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The Catholic Church Before Luther

In order to understand Luther, you have to understand the basics of the late medieval Catholic Church—how it was structured, what it did, and why so many people wanted to reform it. This essay will attempt to describe the Catholic Church of that time without getting overly technical or spending too much time on the other historical events and movements of the time. I hope that, when you finish reading this, you will have a reasonable sense of what life was like in the western branch of the Christian Church, and be able to understand why the Reformation was such a hot issue.

Half of Christianity

By late medieval times, the Christian Church on earth had broken into two major parts—the Eastern churches, often referred to as the Orthodox, and the Western church, known as the Catholic or Roman church. The Eastern branch of Christianity did not experience the Reformation; that was limited to the Western branch. In this essay we’ll be talking only about the Western branch, although Luther did know of the Eastern Christians and he was interested in their similarities and differences to what he taught.

The Western branch of Christianity was called the Roman Church because its administrative leadership was centered in Rome, the old capital of the Roman Empire. There were a few years when the church leadership had to relocate due to political conflicts, but the goal was always to return to the city of Rome.

The term Catholic Church was used because for all intents and purposes, this was the only Christian church available to western Europeans. Catholic means “universal, including everything,” and at most times and in most places, to be a western Christian was to be a Catholic. Occasionally a breakaway group like the Hussites or the Albigensians would form, but these were normally considered heretics and persecuted.

After the Reformation people needed to find new names to use for the church that remained based in Rome under the authority of the pope. Many names were used, but the one that has become most popular is the term Roman Catholicism. Adding the word Roman to the name Catholic made it possible to talk about other Christian groups as well without implying that they were somehow not a part of the universal “catholic” body of Christ.

For the sake of clarity, I am going to use the word “Catholic” to refer to the Rome-based Christian church under the leadership of the pope.

Are You a Christian?

In late medieval Europe, people were assumed to be Christians (and therefore Catholics) unless they told you otherwise. There were very few non-Christian minorities; the Jews were the best known. Unlike today, people didn’t openly go around calling themselves atheists, agnostics, or unbelievers; society was Christian, and you were expected to abide by that unless you fell into one of the rare minority groups, like the Jews. (It was a world that was much more interested in fitting into a group rather than in promoting individual self-expression. This was true in religion just as it was in politics and other areas of life.)

Hypocrites in the Church

Please remember that this does not mean that everyone was a convinced Christian believer. Plenty of people did not believe or did not practice the Christian faith no matter what they said publicly, including some people in powerful positions in the church. This was a scandal and a public embarrassment, and writers like Chaucer had been mocking hypocrites like these for years.

But it wasn’t just writers looking for comic figures who were concerned about bad faith and practice in the church. There were serious calls for reform, and some people attempted to put these into action. Unfortunately, many of these would-be reformers ended up condemned by the religious and political leaders they were trying to convert. Many were accused of heresy, which often led to imprisonment and death. It was not an easy world to change.

Church and State

Part of the difficulty was that in those days, church and state were intertwined to the point that you could hardly tell where one left off and the other started. Bishops and other church leaders held a lot of political power; they often ruled large areas and even had their own courts and military systems. Kings and princes had to be careful around the church, as the church hierarchy could make their lives extremely difficult for them—in some cases, by excommunicating them and placing their people living in their lands under church discipline (thus encouraging them to rebel against their rulers).

However, secular rulers had power over the church as well. Many had the legal right to appoint men of their own choice to certain church offices. Some abused this right in obvious ways. They choose men who were not good for the church—men who were far too young, who lived evil lives, or who were their own children and close relatives. Some princes even made money by basically “selling” the right to a position such as a bishopric; this is called simony. It was illegal, of course, but people did it anyway.

Kings and princes sometimes acted in a more direct way against the church. Popes who offended secular leaders were sometimes kidnapped, dethroned, and replaced by other candidates.

From the twenty-first century it is easy to look back and see all the negatives that come from church and state being so closely intertwined. However, there were some good aspects to it. Princes considered it their responsibility to enforce basic right and wrong, and would sometimes step in to reform a situation in the church that had gotten badly out of hand. The church, too, had a moderating effect on the state, making it clear that even an emperor was not above God’s law and could not simply do whatever he liked. Church and state worked together to provide education and help for the sick and poor.

What’s Your Status?

The late medieval church divided people into groups based on their status. “Baptized lay person” was the most common, of course; but you could also be a priest, a person in lesser holy orders, a monk, a friar…. Let’s look at these groups.

Baptized Lay Person

A baptized lay person was a man or woman who was counted as a Christian and who was subject to the rule and care of the church. He or she could marry, carry on business, and do all the ordinary business of life. In cases of emergency, such a person could baptize (for example, if a baby was born and looked likely to die before a priest could baptize it). Lay people were under the care and leadership of the priests, and were not to usurp their functions.


A priest was a man set aside by the church to provide the sacraments to the people. They were supposed to be trained and educated, though many were not as well educated as they should have been. These were the church leaders who came in contact with the ordinary people the most.

The most common kind of priest would be parish priests. A parish priest was a priest who was supposed to care for the people of a particular area. He would normally be in charge of holding services in the local church. Parish priests baptized people, married them, heard their confessions, gave them the Lord’s Supper, and anointed them when dying. They did not necessarily preach or teach—sermons were not yet a regular part of worship services, and many priests had no training on how to develop a good sermon. Parish priests normally got their support from the community they served in the form of tithes (these were basically church taxes that ordinary people were supposed to pay to support the church). There might also be land belonging to the local parish that could be farmed or grazed to provide income for the priest.

Oddly enough, not all priests actually lived in the area they were supposedly serving. Some were away doing other work. So to cover his duties in the parish, an absentee priest would find a “vicar”—a person who would cover the services and receive a small amount of the priest’s income in return. Many vicars were poorly educated and held only minor orders. This was not a good situation for the local parish.

The money that did not belong to the vicar was sent on to the absent priest to support his life at the episcopal court or university. Living in a big city was expensive, and so sometimes the bishop would give the absentee priests charge over more than one parish so they could get more money. A priest might collect several parish incomes this way, while several vicars did all the work. This setup was called “holding pluralities.” Everyone knew it was a bad thing, but it was almost impossible to stop.

There were also some priests who had no connection or duties to a parish at all. They held other roles in the church and received their support from what they did. For example, a priest might be a private chaplain to an important person or a noble family. A priest might teach at a university if he had the education to do so, or serve as a scholar like Erasmus did. Some priests were also monks or friars (discussed later) and lived in monasteries. Some might serve as missionaries. And of course some became high-ranking members of the church hierarchy as bishops, archbishops, cardinals, or even popes (more about those roles later).

People in Other Major and Minor Orders

Priests were said to be “in holy orders.” There were actually several different kinds of “holy orders,” and a candidate for the priesthood would usually work his way through several of them while he was being trained. “Priest” was at the top, with “deacon” and “subdeacon” under that. Those were referred to as the “major orders.” Men in major orders had certain restrictions on them, such as not being allowed to marry.

There were also minor orders, including “doorkeeper,” “reader,” “exorcist,” and “acolyte.” Depending on what order a man was in, he would have different responsibilities and requirements. Men in minor orders could marry, and were much less restricted in their lives. However, no matter how minor their orders, they were technically members of the clergy and shared in the benefits of that status—for instance, getting out of certain legal punishments such as the death penalty.

By the time of Luther, it was extremely common for students going to university to enter minor orders. Remember that the universities began in the church and were still very much run by the church at this day. People attending the university in the hopes of a career in government would still take minor orders, and would be counted as clergymen, even if this was not in fact their real interest.

Monks, Nuns, and Friars

During the late middle ages there were a great many organizations known as “religious orders” (not to be confused with the grades of ministry called “holy orders,” described above). Each order had a very specific purpose and way of life by which it tried to serve God, often one that was laid down for them by a famous founder, such as Francis of Assisi or Benedict of Nursia. People attracted to that purpose and lifestyle could dedicate their lives to it, becoming monks, nuns, or friars.

The dedication process usually took a long time, and allowed both the applicant and the order to change their minds if it didn’t appear to be a good fit. Candidates would make temporary vows and begin to live according to the rules of the order. In most cases, this meant moving into a monastery or convent and beginning to function as part of the community life through work and prayer. As time went on, the candidate would move through a series of vows, finally becoming a full-fledged permanent member of the community (a monk, friar, or nun) who no longer had the freedom to leave.

What is the difference between a monk and a friar? A monk is someone who was supposed to stay in one place, his monastery, and his service to God would be centered at that location. A friar, on the other hand, was out in society, often as a preacher, and might travel regularly as necessary. His service was focused primarily on the larger community. Luther himself was an Augustinian friar, though often described as a monk. His own service to the community involved teaching at the university.

Since monks, nuns, and friars need the sacraments just like anybody else, soon there were monks who were ordained as priests as well. They could celebrate mass and perform other sacraments for their communities. Luther himself was both a friar and a priest. Not all monks or friars were in holy orders, but many were. As a result, the law tended to give monks the same rights and protection as priests.

Monks, nuns, and friars did a lot of good in late medieval society, being responsible for a great deal of charity work, education, and medical care. Of course there were plenty of abuses as well. Families looking for a place to dispose of unwanted family members (for instance, extra sons, unmarried daughters or widowed mothers) might well send them to a convent whether they had religious inclinations or not. Some people were admitted before they were old enough to truly know whether they were suited for the life or not. This was a particular problem in the area of sex, as monastics were not allowed to marry and were supposed to remain celibate. Since there was no legitimate way out once the final vows were said, sex scandals in the church were common and embarrassing.

The Church Hierarchy—Bishops and Archbishops

Men who were bright, ambitious, or came from powerful families could hope to move up the church hierarchy into positions of real power. A bishop was a priest who was in charge of a whole city and its surrounding area. This area was called his “see,” and the place where his throne stood was a “cathedral,” his home church. A bishop only had authority within his own see.

In some cases the bishops themselves had another supervisor over them who was called an “archbishop.” Usually this would be the bishop of a great city which had influence over lesser cities with bishops of their own.

No one could become a bishop without being a priest first. This meant that the bishop had his own priestly responsibilities and was responsible as a priest for the care of his own congregation (the parish around the cathedral). Since he was a busy man, he would normally have a staff of priests and deacons working for him who would do the actual baptizing and celebrate Mass for the people. However, in some cases the bishop would administer sacraments himself, particularly if the person in need was an important visitor or a wealthy nobleman.

Besides his own priestly duties, the bishop supervised all the priests and other clergy in his own see. He approved ordinations of new priests and decided who went to serve which parish. He was supposed to review their work to be sure they were doing a good job, but this didn’t always happen.

A bishop held a church court where people with complaints or requests could come. He also dealt with any civil and criminal matters that involved a clergyman. The ordinary secular courts did not have the authority to prosecute clergy, so they ended up in the bishop’s court, where the penalties might be lighter. This exemption from civil law made many people angry, including the reformers.

Bishops also supervised the monks and monasteries in their areas, though not as closely as they did the priests. If someone wanted to start a new monastery, the bishop would have to approve it. He also approved any new abbots (leaders of monasteries) and dealt with any disputes between the monastery and outsiders. If a monastery had internal problems, the bishops usually did not get involved—they left those to the abbots to deal with.

It was common for Christians to donate lands and estates to the church. This meant that the bishop had the same responsibilities of any great landowner—he had to collect taxes, ensure justice in villages and towns, and occasionally raise armies. Some people donated estates which included castles, knights and other fighting men. As the new master of these military assets, the bishop was legally obliged to supply them to the king as law and custom required. Really, in some ways a bishop might be more powerful than the secular lords living near him.

Finally, the bishop was responsible for enforcing orthodox religion and putting down heresy in his own see. This meant that conditions could be very different across a country, depending on which see you lived in. One bishop might persecute a group of believers while another bishop nearby chose to tolerate them. So much depended on the local bishop’s personality, intelligence, competence, and circumstances.

The Pope

The pope is in fact the bishop of the city of Rome. However, over the years this one bishopric developed into being the leader of the entire Western church, and so, odd as it may sound, by the late middle ages the bishop of Rome held power over all the other Western bishops and archbishops, and acted as the head of Christ’s church on earth (Western branch—for more about the relationship between Rome and the Eastern churches, you’ll need to go elsewhere).

The pope, then, had the same responsibilities of any bishop as described above, but more so. Assisting him was the papal curia, which formed in essence the government of the whole Catholic church as well as the Papal States, which were territories in Italy. The top roles in the papal curia were held by cardinals, churchmen at the highest level below the papacy. A host of clerks and administrators assisted them.

The College of Cardinals was responsible for electing new popes. They also served on the highest level of administration in the Catholic Church, dealing with high-level court cases, financial issues, and European politics. Some even served as ambassadors so to speak at royal courts across Europe.

Sources of Religious Authority

In the late medieval church, doctrine came from three sources: The Bible, as the direct word of God; the Church Fathers (eminent Christians from the earliest days of the church); and church councils (official church-wide gatherings) such as Nicaea and Chalcedon. The councils were supposed to represent the entire church, and therefore people believed God would not allow them to make mistakes. Anyone attempting to argue about Christian teaching would appeal to one or more of these authorities.

While the pope’s opinion held weight, the Catholic church as a whole did not yet believe him to be infallible. That became formal church doctrine during the 1800s.

The Sacraments

By the time of Luther, it was generally accepted that there were seven sacraments, though this list had not been officially set. The seven were baptism, confirmation, confession, communion, marriage, holy orders, and last rites. All Christians received at least some of these for their good during their lifetimes. (Two were unlikely to be given to the same person—marriage and holy orders—because of the requirement for priests to be celibate.) After Luther the Council of Trent declared these seven necessary for salvation.

Sacramentals were practices that were supposed to be good for you, but not necessary for salvation. For instance, blessing something or going on a pilgrimage is a sacramental but not a sacrament. Many of these practices were extremely popular with lay people—for instance, the viewing of relics, or processions and pilgrimages.

Change Their World. Change Yours. This changes everything.

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