In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Europe was hit hard by several disasters, the proportions of which are difficult to imagine today.
First, famine killed between 10 and 25% of its inhabitants, then the Black Death (bubonic plague) killed between 35-50% of the remaining population. All of a sudden, the domains of the nobles faced an acute shortage of labour. This led to an increase in the exploitation of the peasants, whose inevitable revolts ended in bloody reprisals, which exacerbated the initial crisis. The crises that the old continent went through in the 14th and 15th centuries made the period utterly apocalyptic.
Meanwhile, in the only truly international institution of the time, which had converted virtually the whole of Western Europe, the popes—instead of listening to the cries of the parishioners, who believed that Europe was suffering under God’s punishment—were almost exclusively concerned with their own welfare and political power, a tendency that had become more pronounced since the beginning of the 13th century. Fourteenth-century Catholicism was under the papal leadership of Avignon (France).
This is the period when the papacy is accused of increasing immorality. If at the beginning of the thirteenth century the Europeans’ respect for the papacy was extremely high, in less than two centuries, the nobles and the common people were both scandalised by what was happening in the popes’ entourage. The crisis was exacerbated by the papal schism (1378-1415), which led to the formation of two opposing sides and the rise of corruption due to the attempts of the two (and, at one point, three) rival popes to increase their incomes, which had been diminished following the schism.
In these circumstances, a rupture with major historical implications began to take place: the Europeans chose to strengthen their loyalty towards the national authorities who opposed the financial demands of the two popes, while their loyalty towards the church declined. The process continued during the Renaissance, when the popes—patrons of various great artists—made the Vatican an artistic centre, but did nothing to stop the moral degradation of the institution. The decline had reached its nadir by the time Luther nailed his theses on the church door in Wittenberg.
Interestingly, the Catholic theology of the time, which had rediscovered Aristotle, was already discussing all the major themes we find today in the Reformers: the level of depravity of human nature, the source and conditions of righteousness, the authority of faith, the value and function of the sacraments, the nature of predestination, and so on. The multitude of opinions had become a source of confusion. As a natural reaction to this hyper-intellectualised approach, the general public became attracted to mystical preachers and messengers of repentance.
Crowds of both simple and noble people gathered in the open air to hear how these preachers urged the people to a high practical spirituality, in accordance with the monastic model. Their message was relevant in that time when all God’s wrath seemed to be pouring out upon Europe. However, the solution similar to monasticism was so radical that people could not put it into practice. Consequently, its simple answers to the great spiritual questions of the time, spoken in the language of the people, led the Protestant Reformation to success.
Still, in the Europe of that time, there is another phenomenon, unique in the history of the last millennium: the Renaissance, which is too often seen only through the lens of today’s philosophical humanism. However, according to studies from the 20th century, Renaissance humanism was not the philosophical current we think of today. It was a didactic ideal, an expression of focus on disciplines such as grammar, history, rhetoric, or literature, with the intention of providing a broad education for the individual.
This explains why the other leaders of Protestantism and contemporaries of Luther (who, unlike them, was a product of scholastic theology) embraced Nordic Christian humanism and never condemned it after joining the Reformation. Likewise, we can understand why the first Germans to follow Luther were Christian humanists. Only their incredible enthusiasm can explain the fact that, in just two weeks, Luther’s 95 theses were proclaimed all over Germany.
Among Europeans, Luther’s fellow countrymen had been the most loyal followers of the pope (according to papal nuncio Aleandro’s declaration from 1510). Still, the injustices that the Germans had endured for centuries from the papacy made Luther’s writings spread like wildfire. In 1520, just 10 years after the first declaration, Aleandro concluded that likely nine out of ten Germans supported Luther.
Of these, only a few had read or understood the reformer correctly. Many others, such as the petty nobility or some of the peasants, understood Luther from the perspective of their own grievances or longings. The way people interpreted Martin Luther gave rise to a revolt of the knights and the Great Peasant War.
The support of these social categories increased the influence of the Reformation exponentially, until they realised their misunderstanding of Luther’s position, or until Luther himself clarified it to them. Luther quickly became a symbol of the need for renewal, which the various categories rushed to assert, each with their own agenda. The Catholic Church ended up facing a very amorphous opposition mass, which made its defence almost impossible.
What is also little known is that, of the European Christian humanists, most of those over 30 remained in the Roman Catholic Church. To the Catholic Church, their influence was a powerful source of reformation from within, having contributed to the decision-making process, including at the Council of Trent (the authority behind the decisions on the Counter-Reformation).
On the other hand, the addition of humanistic disciplines in the formal education of priests, and the financial and moral reform within the clerical hierarchy (all introduced in Spain by Cardinal Jimenez) became a source of inspiration for the whole of Europe, as the Iberian kingdom grew in influence in the decades following the discovery of America. It is no coincidence that Spain was the Western European country in which the Protestant Reformation had the least impact. Many of the Westerners’ dissatisfaction with the Catholic Church had already received an internal response there.
Last but not least, the reforms introduced in Italy by the fraternities that focused on helping the poor, and improving clerical morality, contributed to the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Finally, the establishment of the Jesuit order in Spain in 1540, around the time the first generation of Protestant reformers left the stage of history, was probably the most important step in the realisation of the Counter-Reformation. Extremely committed to the pretentious spiritual discipline of the order and loyal to the pope, the Jesuits became the main instrument of the Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation.
The schools they set up virtually everywhere were very effective in inculcating anti-Protestant arguments. The Jesuits even persuaded Protestant parents to send their children to these excellent schools, with the deceptive promise that they would not proselytise. The results confirmed that things were exactly the opposite—many of the children of Protestants who studied in these schools became Catholics. In this way, Catholicism regained much of the territory lost during the early years of the Protestant Reformation.
What followed was a confrontation between three sides—the Catholic side, invigorated by the Counter-Reformation and led by the Jesuits, the Lutheran side, and the Reformed (Calvinist) side, because, unfortunately, the last two failed to find the necessary elements to create a merger. Left without its pioneers, Protestantism went on the defensive and, while trying to systematise its theological heritage, was caught in the trap of confrontations with the Jesuits in terms of scholasticism, specific to the latter.
The period came to be known as “Protestant scholasticism,” which means that there was a rift between the early reformers, who hated scholasticism, and their descendants who entered the realm of typical Catholic scholasticism. While the Reformers had kindled the hearts of the people by telling them about the One they needed in their lives, the schoolchildren of the Reformers focused on what we need to know about the true interpretation of the Bible. This theorising led to the loss of the vitality of the Reformation in the subsequent centuries.
More and more new churches have sprung up in an attempt to rediscover the life force of the sixteenth-century Reformation. To this day, all are in danger of losing the dynamism of their relationship to the person of God and becoming institutions focused on the exhaustive logical formulation of theology, which they must defend as the real one, the only one.
Luther and his contemporaries had found a way to avoid the risk of mortifying faith. Although they produced extensive works that showed how Scripture develops and harmonises the teaching necessary for the salvation of every human being, the early reformers did not lose sight of God and His revelation (meaning communication, dialogue with humanity) to focus on the theoretical dissection of the truths we find in Scripture.
The faith of the early reformers was logical, even if, coming from the Middle Ages, their understanding was not complete. The key lesson that we learn from them is that any principle of the life of faith must have logical coherence. However, scholastic logic, which submits faith to a philosophical system—a product of human reason—clips the wings of faith.
For all of us, probably the most important connection is that now we are precisely in this last scenario. And the scenario, unfortunately, was further complicated by the misunderstandings that accompanied or followed the Reformation. That is why the reform must continue for as long as history lasts. There will always be risks of mortification of faith, there will always be misunderstandings and there will always be deviation or forgetting of what is essential.
The interaction with each era and the influences of various currents and ideologies will continue to erode the transformative faith in each century. That’s why Semper Reformanda is a vital principle that does not indicate a need for the church to always add new truths but to rediscover and keep relevant the original ones, which Jesus incarnated in His life, work, death, and resurrection.