Sunday, 29 November -0001 18:42

Turmoil Within the Church The Fourteenth Century

Written by Rev. C.A. Schouls
Boniface VIII
The Church was never as unified and powerful, as some would like us to think. The power, which peaked with popes such as Innocent III and Gregory VII, came to an end with Boniface VIII (1294-1303). Although well learned, he was extremely arrogant. When he was installed as pope there was great pomp at the ceremony. Each of the stirrups of his horse was held by a king (remember Frederick Barbarossa? This stirrup holding was a really valued token of submission!)

Boniface tried to exert the power of the church as others had done before him. In a conflict with the king of France (about a tax which the pope forbade the clergy to pay so the king forbade the export of gold, silver and precious stones, shutting off the revenue the pope had been receiving from France), Boniface threw all of France under the ban. This had worked earlier, but not now. Earlier (Gregory VII vs. Emperor Henry IV) the nobles had been strong and had been able to force the king to give in. Now, the power of the nobles had weakened the power of the king and his central government had grown and the king, supported by his nobles, could and did defy the pope. In fact, he sent soldiers to arrest the aged pope (87) who was defended by the townspeople. The shock of this treatment was too much for the old pope who died a few days after returning to Rome. Papal power had been broken.

The Babylonian Captivity
In fact, so completely was this power broken that for seventy years the popes not only found themselves under French control, but also actually resided in France, at Avignon. This period, Òthe Babylonian CaptivityÓ was a low point in papal history. There was a great loss of prestige, especially because of the strength of rising nationalism. Europe began to shape into what we now know it to be. The many claims made by the popes, especially regarding tribute and taxes, were more and more rejected by the various kings and courts. The fact that popes lived in corrupt splendour did not help their cause at all.

The Great Schism
The Italians, who had always controlled the papacy, were unhappy with the situation and, in 1378, elected their own pope. What follows was most distressing: two popes, one in Rome, one in Avignon who duly denounced, excommunicated and cursed each other. The reverence and respect for the papacy fell to an all time low from which it never really recovered.

Finally, in 1409, the church met in special council at Pisa: both popes were deposed and a third one elected, Alexander V. Neither of the other popes would recognize him, so now we have three popes cursing each other. Finally, in 1417, at the Council of Constance, Martin V was elected as pope and the other three were replaced (see below). Although united again, the church had been deeply wounded by all this.

The Church Becomes a Persecutor
As these developments were taking place, the Church entered upon its darkest period: it became a persecutor of those who did not conform to its ideas. Two of the most violent early persecutions were against the Albigenses and the Waldenses.

The Albigenses were truly heretics, holding to the views of the ancient Manicheans who thought evil resided in matter (see the Gnostics, article 2); the Old Testament was from the Òevil God,Ó and the New Testament from the Ògood God.Ó Christ did not have a real body nor die a real death; sacraments were rejected and church buildings were not used by them; all these things being ÒmaterialÓ and hence, evil. They lived mainly in southern France and were hostile to the church.

The Waldenses were a totally different group. Followers of Peter Waldo, who, in the late 1100's had sold all his possessions and given his money to the poor, they copied his example of a simple life, with the Bible as their only authority. They went about the countryside, two by two and preached, both men and women; they believed in salvation by grace through faith only, denied purgatory as well as prayers and masses for the dead and the whole sacramental system as it was developing. They also were centred in southern France.

Soon, both these groups grew so numerous that in many areas they threatened the very existence of the church. Against them the Dominican and Franciscans orders were quite active. However, these counter actions were not enough and the Inquisition was formed, with the Dominicans in charge of it. This was a ÒcourtÓ which had to root out heresy. If an accused would not recant of his beliefs, he was given over to the civil government for punishment (almost always death by burning at the stake).

Although the Inquisition killed many Albigenses and Waldenses, their numbers were so great that the popes had to use other methods. In 1208 Pope Innocent III proclaimed a crusade against these heretics and for twenty years the Albigenses were slaughtered. Their cities were ruined and the fairest province of France became a wilderness. Many of the Waldenses took refuge in the Alps (mountains in eastern France and northern Italy). When the Reformation broke through in the sixteenth century, most of them joined the Reformed churches. Even today there are Waldensian churches in Italy.

Besides these organized movements attempting reform, other streams of thought developed within the church and often in monasteries. Generally they were of a ÒmysticÓ nature. Mysticism aims at union with and knowledge of God through deep contemplation. If we consider the following characteristics of the mysticism of this period we will have some idea of what it was like.

1. It was a reaction against cold formalism and corruption;

2. It sought piety of heart in union with Christ and the soul;

3. It stressed heavily the experience of the new birth;

4. Christ was seen to be more important than the church;

5. Revelation was to be experienced ÒsubjectivelyÓ--each believer receives inner light and often a Òword of GodÓ apart from the Bible.

These mystic movements were strong especially in Germany and the Netherlands.

Reform Councils
Many in the Church realized that reform was badly needed. Various councils were held at which bishops and cardinals made an effort to clean up some of the abuses. Three of the more important ones are:

Pisa (Italy) 1409. It tried to heal The Great Schism by electing a third pope (see above).

Constance (Germany) 1414-18. It was attended by the leading bishops of Europe. This council gave itself authority over the popes. Of the three then current, one resigned, one was deposed and one fled. Marten V was the new Òunity pope.Ó This council also condemned John Huss to death and burned him at the stake (more of him later).

Basel (Switzerland) 1431-1449. Marten had ignored the authority of the cardinals and the problems in the organization were still there. He tried to deal with a civil war in Bohemia (part of the Czech republic) against the followers of Huss. Although he tried to bring in some reforms, he set the church further on the path of error by introducing the doctrine of ÒThe Immaculate Conception of MaryÓ.

Generally, the calibre and prestige of the papacy continued to decline. Although the councils did some damage to the authority of the popes and gave further opening for reform, they, as such, never brought about any lasting reformation.

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