Reformation opened to the world the promise of the restoration of
Scripture as central to a pure faith and lives of virtue, as the result
of pointing men and women to the power of God to transform the heart.
The truth that we are saved by grace through faith alone shook Europe.
Reformers such as John Wycliffe in England in the fourteenth century,
Jan Huss in Bohemia in the fifteenth and Martin Luther of Germany in the
sixteenth, under Godís blessing, and the preaching of the Word, reshaped
the thinking of Christians.
This was no impotent counterfeit grace such as many
espouse today. It was grace full of power. It was grace which
transformed characters. Thus in her much-loved hymn, "Marvellous Grace,"
Julia H. Johnson, daughter of a Presbyterian minister, wrote in 1911,
Grace that will pardon and cleanse within . . .
That hymn, published by the Moody Bible Institute,
Chicago, in the year it was written, is a hymn of grace empowered to
cleanse our lives from sin. It was based upon Scripture,
But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.
This was an era of unequalled opportunity for the
Roman Catholic Church. All three Reformers had taken holy orders. None
had intended to create a schism. Had the leadership of the church
embraced the precious truths of God, hidden for centuries under pagan
concepts and practice, it would have been to the glory of God and the
church and to the sanctification of souls. The missionary zeal for the
salvation of pagans living on other continents, engendered by Protestant
missionary outreach, would have challenged the thinking of mankind in a
way which had not been seen since apostolic times. But Roman Pontiffs
fiddled while Rome itself burned.
Greedy and ambitious prelates contesting the papal
throne were often devoid of theological interest. Their only thought was
to quell rebellion, as they judged the earnest efforts of the Reformers
to be. They were affronted to find men in the lower echelons of the
clergy daring to question Roman Catholic doctrinal tradition and, while
paying scant attention to such matters themselves, they were not
unmindful of the threat to their absolute control, should Protestantism
Thus while Wycliffe was earnestly seeking to reform
the widespread corruption in England, Popes Urban VI and Clement VII
were locked in fierce contention, each claiming to be the valid and
rightful leader of the church. Such disputes left little or no time for
prayerful study of Godís Word and investigation of the mighty salvation
issues at stake, if indeed such issues held any interest at all for
While Jan Huss was proclaiming the gospel and
promoting the much-needed reform in Bohemia, Popes John XXIII, elected
in Bologna by the Pisan obedience, Gregory XII, elected by the Roman
obedience, and the Spaniard Benedict XIII, elected by the Avignon
obedience, were each claiming to be the one genuine Pope and exposing
the all-too-evident defects of their competitors.
By even minimal standards, none possessed a single
quality fitting him to represent Christ upon earth. Dr. Peter de Rosa,
former Jesuit priest and Professor at both Corpus Christi and
Westminster Seminaries in Britian, plainly exposed their evil lives in
strident terms. Of Cardinal Angelo Corrario, Gregory XII, de Rosa found
that he certainly bore no resemblance to his Christian name. The Roman
obedience, according to the Archbishop of Florence, had elected him in
his seventies, believing him to be too old and frail to be corrupt. De
Rosa sets forth the consequences of this monumental error of judgment:
The old manís first pontifical act was to pawn his
tiara for six thousand florins to pay his gambling debts . . . he sold
off everything in Rome that was portable and some things that werenít,
such as Rome itself, to the King of Naples. (Vicars of Christ,
Cardinal Pedro de Luna, described by de Rosa as "a
hysterical Spaniard" who, as Benedict XIII, "practically excommunicated
the entire church," was the least successful of the three competitors
since, although chosen to revive the papal fortunes in Avignon, he soon
found that the King of France forsook him along with all but three
cardinals. This was Benedictís fate, even though some of Gregory XIIís
cardinals deserted him for Avignon when his first act had been to
appoint four new cardinals, all his nephews. There were even dark rumors
concerning the exact relationship to Gregory of these "nephews," some
claiming their relationship to the Pope was even closer.
Baldassarre Cossa, who was elected to the Pisan
obedience as Pope John XXIII, had a fearful record.
He was rumoured never to have confessed his sins or
taken the sacrament. Nor did he believe in the soulís immortality or
the resurrection of the dead. It was doubted by some if he believed in
He was not consecrated a priest until after his
election as pope, and only one day prior to his coronation. There were
even rumors that in his haste to be elected pope he had bribed Pope
Alexander Vís physician to poison him and then won the papal election by
blatant acts of simony, bribing the cardinals from his not
Eventually John XXIII was jailed and found himself
confined to the same prison where Jan Huss, whose character greatly
contrasted with that of the disgraced pontiff, awaited his martyrdom. At
his trial for piracy, murder, rape, sodomy and incest, John XXIII wasó
absolved from heresy, probably because he had never
evinced sufficient interest in religion to be classed as heterodox. (Ibid.,
We cannot but compare the sentences meted out to Huss
and John XXIII.
Huss, brave, chaste, incorruptible, stern opponent
of simony [the sale of ecclesiastical offices] and clerical
concubinage [immorality] met a harsher fate [than John XXIII].
Forbidden counsel, tried on a trumped-up charge, interrogated by
Dominicans who had not read his books even in translation, he was
sentenced to death. (Ibid.)
On 29 May 1415, John XXIIIís seals of office were
solemnly smashed with a hammer. . . . In spite of his heroic
promiscuity, he was given only a three-year prison sentence. (Ibid.)
The sixteenth century exposed yet another form of
debasement. The accoutrements of religion had become more significant
and more sought after than piety and purity of faith. The Vatican became
consumed by the aim of constructing the new St. Peterís Basilica. Pope
Julius II laid the cornerstone in 1506 and it was finally consecrated in
1626 by Pope Urban VIII. The greatest architects and artists of the era
were employed to express the pomp and pride of Rome. Men such as
Bramante, Raphael, Michelangelo, Maderna and Bernini made outstanding
contributions to the construction during the 120 years it was in
But the erection of the largest and most magnificent
Christian edifice in the world came at a price. The Vatican treasury was
not able to supply the means. The Jesuit Roman Catholic apologist,
Joseph S. Brusher, Professor of History at the University of Santa
Clara, in his tome, Popes Through the Ages, p. 434, was
constrained to make a muted condemnation of the methods used to finance
the construction. His book bears the imprimatur of Cardinal James
Francis McIntyre, Archbishop of Los Angeles.
At the time of Martin Lutherís protest against the
unprincipled use of indulgences to extort money from the ignorant
masses, the reigning Pope, Leo X, was a man of the deí Medici family.
This family, centered in Florence, ruled Tuscany with little principle.
Leoís father, Lorenzo deí Medici, often designated Lorenzo the
Magnificent, was Duke of Tuscany. His political eminence led to his son,
Giovanni, being appointed an abbot of several monasteries before he was
nine years of age, and a cardinal at thirteen. At the age of
thirty-eight he was Pope. Despite this "youthful" rise to Pontiff in
1513, he was dead by 1521.
Brusherís understatement of the horrors of Leoís
pontificate nevertheless serves to underline its spiritual poverty in
the era of Martin Luther.
Leo had appointed Raphael to proceed with the
building of St. Peterís, but lack of funds caused the great artist to
chafe in idleness. The Pope granted an indulgence to all who under the
usual conditions contributed to the building of the basilica. Tetzel,
preaching this indulgence in Germany, stirred a stormy Augustinian to
challenge him and his indulgences on October 31, 1517. From 1517 to
1521 Martin Luther drifted into open rebellion against the Catholic
religion. Leo was quite patient with him, but at last in 1520 he
condemned Lutherís errors by the bull Exsurge Domine.
Condemnations were not enough. By December 1, 1521,
when Leo X died, Germany was aflame. It was the timeís misfortune that
when the church needed a Hildebrand on the papal throne all it got was
a Medici. (Joseph Brusher, op. cit., p. 434)
Hildebrand was Pope Gregory VII (1073ó1085), who kept
the German King, Henry IV, shivering in the snow outside the Popeís
residence for three days before he would consent to see the king. After
expressing deep repentance for his opposition to the Pope, Henry was
absolved and his excommunication expunged. Gregory VII was canonized for
his strong efforts to bring questionable reforms to the Papacy. For over
nine centuries the Papacy has sought another Hildebrand, a pope who
would control the wills of kings and rulers and receive the homage of
the world. As we will see, in the twentieth century the Roman Catholic
Church found its Hildebrand.