Was there resentment towards the Roman Catholic Church in Germany in the early 16th century?

In the years 1500 to 1517, the vulnerability of Germany and the weakness of their government led to their over exploitation by the church, and by extension the Pope. Due to Germany’s feeble government, the Pope was able to instruct and send Princes, who governed individual states, to impose the laws and views of the Pope on the German people. This continued manipulation led to resentment, meaning growing disapproval and dislike. This ill feeling towards the way Germany was being exploited caused many individuals to become opposed to the church itself. The most important and apparent source of this disapproval was the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church itself, and the behaviour of those in authority, which led to the church being viewed in a negative light. Another fundamental reason for the growing dislike towards the church were the individuals who opposed the church, who named themselves ‘Humanists.’ This growing group ensured that new ideas and ways of living were spread, thus causing opposition towards the Catholic Church to grow. Despite these warring factions, it should be noted that up to and during this time, the Catholic Church still had great power and influence over Germany and also the entire Holy Roman Empire, which dominated the majority of central Europe. 

The most important and apparent reason for the growing disapproval towards the Roman Catholic Church was the corruption that took place within it. The behaviour of those in authority was condemned, and led to the eventual growth of opposition. This dislike stemmed from the behaviour of the priests themselves, and when examined, it was discovered that they themselves were not fulfilling their duties and were being unprofessional. Absenteeism was rife, and this angered locals, as they wanted to be able to consult a religious authority at all times to administer the seven sacraments when needed, which the church believed were the seven things a good Christian must carry out in their lives. If one died without confessing his sins, or the Last Rites, due to the absence of a priest a German Catholic would argue that their relatives’ time in Purgatory would be longer as they had not confessed. This could have had a profound affect on the members of the family left behind, and their mind would not be at ease, due to the absence of their local priest. Non-residency also angered the German people in the same way, as there was nobody to turn to if religious help was required. Some priests even lived with women, which was strictly prohibited, as the prospect of a woman and a family in the life of a priest would distract them from their devotion to God. Pluralism also was apparent in the church, and one person could hold several positions. Bishops could be in charge of many dioceses at a time, and this did not allow the Bishops to focus on one state alone. For example, Albert of Brandenburg was the Archbishop of Mainz (from 1514-1545) and the Archbishop of Magdeburg (1513-1545). These positions could also be sold to the highest bidder, insinuating that some people saw the church as a means to make money. During the Indulgency scandal of 1517, Jakob Fugger of Augsburg lent Albert of Brandenburg money so he could become the Archbishop of Mainz, proving that one needed money to climb the hierarchy in the Catholic Church. Many of these people were unqualified, which led to an ignorance of Latin and doctrine. This meant that the people of Germany were not getting the required spiritual consultation they were hoping for, and that those within the church did not take their position seriously and were not well informed enough to provide the public with help. As the ordinary lay person couldn’t understand Latin, it was imperative that they had someone they could approach to help them to decipher it, and due to their unprofessionalism and ignorance of the priests, there was know one to turn to. The practise of nepotism also took place, implying that when assigning a new role, the skills and knowledge of the candidate were not considered, and only his familial ties were. This is unsettling, as it shows how little care the Catholic Church showed for the ordinary people, as they were not prepared to provide them with the most knowledgeable people. There was also great instability within the church itself as many tried to promote reform within it. One of these people was Luther, who after being caught in a thunderstorm in 1505 became ordained. The civil war within the church itself demonstrates the extent of how corrupt it was, as the ways of the church had clearly created groups with differing ideas. Priests also behaved appalling outside of the church, and were regularly seen indulging in activities that were frowned upon, such as drinking, gambling and womanising. The church condemned gambling as it could lead to addiction, and the “enslavement” of the person taking part in gambling. Money was also a cause for the corruption of the Catholic Church, as priests without payment would not perform many religious acts. These included marriage and baptisms. Money was also extracted from those embarking on pilgrimages and those who wanted to see, what the church claimed were, ancient remains, or relics. Perhaps the greatest example of exploitation by the church is the selling of Indulgences. It was believed that the purchase of Indulgences was “a way to reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sins” in purgatory. Whether they were dead or alive did not matter, as Indulgences could be bought for the previously deceased. Of course, their spiritual value could not be proven, but Pope Leo X used the money raised to fund projects such as the rebuilding of St Peters’ Basilica in 1517. This again displays how the clergy would exploit the people and their own position (as well as that of the church’s) to gain money. The overall unprofessionalism of the church, as well as their exploitation of the public, provides reason for the growing dislike and disapproval towards the Roman Catholic Church in the early 16th century.  

Another important reason that added to the strong disapproval towards the Catholic Church in the early 16th century was the activity of the Humanists. This group, led by Martin Luther and at times Phillip Melanchthon, voiced the problems within the church and ensured they were well known to the public. Their actions spread the news about the corruption of the church and also provided ways to combat it. It could be argued that their open criticism of the church was the most important reason for negative feelings, but it was fundamentally the church, and the acts that those inside it, that fuelled the reforming ideas of Luther and the Humanists as well as their criticism. For example, Ulrich Von Hutten was known to mock “clerical ignorance” within the church. This movement was primarily proposed and led by Luther, and came to a climax in 1516. It struck Luther at this time that “The righteous shall live by faith,” thus propelling him to nail his 95 Theses to the doors of the university church at Wittenburg. Before this action the Humanists were responsible for promoting the general feelings of anti-clericalism and anti-papalism in Germany. This opposition to the church based on its abuse of power spread through Germany, as well as a feeling of nationalism. Humanists defended Germany’s language, culture and outlook and regarded them as highly important. This gave the Humanists the right conditions for reform, as the people of Germany were beginning to value their culture and faith again. The Humanists used this to discuss new ideas about faith and how to be a good Christian, which involved the German people further. This nationalism led to arguments from the Humanists supporting the idea that the Bible should be in the vernacular; and this eventually happened in 1522, based on Erasmus’ Greek translation in 1516. The Humanists emphasised the importance of having a good understanding of the Bible, and how this was the key to faith. The idea of “sola scriptura” was highlighted, meaning the scripture, the Bible alone, is the way to full religious knowledge. This also contributed to the idea of “sola fide,” meaning faith alone. This phrase condemns the Church’s’ practise of extorting money, as only faith is needed to be a good Christian. By making the Bible easy to understand for the ordinary person, the Humanists and particularly Erasmus hoped that this would lead to debate about religious practises, and hoped that people would become emboldened by their views of the Church. Knowledgeable theologians also supported Luther in the build up to the reformation, including Philip Melanchthon, who was present at Luther’s’ first dispute with the church in 1519 in Leipzeig. The intelligence of the Humanists, as many studied theology at university, allowed them to understand the reforms taking place and were able to actively engage with the changes. The Humanists hoped that everyone would not accept the authority of the church so easily, and would be able to grapple with new ideas of reform. The Humanists also denounced the way the Church dealt with money, and condemned the selling of Indulgences because of it. Humanists condemned the idea of relics and pilgrimages, referring back to the key concepts of faith, which they believed was having a thorough understanding of doctrine. The Humanists were partly responsible for the growing disapproval towards the Catholic Church in the early 16th century, as it was them who voiced their personal resentment towards it, thus spreading the word about the Church’s corruption to the public.

However, it can be argued that there was no disapproval towards the church whatsoever during the early 16th century. The church provided a local authority for the German people, and was regularly consulted up to the reformation, as it had great ecclesiastical power. Despite the criticisms of the Humanists, local German people still valued the Church and regarded it with great importance. The church had great influence due to the structure of the Holy Roman Empire, which dominated much of central Europe. There were 46 ecclesiastical states in the Empire, compared to only 26 secular ones. Many people turned to the church and asked for sacraments to be administered. It was believed that if the Last Rites were not performed, the amount of time spent by the dead in purgatory would be longer than intended. This emphasised the importance of the church, and how much people depended and relied on them. They also trusted them greatly, to save the souls of their loved ones and to ensure that they got to heaven. The church was regularly consulted, as people believed that God and the Devil were responsible for the good or bad events. If there were a bad harvest, the people, after consulting those in the church, would believe that God was asking for good deeds to be delivered, in order for the good times to return. Priests were also seen as teacher in the local community, and were supposed to be available at all times for consultation. The Church also spread fear among the locals, as those who broke the rules of the Church were told that they would suffer eternal damnation in Hell. This increased the popularity of the church and the amount of people who went as they wished to know how to avoid this, and they could only find out this knowledge if they understood the Bible. The Church was the sole interpreter of the Bible, because know one understood Latin, and priests were the only people allowed to read it. This inspired great respect for the church, as many believed the priests within it to be learned and cultured. This was partly the reason why many respected the church, as they felt their divine knowledge and understanding of doctrine could not be disputed, especially their attitudes to saints and relics. The viewing of such relics was believed to aid individuals towards eternal salvation, and as this belief came from priests, many people obliged. This insinuates that there was actually no disapproval towards the Roman Catholic Church, as many people saw them as the only spiritually learned men in their state. As priests were the only people who could read the Bible they were well respected and had great status, thus diminishing the disapproval towards the Church.

There was not resentment towards the Catholic Church in Germany in the early 16th century but only strong dislike, mainly for the corruption within the Church. Their unprofessionalism and exploitation of the people for money are the actions that fuelled Humanist activity, and are therefore primarily responsible for the growing disapproval of the Catholic Church.[1]


[1] All information taken from:

A. Grundy, Religion and state in early modern Europe, (London, Pearson Education, 2015).

And my own knowledge.

Published by harpalkhambay

I'm a third year English Literature and History student, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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