Power and Corruption: The Pre-Reformation Church

Excerpt from Chapter 11 of Christ’s Faithful Servants, copyright 2023

As we approach the time of the Protestant Reformation, we must interrupt our admiration of faithful Christians to set the scene for the next several chapters.

The Protestant Reformation that erupted in the sixteenth century had its roots in the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church. We can sum up the reason for this corruption in one word: money. The Church needed money, and her leaders loved wealth. Long before Martin Luther wrote his “ninety-five theses,” people tried to reform the Church by exposing and opposing this corruption—men like John Wyclif in England, John Hus in Bohemia, and Girolamo Savonarola in Italy.[1] In this chapter we will explore what these reformers were up against—the power and reach of the Church.

More Than Just a Church. The Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages became as much a government as it was a church. During this time, central governments did not exist in most of western Europe. Political power lay in the hands of cities and wealthy landowners. But they often lacked the resources—and the motivation—to care for the people they governed. In this vacuum, the Church, with its vast wealth and the best-educated minds of Europe, performed many functions which we now associate with government.

For example, ecclesiastical courts often settled civil disputes, and sometimes even punished wrongdoers. Schools, hospitals, and universities in Western Europe were run almost exclusively by monks and nuns. Monasteries and convents preserved thousands of ancient books, made advances in science and agriculture, and cared for society’s impoverished and wretched. Church revenues supported Renaissance artists.

The Church also controlled the Papal States, which included Rome and a large area of central Italy. In this region, the Church was the government—it even maintained an army to enforce its decrees and protect its possessions. The Church’s many responsibilities required a great deal of money. So where did the Church get this money? . . .

Christ’s Faithful Servants is available on Amazon.com.

[1]. John Wyclif lived from about 1320 to 1384. Girolamo Savonarola lived from 1452-1498. We will meet John Hus (ca. 1370-1415) in Chapter 13. Hus and Savonarola were both executed for their opposition. Wyclif avoided execution by suffering a stroke and dying before the Church could kill him, although he was tried posthumously and condemned.