Monday, October 26

Early Church Reforms Prior to Martin Luther

Often the Protestant Reformation is seen as the first attempt at reform within the Church, but this does not represent historical reality. Although it was the first major movement of those "protesting" the Church, led by such figures as Martin Luther, John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli, there were those who loved the Church and sought to reform it from within - including monastic reform, the Franciscans, John Wycliffe, John Hus and Girolama Savonarola. Some of these movements or individuals were intentional reformers, while others varied in theological application and practice leading to a perhaps unintentional reform.

Monastic reform was the first of these. During the Middle Ages, many monasteries had been destroyed by Norseman and Hungarians. Some had become abbots by purchasing the office. Various reform movements may have resulted from an attempt to be reconciled to God as the end of the first millennium approached, as Judgment Day seemed immanent. The Clunaics started out as a group that would follow the Rule of Benedict in its entirety. Their focus, however, shifted from prayer and work (ora et labora) to prayer solely, as they felt that one should not go to prayer soiled from working. But at a time when the papacy was at its darkest hour, Clunaic reform in the Church became ideal even for non-Clunaics. Simony - the buying and selling of ecclesiastical posts - became one of the worst evils that needed to be destroyed.

The Clunaics promoted clerical celibacy as one of the main tenants of their reform. At that time, clerical celibacy was not a universal rule, but usually only observed by monks and nuns. This soon changed. A group called the “Patarines” arose, who held that clerical celibacy must be maintained, and that those priests who were married were actually priests with concubines, or harlots. Obedience also became very important. Just as the monks were obedient to their superiors, so the church would be obedient to the Pope. But when many were inspired by the monks of Cluny and continued to make large financial donations, the movement began to decline. The Cistercian movement, however, came into play shortly after. St. Bernard of Clairvaux was one of the more famous Cistercians. He preached ecclesiastical reform, the Second Crusade, and was discouraged theological innovation. The Cistercians opposed the luxury and learning of the Clunaics and preferred simple buildings, Bible study, and ascetic piety. These reforms within the church and within monasticism had wide-ranging consequences.

Then came the Franciscan movement - my community. Similar to the movement of Peter Waldo, St. Francis of Assisi left his home, his wealth and possessions, and taking on a beggar’s habit, began a mendicant movement - a fraternitas. A mendicant movement is those who lived by begging. Starting out as more of a worker’s movement helping to rebuild churches in the Umbrian valley, the movement progressed into more of a brotherhood. St. Clare of Assisi, companion of St. Francis, began the Order of the Poor Clares. Francis had started the Lesser Brothers (Order of Friars Minor) after securing permission from Pope Innocent III. He placed an emphasis on the sacredness of creation (“Brother Sun”, “Sister Moon”) and on the treatment of the Other. The movement, much to the dismay of Francis, became more organized, and more clericalized. But Francis felt he had heard God's voice calling out to him early on in the broken church of San Damiano, "Francis, go and rebuild my church. As you see, it is falling into ruin." The Franciscan charism to this day continues to be a source of inspiration and a call to radical living. The current Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis, took his papal name from St. Francis.

Following the early Franciscans, we find the Conciliar movement. The movement came about as a response to schism in the papacy. The movement held that a universal council, representing the entire church, had more authority than the pope. They sought to put an end to practices such as simony and nepotism without substantially challenging Christian dogma. They sought to heal the schisms. Ever since Constantine called the Council of Nicaea, councils were used to solve different crises. The Conciliarists felt that the problem of two rival popes could be solved, but then the question of who had the authority of calling an ecumenical council. So they had both parties call the council. They got rid of both rival popes, and elected Alexander V. After he died, Pope John XIII (the 23rd) was elected. Neither Alexander or John could heal the schism, so the next council called for John’s resignation. He fled, went into exile, and was never succeeded by another “pope.” The next council after this sought to end the schism and rid the church of heresy and corruption - including the condemnation of John Huss. The council in 1430 ended up in controversy, and the Conciliar movement split into two councils. At the Council of Ferrara, in which the emperor and patriarch of Constantinople accepted the formula for reunion, including papal supremacy. Following this, and the Council of Basel, councils became subject to the Pope - not vice versa.

John Wycliffe (1320-1384) was the next significant player in reforms. He lived during the time of the "Babylonian Captivity" of the Papacy (when the Papacy was in Avignon). Wycliffe sought to reform both the life and the doctrines of the church. For example, Wycliffe denied the Real Presence because he saw in it a denial of Christ’s Incarnation. His followers later also denied the Real Presence, as well as transubstantiation. He and his followers were called Lollards, possibly because they were always uttering prayers under their breath. He lived during the time of the Avignon papacy, and as the English tried to limit papal influence, they welcome Wycliffe’s arguments on the nature and limits of lordship or dominion. However, Wycliffe did not agree with the Church’s authority, claiming that the true church was not the pope and his visible hierarchy, but rather the invisible body of Christ (drawing on St. Augustine). He felt that as all Christians were the body of Christ, not only the hierarchy, all should be able to read the Bible - so he translated printed the Bible into English. The Printing Press had not yet reached England, so every Wycliffe Bible had to be written by hand over a sixth-month period.

But the Church did not like this, not because they did not want a common translation for people - but because it was unauthorized, and most people were illiterate (in fact, literacy only increased because people wanted to learn how to read the Bible). They wanted the people to have an authorized version. So in 1382, the Archbishop summoned a court. Wycliffe’s writings were banned, and an earth tremor ocurred so that each side claimed divine wrath on the other. He died in 1384 of a stroke during Mass, and since he died in the communion of the Church, he was buried on consecrated ground. His followers, the Lollards, believed that pastors should not hold civil offices, that the worship of images should be banned, that clerical celibacy and pilgrimages were an abomination, and they rejected transubstantiation and prayers for the dead. The Lollards, like the Franciscans and Waldensians, had gone out two by two to preach. In many ways, the Lollards were forerunners of the Protestant Reformation.

Following Wycliffe, we come to John Huss (1362-1415). In the early 1390s, Huss was a deeply devout man who spent most of his funds on purchasing indulgences. Wycliff’s teachings had made their way to Bohemia, where Huss was the dean of faculty of philosophy at the university. Unlike Wycliffe, however, he did accept the Real Presence in communion, and held the traditional doctrine of transubstantiation. From the Chapel of Bethlehem, he advocated reform similar to the Conciliarists. At first, he was not trying to change traditional doctrines, but only restore Christian life, including the clergy, to the highest ideals. He called the clergy “the Lord’s fat ones,” and aimed his preaching at the highest ranks of the church - including Archbishop Zbynek. The Pisan Pope Alexander V (elected by the Conciliarists) declared that preaching could only take place in a cathedral, monastery or parish church - and the Chapel of Bethlehem was none of these. This at first silenced Huss, but after some soul-searching he changed his mind, and began openly preaching again. In 1410, Huss was summoned to Rome to answer for that act of disobedience and for others that followed. He refused to go, and was excommunicated in 1411.

The conflict with the Pisan papacy created more radical views for Huss. He did not question papal legitimacy, but rather, their authority when they were clearly acting in their own interest and not the interest of the church. He concluded that the Bible is the ultimate authority that the pope and every Christian is held to, and that any pope who does not obey Scripture did not need to be obeyed. But when Pope John XIII declared a Crusade against Naples, he did not hesitate to speak up in protest. He left the country but was later invited to the Council of Constance. Hopeful, he went, having been promised safe passage by by Sigismund - until he was taken aside and tried before Pope John XIII. He did not recant, was imprisoned, and the Pope later fled. While in prison, his followers began administering to cup to the laity in the Lord’s Supper - an action he supported, as beforehand the laity only received the bread. The Council of Constance later rejected the laymen use of the cup. In 1415, he was charged by the leading officials of Konstanz and was led to his death, saying - “you can burn me as a duck, but after me will come an eagle!” Largely prophetic words, given the upcoming Reformation. Many of the issues that Huss had with the Church are echoed in the Protestant Reformation, specifically, in the life of Martin Luther.

Our final consideration in this article is Girolamo Savonarola (1400s), a Dominican friar. He was invited to preach in Florence in 1490, given his fame for fiery preaching. But what he said about the evils of the time, about the contrast between true Christian life and the love of luxury, offended many among the powerful. The man who had invited him, Lorenzo de Medici, was offended, and hired a preacher to attack Savonarola. After he was elected the prior of the monastery of St. Mark, Savonarola did not go to thank Lorenzo, claiming that he owed his post to God alone. Lorenzo and Savonarola made up their differences on Lorenzo’s deathbed, however. When Pietro de Medici took over, the Florentines did not like him, so instead listened to Savonarola. He believed that study needed to be at the center of the needed Reformation, and he was so convinced that the luxuries of the time were vanity that he actually held public burnings in the main square. Dresses, jewelry, wigs, furniture, and so forth. He recommended that Florence establish a republic, and that gold and silver in churches should be sold for the poor. Eventually the government turned against him, and Pope Alexander VI opposed Savonarola. Those who supported him believed he was a prophet, particularly after one of his prophecies came true. But when he could not perform miracles they demanded of him, they too turned on him. After a mob invaded St. Mark’s Monastery, he was captured, labeled as a “heretic,” and killed, although some kept relics of the Dominican friar.

These different reformers are important insofar as they establish something was unhealthy about the Church of God at that time, and was in need of reform. Indeed, the Protestant Reformation led to what is often termed the Catholic Reformation or the Counter-Reformation, which in turn led to the Church calling together the Council of Trent. The decisions at Trent helped to guide Christians for the last five hundred years up until the Second Vatican Council, which changed many things. Perhaps the important thing to take away from all of this historical backdrop is not so much what went wrong, but how these reformers and reform movements helped us along the way, and where we are today in the Christian tradition. We should not grow comfortable with the way the universal body of Christ is now, across all denominations, but ask ourselves if we continue to need reform, and if so, how do we go about reforming, reshaping and how do we go about it in a way that is loving? Therein lies the true challenge.

Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. New York: Harper Collins, 2010. Volume I. 407-445. Print.

Mcguire, Brian Patrick. "Monastic and religious orders, c. 1100–c. 1350" in The Cambridge History of Christianity: Christianity in Western Europe c. 1100–c. 1500. Vol. 4. Ed. bu MIRI RUBIN and WALTER SIMONS. 54-72. Print.

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