Every Christian before 1523 was Catholic

Why the Reformation came about

The time a few years before the Reformation must have seemed like a tremendous change to the Christians of the West: Constantinople in the hands of the Ottomans, in the West a new continent, the printing press that changes the world. But the most momentous of all upheavals has its starting point in Saxony - where Martin Luther rises against the omnipotence of the church

In 1500 the Catholic Church shows the fullness of her power over Christianity. Pope Alexander VI has proclaimed a "holy year" which promises the faithful on a pilgrimage to Rome the complete remission of their sin punishments. Hundreds of thousands then travel to the Eternal City from all parts of the Christian world.

They all fear purgatory and hope for the punishment-relieving blessing that the pontiff urbi et orbi bestows on the city and the world. That blessing that only the successor of the apostle Peter can bestow, the head of the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church”.

For more than 1000 years the ruled una sancta catholica et apostolica ecclesia the spiritual universe of the West. Alone, without being contradicted. Since the 5th century Rome has been the center of the western world and its bishop - the Pope - the first among church leaders; also no secular prince is in rank above him.

It is up to the Catholic theologians to interpret the Bible. Only the clergy of the Roman Church are allowed to hold services and administer the Lord's Supper; Day after day they dictate to the believers how to lead their lives and threaten the eternal hellfire if people do not obey the do's and don'ts.

Because the power of the church extends beyond this world. The prayer, work and death of Jesus Christ and the saints amassed a treasure trove of merit, according to a papal bull from 1343 - and the pontiff can use this treasure at will: for example, to relieve the torments for a believer or his ancestors who have already died of purgatory (the soul of a person goes into the purgatory after his death in order to be cleansed of sins and to wait for the Last Judgment).

When Martin Luther condemned the indulgence trade with 95 theses in 1517, he was still an obedient monk

However, the generosity of the Holy Father is not available for free: you have to purchase letters of indulgence for it. Selling them is an important source of income for the Vatican, which is often in need of money. This unprecedented power has survived largely unchallenged for a millennium - until only a few years after the holy 1500 a German monk rebelled against it. And thus triggering the perhaps profound revolution in European history.

When Martin Luther condemned the indulgence trade with 95 theses in 1517, he was still a pious and obedient monk who hoped for a reform within the Roman church. But instead of taking on the moderate criticism of the mischief of selling edicts for the punishment of sin for money, Pope Leo X excommunicated the Augustinian brother.

And brings Luther to formulate ever more radical pamphlets: against the lifestyle of the priests, against the greed for money and opulence of the Vatican. For a theology that is only based on the Bible. Against a church that is an instrument of worldly power.

There are allegations that many people consider to be justified. This is why the new Protestant teaching is rapidly gaining support and dividing Christianity. In addition to the Catholic Church, Protestant denominations are growing in Germany, Switzerland, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Britain and France and are sharply differentiated from the Old Believers. In the 130 years after Luther's 95 theses, the supporters of the warring churches will again and again face each other in religious wars that devastate large parts of the continent.

The Protestant preachers reject hitherto undisputed pillars of faith that have determined people's everyday lives for centuries. These basic pillars are not justified by the Bible, teach the reformers, but subsequent inventions of the Catholic Church: for example the sacraments of ordination and the Last Unction or the veneration of saints (whose statues iconoclasts then throw out of the churches).

Every Christian should read the Bible for himself to find God. In contrast to what the Catholics preach, the Holy Scriptures do not require any interpretation by a priest. Luther cursed the Pope, who presumed to judge the word of God alone, as an antichrist. With this, the Catholic clergy loses the monopoly on mediating and interpreting religion - and the Pope his authority as the sole spiritual head of the West.

The power of the secular rulers, on the other hand, is growing: Henry VIII of England, for example, appoints himself head of his national church. And the Protestant princes of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation enforce the claim against the Catholic Emperor to determine the denomination of their subjects themselves.

Old believing rulers also pushed back the influence of the Vatican around 1500: With the threat of not transferring any more funds to Rome, the Spanish monarch couple forced the Pope to relinquish his sovereignty over the Inquisition and knightly orders. And the French king takes the right to appoint bishops himself from now on.

The Protestant and Catholic princes thus create - by curtailing the power of the Pope, subjecting the Church to its sovereignty and concentrating the rights of rule in their territories - an essential prerequisite for the emergence of modern states.

Muslims threaten Christianity

The theses of the Wittenberg theologian, written in learned Latin, can only develop this explosive power because they encounter a deeply insecure Christianity - a society whose foundations are already in motion: through huge discoveries and fundamental inventions. As well as through a drastic disaster experience. Because two generations earlier, on May 29, 1453, the Christian world lost its most important city next to Rome: At that time Sultan Mehmet II conquered Constantinople - the capital of the Byzantine Empire and metropolis of Eastern Christianity.

During their attack, the Ottomans smashed the huge city wall, which contemporaries believed to be invincible, with a new type of cannon, the barrel of which was eight meters long and fired stone balls weighing 500 kilograms. The conquerors sacked the city, killed and enslaved tens of thousands and converted the magnificent Hagia Sophia, Cathedral of Holy Wisdom, into the Ayasofya mosque.

The people in Europe were appalled: "Nothing more terrible has ever happened and nothing more terrible will ever happen," noted one monk. Emperor Friedrich III. cried when he heard the news. Many of the approximately 50 million Christians in the West saw the Ottomans as the "rod of anger" with which God wanted to punish them for their sins; some even believed that the catastrophe on the Bosporus heralded the end of the world.

The Islamic attackers apparently continued to advance against Central Europe inexorably and in the following years took Serbia, the Peloponnese and Albania. Landed in southern Italy, where they murdered an archbishop at the altar in Otranto and 12,000 citizens of the city. In the autumn of 1477, Ottoman troops devastated it

Hinterland of Venice; the smoke of their fires could be seen from the campanile in St. Mark's Square. A cleric complained that the ax had been put to the root: "If we are not given divine help, the Christian name will be lost!"

But instead of opposing Islamic expansion together, the three most important Christian powers - the Roman-German Emperor and the kings of France and Spain - covered themselves with war. In 1494, the French monarch Charles VIII invaded Italy to conquer the Kingdom of Naples, which belonged to Spanish possession (one of his successors, Francis I, later even allied with the Ottomans against the emperor).

The campaign was only the beginning of a decade-long hegemonic struggle for the Apennine Peninsula - a conflict in which the Papal States now, in the 16th century, fought on one side and on the other. When Pope Clement VII was in an alliance with France in 1527, German and Spanish mercenaries unceremoniously took Rome: The mercenaries of Charles V, the patron of the Catholic Church, plundered the center of Christianity (in the course of this "Sacco di Roma") , steal art treasures from palaces and churches and murder thousands of residents.

Columbus discovered America, the printing press changed the world

While Christian Europe in the southeast is getting smaller and smaller and is falling apart in wars, a Genoese named Christopher Columbus finds a new world on the other side of the globe: On October 12, 1492, the captain reaches the Bahamas, which he is in for the Spanish crown that finances him Takes possession. It will not be long before Europeans realize that the explorer did not land on an Asian archipelago, as he believed, but on the coast of an unknown continent. It must be shocking news for the people of the West that there is a vast continent whose inhabitants have never heard of the name of Jesus Christ.

As early as 1494, the Pope divided the entire western half of the globe among the Iberian naval powers. And gives the King of Spain the right to proselytize the people of America for the Catholic Church. And the world of Christianity is growing in another way. Another upheaval had already begun around 1500: the scientific revolution whose research results and innovations will change people's thinking and lives.

They are inventions like those of Johannes Gutenberg from Mainz: Around 1455, Europe's first book printed with movable metal type - a Bible - was created in his workshop. By the end of the century, 40,000 titles with a total circulation of eight million copies will be distributed. Religious, political and social opinions are now spreading at a tremendous speed in pamphlets, writings and leaflets.

At the same time, the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus displaces the earth from the center of the universe and instead moves in the sun, around which the globe and the other planets revolve. This new view of the world is so revolutionary, and Copernicus so fears the ridicule of his colleagues that he did not publish his findings until shortly before his death.

In the course of the 16th century, the scientific revolution will accelerate even further: a mechanic builds the first portable watch in Nuremberg; explosive cannon balls and new rifle firings improve war technology, and the Italian Leonardo da Vinci even designs robots and flying machines.

Many believers are drawn into the arms of penitential preachers

People react to all these changes, but above all to catastrophes and upheavals, with uncertainty and fear. Italian peasant women like English scholars or Castilian aristocrats are now afraid of old plagues like the plague and new ones like syphilis. They fear Islam, the Last Judgment, hell, eternal damnation. And before purgatory: This is how Cardinal Albrecht von Brandenburg, the most powerful German cleric, draws such high indulgences that he saves himself more than 39 million years of sinful punishment.

But the Roman Church is increasingly unable to alleviate the fear of believers. An Erfurt Benedictine monk complained in 1490 that people would want to be good sheep if only they had a good shepherd. But the shepherd doesn't just want to shear their wool and protect them from the wolves: “He also tries to tear the flesh off their bodies and devour them, but he offers little or no consolation and piety - what kind of shepherd is that? "

Many Christians therefore follow self-proclaimed penitential preachers such as Hans Böhm, the "Pauker von Niklashausen" - a shepherd who in 1476 threatened clergy and nobles in Franconia with a terrible punishment and proclaimed a "new kingdom of God on earth" to the people. 40,000 people hear his apocalyptic visions until the Bishop of Würzburg has him dragged to the stake. The Dominican Girolamo Savonarola, who 18 years later rose to the position of spiritual dictator of Florence with his radical calls for the abandonment of worldly property, was burned.

And the official church? "That is the work of the bishops," warns a Strasbourg cathedral preacher in a pulpit speech about the high clergy: "Riding with a lot of horses, taking great honor, filling the sack, eating good chickens and running after the whores." But some bishops only imitate that Luxury that church leaders exemplify. For example Pope Alexander VI. (1492–1503) from the notorious Borgia family - a holy father who bought the votes of eligible cardinals with enormous sums and the award of lucrative benefices.

Alexander is particularly interested in his seven (perhaps nine) children, whom he splendidly married and furnished with principalities; For example, he made his son Cesare Archbishop of Valencia - at the age of 17, without being a priest. All of Europe is talking about the (partly possibly invented) scandals at the court of the Borgia; there is talk of poisoning, of prelates' orgies with lust boys and of the incest of the Holy Father with his own daughter.

And when it serves his interests - he seeks support against the French king - allies

Alexander even with the most powerful enemy of Christianity: the Turkish sultan. Or Julius II (1503–1513), whom the Italians call “Il Terribile”, the terrible, because he is not a pastor but a warlord who only cares about the expansion of the Vatican's power; Luther will revile this Pope as a “blood drunkard”, who is dying of syphilis.

Finally Leo X (1513–1521), from the Florentine merchant dynasty of the Medici; the Venetian ambassador claims that this Pope announced after his election: “Since God has given us the pontificate, let us enjoy it!” The art-loving head of the church gave away and squandered 4.5 million ducats during his reign in the Vatican. That corresponds to 15 tons of pure gold - or about eight times the bribe with which Charles V bought the Roman-German royal crown in 1519.

That is why the Holy Father is in dire need of money. And one of the most important sources of income for Leo is the sale of letters of indulgence: the trade in acquittals of sin punishments that so anger Martin Luther that he wrote his 95 theses.

Johannes Calvin made Geneva and Geneva a model city for his Reformation

Luther is the first and most important reformer in the 16th century - but by no means the only one. Many theologians recognize the need for a renewal of the Roman church: in Germany, for example, Luther's doctoral supervisor Andreas Bodenstein, known as Karlstadt, who radically calls for all images to be removed from churches. Or the Thuringian pastor Thomas Müntzer, who believes in the imminent end of the world and at the head of rebellious peasants fights against noble lords.

In Switzerland, it is the Zurich preacher Ulrich Zwingli who, shortly after Luther, and yet independently of him, denounced the veneration of saints and papal power as false. And - a generation later - John Calvin from France, who also put his theological teaching into practice and made Geneva a model city for his Reformation; iron laws of virtue and harsh punishments are supposed to force the citizens there to lead a life that only follows biblical rules.

But even high-ranking Catholic clergy recognized at this time with horror the consequences of the state of their church. The Franciscan Jiménez de Cisneros, Archbishop of Toledo, confessor to Queen Isabella and Inquisitor General, introduced strict surveillance of the customs of Spanish monks and decisively improved the training of priests. The Basque Ignatius of Loyola founds the Jesuit order, the new intellectual power of Rome; the brothers set up schools and universities where mainly the sons of the European bourgeoisie study.

And Gasparo Contarini, a Venetian cardinal, prepared a reform report for the Pope in 1537 and hopes to reunite the warring denominations through fundamental changes in Catholic teaching - in vain. Apparently, shortly after the Holy Year 1500, the time is ripe for a revolution. But despite the often similar goals and insights of numerous authors and preachers: It is the theses of Martin Luther that triggered that spiritual revolution.

It is the pamphlets and writings of the Wittenberger, it is his criticism of the papacy, of the secularization and corruption of the clergy, which act as a catalyst for the Reformation - a true revolution, which after 1000 years the all-powerful "one, holy, catholic and apostolic." Church “divides.

And with it the West.

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