But while the Church seemed to be growing again in grandeur and authority, Europe was undergoing economic, political, and intellectual changes that slowly undermined the structure of Latin Christianity.
Religion normally thrives in an agricultural regime, science in an industrial economy. Every harvest is a miracle of the earth and a whim of the sky; the humble peasant, subject to weather and consumed with toil, sees supernatural forces everywhere, prays for a propitious heaven, and accepts a feudal-religious system of graduated loyalties mounting through vassal, liege lord, and king to God. The city worker, the merchant, the manufacturer, the financier, live in a mathematical world of calculated quantities and processes, of material causes and regular effects; the machine and the counting table dispose them to see, over widening areas, the reign of “natural law.” The growth of industry, commerce, and finance in the fifteenth century, the passage of labor from the countryside to the town, the rise of the mercantile class, the expansion of local to national to international economy—all were of evil omen for a faith that had fitted in so well with feudalism and the somber vicissitudes of the fields. Businessmen repudiated ecclesiastical restraints as well as feudal tolls; the Church had to yield, by transparent theological jugglery, to the necessity of charging interest for loans if capital was to expand enterprise and industry; by 1500 the old prohibition of “usury” was universally ignored. Lawyers and businessmen more and more replaced churchmen and nobles in the administration of government. Law itself, triumphantly recapturing its Roman Imperial traditions and prestige, led the march of secularization and day by day encroached on the sphere of ecclesiastical regulation of life by canon law. Secular courts extended their jurisdiction; episcopal courts declined.
The adolescent monarchies, enriched by revenues from commerce and industry, freed themselves day by day from domination by the Church. The kings resented the residence, in their realms, of papal legates or nuncios who acknowledged no authority but the pope’s, and made each nation’s church a state within the state. In England the statutes of Provisors (1351) and Praemunire (1353) sharply restricted the economic and judicial powers of the clergy. In France the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges was theoretically abrogated in 1516, but the king retained the right to nominate archbishops, bishops, abbots, and priors.17 The Venetian Senate insisted on appointing to high ecclesiastical office in all Venetian dependencies. Ferdinand and Isabella overrode the popes in filling many ecclesiastical vacancies in Spain. In the Holy Roman Empire, where Gregory VII had maintained against Henry IV the papal right of investiture, Sixtus IV conceded to the emperors the right of nomination to 300 benefices and seven bishoprics. The kings often misused these powers by giving church offices to political favorites, who took the revenues—but ignored the responsibilities—of their abbacies and sees.18 Many ecclesiastical abuses were traceable to such secular appointees.
Meanwhile the intellectual environment of the Church was changing, to her peril. She still produced laborious and conscientious scholars; but the schools and universities that she had founded had raised up an educated minority whose thinking did not always please the saints. Hear St. Bernardino, toward 1420:
Very many folk, considering the wicked life of monks and friars, nuns and secular clergy, are shaken by this; nay, oftentimes, they fail in faith, and believe in nothing higher than the roofs of their houses, not esteeming those things to be true that have been written concerning our faith, but believing them to have been written by the cozening invention of men, and not by God’s inspiration.... They despise the sacraments .... and hold that the soul has no existence; neither do they... fear hell nor desire heaven, but cling with all their hearts to transitory things, and resolve that this world shall be their paradise.19
Probably the business class was the least pious; as wealth mounts, religion declines. Gower (1325?-1408) claimed that the merchants of England cared little about the hereafter, saying, “He who can get the sweetness of this life, and lets it go, would be a fool, for no man knoweth whither or by what way we go” after death.20 The failure of the Crusades had left a slowly fading wonder why the God of Christendom had permitted the victory of Islam, and the capture of Constantinople by the Turks refreshed these doubts. The work of Nicholas of Cusa (1432) and Lorenzo Valla (1439), in exposing the “Donation of Constantine” as a forgery, damaged the prestige of the Church and weakened her title to temporal power. The recovery and publication of classical texts nourished skepticism by revealing a world of learning and art that had flourished long before the birth of that Christian Church which, at the Fifth Council of the Lateran (1512–17), had denied the possibility of salvation outside her fold: nulla salus extra ecclesiam .21 The disco /ery of America, and the widening exploration of the East, revealed a hundred nations that with apparent impunity ignored or rejected Christ, and had faiths of their own as positive, and as morally efficacious, as Christianity. Travelers returning from “heathen” lands brought some rubbing of strange creeds and rituals with them; these alien cults touched elbows with Christian worship and belief, and rival dogmas suffered attrition in the market place and the port.
Philosophy, which in the thirteenth century had been the handmaid of theology, devoting itself to finding rational grounds for the orthodox faith, liberated itself in the fourteenth century with William of Ockham and Marsilius of Padua, and in the sixteenth became boldly secular, flagrantly skeptical with Pomponazzi, Machiavelli, and Guicciardini. Some four years before Luther’s Theses Machiavelli wrote a startling prophecy:
Had the religion of Christianity been preserved according to the ordinances of the Founder, the state and commonwealth of Christendom would have been far more united and happy than they are. Nor can there be a greater proof of its decadence than the fact that the nearer people are to the Roman Church, the head of their religion, the less religious are they. And whoever examines the principles on which that religion is founded, and sees how widely different from those principles its present practice and application are, will judge that her ruin or chastisement is near at hand.22