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Chapter 24

Papal Decline


The Protestant 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. (Romans 5:20)

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 gather momentum.

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 these Popes.

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, p. 129)

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 God. (Ibid.)

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 inconsiderable means.

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., p. 132)

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.)

By contrast,

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 progress.

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.

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