The papacy was the most powerful institution in the middle ages. When we talk of the papacy, we mean the Pope, who was the spiritual, political and economic authority in the whole of Europe. All monarchs had their powers vested in the pope, while every order and directives were executed with the pope’s permission. Any monarch who went against the wishes of the pope was dethroned and in some cases excommunicated.

Certain events in the late middle ages provided the foundation for the 16th century reformation. As stated above, the church through the pope was responsible for order and stability, but the Black Death of 1347, a plague caused by fleas and rodents led to the loss of one third of Europe’s population. This sole incident began to raise doubts in the mind of the populace as to the effectiveness of the church’s attempt at curbing the disease. This led to the rapid loss of faith in the church’s prayers which opened the door to many new local religious movements which had previously been suppressed.

This issue led to the emergence of different heretical movements, the first being the Free Spirits, who believed that the church was not meeting the spiritual needs of the people and thus advocated Mysticism. Another group was the Lollards who argued that the king was superior to and more important than the pope and religion. Jan Hus also attempted to create a movement of reformed individuals but he was arrested and burned at the stake on July 1415.

The renaissance of the Middle Ages, which contributed to enlightenment, the rebirth of knowledge, spread of nationalism and enhancement of curiosity was in the long run responsible for the final doom of the papacy and the eruption of the reformation. Other factors responsible were the corruption of the church, ministers having illicit affairs, and more so illegitimate children. But gravest of all which was to be the tool for uprisings was the endemic corruption and the sale of indulgences by the papacy. Money became the order of things, as church offices were purchased with money, indulgences were sold, popes and Bishops were more political than spiritual figures, exempted from taxes and criminal charges thus using graft and bribery to gain and exploit power. All of these atrocities contributed to the moral decadence of the church thereby putting the spiritual authority of the church into question and open to challenges.

The most prominent reformation theologian was Martin Luther, a German monk who studied law, obtained a master’s degree in Arts and later a professor of theology at Wittenberg University thus armed with and sophisticated with the necessary arguments challenged the church to enact a reform of its corrupt practices amongst a host of other issues. In his proposal, he wrote the famous 95 thesis in 1517 which he nailed to the door of the church.

The Papacy and Reformation- Martin Luther
Martin Luther

The 95 thesis were series of questions, regarding the idea of Salvation through works, the sale of indulgences and collection of wealth by the papacy.

The Papacy and Reformation-Luther's 95 Theses
Luther’s 95 Theses on display

Two years after in 1519, disappointed that his questions were not been attended to, made up his mind to quit the church. Pope Leo X in 1520 excommunicated Luther after refusing to stop what the Pope considered heresy and after his failure to appear before the diet of worms in 1521, he was declared a heretic, giving permission to anyone to kill him without remorse. But due to his popularity, this could not be enforced.

This led to the birth of Lutheranism which made the following reformation about the Christian Gospel and it includes

Justification by faith as against works which the Catholic Church hitherto emphasized

Equality of the clergy and lay faithful before the law

Religious authority is derived from the Bible and not the pope

Religious services to be held in vernacular and not only in Latin

Recognition of only two Sacraments i.e. Baptism and Lord’s Supper and the rejection of the doctrine of substantiation.

His teachings and books were publicly burnt, but this did not dissuade Luther in any way, the contents which had spread won him a very strong army of followers who came to be known as Lutheran’s and a new brand of Christianity known as Lutheranism. Luther died in 1546, with his religion being spread by his followers who had to wage several wars of survival against the Catholics. These wars were fought on various occasions and different locations all in a bid to ensure recognition and survival and most importantly, the spread of the tenets of the new found branches of Christianity.

The Papacy and Reformation-
 Huldrych Zwingli
Huldrych Zwingli

Other notable reformers were Huldrych Zwingli. Zwinglism originated in Switzerland, also recognizing Baptism and communion as the only sacraments, while advocating reform through education, rejecting rituals such as fasting and the elaborate ceremonies of Catholicism. Another was John Calvin 1509-1564.

John Calvin_ The Papacy and reformation
John Calvin

Born in France started as a theologian but ended up studying law which gave him the needed intellectual fiber which made his teachings more convincing and penetrating than Luther’s. His converts held a strong belief that they had a duty to convert with the willingness to endure martyrdom if necessary. Calvinism became the leading reformer of the second generation of reformation, succeeding Martin Luther at the forefront of theological debate and discussion. He published the Institutes of Christian Religion in 1541 and it had a tremendous impact in protestant Europe reaching its peak between 1545 and 1620 ending in 1648.

History bears a significant importance on our life due to the lessons derived from it which will forever be applicable to the present. It is said, that a man who refuses to learn or take cognizance of his past will be devoid of growth. Jesus said in the gospels that ‘give to Ceaser what belongs to Ceaser and to God what belongs to God. Jesus in his infinite wisdom had foreseen that the power of state and the power of religion are two different antagonistic institutions which should be distinct and separated from one another to avoid the overriding influence of one over the other. The rules of power and politics are unruly and has it is said, ‘power corrupts and absolute powers corrupt absolutely’. The intoxication that comes from political power can rarely be controlled by ordinary human instincts.

This case was evident in the institution of the papacy, which in its power as spiritual head got intoxicated by the powers it wielded in the political and economic realm. Corruption, brutality, bribery, graft, and many more which led to questioning the true identity of the church and open rebellion against it.

Finally, the spiritual guide of Christianity; The Bible, and the Machiavellian dictates of The Prince concerning political leadership are antagonistic which makes it highly unsuitable for both institutions of power to function through one another. If you are to go for politics, then be prepared to compromise some of your Christian beliefs and play by the rules of realism to survive the political world and if you are for Religion stay by it and have no dealings with the rogue nature of politics so as to avoid defamation of character and religious stance.


European History(PDF)

Lecture notes on Expansion of Europe