If you ask most people why there was a Protestant Reformation they answer, “Because of corruption in the Church.” That’s the common view. They might blame the indulgence controversy or Papal involvement in politics. If they’re Protestants, they probably claim the Church was doctrinally corrupt. Even Catholics give this answer. (I know. I just polled a roomful of Catholics on the question.) For centuries, in fact, this was the standard line for Catholic historians: if only the Church had done a better job, there would have been no Protestant Reformation.
There is one small problem with the corruption thesis, however. It’s just not true. I don’t mean there was no corruption in the Church. There was plenty of it. What I mean is corruption in the Church didn’t make the 16th century any different from every other century. It’s not like the 16th century was the worst time we’ve ever seen. We’ve seen far worse – the papacy bought and sold, ignorant, immoral prelates, schism, multiple claimants to the papal throne. You name it; there was some century that somebody was doing it, or even lots of somebodies.
The real cause of the Reformation was not Church corruption (moral, doctrinal, or otherwise) but how people felt about it. And here comes one of the greatest historical ironies: people grew intolerant of corruption in the Church at least in part because the Church told them to. One man who gets a lot of the credit for this is Pope Gregory VII (1020-1085). In his day, the Church was absolutely rife with corruption and he wanted to do something about it. He fought hard to eliminate simony (buying Church offices) and clerical incontinence. He strove to free the Church from the control of secular rulers. But he did something very radical, too. He called on laypeople to oppose corrupt clergy, absolving them of their obligations to obey.
In the aftermath of Pope Gregory’s reform, we saw centuries of religious movements and lay reforms both inside and outside of the Church. The most famous examples are St. Francis and St. Dominic, who rose up in answer to the Church’s call for Reformation. Others left the Church in a misguided search for evangelical perfection. The Waldenisans and Albigensians come to mind. But what they all had in common was an eager desire to reform the Church. Sometimes, even good religious would gin up popular agitation by decrying corruption in Church and state. The Dominican Savanarola (1452-1498) went to his death for such a display.
What all of this means is that the Church created the expectation that things should be better. Religious carried out centuries of catechesis and preaching. Books like The Imitation of Christ flooded the popular market once Guttenberg invented printing. The Church created such a demand for good religion that she couldn’t keep up with the demand. The Protestant Reformers merely stepped into a gap that would not have existed had the Catholic Church not been working for centuries to root out corruption and raise the level of lay spirituality. This is not simply my private theory. Lucien Febvre made the argument in 1929 in his famous essay, “Une question mal posée.” Today, this is the consensus view among historians. A good book on the subject is Steven Ozment’s, The Age of Reform: 1250-1550.
So why does this matter today? It matters because we need to be alert to how we frame our discussions about the Church and how we respond to propaganda. The Reformation era was not the worst in Church history, but people at the time became convinced that it was. People with a personal or a political agenda exploited the popular mentality and disseminated propaganda that caused centuries of bloodshed and suffering.
In a similar way, we suffer today from very biased reporting and outright propaganda about the Church. These condition the way we understand ourselves, even as Catholics. To illustrate, did you know that there is one hundred times more sexual abuse in California public schools than in the Catholic Church? This, according to Hofstra University researcher Carol Shakeshaft. But where is the outcry? Where the mass exodus of parents from the public school system? There is none, because the media elites didn’t see fit to report the facts in a way that would lead to that outcome.
There were many, many factors leading to the Reformation: economic and political changes, demography and societal attitudes, technology (printing), intellectual developments (scholasticism and the renaissance), religious sentiment, and the contributions of colorful personalities. It is impossible to point out one cause of the Reformation. These all came together at a critical moment in western history. “Corruption,” as such, was not the cause of the Reformation.
Reflecting on this, it is good to know that the Church has always had corruption, has always fought corruption, and has never made “absence of corruption” a mark of the true Church. Jesus told us to expect corruption in the Church until the end of time. (Matthew 13:24-30) And every attempt to create a perfect Church in this life has always ended in disaster. The Donatists tried it in North Africa. The Puritans tried it in New England. We could list other examples, but the result is always hypocrisy or tyranny. I, myself, am very grateful for my corrupt Church. I would never think of leaving it because of corruption but I suppose, if I did, it would be a little bit less corrupt.