In This Chapter
• Problems in the Church and reformers who pointed them out
• The monk named Martin Luther
• Martin Luther’s beef with the Church
• The religious fallout from Luther’s theology
• The social and political ramifications of Luther’s theology
During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, some believed the Catholic Church developed a number of serious problems. Those who complained, pointed fingers, and generally caused headaches for the Church are now referred to as reformers. At the time, however, the Church probably thought of the “reformers” as, at best, pains in the neck.
Historians refer to the period in which these reformers worked to bring about changes in the Church as the Reformation. To reform is to change, improve, or restructure. Therefore, the reformation of an institution should bring a change for the better, an improvement. Those who played a role in the Reformation sought initially to do just that. Things just didn’t work out exactly as these reformers hoped.
The Reformation often is synonymous with the name Martin Luther because of the major role he played in the eventual splintering of the Catholic Church into a number of denominations. However, it would be erroneous to say that the Reformation began with Luther. It probably would be more accurate to say that the Reformation climaxed with him. Luther and his teachings were perhaps the straw that broke that camel’s back.
Luther was not the first to talk about problems in the Church or to talk about fixing these problems. Like a number of figures who worried about some of the same issues before him, he never intended to break up the Church. Luther and the others simply wanted to address the problems and clean things up a little.
The Church’s prestige took major hits during the Middle Ages (see Chapter 1) and during the Renaissance (see Chapter 2). As a result of crises like the bubonic plague, the famine, and the warfare of the High Middle Ages, many Europeans became jaded and turned away from the Church. Renaissance Europeans became more concerned with temporal and material things than with matters of religion, the supernatural, and the afterlife. To complicate the situation, crises within the Church such as the Babylonian Captivity and the Great Schism further alienated people.
The Church was losing souls at a record pace. Those still devoted to the Church believed the Church needed to respond with compassion and concern. They believed the Church needed to be the beacon of piety that Europe needed to see. What many found, upon examination of the Church, was corruption—greed for wealth, property, and political power. Those who spoke and wrote against the shortcomings of the Church and the clergy found that, for the most part, the hierarchy of the Church had little or no interest in hearing what the reformers had to say.