henry’s other daughter, Elizabeth, inherited the throne, she tolerated the Protestants just enough so as not to irritate the Pope. When the English fleet defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, the Anglican Church permanently replaced the Catholic one in England.

Other reformers of historical note were the Puritans. They claimed that the Anglican Church was too close to the Catholic Church. They were called Puritans because they wanted to purify the Church of England. They wanted a complete separation of Church and state. The Puritans sailed to Plymouth and were influential in the New World.

Huldreich Zwingli was a Swiss priest who was converted after reading Luther’s writing. He met Luther at one point, but they were unable to agree on all theological matters. The Anabaptists, influenced by Zwingli’s emphasis on the Bible, were another movement started in Switzerland. They were called Anabaptists because they taught and practiced the adult baptism of the believer. The city council of Zurich expelled them. The Amish, Mennonites, and Quakers came from this school.

The Counter-Reformation was an attempt by the Catholic Church to reform itself in the light of Reformation theology. The Jesuits were formed and became a force for good even through the excesses of the Spanish Inquisition. They helped to push the last vestiges of the Moslem influence out of Spain. It was the Jesuits who did much of the Church’s mission work in the New World and the Far East.

There were several key figures who played a significant role in the Counter-Reformation, both popes and reformers within the Catholic Church:

  • Pope Paul III (reigned 1534–1549): Considered the first pope of the Counter-Reformation, he initiated the Council of Trent.
  • Later Popes: Pius V, Gregory XIII, and Sixtus V also played important roles in implementing reforms.
  • Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556): Founder of the Jesuit order, known for its missionary work and education.
  • Saint Charles Borromeo (1538-1584): A cardinal who enforced reforms in northern Italy.
  • Saints Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582) and John of the Cross (1542-1597): Spanish mystics who revitalized religious life.
  • Saint Philip Neri (1515-1595): Founded the Oratory, a religious community focused on prayer and education.

The lasting impact of the Reformation on Christianity

The creative spirit of the Renaissance was severely curtailed by the growing religious infighting. The Thirty Years War was essentially a struggle to determine which areas would be Catholic and which would be Protestant. The War officially ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Most of the current branches of Christianity were formed in Europe by then. Russia was the center of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and the other European Churches became involved in spreading their faith to the colonies.

The effects of the Reformation were significant and far-reaching. Religious individualism led to individualism of other types. Popular education was the result of new Christian’s desire to read the Bible for themselves. The people of America and Europe became an educated workforce and electorate. Protestantism stimulated capitalism and a strong work ethic. Spiritual equality became political equality, and democracies were established in light of this new view that citizens had of themselves.

The legacy of the Renaissance and Reformation periods is a testament to the Catholic Church’s resilience and capacity for self-reflection and reform. These centuries were not merely about conflict and division; they were also about the Church’s ability to adapt, reform, and renew its commitment to the spiritual and moral guidance of its followers. The engagement with humanistic principles during the Renaissance, coupled with the introspective reforms of the Counter-Reformation, underscored the Church’s enduring influence on Western thought and culture.

Today, the Catholic Church continues to grapple with questions of faith, morality, and reform. The lessons from the Renaissance and Reformation — the importance of introspection, the need for genuine reform, and the power of faith to inspire change — remain relevant. As we reflect on these pivotal periods in history, we are reminded of the Church’s complex journey through an ever-changing world, a journey marked by both human frailty and the quest for spiritual enlightenment.

In navigating the narratives of the Renaissance and Reformation, we uncover a story not just of the Catholic Church but of humanity’s enduring struggle to balance faith with reason, tradition with reform, and authority with individual conscience. The history of the Catholic Church during these periods serves as a mirror reflecting the broader human experience, one filled with challenges, transformations, and the perpetual quest for understanding and improvement.

Nancy Vawter
Nancy Vawter

Nancy Vawter has been a reporter and writer since shortly after her graduation from the University of Arizona. She spent seven years with the New York Post, working as a national feature writer in New York. She later taught journalism as an assistant professor at American University in Washington.