The Catholic Church on the Eve of the Protestant reformation & Martin Luther’s 95 Theses

The condition of the Catholic church on the eve of the Protestant reformation was mixed. Piety and lukewarmness existed alongside each other. People were more attracted to the more dramatic aspects of religion, such as the arrival of popular preachers, high masses on important feast days, feast days of patron saints, and pilgrimages to the Holy Land and Rome.

The parish priests were often very poor, so their main goal was to get money from the laity so they could survive. Many bishops were involved in absenteeism, which means that they did not reside in their dioceses. Sometimes a bishop would have 2 or 3 dioceses so they could gain that many incomes, which would obviously give them a lot more money.

The higher authorities in the church tried to get the priests to celebrate mass at least 4 times a year, which shows that the priests were not doing their job very well. The religious orders had also strayed from the original poverty they once observed under figures such as St. Francis.


There are also examples of people faithfully practicing Catholicism during this period of history. There were many works of piety for a popular audience, such as The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. Many Catholics wanted to reform the Church to bring it back to its original state. Cardinal Ximenes (Archbishop of Toledo) executed a systematic reform of the church in Spain. He worked to reform the Franciscans, other religious orders, as well as the Parish clergy. Another group called the Theatines also strove for reform during this time.

In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. These theses were a series of propositions which Luther was prepared to debate. No one agreed to debate Luther right away, but his theses spread throughout Germany and beyond thanks to the invention of the printing press.

Luther’s 95 theses combated indulgences, which were certificates thought to reduce the temporal punishment for sin. Indulgences could also be applied to dead friends or relatives to reduce their time in Purgatory. Many reformers thought that indulgences were being abused and needed to be reformed, but Luther claimed indulgences were wrong even if they were reformed and done correctly.

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