What caused the Reformation?
The religious movement during the sixteenth century also had political and cultural causes. As more and more people were converted to Christianity during the Middle Ages (500–1350), the pope’s sphere of influence gradually increased—giving him greater authority than many secular rulers. This supremacy was defended by Pope Innocent III (c. 1160–1216), one of the most prominent figures of the Middle Ages, who asserted that the church should rightly retain its full power—in both secular and spiritual matters. But in western Europe, the monarchs became increasingly powerful as peasants began moving away from their farms and villages and to the emerging cities, which were protected by kings and emperors. The European monarchs often opposed the pope, regarding him as a leader of a foreign state. This conflict continued for centuries.
In 1309 Pope Clement V (c. 1260–1314) did something that would later divide the Roman Catholic Church when, being French himself, he moved the papacy from Rome to Avignon, France, where it stayed for 70 years. When Pope Gregory XI (1329–1378) moved it back to Rome in 1377, some French cardinals objected and elected a pope of their own (an antipope), installing him at Avignon. This resulted in two popes claiming supremacy, and in 1409 the situation grew more complicated when a third pope was added in Pisa, Italy. Not only had the power struggle divided the church, it had created tremendous confusion for the people, who further perceived that there were corrupt practices at work in the church. These included the selling of church positions and indulgences (pardons for sins) as well as the lavish lifestyle enjoyed by the bishops and the pope (which was on a par with that of royalty). While these injustices were decried by critics, the abuses did not stop. As a remedy some began to think that the church should be led not by the pope but by church councils. Dissatisfaction with the church also extended to its message, which had turned away from God’s mercy and the teachings of Jesus Christ, instead focusing on a life of good works as the way to salvation.
Europe was also in the midst of the Renaissance (1350 to 1600), which saw a proliferation in the number of universities, the circulation of printed materials (thanks to the advent of the movable-type printing press), and broader study of classic texts as well as of the Holy Scriptures—in their original languages instead of how they had been handed down in translation by the church. Before long, a middle class of educated people emerged in Europe.
These circumstances combined to bring about a period of religious reform that lasted until 1648. The movement itself, however, continued to exert influence through its emphasis on personal responsibility, individual freedom, and the secularization of society.