What Was the Reformation and Why Did it Happen, Part 5: A Church in Desperate Need of Spiritual Reform

Ken Hensley
May 16, 2017 14 Comments

This is part 5 of an ongoing series on the Reformation. Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

In 1510, the young Augustinian monk Martin Luther was sent to Rome on an errand for his order. He had dreamed all his life of visiting the Eternal City where Saints Peter and Paul had preached and been martyred, where Paul was beheaded and Peter crucified upside down in Nero’s circus. He was thrilled at the thought of praying and celebrating Mass in the great churches of Rome.

Instead, as Luther scholar Heiko Oberman writes:

Later he remembered clearly the shock and horror he had felt in Rome upon hearing for the first time in his life flagrant blasphemies uttered in public. He was deeply shocked by the casual mockery of saints and everything he held sacred. He could not laugh when he heard priests joking about the sacrament of the Eucharist. (Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, p. 149)

Maybe you’ve heard the story of how this experience nearly shattered Luther’s faith in the Church. And if you’re Catholic, maybe you were tempted to dismiss the story as so much anti-Catholic propaganda. The only problem is that credible Catholics of the time admit that the Church’s hierarchy was in moral shambles.

If in fact, a common saying of the time was: “If there is a Hell, then Rome is built on it!” (Ibid, p. 147)

Humanist priest Erasmus spoke of his own experiences in Rome:

With my own ears I heard the most loathsome blasphemies against Christ and his apostles. Many acquaintances of mine have heard priests of the curia uttering disgusting words so loudly, even during mass, that all around them could hear it. (Ibid, p. 149)

Unfortunately this was true. And it wasn’t only the priests.

In the late Middle Ages, bishops were mainly drawn from the nobility, and (often enough) not because they possessed any spiritual qualifications, but because they could purchase their positions.

There are all sorts of examples of wealthy families gaining control of ecclesiastical affairs in a particular area and ruling there for years and years. Often these bishops didn’t even reside in the dioceses they ruled. They viewed their “realm” primarily as a source of income — income they could use to pursue their political ambitions or spend on gambling and other entertainments.

Certainly, some were shining lights. But many were not.

For instance, by the time Albert of Brandenberg was 23 years of age, he already held the sees of Magdeburg and Halberstadt and wanted the archbishopric of Mainz as well. He needed money to pay the installation fees and knew he would also have to pay Pope Leo X for the irregularity of holding three sees simultaneously.

Historian Roland Bainton describes the situation:

The negotiations of Albert with the pope were conducted through the German banking house of Fugger, which had a monopoly on papal finances in Germany. When the Church needed funds in advance of her revenues, she borrowed at usurious rates from the sixteenth-century Rothschilds or Morgans. Indulgences were issued in order to repay the debts, and the Fuggers supervised the collection. Knowing the role they would ultimately play, Albert turned to them for the initial negotiations. He was informed that the pope demanded twelve thousand ducats for the twelve apostles. Albert offered seven thousand for the seven deadly sins. They compromised on ten thousand, presumably not for the Ten Commandments, (Here I Stand, p. 75)

It’s true. Leo X was not exactly a saint.

The first occupant of what came to be known as the “Chair of St. Peter” was a man who, when he first perceived who Jesus was, fell to his knees and cried out, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Lk 5:8). Peter was man who finished his course as a martyr, that kind of man.

But what kind of man was Leo X, the man who occupied the Chair of St. Peter at the time of the Protestant revolt? Historian J.N.D. Kelly describes him as “a devious and double-tongued politician and inveterate nepotist” (The Oxford Dictionary of Popes, p. 257).

And that was on a good day. Roland Bainton writes,

[Leo X was] as elegant and as indolent as a Persian cat. His chief preeminence lay in his ability to squander the resources of the Holy See on carnivals, war, gambling, and the chase [hunting]. (Here I Stand, p. 74)

There’s no getting around it. It’s clear that the Church’s hierarchy at the time of the Reformation was sick from top to bottom — so sick that St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) advised good Catholics against going to Rome, lest they be corrupted. Try to imagine popes John Paul II or Benedict XVI or Francis saying, “Whatever you do, unless you want your faith destroyed, don’t go to Rome!”

Fine, tell me I’m exaggerating the situation.

But then explain the confession of Pope Adrian VI, who immediately followed Leo X as bishop of Rome and served during the early events of the Reformation:

We know that for years there have been many abominable offences in spiritual matters and violations of the Commandments committed at this Holy See, yes, that everything has in fact been perverted …. The first thing that must be done is to reform the curia, the origin of all the evil. (Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, p. 139)

If you need to, read it again. Notice the pope doesn’t speak of minor missteps in spiritual matters. Rather he speaks of “abominable offences in spiritual matters and violations of the Commandments.” He doesn’t say that a few things here and there were out of order. He says, “everything has in fact been perverted.”

And then, notice he doesn’t locate the source of the evil “somewhere over there.” (The woman you gave me, she made me do it!) Instead he locates the “curia” — the Vatican leadership — as the “origin of all the evil.”

Catholic historian Hilaire Belloc puts the final nail in the coffin:

No one can deny that the evils provoking reform in the Church were deep-rooted and widespread. They threatened the very life of Christendom itself. All who thought at all about what was going on around them realized how perilous things were and how great was the need of reform …. Every kind of man would violently attack such monstrous abuses …. It was from all this that the turmoil sprang, and as it increased in violence threatened to destroy the Christian Church itself (The Great Heresies, pp. 112-114).


There are more historical and culture forces that could be listed as causes of the Reformation, for instance, the rise of the European middle class, which fueled a growing sense of independence.

But you do the math on what we’ve discussed so far in the articles:

  • The invention of the printing press, leading to a rapid increase in literacy throughout Christendom.
  • The explosion of new theological ideas.
  • The rise of an educational philosophy that mocked the official doctors of the Church and emphasized a return to the Bible and the Church Fathers to be read with fresh eyes.
  • The growing emphasis on religion as something personal.
  • The rise of individualism and nationalism, resentment of centralized authority in government as well as in the Church.
  • The rise of anti-papal sentiment throughout Catholic Europe.
  • And a Church hierarchy in desperate need of spiritual and moral reform.

Given all this — even though as a Catholic I view the Reformation as one of the saddest cases of throwing the baby out with the bathwater — it doesn’t surprise me that it happened. Not in the least. It would have taken a miracle not to happen.

The atmosphere was right. Luther struck the match with his attacks — first on Church abuses, then on Catholic teaching, then on the authority of the Church — and the explosion occurred. The Reformers rejected the idea that Christ had established a unified spiritual authority on earth and decided that only Scripture should be taken as authoritative. In the process the Church was shattered and its visible unity has never been recovered.

But how applicable is all of this to our lives in the 21st century? More — much more — than you might imagine.

And this is where we’ll pick up in Part VI.

Ken Hensley

Ken Hensley is a well-known Catholic teacher, speaker and author. He was a Protestant minister for eleven years before resigning his pastorate in 1996 to enter the Catholic Church. He now works with the Coming Home Network International serving the needs of converts and those curious about the Catholic faith and is an Adjunct Professor in Old and New Testament at St. John’s Seminary for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

  • Bdonovan03051

    Excellent information Ken. As a cradle Catholic I sort of glossed over the historical reality of abuses within the Church and saw Luther as primarily rejecting Church theology. Specifically indulgences and purgatory in an effort to supplant his own theological vision. The picture that emerges to me after reading this is that the corruption was so widespread someone had to step up and do something. Also puts our current crisis within the Church into a longer term perspective. Keep up the good work

    • Ken Hensley

      Thank you! Yes, there was a lot going on at that time. Luther did come into theological disagreement with the Church (as I said in the series, he did strike the match) but I wanted in this series to provide more of the context. God bless you!

      • henrietta ramirez

        i am shocked of what I read. I dont think many catholic if they knew these “truth” would still want to be catholic. I am a revert to the catholic faith. But aftering reading the information. I(am wondering if the church still has those kind of popes bishops cardinals etc. What am I to think. My respect for the catholic church has been shaken. But whether I stay or go. I will alway have my faith and trust in Jesus. So Sad.

        • Ken Hensley

          Henrietta, sin exists in the hearts of people. The Catholic Church has never claimed that its leadership was exempt. All along the Church has possessed saintly leaders and also corrupt leaders. And the same would be true if the Church had been Lutheran all along, or Methodist, or Baptist, or Presbyterian, or Non-Denominational Protestant.

          In this series I wanted to elucidate some of the background factors that led to the Reformation. These are some of the forces at work that made the Reformation possible and apart from God’s intervention maybe even inevitable. But this has nothing to do with the question of whether Catholic teaching is true or false. And while I think these “factors” explain why Martin Luther’s challenge was able to gain the force it gained at the time, I still believe that the solutions Luther and the other reformers came to were deeply mistaken. It was an error to decide that because there was sin in the hierarchy of the Church, therefore the Church’s teaching handed down from the apostles was false. It was an error to determine that because there was sin in the Church, therefore there was no united spiritual authority on earth and every Christian should now decide for himself what to believe, based upon a study of Scripture alone.

          All this to say that I think the conclusion you draw here is warranted. It amounts to saying that if there was ever serious sin in the Church, you’re not sure about remaining Catholic. No?

          • newjerseygal

            If all this is true ..and I believe it is, STILL ..this corrupt church STILL EXISTS to this day…and it always will, until WE, the Church Militant (on earth) are transformed into the Church TRIUMPHANT, as Christ promised. Where there are humans…there is SIN. Even today, the Catholic Church is in disarray, as are the DIFFERENT denominational and Christian Churches…All 44,000 of them! Go back to the BEGINNING, get some GLUE put it between YOU and the Catholic Church and fight for the TRUTH, BEAUTY AND GOODNESS that it IS and will remain.

  • Grandmama 16

    This only shows that the gates of hell will not prevail but has certainly tried and will continue to do so. The Church will survive. Stay with her.

    • Linda Almaraz

      Yours is the final best argument I use to defend Our Holy and Divine Church. We are the sinners but the Church of Christ remains Holy. The need for reform is ongoing because of the sinful filth that humanity falls into and the constant needs for it to be purge. Where sin abides, even more grace comes pouring in. Like past eras of the Church, great saints will arises from her to battle her constant enemy, Lucifer. We are perhaps living in such times where great saints will be form giving the world witnesses that God is the final arbitrator and his Will will be done. We must stay faithful even where all appears to be lost. The war has already be won and the only thing that remains Is to faithfully live ou the Gospel in the time allotted to each of us until we enter into death and final judgement. Jesus said “do not fear, I have overcomed the world.” Now is a “great” time to become saints for only saints (faithful good friends of the Lord) will enter into his glory.

      • Ken Hensley

        Yes, thank you, Linda

    • newjerseygal

      EXACTLY…She may LOOK (to some) like the loosing team but…don’t be deluded!!

  • OFM

    Will you also discuss the crimes committed by the reformers against Roman Catholics.

    • Ken Hensley

      Well, the series focuses on the causes of the Reformation. Yes, crimes were committed by the reformers but this simply isn’t the topic.

  • Lucky

    If you believe in Christ then I assume that you believe in the devil. And if Jesus did establish a church then it would be the devils goal to infiltrate it and stir it up and try to destroy it and create such corruption that all followers would view it in error. I was raised Catholic and left the Catholic Church to follow the protesters in different denominations and after research and years of studying the Bible and seminary I came to believe that the Catholic Church is from Jesus started by him and the apostles. It’s teaching has not changed while the protesters started with Luther and now have thousands of different opinions and are based on their own ideology, opinions and ideas while the Catholic Church remains the same in their apostolic teaching. As a Catholic my goal is to teach the truth and expose the hypocrisy that I see in the church and correct those in leadership. I was born to worship God and to help my brothers and sisters get to heaven in a loving way. My prayers are for all those that left the Catholic Church to follow people’s opinions rather than researching the church’s history and history itself as well as study of the Saints and the fathers of the church

  • pjd

    There is an excellent history of the Catholic Church written by H.W. Crocker, III, who is an Anglican convert to the Faith. The book is entitled: Triumph, The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church. It is a delightful and informative read.

    • Ken Hensley

      Very good book!