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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.

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