Course corrections

The Pardoner in Geoffrey Chaucer’s fourteenth-century Canterbury Tales explains the wares he’s peddling thus:

Then show I forth my hollow crystal-stones,
Which are crammed full of rags, aye, and of bones;
Relics are these, as they think, every one.
Then I’ve in latten [metal] box a shoulder bone
Which came out of a holy Hebrew’s sheep.

After showing his beautiful relic containers, the Pardoner then describes his relics’ powers. Livestock will be cured of snakebites and pox. Increased wealth is guaranteed. Husbands who are jealous of their wives will never mistrust again, even if previously the wife in question had bedded “two priests, aye, or three.”

Chaucer’s Pardoner, a clever con-artist cheerfully gaining great wealth while simultaneously preaching that greed is the root of all evil, depicts late medieval Catholicism in a manner that quite nicely complements Luther’s own critiques more than a century later. Indeed, it reminds us that Luther and his contemporaries were not the first to recognize such hypocrisies.

Several centuries before Chaucer’s revealing parody, the church was already trying to make numerous “course corrections” to the sailing of the ship of faith. Three whose results echoed into Luther’s day were the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, the founding of the Franciscan and Dominican religious orders around the same time, and the rise of conciliarism as a result of the Council of Constance in 1415–1417.

A holy and perfect church?

One of the most powerful popes of the thirteenth century, and one of the most strong-minded, Pope Innocent III (reigned 1198–1216) knew that abuses existed. Unlike Chaucer’s later Pardoner, Innocent was far from cheerful about the matter. His solution: call a reforming council. The canons of the Fourth Lateran Council were a clarion call to the pursuit of holiness. From top to bottom, Lateran IV sought nothing less than a perfect church that could guarantee the salvation of all within her fold.

We read Innocent’s seriousness in the letter summoning all bishops, abbots, religious orders, and even kings of Western Christendom to a council. Its reforms were to cut across every sector of society. The purpose of the council was “to eradicate vices and to plant virtues, to correct faults and to reform morals, to remove heresies and to strengthen faith, to settle discords and to establish peace, to get rid of oppression and to foster liberty,” and, in what would become the controversial Fifth Crusade, “to induce princes and Christian people to come to the aid and succour of the holy Land.”

On November 11, 1215, over four hundred bishops and many abbots, other clergy, and secular leaders met in Rome and began the task of reforming the church. The end result of their work was 70 decrees, called canons, that they hoped would set the church on a good course. Where she had lost her way in sailing the journey of salvation, Lateran IV gave orders to tack back.

Lateran IV’s canons began with this assertion: “There is indeed one universal church of the faithful, outside of which nobody at all is saved, in which Jesus Christ is both priest and sacrifice.” To be outside the church was to be damned. The council envisioned a church with the power to enforce all the reforms they hoped for.

Immediately following this powerful claim, the council set out what the church saw as correct doctrine about the Eucharist—transubstantiation—and required that no one could perform the sacrament “except a priest who has been properly ordained according to the church’s keys, which Jesus Christ himself gave to the apostles and their successors.” The point was double-edged: inept clergy would be removed and the laity would experience correct practice, thereby safeguarding their salvation.

The council argued for the elimination of heresy: “We excommunicate and anathematize every heresy raising itself up against this holy, orthodox and catholic faith which we have expounded above.”Given many of the actions of the church against those it would deem heretical in ensuing centuries, this canon’s desire for reform and the pursuit of holiness gives reason to ask, “What are you willing to do to create a perfected church? Is the better course to leave some of the sorting of wheat and tares in divine hands?” This issue of right belief would not diminish. Later Protestant attempts to create a perfected church are rooted in the deep waters of this late medieval desire for perfection.

Most of the remaining canons of Lateran IV specify the precise practical ways in which reform should occur to manifest right belief. The leaders of the church, including monastic orders, were to live holy lives. All clerics were to live chastely and virtuously, and those who failed to do so were to be punished severely. In addition to renouncing all sexual relations, all clergy were to abstain from attending theatrical events, going to taverns, playing games of chance, and wearing ostentatious clothing. Laity were commanded to attend confession and participate in the Eucharist at least once a year at Easter. The abuse of relics was denounced, and the practice of simony (buying church offices) vigorously condemned. Three centuries prior to the Reformation, Lateran IV charted a thorough program of change.

The friars are in the house

The Fourth Lateran Council was not the only attempt at reform on Pope Innocent’s watch. In 1210 he also approved the famed monastic order founded by Francis of Assisi (c. 1181–1226).

Francis is perhaps most famous today for the “Prayer of St. Francis” (which he did not actually write) and for having received the stigmata (wounds on the body similar to Christ’s). But focusing on that highly unusual event obscures the significant ways in which Francis’s life and his followers changed the character of the late medieval church. This young man, once the son of a prosperous silk merchant with all the world before him, gave up all his property and high status for Christ (including, at one point, the rich clothes his father had bought him, which he took off and laid before the bishop of Assisi). He and his followers set out to wander the world with no money, no shoes, and no lasting address.

Francis’s respect for nature echoed through the centuries; he is remembered for preaching to the birds and for his “Canticle of the Sun,” which praises God for the whole creation in lines like “Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars in the heavens./ You have made them bright, precious, and beautiful.”

It is difficult to overemphasize the profound redirection that the Franciscan order represented. The ideal of monastic life had been set in the fourth century by Pachomius and Antony: monks removed themselves from their world to live an isolated life of devotion (see Christian History issues 93 and 105).

While previous monastic reforms cleaned up many abuses, through them monks also sought to more fully remove themselves from society. Remarkably, the Franciscans upended this ideal. Instead of fleeing from the secular, Franciscans dedicated themselves to preaching and teaching among the people and serving the poor, as Christ had done. As they walked, preached, and begged, they were overturning a spiritual pattern that was nearly a millennium old.

Francis also blessed a “Third Order” monastic movement, allowing lay people to enter into a spiritually devoted life without taking monastic vows. The possibility that the laity could be as saintly as monks was a concept that re-emerged powerfully in the thirteenth century (see “Duty and delight,” CH 110). It would echo in the Reformation-era discussion of the priesthood of all believers.

Franciscans were not alone in changing the character of medieval life. Another monastic order that arose in the thirteenth century, the Order of Preachers, or Dominicans (founded 1216), concerned itself with rooting out heresy—part of how the church understood its reforming task. Among the most famous Dominicans was one of the church’s greatest theologians, Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274).

Aquinas, like Francis, was from a wealthy family who disagreed with his career goals. In his case they didn’t mind him becoming a monk, but they wanted him to be a more respectable Benedictine. They resorted to kidnapping their own son and trying to get a prostitute to seduce him before finally giving up. (Even so, they made him leave secretly through the bedroom window so that no one would know what had happened to him.)

Aquinas took as his goal nothing less than the presentation of all theological truth in as complete and logical a format as possible. He once wrote, “Three things are necessary for the salvation of man: to know what he ought to believe; to know what he ought to desire; and to know what he ought to do.”

The council that ordered more councils

But this thirteenth-century reforming energy did not last. The ship sailed off course again. Everybody, including the church, agreed that much of the fourteenth century could be summed up with the proverbial “two steps back.” Or maybe more than two.

Beginning in 1309 seven successive popes left the perceived neutrality of Rome to reside in Avignon, France, where they lived for nearly 70 years under a cloud of suspicion. In France the pope was seen as a vassal of the French king rather than an advocate for all Christians. It was whispered that corruption abounded—money could purchase anything from forgiveness of sins to lucrative dioceses. Catherine of Siena, famous theologian, mystic, and Third Order Dominican, wrote letters to Pope Gregory XI urging him to leave Avignon and return to Rome.

When the pope did move back to Rome in 1377, the situation got worse. Two men, and then three, claimed the papacy. Western Christianity entered into schism. Some regions followed the Roman pope, others the French pope. The hope of a pure and holy church that guaranteed the salvation of all within had sunk deep in the ocean.

So in 1409 the church convened the Council of Pisa, and, when it failed, the Council of Constance in 1415. Church leaders were ready to take drastic measures. First, as at Lateran IV, they agreed that heresy had to be dealt with, and set an example with John Wycliffe and Jan Hus, whose teachings on the nature of the church they considered heretical. They ordered both men to be executed.

Wycliffe had the personal good fortune of having died several decades earlier, but his body was nevertheless exhumed and condemned. Hus was less fortunate, and very much alive, when chained to the stake. Since Protestants tend to view Wycliffe and Hus as harbingers of the Reformation, they do not regard the Council of Constance as reforming the church—yet that is what its participants thought they were doing.

In addition to decisive action in regard to heresy, the council resolved the problem of multiple popes once and for all. They deposed the three previous claimants and elected one new pope: Martin V. Furthermore, they argued that the potentially abusive power of a single man, specifically the pope, could be mitigated through the frequent meeting of councils:

A good way to till the field of the Lord is to hold general councils frequently, because by them briers, thorns, and thistles of heresies, errors, and schisms are rooted out, abuses reformed, and the way of the Lord made more fruitful. But if general councils are not held, all these evils spread and flourish.

The council believed that if the church was to be the ark of salvation, it needed to be shipshape, and that no one, “of whatever rank, condition, or dignity, including the pope,” was above the decrees of the councils.

Councils were called, though not as many as the Council of Constance had hoped and without as much power. Eventually the movement fell apart. In 1512 Pope Julius II had the last word when he coerced the Fifth Lateran Council to affirm papal superiority over councils, thereby returning to the old order of things, just in time for the emergence of something new.

A rekindled flame

In 1517 an indulgence seller named Tetzel set up near the town of Wittenberg. Like Chaucer’s Pardoner, he knew that spiritual promises could be highly profitable. Martin Luther’s response to this abusive practice, the 95 Theses, marked the start of the Reformation. The sixteenth-century reformers were echoing cries that had sounded within the church for centuries. From the Fourth Lateran Council to the Council of Constance, the church had already made many course changes. The Protestant reformers now set out to finish the journey others had begun. CH

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Christian History’s 2015–2017 four-part Reformation series is available as a four-pack. This set includes issue #115 Luther Leads the Way; issue #118 The People’s Reformation; issue #120 Calvin, Councils, and Confessions; and issue#122 The Catholic Reformation. Get your set today. These also make good gifts.

By Patricia Janzen Loewen

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #115 in 2015]

Patricia Janzen Loewen is assistant professor of history at Providence University College in Manitoba.
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