The Cambridge Modern History - Vol. 2

By A. W. Ward; G. W. Prothero et al. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XVIII.
THE CHURCH AND REFORM.

THE necessity of reform and of a spiritual regeneration of Catholicism had been acknowledged again and again at the opening of the sixteenth century by men of high position in the Church. Time after time it was admitted by the Sacred College, and at each Conclave the whole body of Cardinals pledged themselves to reform. Commissions were appointed but nothing came of them; and the Fifth Lateran Council ( 1512-17), instead of reforming the evils that had resulted from excessive centralisation, did little more than lay down the "plenitudo potestatis" of the papal monarchy with an insistency that had hitherto found expression only in the pages of curialist writers.

The vested interests of the officials of the Roman Court were in fact too strong for the forces working for reform; and the measures which might have obviated the schism and nipped the revolution in the bud were not taken until it was too late. The opponents of reform had the strength of a group of men working together with a definite knowledge of what they wanted to defend. The Catholic reformers on the other hand were scattered, voices in the desert, with no means of common action. Nor, when opportunities occurred to them, were they for long agreed as to the particular lines reform should take. The seeds of the later divisions among the Catholic reformers existed from the very first, and the course of events soon led to those differences becoming acute. For men desired reform from very different motives. The ascetic temperament saw nothing but the moral abuses and the corruption of the clergy; the humanist desired a greater freedom of thought, and a certain toleration of divergences of opinion which was abhorrent to the doctrinal reformer. The latter shared with the humanist the wish for a reconstruction of the traditional dogma, but wished to see the line between orthodoxy and heterodoxy drawn with no uncertain hand. Ultimately, two great parties evolved themselves among the Catholic reformers: the one desired conciliation and the discovery of a common ground on which the old and the new ideas might be harmonised; the other, while sharing with the former party its indignation at the moral corruption of

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