The Decline of Church Authority

Between 1100 and 1300 the office of the pope was extremely powerful and the church had become a great temporal power as well as a spiritual society. It was a major social and culture force of the period.

History of the Church

The Christian church has had a long history. From being a small group of Christians, Christianity had grown until it became the religion of the Roman Empire and then of the Western Europe. By the fourteenth century, the church enjoyed immense political power because many non-Church offices were filled with priests and other members of the clergy who could read and write. The church had spoken for so long with the voice of authority that it was seldom questioned and people all over Europe were to regard its authority as representing the voice of God to them on earth.

Conflict over Power

By the end of the 1300s, conflict over power started when the monarchs who resented Pope’s interference had risen to power. Philip the Fair, of France, refused to listen to the Pope when he ordered him to free one of his subjects. Philip was supported by nobles and they defied the Pope. The Pope died soon after and to prevent any trouble, Philip dominated the election of the next pope that a Frenchman was elected and the seat of the papacy was transferred from Rome to Avignon on France. Monarchs resented the overwhelming influence of France over the church. As a result, the church was less respected and lost some of the power. In 1376, Pope Gregory XI moved the capital back to Rome. When he died in 1378, Urban VI, an Italian extremely unpopular with the French, was elected pope. In protest, the French cardinals elected a Frenchman, Clement VII, who returned the pope's residence back to Avignon. Pope Urban VI, however, refused to step down from his office. Now the church had two popes. This split, known as the Great Schism, weakened the church. Many people, not knowing which pope to follow, lost faith in the church.

Corruption of the Clergy

The clergies had worldly lives. They dressed richly and lived in luxury. And there arose a feeling that the church was using its power for its own advantage instead of for the good of the people. Such ideas destroyed confidence in many people's church goodness and their reverence of the church's authority. Perish priests neglected their duty. Friars were lazy and ignorant. Bishops were busy looking after their land. The popes misused their power to excommunicate. Clergy sold indulgences --- forgiveness for wrongdoing granted by the church --- if a sinner would do some good deed or give a gift of money to the church to be used for some holy purpose. The church also sold clerical positions to the highest bidders so a lot of them were ignorant, illiterate, uneducated people. Candidates for popes bribed, blackmailed, tortured, and killed their way to being a pope. Investiture was a ceremony in which a bishop or other high official of the church received the ring and the staff that symbolized the spiritual authority of his job. It was not unusual for a secular or lay ruler to invest bishops and indeed, many secular rulers invested the candidates who paid the most money.

Many people began to question the spiritual leadership of the clergy. How could the clergy teach the Bible if they weren't devout or didn't know how to read?

They believed The Bible should be the standard doctrine from which everything should be judged. But the Bible had not been preserved in its original form and there were as many versions in translation as priests willing to produce them. Many of the things that people had written in the Bible were totally wrong and it was impossible to literally believe in them. Corruption of the Bible was a very important cause of the decline of the Church.

Distrust in Church

The distrust in Church led to distrust in religion. Materialism grew. It was seen at the time of the Black Plague. Calamities have occurred throughout history. People of faith take the calamities and hardships in life as reminders from God and turn to Him in repentance. But when a people have become too materialistic, it has the opposite effect. When the Black Death came, it caused a good deal of questioning in men's mind in. Many people started to question the value of some of the religious observances and of prayer and of pilgrimages.

New Churches Form

Yet people wanted religion but were dissatisfied with their religious leaders and their teachings. They resented the monopoly of church and believed that every priest had a right to teach and preach what he chose. As a result, the movement for religious freedom spread and most of the people in northern Europe founded new churches of their own. The new churches were called Protestants. In time differences arose among the Reformers and the Protestants and the Protestants therefore divided in to different sects or denominations. In Germany, there were the Lutherans, followers of Martin Luther while in Switzerland were the Calvinists whose leader was John Calvin. Some people came to believe that everyone should be baptized so these people were called Baptists.

Since the Bible was in Latin, a language known to very few people, people depended on the church to explain it to them. Luther translated the Bible into German. John Wycliff translated it into English. To the Catholic Church, all these new creeds seemed like terrible heresies and the church sought to root them out through the Inquisition. This court often abused its power and often tortured the Protestants harshly.

Catholics persecuted Protestants. And Protestants persecuted Catholics and other Protestants who didn't follow the same leader as them. Never again would a single religion dominate all of Europe.