The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were a time of great discovery and discontent. In the closing years of the Middle Ages, the European view of the world changed in several ways. People discovered options beyond life defined by the Church and its rules for salvation.
Copernicus and Galileo challenged the traditional earth-centered model of the universe, placing the earth with the other planets circling around the sun. Our world no longer stood at center stage of all creation.
Galileo's telescope [right] helped to open up new ways of viewing the universe.
A new individualism ushered in the Renaissance (a re-birth of interest in the arts, literature, and the sciences) and early capitalism, which would foster journeys of exploration overseas. Newly-consolidated nations like Spain, Portugal, and England competed with one another to discover the best trade routes to plunder lucrative resources in strange lands while converting their peoples to Christianity. Colonization began, which sought power and profits over people and preservation.
Huge new fortunes were made as merchants prospered and supported unparalleled artistic achievements. In Rome, Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling in the Vatican palace with breathtaking frescoes (like God creating Adam, and Noahs flood), and sculpted the famous Pietà of Mary holding her dead son, Jesus. Shakespeare was born during this time. The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries also saw the opening of more than two dozen universities in Europe and with them, the development of major libraries. The use of Latin, which had been the common bond of western Europe, was narrowed to church and scholarly domains. Vernacular languages like English, German, French, Spanish, and Italian developed respectable literatures that reflected national pride.
At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Catholic Church had grown from its meager beginnings as a small, persecuted community in the capital of the Roman empire to an extremely powerful, but internally corrupt, bureaucratic institution. The church stood squarely in the center of life and society. Since it understood itself to be the sole guardian of eternal truth, it reserved to itself the privilege of determining salvation for everyone. Salvation was not assured without believing the churchs doctrines and participating in its sacraments.
On the surface, the Catholic Church looked healthy, with a devout and loyal membership. Heresies had virtually disappeared. The number of church-related schools, hospitals and almshouses had increased. Pilgrimages were popular. The newly-invented printing press provided numerous devotional materials for a growing reading public.
But on the eve of the Reformation, many clergy were ill-equipped to deal with the spiritual needs of the people. Bishops, recruited from nobility, saw their office mainly as a source of prestige and power. This was especially true in Germany, where many bishops also served as political rulers. They tended to see their spiritual office in secular terms. The buying and selling of ecclesiastical positions was commonplace. Although ascribing to celibacy, both bishops and local priests flaunted illegitimate children, who were often made abbots and abbesses without any regard to monastic vocations. Qualifications for being a parish priest were minimal: a rudimentary ability to read Latin and celebrate Mass. Pay was low. Many parishes had absentee priests, and their pastoral responsibilities fell upon even less-qualified curates.
By 1500, not only the morality of its clergy, but also the teachings of the church were in need of reform. The fall of Constantinople half a century earlier had brought scholars with different theological views to the West, with Bible manuscripts that showed many changes and alterations from the ancient texts had occurred. Western scholars began to compare the Greek text of the New Testament with their standard Latin Vulgate version. These scholarly endeavors gave rise to a growing conviction of the need to return to the sources of faith in order to reform existing doctrine and practice, particularly through the study of Scripture.
The printing press made the Bible available to ordinary laypeople in several vernacular translations. This gave people an opportunity to read for themselves what the Scriptures said about issues brought up by the reformers. Catholic leadership taught that since the path to salvation lay in the authority of the Church, direct access to the text was unneccesary and dangerous. Unlearned common folk might interpret the Scriptures in individualistic, fanciful ways--only clergy should interpret Scripture. The Reformation would bring to the forefront issues of authority and biblical interpretation.
This spiritual situation was compounded by the economic conditions of the peasants and the poor, who were increasingly exploited by landowners. Although some priests and monastic houses still practiced acts of charity, the majority of the poor no longer saw the church as their advocate or defender. The wealth of the bishops and abbots, and their power as landowners themselves, widened the gap of increasing inequality.
At the same time, the ancient feudal system was giving way to the rise of powerful monarchies in France, England, and Spain, and the birth of nationalism. Popes supported certain kings or queens in order to advance their own interests, wielding tremendous political power and subject to its corrupting influence. Armies became the pawns of popes, and popes became the pawns of monarchs.