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Mumblings and Grumblings About the Church

In addition to glaring problems like the failure to stop the Black Death and the presence of two and even three popes at a time, several issues just as serious concerned some of the devout religious leaders of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Ironically, the most pressing issues were not doctrinal or theological but were related to the hierarchy and governance of the Church and the actions of clergy at all levels.

Except in a few cases, reformers rarely disagreed with the teachings of the Church.

Define Your Terms

heretic is one who is guilty of going against the official teachings of the Church, or committing heresy. The punishments for heretics ranged from excommunication to imprisonment to death.

Instead they argued that the leaders of the Church had, in many cases, lost their focus or lost their way and the Church was no longer doing its job correctly. The Church did not take too kindly to the accusations that its leaders were corrupt and launched counterattacks.

In the eyes of the Church, these “reformers” were something more along the lines of heretics.

John Wycliffe and the Mumblers

Whereas many of the later reformers disagreed mostly with Church practice, one of the earliest reformers, John Wycliffe (c.1320-1384), disagreed with plenty of Church doctrines. The Englishman studied at Oxford and went on to teach both philosophy and theology there. Wycliffe lived through the Babylonian Captivity and the Great Schism, so he had reason for his beef with the Church. Additionally, Wycliffe had witnessed much corruption within the Church in England. These problems prompted Wycliffe to take a stand and speak out against the Church.

A foundation of Wycliffe’s belief system was that the Church had grown too interested in wealth and property. The Church in England had vast estates and numerous properties. Furthermore, many of the clergy, not only in England but throughout Europe, had lavish lifestyles. The Church even went so far as to claim a tax-exempt status on all its lands in England. Wycliffe maintained that the Church had forsaken the teachings of the Bible, which called for poverty on the part of the Church. The Church’s extravagance didn’t sit well with Wycliffe and his followers in light of the poor and starving peasantry in England.

Define Your Terms

An indulgence is a pardon that could be purchased from the Church, often in lieu of doing penance. Indulgences eventually became “get out of jail free" passes that were purchased ahead of time for sins yet to be committed.

Wycliffe took exception to another practice of the Catholic Church when members of the clergy began selling indulgences, or pardons, to finance political and military exploits.

Luther would later disagree with the Church over indulgences, too.

Wycliffe differed from the Church on the issue of spiritual and temporal authority, an especially sensitive topic for the Church. The Church had always taught that the Pope held supreme authority and that what the pope said was equal to the Bible in importance. Wycliffe believed that the Bible was the ultimate and final authority on everything and should be interpreted literally. Contrary to the teachings of the Church, he even taught that men should be able to interpret the Bible for themselves, not have to rely on the Church to interpret the Bible for them. Because the Bible didn’t establish the pope as the head of the Church, Wycliffe maintained that the papacy was created by man and not by God.

Wycliffe further knocked the papacy when he challenged the idea that members of the clergy could or should hold positions of earthly political authority. Wycliffe reminded the Church that Christ and the apostles submitted to earthly authority. He proposed that in matters of the kingdom, the king should be supreme, not the pope. Needless to say, questioning the authority of the pope made the Church hierarchy very angry.

Would You Believe?

Wycliffe believed so strongly that men should be able to read the Bible for themselves that he had the Bible translated into English. Exactly how much translating Wycliffe did himself is up for debate.

Wycliffe didn’t stop with the pope when it came to debating dogma. He refuted one of the fundamental parts of the sacrament of the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper. A sacrament is a religious act or ceremony through which a person receives grace from God. Under the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, the bread and wine of the Eucharist, symbolizing the body and blood of Christ, actually undergoes a physical transformation into the real body and real blood of Christ.

Define Your Terms

The name for the followers of Wycliffe, Lollards, most likely was a derogatory term.

The word “Lollards" means “those who mutter or mumble."

Not so, said Wycliffe. He argued that there was no physical transformation but rather Christ’s spirit was present in the bread and wine. Traditional, hard-line Catholics found Wycliffe’s argument hard to swallow. Wycliffe eventually was branded a heretic.

Wycliffe’s teachings did not fall completely on deaf ears. His followers, or Lollards, carried on his works and defended his ideas even after his death. They completed and distributed the English translation of the Bible and spread the word of God as they interpreted it through the teachings of the “poor priests.” In 1395, the Lollards presented Conclusions, their statement of beliefs, to the English parliament. In it they bashed transubstantiation, purgatory, confession, and clerical celibacy, all foundations of Catholic dogma. The teachings of Wycliffe and the Lollards affected people in England and as far away as Bohemia.

As a Matter of Fact

Lollardy, or following the teachings of reformers such as Wycliffe, enraged the Church because of the Lollards' belief in lay priesthood and a vernacular Bible—not to mention their disapproval of clerical celibacy, confession to priests, and the Church's monopoly on interpreting scripture. However, the traditionally nonviolent Lollards found themselves out of favor with secular authorities in England, too. Despite the fact that Wycliffe and other Lollards strongly opposed the Revolt, one of the leaders of the Peasant Revolt of 1381 was a Lollard named John Ball, “the mad priest of Kent." The Lollard preacher actually advocated the killing of English nobles. For his insurrection, Ball was hanged, then drawn and quartered, and Lollards fell out of favor with the English government.

Jan Hus

The teaching and preaching of Wycliffe and his “poor priests” made a significant impact on a Bohemian named Jan Hus (1371-1415). Hus attended Charles University in Prague, where he earned degrees in theology. Hus, like Wycliffe, witnessed firsthand the crisis in the Church. Not only a professor of theology but also a priest, he spoke out against the Church in his sermons. Among other things, he denounced the practice of allowing only certain Christians to partake of the Eucharist. As he grew bolder, Hus berated clergy who held secular political positions. Like Wycliffe, Hus argued that the Church had no business governing political affairs. The clergy were meant to rule in spiritual matters only. Many clergy, including his own archbishop, were fuming at the message Hus was spreading.

Hus remained undeterred. He went on to write a powerful work, The Church, in which he spoke of the Church as a body of believers with Christ as the head. This, of course, meant that the pope should not be the head of the Church. Hus went on to condemn the sale of indulgences. Finally, the Catholic Church had had enough, and his archbishop excommunicated him in 1412 for insubordination. Perhaps the true cause for his excommunication was Hus’s choice of pope during the Schism. Regardless, Hus had been taught a lesson ... or had he?

The Council of Constance (see Chapter 1) summoned Hus to appear in 1414. The Council ordered him to recant for teaching a number of doctrines that flew in the face of Catholic dogma. Hus responded that he never taught the doctrines in question and refused to admit he had. The Council, however, had already decided about Hus. Having just resolved the Schism, it was not about to allow him to get away with questioning the nature and authority of the pope. The Council of Constance condemned Jan Hus for heresy and burned him at the stake in 1415.

Would You Believe?

The followers of Hus became known first as the Czech Brethren and later as the Moravians, a church that thrives today around the world. When the Moravians came to the United States in the 1700s, they established two main Moravian centers, one in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and one in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Rarely does the execution of a leader of a movement have the desired effect. Such was the case with the Council of Constance and Jan Hus. The execution of Hus did not squelch his reformist movement. Rather, his followers grew stronger and even defeated armies sent to crush them. The Bethlehem Chapel in Prague where Hus preached became a major center of the Czech reformation efforts. His followers eventually would be influential in the Lutheran movement that was just over the horizon.

A Plethora of Problems

Wycliffe, Hus, and others compiled quite a list of grievances against the Church: overstepping political boundaries, corruption, greed, false doctrines. The efforts of these reformers focused attention on the Church but not the kind of attention the Church wanted. In the centuries leading up to Martin Luther, the more the reformers examined the Church, the more problems they found.

Would You Believe?

Some of the more notorious popes lived lifestyles complete with debauchery and intrigue. Alexander VI, for example, had illegitimate children running around all over Europe, and Julius II bribed the cardinals to elect him pope!

The papacy had a huge target on its back throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Not taking the Babylonian Captivity and Schism into consideration, the papacy had plenty of other issues causing public relations nightmares for the Church. Several popes fell into the trap of ostentation, or the flaunting of enormous wealth. While Christ and the apostles lived in poverty, the papacy often ignored that example. Popes lived in a lavish palace with obscenely expensive art and furnishings. They wore the finest clothes and the most stunning jewels. They dined on extravagant feasts. Perhaps if just the pope participated in such a lifestyle few would have noticed. However, the entire papal entourage often enjoyed the same luxuries as the pope. For a continent ravaged by disease, war, and famine, the ostentation of the papacy made no sense.

The clergy beneath the pope also had targets on their backs. Many reformers, Hus included, took exception to an old practice known as simony, or the selling of positions in the Church. Many nobles in many kingdoms purchased positions over the years. Nobles sought bishoprics because of the great income potential. After all, the bishop’s income came off the top of the collected tithes, or traditionally ten percent of one’s income required by God to be paid to the Church, so if all the souls in an area paid up, a great deal of money passed through the bishop on the way to Rome. And the Church loved to sell these positions because nobles paid huge sums of money to be Bishop of This or Archbishop of That.

Define Your Terms

Simony is the act of selling an influential position within the Church, a position such as bishop or archbishop.

Similar to the practice of simony was the practice known as lay investiture. In the practice of lay investiture, kings and powerful nobles often appointed their friends and family members to high positions in the Church. For example, the King of England might appoint his cousin Bishop of York. Reformers argued that such practice was fraught with conflicts of interest; appointees often struggled over loyalties to family as opposed to loyalties to the Church.

Two practices that gave reformers fits were pluralism and absenteeism, which had become common and accepted in the Church. Pluralism was the practice of holding more than one clerical position at once. Reformers wondered how one person could minister to two districts at once. Absenteeism was the practice of holding a clerical position from afar, such as someone who was a bishop of a diocese that he never visited.

Though reformers pointed their fingers at the hierarchy of the Church, they found fault with the common parish priests as well. Many parish priests ignored the Church’s rule about celibacy. Many priests had fallen into lifestyles that involved drinking and gambling. Perhaps worst of all, illiteracy ran rampant among the common clergy. How could priests shepherd their flocks and teach them the Word of God if they couldn’t read?

For generations the Church managed to avoid addressing many of the grumblings and criticisms of the reformers. Unfortunately for the Church, that was about to change. While there had been a few individuals in recent centuries willing to question the Church, the rise in intellectual curiosity brought by the Renaissance certainly contributed to the growing numbers of Christians who wanted the Church to answer some tough questions.

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