The Strange Era of the Protestant Reformation—The Catholic Low-Point

(“Der Anschlag von Luthers 95 Thesen” c 1878, by Julius Hübner (1806-1882) [Public domain], via Creative Commons)




Babylonian Captivity, Corrupt Popes and Papal Controversies

On Halloween day, in 1517, Martin Luther initiated a European dialogue which brought into question the legitimacy of Papal authority and the long accepted customs of the Roman Catholic Church. This occurred when he made public his Ninety-five Theses or Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences. Luther’s theses grasped the attention of European citizens and monarchs alike. Pope Leo X and papal supporters denounced Luther, and criticized his interpretation of scriptures. Thomas More and Desiderius Erasmus were in the ranks of Luther’s critics. Other men, such as Frederick “The Wise” of Saxony, sheltered Luther and allowed him to proselytize in their domain. Martin Luther’s writings embraced a popular uncertainty of personal salvation, and launched a wave of suspicion and mistrust of the Papacy and a questioning of the Vatican’s authority.

The Papal States and their masters were slowly recovering from decades of questionable activity when Luther posted his theses in 16th century Wittenberg. The Papacy had struggled in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries with various embarrassing and reputation-tarnishing events. Pope Gregory XI (r. 1370-1378) was the last pope of the Avignon Papacy (also called the Babylonian Captivity), so-named because from 1309-1377 the seat of power for the Catholic Church had moved to Avignon. When Pope Gregory XI died on the 27th of March in 1378, another scandal erupted. The College of Cardinals elected a successor, Pope Urban VI, who relocated the Papacy back to Rome. Some members of the very same College of Cardinals grew to dislike Urban VI and they elected a new Pope, Clement VII. The two popes lived in rivalry and excommunicated each other until 1409, when a third Pope, Alexander V was elected. The reign of multiple popes was not corrected until the Council of Constance convened in 1414, and elected only one pope – Martin V (1). The triumvirate of popes predating Pope Martin V likely confused faithful Christians who were looking to the Papacy for spiritual guidance.



(The Anointing of Pope Gregory XI and the Battle of Pontvallin (1370), By Jean Froissart (1337-1405), Chronicles fol. 382 [Public domain], via Creative Commons)


Papal controversy arose again in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. The Vatican was home to two particularly notorious Popes between 1492 and 1513. The first was Pope Alexander VI. Born in Spain, his original name was Rodrigo Borgia. He and his uncle, Pope Callistus III, likely became the Vicar of Christ through bribery. Pope Alexander VI fathered eight children, of which Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia were the most notorious. Cesare commanded the military of the Papacy, and was an inspiration for Machiavelli’s The Prince. Cesare was known for brutality, murder, and other debaucheries. Lucrezia, for a time, acted as regent for the Pope, while Pope Alexander VI expanded Papal power in Italy.



(“A Glass of Wine with Caesar Borgia” c 1893, by John Collier (1850-1934) [Public domain], via Creative Commons)

The reign of the Borgias in Italy was immediately followed by another warmongering pope. After the death of Pope Alexander VI in 1503, the College of Cardinals selected Pope Julius II. His reign lead to a rise in the selling of indulgences and Papal military activity. Pope Julius II would personally lead Papist armies in conquest of Italian lands. His constant fighting and expulsion of foreigners from his lands gave rise to the name by which he was known to the commoners: “Terribilitia,” translated as “terrible man.” Julius II’s unholy behavior garnered criticisms from men such as Erasmus. Pope Leo X succeeded Julius II in 1513 and was the reigning Pope when Luther began voicing his complaints. Luther voiced criticisms of the Pope’s authority only twenty-five years after Pope Alexander VI’s reign and only four years after the death of Julius II. Luther posted his theses in nearly perfect timing with the Papacy’s most corrupt years in history, bringing about the Protestant Reformation and, as a result, the Catholic Counter Reformation.



Written by C. Keith Hansley



  1. Carter Lindberg. The European Reformations (Second Edition). Massachusetts: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Pg 42-46.
  2. Carter Lindberg. The European Reformations (Second Edition). Massachusetts: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Pg 51.
  3. Carter Lindberg. The European Reformations (Second Edition). Massachusetts: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Pg 52.

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