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Causes of the Reformation 


There is a common misconception that the Catholic Church lived a peaceful existence from the time of the conversion of the Roman Empire (AD 320-330) to the “Great Revolt” of the sixteenth century. The Church was then, as it is today, in perpetual conflict and peril. It was continually under the assault of enemies from within and from without. And the reason is simple: The Church is “not of the world” (John 15:19). As long as the Church stands as a beacon of truth, it will be outside the mainstream of life and under attack.

The final shipwreck of European unity at the Reformation was but the closing episode after a long voyage, in which shipwreck had been a menace throughout.

Historian, biographer and poet Hilaire Belloc[1] explained in his writings the causes of the Reformation began 200 years prior to the time of Martin Luther. There was a weakening of moral authority in the temporal and spiritual organization of the Church. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the forces of discontent and indignation pressed upon the defenses of Christian unity.

During the Middle Ages, the power of the Papacy was so great, worldly men often desired it, and princes strove to advance their favorites to the exalted position. In 1305, the king of France succeeded in having a Frenchman chosen to the chair of Peter. The new pope, Clement V, yielding to the wishes of the king — and possibly wary of the political factions in Rome from whom popes previously had to flee — determined to remain in France.

After a period of wandering, the Papacy established itself at Avignon, France, in 1307, where for 70 years the Pope and his successors resided. This period has become known as another “Babylonian Captivity.”

Away from Rome and residing in an obscure French town, the Papacy lost considerable influence and, in public estimation at least, lost much of its independent and international character.

After the Papacy had been in France for 70 years, St. Catherine of Siena  goaded the timorous and ailing Pope Gregory XI  to give up Avignon for Rome.

Soon after Gregory XI died, an Italian, who took the name Urban VI, was elected to succeed him. However, the French influence was not satisfied — in 1378, it proceeded to elect an anti-pope, who took up his residence at Avignon against the true pope in Rome.


The Great Schism of the West[2]


Historians call the period between 1378 and 1447 “The Great Schism of the West.” When the Pope in Rome and the anti-pope in France died, their respective followers chose their successors and the division continued until 1409, when it became still more complicated.

A council assembled at Pisa, a council that had no right to assemble and no authority to conduct the business of the Church. Nevertheless, it deposed the Pope and anti-pope, and proceeded to elect one of its own choosing, who reigned until 1415.

The distracted Church now saw three claimants to the chair of Peter, each one having his backing and support from secular powers. Pope stood against rival Pope, even in battle, each army with its flag showing the twin keys. Different areas of Europe paid allegiance, one to the Pope at Avignon, another to the Pope at Rome. This divided allegiance was disruptive and caused a serious weakening of the Papal authority.

Belloc goes on to say:


“The idea of unity remained, of course; men all over Christendom still thought of the Papacy as one supreme office, and took its powers for granted. But it weakened that ideal more and more in men’s minds to see the fact before them of two human beings, each claiming possession of the office, each with the support of half Europe behind him, and each utterly repudiating the claims of the other. That impossible situation lasted forty years. Meanwhile, the rival Popes were bound to strengthen each his own claim by yielding all manner of privileges and making all manner of concessions to their respective supporters. The old unflinching direct authority, exercisable against kings, which had been the glory and the power of such men as Innocent III , three lifetimes earlier, was gone.” [3]


The prime condition for Christian unity had disappeared. The sincere Catholic who preferred his religion to any faction was at a loss to know which way to turn. He knew one of the claimants was the true Pope, but which one he could not say.

The sad situation came to a close with the election of Martin V (1417-1431), but it left an aftermath that seriously impeded the work of the Church in subsequent years. The various factions that supported rival claimants invariably sought the aid of secular powers. Temporal rulers were therefore brought into the affairs of the Church — and they resolved to stay.

The Church was not free to carry out its affairs without hindrance until the Council of Trent.


The Black Death (1348- 1350)


Another major reason for the breakdown called the Reformation  was the Black Death, bubonic plague. It occurred in the fourteenth century, a period of spectacular calamities.

In the autumn of 1315, following a bad harvest everywhere, a three-year famine began. There are records of scenes of emaciated children, peasants gnawing the bark of trees and even some cases of cannibalism. Tens of thousands died during that period.

Famine, however, was nothing compared with the disaster that overtook Europe in 1347 and lasted for 30 months. The Black Death tore through the body of Christendom and left an undying memory of its horror. The sickness originated in China and Inner Asia, where it caused frightful havoc. It spread to the West with unabated fury when a Kipchak army, besieging a Genoese trading post in the Crimea, catapulted plague-infested corpses into the town. The disease spread from the Mediterranean ports, affecting Sicily, North Africa, Italy, Spain, France and England; Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, Germany and the Low Countries; and Scandinavia and the Baltic Lands. All Europe lived through 30 months of terror, and there were recurrences of the plague in 1361-63, 1369-71, 1374-75, 1390 and 1400.

Neither hygienic measures nor public prayers could stop it. The infection’s first symptoms were the appearance under the armpits of tumors, which grew to the size of an egg. Swellings quickly appeared on other parts of the body, or the skin became smeared with horrible black and white patches. In either case, death was certain; it generally took place on the third day, without any sign of fever.

Contagion was immediate: to touch the clothes of an affected person was sufficient to contract the disease. Even animals were affected and, it seems, more rapidly than people. A story was told about some pigs that stirred a heap of contaminated rubbish with their snouts and were dead within the hour.

Countless documents provide us with information as to the devastating effects of this calamity on the population. In five months, Florence and its suburbs lost 100,000 citizens. In the Burgundian village of Givry, where the previous annual death rate was 40, the number of dead for 1348 was 650. At Soisy-sur-Sei, only six of 140 families survived. At Amiens, there was said to have been 17,000 deaths.

At Avignon, from January 25 to April 27, 1348, 62,000 persons are alleged to have perished — half the population. And because the mortuaries were full to overflowing, the Pope gave permission for burial in the papal cemetery, where, in March and April, 11,000 corpses were interred.

The list goes on and on. No country escaped the disaster, which reached as far as Iceland. Even for the usual exaggeration of the chroniclers, we may safely say one-third to perhaps one-half of Western Europe perished. A rough estimate is 25 million people in Europe died from plague during the years of the Black Death.

Famine followed, as the farms lay fallow, suffering from a lack of laborers. The population of Western Europe did not again reach its pre-1348 level until the beginning of the sixteenth century.

In her study of Orvieto,[4] Dr. Carpenter found ample evidence that the Black Death was followed by an immediate and sharp decline in public morality. There were many more cases of maltreatment of orphans, more people carried arms, the strict rules governing female dress were relaxed and there was a considerable increase in the number of prosecutions and convictions for every kind of crime.[5]

The Black Death caused a separation of peoples. There also was a slow division of what was once a united Europe into separate nations. By 1400, there was a sharp difference between nations — and that difference continued to grow. It was largely this new local feeling that bred the local and minor Ecclesiastical revolts.

The plague sapped the strength of the people. The flower of humanity had been suddenly cut down. Commerce was crippled. Building everywhere came to a halt. Two whole generations were swept away. There was a hiatus in history. This rent in time marks the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of another period of world history.

The Church was hit especially hard as a disproportionate number of the more dedicated priests and other religious perished while caring for the sick and dying instead of seeking safety in flight. In Avigno, 94 of 450 members of the Curia died. At Montpellier, 133 of 140 Dominicans perished; 153 of 160 died at Maguelonne. The entire Franciscan communities at Marseilles and Carcassonne were wiped out. The Dominicans and other religious orders were so decimated the new recruits who rushed into holy orders often were self-seeking and spiritually unqualified.

As the inflow continued, the problem of clerical unemployment and inadequate stipends attained greater proportions. Many were compelled by need to accept ill-paid livings. Others obtained no benefice at all and lived precariously as chantry priests and itinerant chaplains. Their moral and intellectual defects were bitterly assailed by church reformers and by an increasingly well-informed laity.

Many pious Christians, especially in the cities, began to turn away from the priesthood in their search for spiritual comfort and to seek relief in mysticism, superstitious practices or in lay associations practicing a simple, undogmatic form of Christianity. As a result, the quality of the Church seriously declined in the latter fourteenth century, a fact connected with the growth of various heresies.

But what was the condition of the clergy as a whole? This would depend upon two factors: the people from whom they came, and the educational system in which they were taught. There would be exceptions to this rule. Some would rise above their circumstances and some would descend below them.

Ecclesiastical training, as we have it today, dates from the Council of Trent, and did not exist before that time. From the fifth to the thirteenth centuries, students for the priesthood were trained in cathedral school or abbeys under the watchful eyes of the bishops. In the thirteenth century, the university came into being. As it grew, the cathedral schools declined and ultimately disappeared. A small percentage of the clergy attended the universities; the majority received their education in a haphazard way.

In the fourteenth century, the universities became largely secular. As a result, the young candidates for the cloth who attended them received a secular education. Thus it happened they did not get the proper training for the high vocation they were to follow.

In addition, the clergy were practically the only ones who could boast of an education in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Consequently, they filled offices of state that required clerical training. They were thus withdrawn from the service of the altar and compelled to lead lives that were largely secular. Later, without merit or enthusiasm — simply through the favor of some baron or prince — these men were often promoted to the episcopacy. Is it any wonder ministerial zeal would decline under such circumstances?

But if clerics invaded and held offices that should have belonged to seculars, laymen retaliated by taking positions in the Church. The monasteries were filled with monks and nuns who were distinguishable from the lay aristocracy only by a nominal celibacy. The sons of nobles, idle and self-indulgent, often were made abbots of extensive monasteries. The daughters of the rich who sought positions of power and prestige entered convents. They obeyed no rule, accepted no discipline. Both monasteries and convents necessarily suffered from such invasion.

In addition, Belloc explained in the midst of all this upheaval, there began to develop dissatisfaction with the powers exercised by the clergy, especially with their great financial power:


“Long process of time, coupled with such revolutions as the Black Death, accentuated by the diminution of the numbers in the Monasteries and in Ecclesiastical Corporations, the turning of Ecclesiastical tax and rent-gathering into a routine often burdensome, in exceptional cases monstrous — all this affected the mind of Europe with an unceasing anxiety and disgust.”[6]


Pope Leo X


The third significant cause of the Reformation   was the election of Giovanni de’ Medici (1475-1521) to the Chair of Peter. On March 9, 1513, the second son of Lorenzo the Magnificent was chosen Pope and reigned as Leo X (1513-1521). His election was followed by his ordination to the priesthood and consecration as a bishop. He announced his enthronement to his brother Giuliano with the words: “Let us enjoy the Papacy that God has given us!”

Leo X was not the man to cope with Luther and the Reformation. Some say he was harmless, others that he only pretended to be. His fame is due to his promotion of literature, science and art, and his pontificate was marked by a frivolous lifestyle of festivities and diversions that drained the papal coffers.

By the spring of 1515, the Papal treasury was empty and various dubious and reprehensible methods were resorted to for raising money. Leo X created new offices and dignities, and many properties were sold. Jubilees and indulgences were degraded almost entirely into financial transactions.

Leo’s ambition was to build St. Peter’s Basilica and to check the advance of the Turks. He cared little about what seemed to be a petty squabble among a few monks in Germany. He recognized neither the gravity of the situation nor his own contribution to the underlying causes of the revolt.

Naturally inclined to forbearance and leniency, his actions toward Luther were roundly criticized by many faithful adherents of the Church. Leo X is in great measure responsible for the general decline of faith in the integrity and merit of the Papacy of the time. During all those years, wise and good men were calling for a general council, which alone could remedy the evil conditions of the time.

One cause or another interfered until 1545, when the Council of Trent assembled.

Unquestionably, these struggles prepared the way for the religious revolution of the sixteenth century. It was a time of unrest from every point of view. The peasants were grievously oppressed, many of them scarcely able to eke out a living. Taxes or contributions to either Church of State seemed to be a painful exaction. So wretched was their condition in Germany that within a few years of Luther’s rebellion, the peasants revolted.

Nor must we forget that the spirit of nationalism that for the first time had taken definite shape in Europe and given impetus to rebellion. It was easy enough to convince an Englishman or a German that he should not be subject to an Italian, even in spiritual matters. They especially objected to paying tribute to a foreigner.

In addition, the condition of the Papacy for the 70 years preceding the reformation was a cause of religious upheaval. The Papal court at that time would shock those of us who hold the Papacy in high esteem. The Papacy had become an Italian Principate. Successive Popes were not only drawn from the great Italian families, as though the Papacy were some sort of an endowment, but nepotism was taken for granted. Men who had lived the debauched lifestyle of their “noble class” later became Popes.

The Papacy suffered a general decay during this time, which in turn affected some of the clergy. This corruption was not universal, but its toleration was.

Most important was the breakdown of morality among the rich laity. This is a story of expansion and glory, but most of all the deciding factor was greed. Outwardly it was an effort to eradicate certain teachings and doctrines of the Church and substitute new doctrines, but in actuality the impetus and power behind the Reformation was the avarice of the German princes and other notables. They fully supported and encouraged the powerful Augustinian monk, Martin Luther  would be useful to them, because it was expected if they could precipitate a break with Rome they would be able to appropriate the lands and properties of the Church.

Pride and a lust for power spurred Luther on. He made a bargain with the German princes — a bargain much like that of Judas with the high priests. According to one of the greatest Catholic ecclesiastical historians, Henri Daniel-Rops, Henri" :


“The Peasants War had important consequences regarding the future of the whole Lutheran movement. Whether he desired it or not, the reformer found himself bound in alliance with the princes. Not that he shirked his duty criticizing the excesses of the repression, condemning those “savage and insensate tyrants who cannot assuage their thirst for blood, even when the battle is over and done with,” but he realized that he was obliged to side with them. “My own feelings are clear,” he wrote to Amsdorf. “It is better to have all the peasants dead than any of the princes.” “Revolution is worse than murder!” he had cried: Goethe’s famous comment that he preferred “injustice to disorder” was in the best traditions of Lutheranism. In these circumstances, however, the religious movement became political and nationalist, and the heads of State placed their strength at the service of the principals, which in effect served their own interests.

“These interests were wholly temporal; for by adhering to Lutheranism the great lords received doctrinal authority to confiscate the possessions of the Church, at which they had looked with such greedy eyes. Church lands were confiscated all over Germany, bishops secularized their dioceses and the Duke and Elector of Saxony quickly followed these examples.”[7]


It was therefore a period of unusual turmoil and unrest. There was opposition to foreign domination, jealousies and mutual hatreds at home, new inventions and discoveries offering vast opportunities to ambition, a hungry peasantry, greedy landlords and scheming, petty rulers. The Church was demoralized from the causes mentioned and the State was anxious for dominion even of a person’s spiritual life.

These were the conditions that prepared the way for the huge upheaval which men call the Reformation. Such, then, was the general process, which led to the unraveling of the unity of Christendom. Once begun, like a pebble rolling downhill that causes an avalanche, the Protestant Reformation led to the existence of the numerous churches, sects, cults and the religious confusion that exists in the world today.


[1] Hilaire Belloc XE "Belloc" , How the Reformation Happened  (New York: Robert M. McBride & Company, 1941).

[2] For a more complete history of the  “Great Schism of the West”, see The Three Popes, Marzieh Gail (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1969)

[3] Belloc, How the Reformation Happened, 33-36.

[4] E. Carpenter. Une ville devant la peste. Orvieto et la PesteNoire de 1348, Paris, 1962.

[5] Philip Ziegler. The Black Death, (London: The Folio Society, 1997) 239.  

[6] Belloc, How the ReformationHappened, 48.

[7] Henri Daniel Rops, The Protestant Reformation (New York: E. P. Dutton, & Co. Inc., 1961) 314-315.


© 2004 – Victor R. Claveau


Part or all of this article may be reproduced without obtaining permission as long as the author is cited.


“It cannot be denied that corruption of

morals prevailed in the sixteenth

century to such an extent as to call for a

sweeping reformation, and the laxity

of discipline invaded even the sanctuary.”

Cardinal Gibbons: The Faith of our Fathers, 3 (19th century).




Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved