The overwhelming power of the RomanCatholic Church in Early Modern Europe was indisputable and attested to thebelief that religion held the most authority within society.
In the earlystages of the period, religion held authority over the entire region andcontrolled the day to day life of all people, from Kings to yeomen. After thecatastrophic effects of the plague in the fourteenth century, those that wereleft to deal with the aftermath turned to religion to find sanctity andstructure. Thus religion took form as the dominating authority in the region.Even the rulers of kingdoms throughout the region were under the will of thePope and the Roman Catholic Church, which at the time existed as its ownempire.
The church knew no boundaries and its influence was widespread. Thepower of the church in early modern Europe can best be understood throughpsychologist William Kornhauser’s description of power and its constraints inhis analysis of the power elite (the church) versus veto groups (anyone underthe rule/influence of the church). According to Kornhauser, power can bedefined not simply by the ability to make decisions that bind those withoutpower, but by the constraints the decision-maker has (Bendix and Lipset, 1966).So the fewer the constraints imposed by other institutions, the more power anentity has. This description of power allows one to grasp the magnitude ofpower the church had, as they were rarely contested at the beginning of theearly modern period. Having little to no constraints, the church could rule inany way it seemed fit. Even with such great power and influence, there began achange in the role of the church within society. By the mid-eighteenth century,some began to question the authority of the church and whether it belonged atthe center of the state.
Although religion still played a role in the lives ofpeople, the authority that the church once had begun to give way to reason,reformation, science and political structure. Due to the works of Martin Luther,the father of the Protestant reformation, and the later works of John Locke andother Enlightenment writers, the former reliance on religion as the sole authorityfor the function of society shifted to a representative government withreligion becoming decentralized. Inthe dawn of the early modern period, religion stood as the greatest authorityin society. The Roman Catholic Church, the dominant church in early modernEurope, was able to effectively control the lives of those in their churchthrough policy without question.
As Martin Luther states in his Appeal to the Christian Nobility of theGerman Nation in 1520, the church was able to protect themselves throughdoctrines that prevented any reform. The church declared that temporal powerhad no influence over them, the ability to interpret the word of God restedsolely in the Pope, and that no one can request council but the Pope (Pelikan,1943). This is but one example of how the church was able to use their religionto impose authority over the region. Since the church was able to structuremuch of society, they also held secular powers and at times acted as judges. InGene Brucker’s Giovani and Lusanna, thesecular authority of the church is portrayed when the Archbishop Antoniousdemands that the “pedasta” stop their ongoing investigation so that they couldnot impede on his court case. To provide a more compelling reason to stop theirinvestigation, the Archbishop threatened to excommunicate the “pedasta” if theychose to continue (Brucker, 1986). Their investigation was immediatelydiscontinued following the Archbishop’s threats.
The fact that a threat ofexcommunication ultimately trumped the want for reform conveys the impactreligion had on the region. Religion was so intertwined with societal structurethat being excommunicated meant social shame, proving that religion was acommunal matter. The authority of religion came before the due process of lawand the secular policies of society.
Beforemany of the religious wars and reformations that restructured the role of thechurch in the Early Modern period, the emergence of the printing press is whatfirst set the tone for reformation. Johannes Gutenberg’s use of the printingpress throughout the mid fifteenth century inspired others across Europe to useand develop his methods; making reading material more readily accessible to thepopulation (Chambers, 2009). The impact of the printing press would prove to bemassive. It allowed a large portion of Europe’s population to enhance theirreading and writing skills; making it easier for them to understand academicpieces and pieces written by reformation protagonists. The ability to haveliterature quickly dispersed throughout the population inspired many piecesthat would challenge the authority of the church. The printing press was ableto serve as a catalyst that trumped the monopoly the church has over religionand state policies. Taking full advantage of the printing press, contemporarywriters were able to freely challenge the role and authority of the church.
With a newfound literary knowledge amongst the general population, thesereligious pioneers were able to publically critique and share their beliefs onthe corruptness and fallacy of the Roman Catholic Church. These beliefs arewhat would set the tone for the religious reform in Europe. The authority ofthe church began to be questioned and people began to become suspicious of themotives of the church. Thus loyalty and allegiance to the Roman Catholic Churchbegan to fade and made way for representative government. Thebeginning of religious reform in Europe was sparked by the ProtestantReformation at which Martin Luther was the head. By utilizing the everexpanding knowledge and literacy of the European population, thanks to the printingpress, Luther was able to publically critique the church and its authority throughhis works. The idea that each person that believed in God was seen as equal inHis eyes was the driving force behind the changes that would be made throughreform. Rather than the hierarchy that the Roman Catholic Church hadimplemented, the Protestant Church advocated for equality amongst believers.
The Protestant Church called for a religious “re-focus” on the values of thescripture and for a government run by representatives. This meant a seriousdecline in authority for the church and began the questioning of absolutemonarchies who claimed to have their authority given by God.Althoughthe Roman Catholic Church seemed to have had instituted enough policy toprevent reform; Martin Luther was able to offer an alternative to theirpolicies and revealed that the people did not approve of the authoritative andsecular role the church had adopted.
Luther took full advantage of the printingpress and made it known that the church was indeed corrupt and in need ofreform. Disapproval of the Romanist corruption was not a new idea amongstpeople, but it was not until Martin Luther called for reformation that they sawan alternative to the current system. Luther proposed that the church had effectivelyconstructed three walls of protection from external demands of reform. Asstated before, the church claimed that spiritual power was above temporal, onlythe Pope could interpret the Scripture, and only the Pope can request council.Luther began his call for reform and his critique of the Roman Catholic Churchby reassuring the people that there is no need to fear the spiritual power ofthe church because “all Christians are truly of the spiritual estate.”(Pelikan, 1943).
This is important because it gave the people of the earlymodern period a simple understanding as to why they all had a connection toGod. This opposed the Romanist claim that only ranked church members arespiritual, while the rest of the population is in the temporal estate. Luther then directly challenges the role ofthe Pope and the authority he has as the only individual who can interpret thescripture. He asserts that the church cannot point out any scripture within theBible that suggests that the Pope alone has the authority to interpret thescripture. Luther is once again able to prove that the claims of the churchlack Biblical evidence and are meant to protect the authority of the church(Pelikan, 1943).
By using direct quotes from the Bible and establishing Biblicalevidence for his claims, Luther was able to draw upon the reason within peopleseeking reformation. This direct challenge to the authority of the RomanCatholic Church served as the first sign of impending change in the role of theauthority of religion. The new proposition of Protestantism paved a path forthe implementation of humanistic values and representative government. In the age of the Enlightenment,writers, such as English philosopher John Locke, began to question the absoluteauthority of the church and its secular roles in society. In Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha, he correlates the power ofthe absolute monarch to that of a father within his household. He finds thattheir roles are similar, but only the extent to which their power differs. Bothare considered to be the absolute rulers within their domain; all children andwives serve the father for as long as he lives.
Even if the “father” of thedomain is found to be wrong or corrupt, he still cannot be questioned orreplaced as his right comes directly from God (Sommerville, 1991). This beliefreinforced the claim that the power of absolute monarchs is given to themdirectly from God, therefore questioning them would be questioning thejudgement of God. Another example of how the church imposed its authority ingovernment and society. This “paternal power” is critiqued by John Locke in hissixth chapter of his first treatise in TwoTreatises on Government. Locke calls for reason when he says that if wewere to think logically, we would find that the power does not solely rest inthe hands of the father, but that the mother has equal power over theirchildren. He then recalls a quote from the scripture that requires children tohonor both their father and their mother (Rhys, 1993). This notion sought toquestion the absolute rule of a monarch and its legitimacy.
Since the authorityof the monarch supposedly comes directly from God, Locke uses the scripture toreveal that the claims made by the church are in fact inconsistent with thescripture. Throughout the Early Modern period,the authority of the church and religion was in question and challenged by someof the greatest minds of the era. In earliest parts of the period, there was noquestion of the authority of the church, and it ruled with intent to maintainits authority and to benefit the church.
The church controlled the lives ofnearly every person in the region through its policies and control ofgovernment. By claiming that the authority of monarchs was a divine gift, thechurch was able to avoid reform against the structure of government. As timewent on and technologies like the printing press became readily availableacross Europe, reformers such as Protestant Martin Luther and philosophers suchas John Locke were able to use their literary pieces to spark reformation.Martin Luther effectively defined and discredited the three walls the RomanCatholic Church had set up to protect themselves. In doing so, he sparked amovement away from the church and took away much of its authority withingovernment. During the Enlightenment period, John Locke focused on his idea ofgovernment in his Two Treatises on Government. He, like Luther, was able to usethe direct word of the scripture in order to prove that the Romanist claim todivine authority was in fact not supported by scripture.
In fact, he oftenfound that the scripture supported the opposite of the Roman Catholic Pope. Bothof their work invoked further movement away from the central role of the churchand religion, and more towards a representative government. The role of thechurch began as central to all of society, but through reformation and enlightenmentof the people, shifted to a representative government and a decentralizedreligion.