The Christian Church in the Middle Ages played a significant role in society. Unfortunately though, the church is often regarded as the capital of corruption, evil, and worldliness. Today, so many people depict the medieval church as being led by materialistic popes, devouring tithes from poverty-stricken peasants, having various illegitimate children, and granting indulgences for money from wayward believers. Yes, circumstances like this may have been the case, and is often hard to disapprove, considering the fact that this notion is often advocated in movies. But we must open our mind, and look at the situations first before jumping to conclusions.
As many things define the distinct characteristics of history, the Christian church has made a remarkable milestone especially during the Middle Ages. Christianitys emergence as an official religion influenced not only the church, it enabled people to look beyond the obsession of power and worldly pleasures, but to a final and ultimate reward for a life well spent. Everybody put their faith in the hope and love of the Christian God. It gave the people goals and led them to the right path, yet why is it looked down upon so harshly? Maybe it was because of the wealth it exemplified, or the deterioration of morality in the popes. One can heedlessly conclude that the Medieval church was corrupt and unholy, but that would not justify its existence. Accordingly, the church was just trying to adjust itself to an age of chaos and uncertainty.
The idea that the medieval church was immoral can be rooted on a few methodological errors. The arbitrary use of historical evidence and the ignorance of the circumstances are a couple to name. Maybe putting together one thousand years of the history of the church with a disregard to any historical development may represent the medieval church as a corrupt institution, but still it is not necessary to go as far as to say that the church was corrupt. It is also worth noting that not all contemporaries who were interested in the reformation, such as Erasmus, joined Luther in his famous feat, the Reformation. With this in mind, Luther and other reformers are usually credited with bringing the church back to the New Testament ideal, which is not necessarily the case.
Luther and his contemporaries definitely did not introduce the concept of reform. Actually, during this time of the wealth and luxury of monastic orders, reform was a recurring theme. But considering the way various popes around Europe tried to bring the church back to its wholesome state, is good to note that most monastic treatises arguing the moral decline of the church do their best to make the church appear as black and unholy as possible. They depict every little thing that is in the least tainted with anything immoral ten times as worse as it really was, alleging that it was excessive with luxury, worldliness, and corruption.
Another element that contributes to the misleading idea that the church was corrupt were the clerical abuses taken place during the later Middle Ages. Many people picture the church being run in an authoritarian and totalitarian way by misguided popes, hungry for money and power. This was not always true but trying not to contradict that fact that there were cases of clerical abuses during the medieval times would be a lie, which were accurately addressed by Protestant reformers.
The major problem relating to the maltreatment of power between the popes was commonly known as the traffic in indulgences, which certainly was a commercial exploitation. Essentially, it meant to basically pay off for forgiveness whatever you are going to do or did wrong. With this money was the church able to build various art forms that made it clearly visible of the popes abuse because of its elaborate existence. An example of this would be in the Vatican, which we can still see today.
With this, the sales of indulgences brought forth a major factor concerning the corruption of the church. The granting of indulgences was accepted from the Crusades and grew more popular during the later Middle Ages. This practice of Tetzel, Luthers adversary went way beyond the doctrinal limits the church set long ago, though it was readily encouraged by the financial policies of popes such as Julius II and Leo X, who were only looking for a way to get some extra money. Aware that this was unacceptable and corrupt, Pius V prohibited the commercial trafficking in indulgences in mid 1500s. Also, sexuality among the popes was unbelievable. Priests by the thousands found it impossible to live in celiabacy.1 The result of all this was a misuse of church funds and an increasing decline in the morality of the clergy.
A major theme that is often used to show how corrupt the medieval church was is the Western Schism that lasted from 1378 to 1417. Although this was a brief period in the long span of medieval history, and it was also the first time that two popes (sometimes even more) ruled over the churches all over the Western world. The Western Schism definitely hurt the churches monarchy that has been around since the early thirteen hundreds. In this time, the cardinals were divided between the Italian and French. While the French cardinals were still at Avignon, the Italians elected their own pope out of impulse, known as the Italian Urban VI.
With this new pope, corruption became overbearingly existent. The Italian Urban VI was not exactly a discreet person, he was harsh, extravagant, and overbearing, known for usually insulting and threatening the French cardinals. The Italians were horrified at his irregular behavior and soon withdrew their obedience. The French proclaimed that the Italian election was not valid and selected a new pope, Clement VII. Clement VII was an ethical person and knew what was needed of him, a stable and moral pope. He resided in Avignon with the other cardinals and won the adherence of the French king. The only good thing that came out of this ordeal was the growth of a papal council, where not only the pope, but all the bishops are able to discuss issues and make decisions together.
Apart from the Protestant reformers, there were other historical facts of the late medieval church that contributed to the tenacious myth of corruption. During the time that the papacy remained in Avignon is often used as an example of the deterioration of the church. After all, hardly any of the popes lived in Rome, which was and is considered the inalienable habitat of Saint Peter. Going back to Avignon, the popes who lived there were usually subject to nepotism and were in constant fights between the Italian cardinals.
Of course, these are the downsides to the papacy in Avignon. Many of the popes were dedicated to make the church a more holier and reformed place, abolishing the clerical abuses. For example, what John XXII started off, the reformation of the administration and sanitization was soon taken over by Benedict XI. He strongly dedicated himself to end nepotism, unethical conduct, and immorality among the papacy. He greatly reduced the papal bureaucracy and free distribution of benefices, ensuring that the benefices were given only to a commendable clergy. However, one of the undesired effects of Benedict XIs reform was the expanding concentration and bureaucratization of the church.
In church history, the period from five hundred to fifteen hundred AD was defiantly not a thousand years of uncertainty. During this time, Christianity fixed itself rigidly in Western Europe, and it had much energy and refinement, being somewhat a successful political experiment. It was the diversity of the church itself that called for a reformation, not because of the corrupt leaders. Studying Christianity in the Middle Ages, one is bound to find the various forms of the religious orders, depending on the social class, various monastic orders, between monks and beggars, etc.
Finally the question once again arises. How immoral or corrupt was the church? Sure, there were various imperfections about the church, but considering the spirit and diversity that the church distinguished, there is no justice to go as far as to say that the church was corrupt in the Middle Ages. It is simple to call the imperfections that happened in the Middle Ages characteristic of the medieval church, but depicting its reforms as surpassing in its own time would only contradict that statement. The church in the Middle ages does not mean that what happened then does not happen now, if anything, today we still can witness pastors, clergymen, televangelists, all abusing their power of religion just to get money as Julius II and Leo X did centuries ago. As a conclusion, the medieval church was not uniquely corrupt and immoral; it was just adjusting itself to an age of chaos.