The case against the church


Will Durant

* * * * *

Shall we recapitulate the charges made by loyal Catholics against the Church of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries? The first and sorest was that she loved money, and had too much of it for her own good.I In the Centum Gravamina, or Hundred Grievances, listed against the Church by the Diet of Nuremberg (1522), it was alleged that she owned half the wealth of Germany.23 A Catholic historian reckoned the Church’s share as a third in Germany and a fifth in France;24 but a procurer-general of the Parliament calculated in 1502 that three quarters of all French wealth was ecclesiastical.25 No statistics are available to check these estimates. In Italy, of course, one third of the peninsula belonged to the Church as the Papal States, and she owned rich properties in the rest.

Six factors served to accumulate lands in the possession of the Church. (1) Most of those who bequeathed property left something to her as “fire insurance”; and as the Church controlled the making and probating of wills, her agents were in a position to encourage such legacies. (2) Since ecclesiastical property was safer than other property from ravage by bandits, soldiers, or governments, some persons, for security, deeded their lands to the Church, held them as her vassals, and surrendered all right to them at death. Others willed part or all of their property to the Church on condition that she should provide for them in sickness or old age; in this way the Church offered disability insurance.

(3) Crusaders had sold—or mortgaged and forfeited—lands to ecclesiastical bodies to raise cash for their venture. (4) Hundreds of thousands of acres had been earned for the Church by the reclamation work of monastic orders. (5) Land once acquired by the Church was inalienable—could not be sold or given away by any of her personnel except through discouragingly complex means. (6) Church property was normally free from taxation by the state; occasionally, however, kings reckless of damnation forced levies from the clergy, or found legal dodges to confiscate some portion of ecclesiastical wealth. The rulers of northern Europe might have grumbled less about the riches of the Church if the income therefrom, or the multifarious contributions of the faithful, had remained within the national boundaries; they fretted at the sight of northern gold flowing in a thousand streamlets to Rome.

The Church, however, looked upon herself as the chief agent in maintaining morality, social order, education, literature, scholarship, and art; the state relied upon her to fulfill these functions; to perform them she needed an extensive and expensive organization; to finance this she taxed and gathered fees; even a church could not be governed by paternosters. Many bishops were the civil as well as the ecclesiastical rulers of their regions; most of them were appointed by lay authorities, and came of patrician stock accustomed to easy morals and luxuries; they taxed and spent like princes; sometimes, in the performance of their multiple functions, they scandalized the saints by donning armor and lustily leading their troops in war. Cardinals were chosen rarely for their piety, usually for their wealth or political connections or administrative capacity; they looked upon themselves, not as monks burdened with vows, but as the senators and diplomats of a rich and powerful state; in many instances they were not priests; and they did not let their red hats impede their enjoyment of life.26 The Church forgot the poverty of the Apostles in the needs and expenses of power.

Being worldly, the servants of the Church were often as venal as the officials of contemporary governments. Corruption was in the mores of the time and in the nature of man; secular courts were notoriously amenable to the persuasiveness of money, and no papal election could rival in bribery the election of Charles V as emperor. This excepted, the fattest bribes in Europe were paid at the Roman court.27 Reasonable fees had been fixed for the services of the Curia, but the cupidity of the staff raised the actual cost to twenty times the legal sum.28 Dispensations could be had from almost any canonical impediment, almost any sin, provided the inducement was adequate. Aeneas Sylvius, before becoming pope, wrote that everything was for sale in Rome, and that nothing could be had there without money.29 A generation later the monk Savonarola, with the exaggeration of indignation, called the Church of Rome a “harlot” ready to sell her favors for coin.30 Another generation later, Erasmus remarked: “The shamelessness of the Roman Curia has reached its climax.” 31 Pastor writes:

A deep-rooted corruption had taken possession of nearly all the officials of the Curia…. . The inordinate number of gratuities and exactions passed all bounds. Moreover, on all sides deeds were dishonestly manipulated, and even falsified, by the officials. No wonder that there arose from all parts of Christendom the loudest complaints about the corruption and financial extortions of the papal officials.

It was unusual for impecunious merit to mount in the Church of the fifteenth century. From the moderate fee charged for priestly ordination to the enormous sums that many cardinals paid for their elevation, nearly every appointment required the clandestine lubrication of superiors. A favorite papal device for raising funds was to sell ecclesiastical offices, or (as the popes saw the matter) to appoint to sinecures or honors, even to the cardinalate, persons who would make a substantial contribution to the expenses of the Church. Alexander VI created eighty new offices, and received 760 ducats ($19,000?) from each of the appointees. Julius II formed a “college” or bureau of 101 secretaries, who together paid him 74,000 ducats for the privilege.  Leo X nominated sixty chamberlains and 141 squires to the papal household, and received from them 202,000 ducats.33 The salaries paid to such officials were looked upon, by giver and recipient, as endowment policy annuities; but to Luther they seemed the rankest simony.

In thousands of cases the appointee lived far away from the benefice—the parish or abbacy or episcopacy—whose revenues supported his labor or luxury; and one man might be the absentee beneficiary of several such posts. So the active Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia (Alexander VI to be) received from a variety of benefices an income of 70,000 ducats ($1,750,000?) a year; and his furious foe, Cardinal della Rovere (later Julius II), held at one time the archbishopric of Avignon, the bishoprics of Bologna, Lausanne, Coutances, Viviers, Mende, Ostia, and Velletri, and the abbacies of Nonantola and Grottaferrata.34 By this “pluralism” the Church maintained her major executives, and, in many instances, scholars, poets, and scientists. So Petrarch,  sharp critic of the Avignon popes, lived on the sinecures that they granted him; Erasmus, who satirized a hundred ecclesiastical follies, regularly received Church pensions; and Copernicus, who did most damage to medieval Christianity, lived for years on Church benefices involving a minimum of distraction from his scientific pursuits.35

A more serious charge than pluralism was laid against the personal morality of the clergy. “The morals of the clergy are corrupt,” said the Bishop of Torcello (1458); “they have become an offense to the laity.”36 Of the four orders of friars founded in the thirteenth century—Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites, Augustinians—all but the last had become scandalously lax in piety and discipline. The monastic rules formulated in the fervor of early devotion proved too rigorous for a human nature increasingly freed from supernatural fears. Absolved by their collective wealth from the necessity of manual labor, thousands of monks and friars neglected, religious services, wandered outside their walls, drank in taverns, and pursued amours.37 A fourteenth-century Dominican, John Bromyard, said of his fellow friars:

Those who should be the fathers of the poor… covet delicate food and enjoy morning sleep…. . Very few vouchsafe their presence at matins or Mass…. . They are consumed in gluttony and drunkenness… not to say in uncleanliness, so that now the assemblies of clerics are thought to be brothels of wanton folk and congregations of play-actors.38

Erasmus repeated the charge after a century: “Many convents of men and women differ little from public brothels.” 39 Petrarch drew a favorable picture of discipline and devotion in the Carthusian monastery where his brother lived, and several convents in Holland and Western Germany retained the spirit of study and piety that had formed the Brethren of the Common Life and produced The Imitation of Christ .40 Yet Johannes Trithemius, Abbot of Sponheim (c. 1490), denounced the monks of this Rhenish Germany with violent hyperbole:

The three vows of religion… are as little heeded by these men as if they had never promised to keep them…. The whole day is spent in filthy talk; their whole time is given to play and gluttony…. . In open possession of private property… each dwells in his own private lodging…. They never fear nor love God; they have no thought of the life to come, preferring their fleshly lusts to the needs of the soul…. . They scorn the vow of poverty, know not that of chastity, revile that of obedience…. The smoke of their filth ascends all around.41

Guy Jouenneaux, a papal commissary sent to reform the Benedictine monasteries of France, turned in a gloomy report (1503): Many monks gamble, curse, haunt inns, carry swords, gather riches, fornicate, “live the life of Bacchanals,” and “are more worldly than the mere worldling…. . Were I minded to relate all those things that have come under my own eyes, I should make too long a tale of it.”42 In the growing disorder of the monasteries a great number of them neglected those admirable works of charity, hospitality, and education which had entitled them to public trust and support.43 Said Pope Leo X (1516): “The lack of rule in the monasteries of France and the immodest life of the monks have come to such a pitch that neither kings, princes, nor the faithful at large have any respect left for them.” 44 A recent Catholic historian sums up the matter, as of 1490, with possibly excessive severity:

Read the innumerable testimonies of this time—historical anecdotes, rebukes of moralists, satires of scholars and poets, papal bulls, synodal constitutions—what do they say? Always the same facts and the same complaints: the suppression of conventual life, of discipline, of morals…. . Prodigious is the number of monastic robbers and debauchees; to realize their disorders we must read the details revealed by judicial inquiry as to the internal state of the majority of the great abbeys…. The abuses among the Carthusians were so great that the order was in ill repute almost everywhere…. Monastic life had disappeared from the nunneries…. All contributed to transform these asylums of prayer into centers of dissipation and disorder.45

The secular clergy, if we take a lenient attitude toward concubinage, present a better picture than the friars and monks. The chief sin of the simple parish priest was his ignorance,46 but he was too poorly paid and hard worked to have funds or time for study, and the piety of the people suggests that he was often respected and loved. Violations of the sacerdotal vow of chastity were frequent. In Norfolk, England, out of seventy-three accusations of incontinence filed in 1499, fifteen were against clergymen; in Ripon, out of 126, twenty-four; in Lambeth, out of fifty-eight, nine; i.e., clerical offenders numbered some 2 3 per cent of the total, though the clergy were probably less than 2 per cent of the population.47 Some confessors solicited sexual favors from female penitents.48 Thousands of priests had concubines; in Germany nearly all.49 In Rome it was assumed that priests kept concubines; and some reports estimated the prostitutes there at 6,000 in a population not exceeding 100,000.50 To quote again a Catholic historian:

It is not surprising, when the highest ranks of the clergy were in such a state, that among the regular orders and secular priests vice and irregularities of all sorts should become more and more common. The salt of the earth had lost its savor…. But it is a mistake to suppose that the corruption of the clergy was worse in Rome than elsewhere; there is documentary evidence of the immorality of the priests in almost every town in the Italian peninsula…. No wonder, as contemporary writers sadly testify, the influence of the clergy had declined, and in many places hardly any respect was shown for the priesthood. Their immorality was so gross that suggestions in favor of allowing priests to marry began to be heard.51

In fairness to these lusty priests we should consider that sacerdotal concubinage was not profligacy, but an almost universal rebellion against the rule of celibacy that had been imposed upon an unwilling clergy by Pope Gregory VII (1074). Just as the Greek and Russian Orthodox Church, after the schism of 1054, had continued to permit marriage to its priests, so the clergy of the Roman Church demanded the same right; and since the canon law of their Church refused this, they took concubines. Bishop Hardouin of Angers reported (1428) that the clergy of his diocese did not count concubinage a sin, and that they made no attempt to disguise their use of it.52 In Pomerania, about 1500, such unions were recognized by the people as reasonable, and were encouraged by them as protection for their daughters and wives; at public festivals the place of honor was given as a matter of course to priests and their consorts.53 In Schleswig a bishop who tried to outlaw the practice was driven from his see (1499).54 At the Council of Constance Cardinal Zabarella proposed that if sacerdotal concubinage could not be suppressed, clerical marriage should be restored. The Emperor Sigismund, in a message to the Council of Basel (1431), argued that the marriage of the clergy would improve public morals.55 Aeneas Sylvius was quoted by the contemporary historian Platina, librarian of the Vatican, as saying that there were good reasons for clerical celibacy, but better reasons against it.56 The moral record of the pre-Reformation priesthood stands in a better light if we view sacerdotal concubinage as a forgivable revolt against an arduous rule unknown to the Apostles and to the Christianity of the East.

The complaint that finally sparked the Reformation was the sale of indulgences. Through the powers apparently delegated by Christ to Peter (Matt. 16 :19), by Peter to bishops, and by bishops to priests, the clergy were authorized to absolve a confessing penitent from the guilt of his sins and from their punishment in hell, but not from doing penance for them on earth. Now only a few men, however thoroughly shriven, could rely on dying with all due penances performed; the balance would have to be paid for by years of suffering in purgatory, which a merciful God had established as a temporary hell. On the other hand, many saints, by their devotion and martyrdom, had earned merits probably in excess of the penances due to their sins; Christ by his death had added an infinity of merits; these merits, said the theory of the Church, could be conceived as a treasury on which the pope might draw to cancel part or all of the temporal penalties incurred and unperformed by absolved penitents. Usually the penances prescribed by the Church had taken the form of repeating prayers, giving alms, making a pilgrimage to some sacred shrine, joining a crusade against Turks or other infidels, or donating money or labor to social projects like draining a swamp, building a road, bridge, hospital, or church. The substitution of a money fine (Wehrgeld) for punishment was a long-established custom in secular courts; hence no furore was caused by the early application of the idea to indulgences. A shriven penitent, by paying such a fine—i.e., making a money contribution—to the expenses of the Church, would receive a partial or plenary indulgence, not to commit further sins, but to escape a day, a month, a year in purgatory, or all the time he might have had to suffer there to complete his penance for his sins. An indulgence did not cancel the guilt of sins; this, when the priest absolved a contrite penitent, was forgiven in the confessional. An indulgence, therefore, was the remission, by the Church, of part or all of the temporal (i.e., not eternal) penalties incurred by sins whose guilt had been forgiven in the sacrament of penance.

This ingenious and complicated theory was soon transformed by the simplicity of the people, and by the greed of the quaestiarii, or “pardoners,” commissioned or presuming to distribute the indulgences. As these purveyors were allowed to retain a percentage of the receipts, some of them omitted to insist on repentance, confession, and prayer, and left the recipient free to interpret the indulgence as dispensing him from repentance, confession, and absolution, and as depending almost entirely upon the money contribution, About 1450 Thomas Gascoigne, Chancellor of Oxford University, complained that

sinners say nowadays: “I care not how many evils I do in God’s sight, for I can easily get plenary remission of all guilt and penalty by an absolution and indulgence granted me by the pope, whose written grant I have bought for four or six pence, or have won as a stake for a game of tennis [with the pardoner].” For these indulgence-mongers wander over the country, and give a letter of pardon, sometimes for two pence, sometimes for a draught of wine or beer… or even for the hire of a harlot, or for carnal love.57

The popes—Boniface IX in 1392, Martin V in 1420, Sixtus IV in 1478—repeatedly condemned these misconceptions and abuses, but they were too pressed for revenue to practice effective control. They issued bulls so frequently, and for so confusing a variety of causes, that men of education lost faith in the theory, and accused the Church of shamelessly exploiting human credulity and hope.58 In some cases, as in the indulgences offered by Julius II in 1510 or by Leo X in 1513, the official wording lent itself to the purely monetary interpretation.59 A Franciscan friar of high rank described with anger how chests were placed in all the churches of Germany to receive payments by those who, having been unable to go to Rome for the jubilee of 1450, could now obtain the same plenary indulgence by money dropped in the box; and he warned the Germans, a half-century before Luther, that by indulgences and other means their savings were being drained off to Rome.60 Even the clergy complained that indulgences were snaring into papal coffers contributions that might otherwise have been secured for local ecclesiastical uses.61 Again a Catholic historian sums up the matter with admirable candor:

Nearly all abuses connected with indulgences rose from this, that the faithful, after frequenting the sacrament of penance as the recognized condition for gaining the indulgence, found themselves called on to make an offering of money in proportion to their means. This offering for good works, which should have been only accessory, was in certain cases made into the chief condition…. The need of money, instead of the good of souls, became only too often the end of the indulgence…. Though in the wording of the bulls the doctrine of the Church was never departed from, and confession, contrition, and definitely prescribed good works were made the condition for gaining the indulgence, still the financial side of the matter was always apparent, and the necessity for making offerings of money was placed most scandalously in the foreground. Indulgences took more and more the form of a monetary arrangement, which led to many conflicts with the secular powers, who were always demanding a share of the proceeds.62

Almost as mercenary as the sale of indulgences was the acceptance or solicitation, by the clergy, of money payments, grants, legacies, for the saying of Masses supposed to reduce a dead soul’s term of punishment in purgatory. Large sums were devoted to this purpose by pious people, either to relieve a departed relative or friend, or to shorten or annul their own purgatorial probation after death. The poor complained that through their inability to pay for Masses and indulgences it was the earthly rich, not the meek, who would inherit the kingdom of heaven; and Columbus ruefully praised money because, he said, “he who possesses it has the power of transporting souls into paradise.”63

A thousand other grievances swelled the case against the Church. Many of the laity resented the exemption of the clergy from the laws of the state, and the dangerous lenience of ecclesiastical courts to ecclesiastical offenders. The Nuremberg Diet of 1522 declared that no justice could be had by a lay plaintiff against a clerical defendant before a spiritual tribunal, and warned that unless the clergy were subjected to secular courts there would be an uprising against the Church in Germany;64 the uprising, of course, had then already begun. Further complaints alleged the divorce of religion from morality, the emphasis laid on orthodox belief rather than on good conduct (though the Reformers were to be in this particular greater sinners than the Church), the absorption of religion in ritual, the useless idleness and presumed sterility of monks, the exploitation of popular credulity through bogus relics and miracles, the abuse of excommunication and interdict, the censorship of publications by the clergy, the espionage and cruelty of the Inquisition, the misuse, for other purposes, of funds contributed for crusades against the Turks, and the claim of a deteriorated clergy to be the sole administrators of every sacrament except baptism.

All the foregoing factors entered into the anticlericalism of Roman Catholic Europe at the beginning of the sixteenth century. “The contempt and hatred of the laity for the degenerate clergy,” says Pastor, “was no mean factor in the great apostasy.”65 A London bishop complained in 1515 that the people “be so maliciously set in favor of heretical pravity that they will .. k condemn any cleric, though he were as innocent as Abel.”66 Among laymen, Erasmus reported, the title of clerk or priest or monk was a term of bitter insult.67 In Vienna the priesthood, once the most desired of all careers, received no recruits in the twenty years preceding the Reformation.68

Throughout Latin Christendom men cried out for a “reform of the Church in head and members.” Passionate Italians like Arnold of Brescia, Joachim of Flora, and Savonarola of Florence had attacked ecclesiastical abuses without ceasing to be Catholics, but two of them had been burned at the stake. Nevertheless, good Christians continued to hope that reform might be accomplished by the Church’s loyal sons. Humanists like Erasmus, Colet, More, and Budé dreaded the disorder of an open break; it was bad enough that the Greek Church remained resolutely apart from the Roman; any further rending of “the seamless robe of Christ” threatened the survival of Christianity itself. The Church tried repeatedly, and often sincerely, to cleanse her ranks and her courts, and to adopt a financial ethic superior to the lay morality of the times. The monasteries tried again and again to restore their austere rules, but the constitution of man rewrote all constitutions. The councils tried to reform the Church, and were defeated by the popes; the popes tried, and were defeated by the cardinals and the bureaucracy of the Curia. Leo X himself, in 1516, mourned the utter inefficacy of these endeavors.69 Enlightened churchmen like Nicholas of Cusa achieved local reforms, but even these were transient. Denunciations of the Church’s shortcomings, by her enemies and her lovers, excited the schools, disturbed the pulpits, flooded the literature, mounted day by day, year by year, in the memory and resentment of men, until the dam of reverence and tradition burst, and Europe was swept by a religious revolution more far-reaching and profound than all the political transformations of modern times.

* * * * *

I. One cause of the downfall of the German Church lay in her enormous riches, the unhealthy growth of which aroused on the one side the envy and hatred of the laity, and on the other had a most deleterious effect on the ministers of the Church themselves.”—Pastor (C), History of the Popes, VII, 293.

II. In any society the majority of abilities is contained in a minority of men; therefore, sooner or later, the majority of goods, privileges, and powers will be possessed by a minority of men. Wealth became concentrated in the Church in the Middle Ages because she served vital functions and was herself served by the ablest men. The Reformation, in one aspect, was a redistribution of this naturally concentrated wealth by the secular appropriation of ecclesiastical property or revenues.

Author: Will Durant

The Reformation. Pag. 78-103

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