I was particularly interested in Chapter 3 because it deals with the events that lead up to the Council of Trent, and opinions on this time period of Church history are particularly contentious. By highlighting a continuity of Catholic reform, I think Bellitto has contributed some valuable insights to this period. He certainly increased my understanding of the "Catholic Reformation," and hopefully you will similarly benefit from my short paper on his work.
- - - - - - - - - -Renewing Christianity: A History of Church Reform from Day 1 to Vatican II
Chapter 3, “From Avignon to Trent: The Era of Multiple Reforms”
Christopher M. Bellitto
Paulist Press, Copyright 2001, 233 pgs.
Like his later book, The General Councils, Christopher Bellitto’s book Renewing Christianity is a fair and balanced look at the history of the Church. Bellitto has the uncanny ability to admit the faults of the Catholic Church and acknowledge the elements of truth of her detractors while still maintaining a faithful, Catholic position. His books are also very helpful in providing much-needed perspective to events in the Church’s history that are often subject to “preconceptions and caricatures” (102). As such, I was particularly interested in Chapter 3, “From Avignon to Trent: The Era of Multiple Reforms.” The events that led up to the Council of Trent are the topic of such heated debate that it seems nearly impossible to come to an objective assessment. If any period in the Church could benefit from a scholarly approach that provides perspective, it is this one. Bellitto’s treatment of the late medieval and reformation years (from about 1300 to 1600) will be the focus of this paper.
We tend to think of two monolithic reforms during this period: Luther’s “Protestant Reformation” and Trent’s “Catholic Reformation” or “Counter Reformation.” Furthermore, the common perception is that the Catholics reformed only in reaction to Luther (104). However, Bellitto challenges these views. He states that there were in fact many reforms, both Protestant and Catholic, during this period. The Catholic reforms in particular are of interest because little has been written about the continuity of Catholic reform during the late medieval and reformation years. Because this was an “era of multiple reforms,” Bellitto informs us that it is better to speak of reformations, in the plural and with a lower-case r, instead of the Protestant “Reformation”, or the Catholic “Reformation” (102). It is also interesting to note that, while many historians only see the greed and corruption of the Catholic Church during this time, there were in fact, both in the head and the body of the Church, voices that cried out for personal reform and accountability on the part of the papacy.
“The very fact that at least a handful of the pope’s inner circle advocated reform indicates a number of well-placed Catholics before Luther recognized the need for it” (103). These figures begin to appear in the late Middle Ages (ca. 1300-1450) in reaction to the Avignon Papacy (1305-77) and the Great Western Schism (1378-1417). This period of about 150 years was a time of much confusion and corruption in the hierarchy of the Church. For various political, military, and geographic reasons, the papacy moved from its traditional seat in Rome to Avignon, France (105). Entrenched there, it expanded its bureaucracy and grew in opulence. Simony and greed plagued the Church in capite. However, “while some Avignon popes certainly promoted bureaucratic greed and malaise, others were genuine reformers” (107).
Benedict XII (ca. 1334-42) fought absenteeism, reduced the numbers and amounts of fees for documents and procedures, and fought the practice of bribing for major offices. He also reorganized the administration of the papacy and required more rigorous examinations for candidates to the priesthood or the bishopric (170). Innocent VI (1352-62) and Urban V (1362-70) continued many of these reforms. However, all of this was stalled by the Great Western Schism (107-108).
The Catholic Dictionary, Revised Edition gives us the following concise summary of the events that surrounded the schism:
- A disruption in Catholic unity lasting from 1378 until 1417, resulting from rival claims to the papacy. After the election of Urban VI in 1378, thirteen of the cardinal electors challenged him, and then chose Clement VII, who returned to Avignon in France. In an attempt to correct the situation, a third Pope, Alexander V, was elected at the Council of Pisa. After a time of great confusion and bitter politics, the schism was ended when the Council of Constance (1414-18) elected Pope Martin V. The rivals either resigned or eventually died (“Western Schism, The Great”, p. 762).
For example, the Council of Constance, the very one that was so fixated on finally unifying the papacy, also discussed possible reforms both in membris and in capite. Reform in membris focused on the personal morality, pastoral care, and qualifications for service of the clergy (110). Clergy should be well-educated, sufficiently paid for their work, and faithful to priestly celibacy. They also debated a proposal whereby a priest would be required to give up his concubine within one month or face rejection by the people. Yet, because of the turmoil from above, these reforms never made it down into the populace (110). However, there were some reforms in capite that were successful.
Starting at the top, the Council focused on simony and the decrease of papal taxes and other fees that had become inordinate. Some also proposed a more efficient and learned curia (110). Of course, changes like this take time, especially when the course of reform is being thwarted by power struggles within and by the papacy. Ever since Martin V was elected in 1417 by the Council of Constance to end the Western Schism, conciliarism was a threat to the authority of the papacy. Many of the popes were more concerned with this power struggle than with reforming their own conduct or the body of the Church as a whole (110-111).
What is interesting is that even though reform largely failed to be implemented at the higher level, there was a great surge of reform in the Church’s body. In particular, the emphasis on humanism and the devotio moderna movement reveals that reform does not always require an impetus and direction from above in order to grow and survive. “The spirit of reform lived in the church’s body with tremendous popular enthusiasm, optimism, and hope that these difficult times would soon improve” (112). Among the laity there was indeed a great vitality of faith and an honest quest for personal reform.
“Late medieval religious practice is distinguished by several characteristics tied to personal reform: interior piety, self-knowledge in solitude that often led to very active lay spirituality (the marriage of action and contemplation), a personal identification with the suffering Christ, and humanism” (112-113). By humanism, of course, is meant the Christian kind, which placed an emphasis on the good that could be taken from the works of ancient Greece and Rome, as well as those of the early Church fathers. Humanism also “championed the partnership between humanity and divinity, reminded people of their dignity as made in the imago Dei, and emphasized human beings’ God-given potential to act on the principles of Christian faith” (113). This meant striving to live a moral life in one’s everyday circumstances, to confront the world and transform it with one’s witness, instead of withdrawing from it.
Alongside this increased interest in Christian humanism grew the devotio moderna movement, spearheaded by Dutch religious leader Gerard Gote (1340-84, cf. pg. 114). This movement was an “inside-out reform” that focused on a person’s interior life and the spiritual exercises he performed so as to conform his will to God’s and to experience more fully God’s presence in his life. This meant attempting to live a devout life in a materialistic society (115). It also meant truly informing one’s actions by charity and virtue instead of merely accumulating works without purpose or feeling, which was characteristic of the arithmetical piety of the time. “As reformers, they opposed overuse of statues, vigils, pilgrimages, relics, the rote exercise of prayers and devotions, and a mathematical approach to totaling up indulgences” (116). Devotio moderna followers also focused on the human, historical, suffering Jesus, and with trying to identify with him in their daily trials and mortifications (115).
Through these two movements, the Church in membris was able to experience substantial reform in their personal lives, despite the fact that the Church at the highest levels was filled with corruption and provided little spiritual direction. “While three popes and a variety of conciliarists in capite fought themselves and rendered reform stillborn, the spirit and practice of reform was alive and well in membris in the late medieval church” (118).
One of the childhood students of the devotio moderna grew up to become perhaps the most famous reformer in all of Church history: Martin Luther. While his reform and the various reforms that anticipated and came after him are beyond the scope of this paper, there is room to briefly mention two of his contemporaries: Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto and Erasmus. The interventions of these two men help continue the thread of Catholic reform during this period that ultimately leads to the Council of Trent
When John Calvin started propagating his more radical reform ideas, Cardinal Sadoleto stepped in to confront him. What is noteworthy about this intervention is that Sadoleto was able to admit that there were several abuses in the Church that needed correction. If Calvin would have restricted his attention to cleaning up these abuses in practice (such as the bureaucracy of the papacy and the arithmetical piety of the people), then he would have actually found himself in agreement with Sadoleto. But, Calvin widened his attack to include the very doctrine, sacramental life, and authority of the Catholic Church. This set him at odds with the Cardinal, as evidenced by a letter he wrote to Calvin concerning his doctrine on justification by faith alone:
- The point in dispute is whether [it is] more expedient for your salvation, and whether you think you will do what is more pleasing to God, by believing and following what the Catholic church throughout the whole world, now for more than fifteen hundred years, or (if we require clear and certain recorded notice of the facts) for more than thirteen hundred years approves with general consent; or innovations introduced within these twenty-five years, by crafty or, as they think themselves, acute men; but men certainly who are not themselves the Catholic church? (130)
Another important Catholic figure during this reformation period is Erasmus. This famous humanist is a complicated character, and he succeeded in having friends and enemies on both sides of the Protestant-Catholic divide. To some he was too Lutheran, to others he was too Catholic. However you looked at him, it was obvious that he was an influential and outspoken voice of reform. As a humanist infused with devotio moderna spirituality, he rejected religious formalism and urged the laity to pursue “an active spiritual life of inward piety and outward service” (141). He criticized ambition, greed and power in the church’s hierarchy and repeatedly singled out Pope Julius II for his neglect of pastoral service and humility. “Erasmus also criticized empty monastic vows, clerical ignorance, arithmetical piety, spiritual superstition, and scholastic theology that was more sophistic than pastoral” (141).
Always faithful to the humanist and devotio moderna schools, he also emphasized a return to the sources of the Christian tradition (the early Church fathers, the Bible in its original languages, etc.), an inner reform and education based on living according to Christian principles, and an embracing of the original image and likeness of God (141-142). “By contrasting the way things are with the way things should be in the church, Erasmus indicated that the hierarchy must be divested of its worldliness and all Christians must work continuously on their individual goodness” (142). It is no wonder that Catholics of his day often viewed him as the one who opened the door for Luther’s more sweeping reforms.
This brings us to the final link between the first stirrings of reform during the “Babylonian captivity” of the papacy and the close of the 16th century. Backing up a bit to a time before Calvin we find “four specific calls for reform in a twenty-five year period surrounding Luther, which, while stillborn, paved the way to the Council of Trent” (144). The first took place at the Fifth Lateran Council (1512-17).
At the council, Giles of Viterbo was the dominant reform voice. He was tired of all of this talk of reform never amounting to anything. He wanted to see action! He saw this as the only way to reform the Church. Like Luther, Calvin, and Erasmus, he sought to bring the Church “back to its old purity, its ancient brilliance, its original splendor, and its own sources” (144). He thought that the present council could very well be the impetus for such reform, if only Pope Julius II and the rest of the hierarchy would get behind it. He bravely proclaimed to the pope, “God commands you to tear down, root up, and destroy errors, luxury, and vice, and to build, establish, and plant moderation, virtue, and holiness” (144).
The second call for reform came in the form of a Libellus written by two monks to Pope Leo X (1513-21). The authors laid the blame squarely at his feet, and demanded of him a long list of changes:
- The papacy should lead the way to reform via inner spiritual progress and oversee reform through the church’s hierarchy. Popes should call general councils every five years; bishops should hold synods in their dioceses and provinces to police compliance. They must also carefully examine candidates for ordination, especially inquiring whether they knew scripture and specifically requiring that they had read the entire Bible (145).
The third abandoned call for reform was a set of guidelines written by Leo’s successor, Adrian VI (1522-1523). Like Sadoletto (who would come after him), Adrian too was willing to admit the failures of the papacy. He assigned blame at the highest level and encouraged a reform starting at the very top and then working its way down to the people. His words to Francesco Chieregati, his legate to the Diet of Nurembur, show just how frank and honest he was willing to be in order to persuade the German princes there to remain Catholic and oppose Luther. I find his words so remarkable that they are worth substantial quotation:
- You will also say that we frankly confess that God permits this persecution to afflict this church because of the sins of men, especially of the priests and prelates of the church…We know that for many years many abominable things have occurred in this holy see, abuses in spiritual matters, transgressions of the commandments, and finally in everything a change for the worse. No wonder that the illness has spread from the head to the members, from the supreme pontiffs to the prelates below them. All of us (that is, prelates and clergy), each one of us have strayed from our paths; nor for a long time has anyone done good; no, not even one… (145-146).
Catholic reform in the period from 1300 to Trent finds its final attempt in the initiatives of Pope Paul III (1534-49), fifteen years after the death of Adrian. Interested in calling a general council, Paul III first called a number of leading reformers to Rome and charged them with drawing up a reform program for the council. The result was the Consilium de emendanda ecclesia, or “Counsel on Reforming the Church” (146). This document, like the Libellus sent to Leo X, was very forthright and recommended ways to correct a whole host of wrongs. “The [Consilium] advised, among other measures, reforms in the training and examination of candidates for the priesthood. Pastors should be appointed who desire and know how to care for their flocks. Bishops and parish priests should never be absent from their posts unless for serious reasons. Even the most basic education must be addressed, especially in religious and philosophical matters, and books should be inspected for their suitability” (147).
The Consilium seems to have had the potential to effect some real change. Unfortunately, it was sabotaged by Martin Luther, who was able to get his hands on a leaked copy of the report and quickly translate it into German for mass production. But that’s not all. In the report he also included his own remarks in the margins, infecting it with his usual polemical style (147-148). In this, Luther succeeded in bringing ridicule and embarrassment to this noble step towards reform by Paul III. As such, the Consilium, like the many reforms efforts that preceded it, ultimately failed. Reform would not finally take hold in the Church until the Council of Trent nearly a decade later.
And so we have finally come to that great and lasting reform of the Church that has been, in the minds of many Catholics, the singular image of Catholic reform in the 300-year span between 1300 and 1600 AD. While it is true that the Council of Trent deserves credit for the momentous reforms that it implemented, Bellitto has shown in his chapter on this period that the other Catholic reform efforts that led up to Trent deserve attention as well. What these reform efforts reveal is that the history of the Catholic Church has always been about reform, a task that was not simply abandoned after the high Middle Ages only to be resurrected when Luther arrived and changed Christendom forever. Even with great scandal in the hierarchy of the Church, the laity were passionate about growing in personal holiness and changing the world from the inside-out. Voices among the hierarchy called for accountability as well. When the laity and the hierarchy were finally able to work together, the result was a true and lasting reform that enriched the Church for the next 400 years and continued the quest for reform that the Church has been pursuing since its very inception.