DARK HISTORY OF THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH
FROM REFORMATION TO ENLIGHTENMENT
The Renaissance party left an acrid hangover, the sins of centuries catching
up with a Church that had exhausted its credit - financially and spiritually.
Faith gave way to cynicism; reformers found new ways of following Christ,
while philosophers questioned the foundations of belief
'The true light, which enlightens everyone' - John 1:9
Leo left a legacy of unrivalled splendour, and Western art is forever in his debt. But his spiritual contribution is harder to detect. And, while he doesn't seem to have been personally immoral on the scale of so many of his predecessors (vague rumours of the odd gay relationship aside), his outrageous spending brought the Church to near-ruin - complete and utter ruin, some would say. Some did, indeed, most notably Martin Luther, the German priest whose indignation was to bring about a Reformation.
Martin Luther burns the bull with which Pope Leo X had attempted to refute his charges. The Reformation released a surge of theological passion and intellectual energy - but also a wave of violent intolerance.
The Pawnshop Pope
It has to be admitted that, in his desperation to fund his spending, Leo was resourceful, and he didn't stand pompously upon the dignity of the Church. After all, what previous Pope had tried to replenish his dwindling coffers by calling in the pawnbrokers to carry off artworks and furnishings from the great churches and papal palaces? Where Christ had angrily driven the moneylenders from the Temple, his successor, it seemed, was eagerly inviting them in. But this financial catastrophe was nothing to the moral and spiritual bankruptcy that was now to beset the Church.
Julius II's plan for a new St Peter's, calling as it did on vast reserves of funding, had sent the Church's campaign for donations into overdrive. A rebuilt basilica had first been mooted by Pope Nicholas V in the fifteenth century, but Julius II redrafted his proposals on a far bigger scale. A cynic might suggest that he conceived of the vast new basilica as a fitting house for the imposing tomb he'd commissioned for himself, rather than for the bones of St Peter or as a Spiritual headquarters for his Church. Leo X took up Julius' project with his customary enthusiasm and, as
Desiderius Erasmus the Dutch
humanist, wrote of the disgraceful
'degeneracy' of priests who
were actually 'filthy ignorant
his vision expanded, so did the expense. The Pope's solution, elegant in its simplicity, was calamitous in its implications. Not content with pawning material luxuries, he started pawning his powers of pardoning, selling indulgences in frank and unquestioning exchange for cash. The system, as we've seen had always been open to abuse: now the Pope had opened up a market in divine forgiveness.
A Crisis of Confidence
Conscientious Catholics couldn't help but be aware of the flaws of the Church and its hierarchy. For the most part, though, they managed to forgive them. Even if the institution was human, the faith was divine, they'd reasoned: the office was greater than the man and the Church much bigger than its clergy.
Desiderius Erasmus, the Dutch humanist, spoke for many when he wrote of the 'universally acknowledged' corruption of the Holy See, and the disgraceful 'degeneracy' of priests who, while claiming to be like the Apostles, were actually 'filthy, ignorant, impudent vagabonds'. They pretended to poverty but in reality wormed their way into men's homes and polluted them with evil: 'Wasps that they are, no one dares exclude them for fear of their stings.' Even so, Erasmus remained loyal to the Church. Others, though, their confidence crumbling, began to wonder whether Catholicism could still be justified, even in theological terms. The sale of indulgences may have been the last
Pope Julius II climbs up to inspect Michelangelo's ongoing work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The relationship between the painter and his patron were notoriously fraught, but the result was one of the most spectacular artistic achievements of all time.
spiritual straw for theologian Martin Luther, but his disillusion had gone a great deal further by the time he made his stand of 1517. It is impossible to know in hindsight how far ethical disgust prompted spiritual questioning, but it certainly created a context in which the unthinkable could be thought. John Calvin's theological break with Rome ended up extending far beyond the corruption issue, but his rebellion was clearly given impetus by his moral outrage. For him, the trade in relics didn't just seem distasteful, it discredited Catholicism. If all the relics in the world were brought together, he suggested, 'it would be made manifest that every Apostle has more than four bodies, and every Saint two or three.' In other words, the sins of the Church weren't just tarnishing its reputation, they were undermining the very basis of belief.
IN THE BOX
BROUGHT TO BOOK
What became known as 'Protestantism' grew out of intellectual questioning, not just moral disdain. The Renaissance had brought a ferment of ideas, and printing technology had distributed the benefits far and wide. A growing middle class felt more self-confident and secure in every area of life, especially in the prosperous cities of northern Europe. Why not question religion too? Rather than tamely submit to being spoon-fed spiritual doctrine by their clergy, they expected to judge things for themselves. Whether consciously or subconsciously, Martin Luther had understood the new importance of the individual conscience in a way the Catholic hierarchy had yet to. In 1522, he published his German translation of the New Testament so that his parishioners could read the Gospels for themselves. William Tyndale's English Bible came out in 1525 to bitter condemnation from the Church. As Henry VIII's Lord Chancellor, St Thomas More was to have the works of both men burned. Tyndale himself was to suffer the same fate when he was caught by the Catholic authorities in Antwerp, Belgium, and condemned as a heretic: he went to the stake in 1536.
Henry VIII's great seal authenticates the grant (to the ironically-named Sir Thomas Pope) of the lands and properties of the abbeys at Winchombe, Battle and Bruerne. The English king saw the monasteries as an asset to be stripped systematically, to enrich himself and reward his faithful supporters.
About-turn in England
To this day, British coins carry the name of the reigning monarch, then the letters 'F.D.', which stands for Fidei Defensor - 'Defender of the Faith'. Leo X awarded this honorific to England's Henry VIII in recognition of his services to Catholicism. In 1521 the King (a considerable scholar) had published his own pamphlet, A Defence of the Seven Sacraments (1521), painstakingly dismantling many of Luther's objections to Church teaching. But when his Queen, Catherine of Aragon, proved unable to bear him a male heir, Henry found himself in conflict with the Holy See. When Pope Clement VII refused him the annulment of their marriage that would allow him to wed Anne Boleyn, Henry was enraged. From now on, he insisted, the monarch would be the head of England's Church.
Henry's theological thinking hadn't changed. His 'Church of England' was still Catholic in everything but its fealty to Rome. Protestant reform was actively discouraged - at least at first. Henry's main priorities were the centralization of his rule and the satisfaction of his ongoing need for funds. The 'Dissolution of the Monasteries', which got under way in 1536, was a means of furthering both these aims at once. The break-up of the monastic system allowed the King to confiscate lands and treasures, while at the same time destroying the power of the Catholic Church in the country at large. Everything from gold vessels and embroidered vestments to lead roof lining and wood were carted off from the monasteries, while local profiteers followed, raiding the ruins for building-stone.
As time went on, though, the Church of England started heading off in a more continental-style, Protestant direction. Henry's chief minister Thomas Cromwell and Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer both had sympathies with some of Luther's reforming views. There was also a growing sense that 'Anglicanism' had to be marked out more theologically
Henry confides in his trusted chancellor. Till his eventual disgrace and death in 1530, Thomas Wolsey would have given a Renaissance Pope a run for his money with the wealth and splendour of his lifestyle, and the immensity of his power.
from what it was replacing: successive official prayer books pushed more Protestant doctrinal lines. Even now, though, the King set strict limits on religious faith: Henry VIII may have had some 60 Catholic martyrs executed, but more than 20 men and women were burned for preaching Protestant beliefs.
Henry had to have his kingdom run just-so. His consuming pathology was no more religious fanaticism than it was sex addiction. It was his ruthless, obsessively centralizing and controlling zeal.
IN THE BOX
A TALE OF THREE THOMASES
Dictatorial though he may have been by nature, Henry's instinct was always to delegate. He ruled through a succession of ministers and Lord Chancellors - all named Thomas. The first one, Wolsey, was a cardinal of the Catholic Church, but was much more worldly in his focus as Lord Chancellor. His taxation reforms enriched the Crown even as his reforms to the justice system bolstered royal authority at the expense of local lords. Wolsey's wealth and power became so great he was almost able to set himself up as a second King - a risky strategy when No.1 was so possessive of his prestige. The Cardinal's great palace at Hampton Court was confiscated by the King after Wolsey's inevitable fall from grace. (He faced treason charges when he sickened and died in 1530.) Wolsey's successor Thomas More has since been canonised by the Catholic Church to which he did indeed stay loyal and for which, in 1535, he died a martyr's death. But he wasn't to be mourned by England's Protestants, of whom he'd proven a cruel persecutor. Several 'heretics' were burned at the stake during his reign. Thomas Cromwell was as cruel in his conviction as his predecessor had been, but the victims now were Catholics - holdouts against Henry's Reformation. For what it's worth, the new minister seems to have been sincere. In the end his Protestant reforming zeal so far outstripped the King's that he was taken prisoner and beheaded in the Tower in 1540.
PAINTING: Antoine Caron's interest in classical antiquity comes out unexpectedly in his 1591 treatment of the arrest of Sir Thomas More. King Henry VIII appears (in the archway at left, on horseback) in more contemporary garb, but he was actually as tyrannical as any Roman emperor.
Turn and Turn About
Henry's young son, Edward VI, succeeded his father when he died in 1547. Mature for his years, he seems to have thought deeply about his faith and brought real Protestant conviction to his reign. But it was over in the blink of an eye. Always sickly, Edward died in 1553. It
Under Mary I, the English Reformation was thrown violently into reverse. Six Protestant martyrs were burned together in Canterbury in 1555. Such public shows may have served as a warning, but - whichever side conducted them - they also inspired with courage those quietly keeping up their faiths.
was all-change with the accession of Mary I. Henry's daughter didn't share his religious views. Hardly surprising, given that the Church of England had been brought into being specifically so her father could set aside her mother, Catherine of Aragon, who in her eyes had remained the rightful Queen of a Catholic England. 'Bloody Mary' was resolved to restore the One True Faith.
In furtherance of that cause an estimated 280 martyrs were burned at the stake - hundreds more were imprisoned and tortured by her agents.
A woman writhes, hung in chains from a crane in a crowded street during an eruption of violence against France's seventeenth-century Protestants, or Huguenots. Such outrages were quietly condoned by a Crown and Catholic Church which had no wish to see the order of centuries overturned.
And all for nothing. Mary died in 1558, only for her half-sister Elizabeth I to take the throne. Now the Catholics were the martyrs once again. Elizabeth passed Tenal Laws' preventing Catholics from holding public office or owning property. 'Recusants' - those who refused to swear their allegiance to Anglicanism - were hunted down. Catholic priests slipped into England secretly to help keep the creed alive in remote areas like Lancashire and Norfolk. Guerrilla-missionaries, they worked heroically underground. The country houses of Catholic families were equipped with special secret chapels and hiding-holes for priests, cunningly concealed in roof-spaces, under floors or behind false walls.
The Reformation polarized things. In those countries that continued to be Catholic, the Church became even more powerful than before. Catholic monarchs could see how easily the spiritual self-reliance the Protestants preached might be carried over into the sphere of worldly politics. In the Spanish Netherlands there could be no doubt: religious Reformation had brought calls for wider reforms and the Dutch had mobilized for independence. While the Inquisition redoubled its efforts here and in Spain, the French Crown cracked down hard on the Huguenots. Urged on by his queen - Mary, Queen of Scots - Francis II devoted his brief reign (1559-60) to the persecution of the Huguenots. The decades that followed brought what have come to be known as the 'French Wars of Religion' as rival Catholic and Protestant factions fought it out. Or,
The country houses of Catholic families were equipped with special hiding-holes for priests cunningly concealed in roof-spaces, under floors or behind false walls.
rather, it might be said, the great aristocratic houses of Guise and Bourbon vied for supremacy - for the contest was clearly as much a dynastic as it was a religious one. There's no doubt, though, that - as was to happen in many other conflicts in the centuries that followed - familial and ideological tensions took on a religious aspect.
So it was to prove in the home of the Reformation. Germany was then a patchwork of smaller states, principalities and duchies divided along religious lines. Conflict had been averted earlier with the agreement at the Peace of Augsburg (1555) of the principle cuius regio, cuius religio ('whose region, whose religion'). In other words, if a ruler was Catholic, then that was the
IN THE BOX
THE ST. BARTHOLOMEW'S DAY MASSACRE
The marriage of Henri III of Navarre to Charles IX's sister, Marguerite ofValois, in 1572 was meant to bring the two religious camps together: Henri was a Huguenot, Marguerite a Catholic. Unfortunately, many Catholics (not excluding the bride herself, it was rumoured) were bitterly opposed to the match. The Duke of Guise, the self-appointed leader of France's Catholic conservatives, was positively enraged. It didn't help that the Huguenot Admiral de Coligny was among the wedding guests: he was
widely believed to have ordered the assassination of Guise's father years before. The attempt by one of Guise's men to get revenge by shooting Coligny ended in failure, but set the sectarian temperature in Paris soaring. Pre-empting any Huguenot reprisals, the Duke of Guise and his men followed up the first attack: bursting into Coligny's house, they quickly killed him. In the three days that followed, Catholic mobs ran amok in a spree of slaughter that eventually left over 30,000 dead.
religion in his state; if he was Protestant, then so were his countrymen and -women. In 1618, however, that fragile peace broke down, and the first battles of the Thirty Years War were fought.
A real meat-grinder of a conflict at the heart of Europe, the Thirty Years War was fought by brutally unaccountable mercenary armies who, having no local loyalties, showed no mercy. When the Protestant city of Magdeburg was taken in 1632, for example, the population was put to the sword, some 25,000 people - mostly civilians - slaughtered. More than a fifth of Germany's population was killed - either massacred by enemy armies or caught up in the famines and epidemics that followed the military campaign. The question of 'Who started it?' is moot, the direct responsibility of the Catholic and Protestant churches
IN THE BOX
Was Descartes put to death by a priestly assassin? That suggestion has been made by one biographer, Theodor Ebert. The philosopher died in Stockholm in 1650, where he was tutor to Queen Christina; the cause of death was believed to be pneumonia. But Ebert disputes this. Sweden's Queen is known to have had a restlessly inquiring mind and to have had reservations about her country's Lutheranism: she seems to have been drawn at one time or another towards both Catholicism and freethinking. By 1649, though, she was taking active steps towards conversion to Catholicism. Concern grew that Descartes' influence might be a brake. Hence the alleged intervention of the French missionary Jacques Viogue who, says Ebert, gave the sage a communion wafer poisoned with arsenic.
in what was essentially a war between rulers debatable. Yet the episode's claim to a place in Catholicism's 'dark history' is not only indisputable but twofold: Catholics played parts as both the villains and the victims here.
Europe's religious wars had of course been deeply destructive, ugly and unedifying, but they'd at least acknowledged the centrality of faith. A disgrace to Christian ideals they may have been, but they had been fought on the assumption
that their causes were worth dying for - even if they'd involved an immense amount of killing too. The Catholic view of Protestantism as diabolical heresy at least paid it the compliment of not dismissing it as a mere irrelevance. Likewise, Protestant hatred of the Church of Rome as the Painted Whore of Babylon might
One of the great thinkers of the Enlightenment, the French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) is seen as having introduced philosophical reason to the realm of scientific enquiry and completely re-ordered our sense of what and who we are.
be seen as preferable to a jaded dismissal as worn-out superstition, neither here nor there.
Unimaginable at the seventeenth century's start, such judgements would still have seemed recklessly outrageous at its end. But the times were definitely changing, even so. Two great thinkers had set in train a revolution in thought: Rene Descartes with his formula Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am') in 1637, and the Englishman Isaac Newton with his Philosophiae Materialis Principia Mathematica ('Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy', 1687).
Descartes transformed the very terms of enquiry by making the human individual the first arbiter of experience, ('I think, therefore I am': I am my own existential guarantee.) Newton took things further: for the first time, it was possible to imagine a universe in which God's role had been drastically downscaled. This still left the problem of the 'first cause' (how could all this exist if someone hadn't made it?), but there was no necessity (perhaps no place) for a deity who, in St Matthew's formulation, 'knows every time a sparrow falls'.
Sir Isaac Newton's conception of the cosmos owed much more to scientific reason than it did to God. Whilst it didn't dispense with the idea of a creator altogether, it left 'him' badly marginalized. Newton himself believed in God - but not the divinity of Christ.
The Fighting Philosophes
It took time for these developments to filter through into the everyday thought of even the highly educated, but by the eighteenth century attitudes were changing fast. In France particularly, where the Church had associated itself closely with a corrupt and ineffectual monarchy, Catholicism was increasingly being regarded with disdain. Sophisticates were starting to embrace a new and satisfyingly scientific-sounding creed called 'deism': this accepted a creator as first cause, but went no further. God, having made the cosmos, it was suggested, had then pretty much left it to its own devices. The deity didn't concern himself with the lives of mortal men and women: 'Do you think,' asks a character in Voltaire's satirical novel Candide (1759) 'that when the Sultan sends a ship to Egypt he worries about whether the rats in the hold are comfortable?'
Nor, by the same token, did the supreme being care whether he was worshipped, prayed to or honoured with any of the other mumbo-jumbo offered by the Church. Which meant, in turn, that those things offered to the Church were done so under false pretences: religion was a racket, preying on the fears of the poor and superstitious. 'Theological religion', wrote Voltaire in his Philosophical Dictionary (1764), 'is source of all imaginable follies and disturbances; it is the parent
Sophisticates were starting to
embrace a new creed called
'deism': this accepted a creator as
first cause but went no further.
of fanaticism and civil discord. It is the enemy of mankind.' 'I have only ever uttered one prayer to God,' he said to a friend in 1767, 'and that was a very short one: "O Lord, make my enemies ridiculous." And he granted this.'
Voltaire, or to give him his real name, Francois-Marie Arouet (1694-1778), was one of a new breed of French writer-thinkers, the philosophes. Others included the scholar-journalist Denis Diderot (1713-84). The great project of his life was a vast (and, it was hoped, ultimately universal) Encyclopedia that would bring together all human knowledge, ascertained and organized by scientific and philosophical principles. As challenging in his own way was Diderot's friend, the Swiss-born thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78), with his insistence on the corrupting influence of social institutions: 'Man was born free,' he said, 'but is everywhere in chains.'
For this young generation, the Catholic Church was the enemy of truth; the spiritual arm of a reactionary order that mired the French people in benighted ignorance, abject poverty and blind superstition. It was up to modernity to clear away the obstacles to progress, to sweep away the old institutions: Ecrasez Vinfame -'obliterate the infamy', said Voltaire.
With his scorching wit and his writerly esprit, Francois-Marie Arouet (or 'Voltaire') helped set the tone for a modernity in which brilliant sceptics would dance effortlessly around ponderous prelates, showing up the folly and corruption of the Church.
TO BE CONTINUED
YES WE SHOULD BE ABLE TO SEE FROM HISTORY, WHY SOME PEOPLE WOULD HAVE BECOME CYNICAL AT THE CHURCH OF ROME; HOW IT WOULD HAVE TURNED MANY AWAY FROM THE IDEA OF A GOD; HOW THEY WOULD MAKE FUN OF THE ROMAN CHRISTIANITY; HOW THEY WOULD DISDAIN, HOLD IN CONTEMPT, IN SCORN, THE RELIGION OF ROME.