The Renaissance and the Church
Even though there are some sharp contrasts, for the most part, the influence and prestige of the Catholic Church was declining. The humanistic thinking did accept the older church institutions that were deeply rooted in traditions and traditional ways of thinking.
In the past, the Catholic Church had been an important part of the system that was based on the allegiances between lords and vassals (the feudal system). During the Renaissance the demands of society shifted and became based on money instead of allegiances. The church had a difficult time adjusting to this new way of thinking. For example, the parish priests and monks had long served as the religious teachers of the peasants, but as the commercial class began to grow, the priests found that they knew very little about the needs of this new class of people.
The esteem of the church was also hurt as some church leaders violated the biblical laws they were entrusted to uphold and lived no differently than the secular merchants and political figures. This was compounded by the realization by the new monarchs that, in order for them to maintain power, the support of the church was not as important as in the past.
Even though the churches influence in politics was weakening, as can be seen by the Babylonian Captivity and the Great Schism, the popularity of religion was actually growing. This growth continued through the 14th and 15th centuries and reached a climax during the 16th century, known as the Reformation.
The Catholic Church in Decline
The papal court was humiliated when, in the early 14th century, the French king forced them to Avignon. This forced move made the churches highest leaders appear to be pawns of France. The church, instead of providing spiritual leadership and direction for the rapidly changing society and class, became preoccupied with its administration staff and processes and with the collection of revenue
The problems grew worse during the Great Schism, when rival popes competed for control of the church. The final outcome further weakened the political influence of the church.
There were worthy leaders of the Catholic Church during these times. Nicholas V (mid 15th century) and Pius II, who followed his papacy, were learned, pious and noble leaders of the church.
There were also other leaders, like Alexander VI (pope in 1492), Julius II and Leo X, who were chiefly concerned with politics, the promotion of their families and the patronage of the arts. These popes further weakened the ability of the Catholic Church to influence society and politics.
With its weakened influence, the church found its papal authority increasingly challenged, both locally and nationally. These challenges to the papal authority, known as heresy, flourished, and critics became more outspoken and numerous.
The concern of the churches condition was a result of the strength of the church, not the weakness. The influence of the Catholic Church was weakening but there was ever increasing popularity of religion throughout all parts of Europe.
Religion began to change. Preachers, like Savonarola of Florence, called on sinners to repent. One movement, that grew in part from the German mystic, Echhart, grew in western Germany in the Rhineland area. This movement believed in direct revelations from God without the church as an intermediary.
The communal and metaphysical faith of the Catholic Church was challenged in Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands by a movement known as the “devotion moderna”. This group emphasized individual and practical faith as opposed to the communal and metaphysical faith of the Catholic Church.
These movements, along with their differing beliefs, posed a threat to traditional religion. Popular heretical movements continued to grow and continued to challenge papal authority. Some of these movements even proposed doing away with the Catholic Church as an institution. During the 14 century, British philosopher John Wycliffe began formalizing his attacks in his teachings and writings. A Bohemian, Jan Hus, also wrote of these things.
These heretics became popular because of their attacks, but they remained as a small minority. The majority of the reformers hoped to change the Catholic Church, not remove it.
A particularly influential theologian, Jean de Gerson, at the University of Paris in the early 1500’s supported the conciliar theory. This theory aimed at reforming the Catholic Church by removing the supreme authority of the pope and placing it in a general council.
The call for reform was not just from outsiders, Nicholas of Cusa (the “papal legate” or official representative of the pope) pursued church reform policies directly aimed at monks who had violated the monastic vows.
The most successful reformer of all was Cardinal Ximenes of Spain. He set standards for training, discipline and qualifications for the Spanish clergy. None of these reforms spread throughout all of Europe. There were a lot of people who were unhappy with the church but there were also lots of people who thought the church could be improved with basic reforms.