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Search Skwirk


Historians have identified many reasons for the decline of the Catholic Church in Western Europe during the 16th century. The Renaissance, which began in the mid-14th century, had swept across the continent and inspired people to think independently. The invention of the printing press had resulted in a more literate and more curious population. People were becoming discontent with the perceived hypocrisy and wealth of the Catholic Church and the 'discovery' and conquest of new continents had opened up Europe's horizons.

Despite all these factors, however, the events which finally sparked the onset of the European Reformation can be traced to the actions of one man, a German monk named Martin Luther. From his humble beginnings as a student of law and theology, Luther rose to become one of the most influential figures in the history of Europe. His actions resulted in one of the biggest spiritual wars Europe has ever experienced: the split of the Roman Catholic Church into Catholicism and Protestantism.

Youth and education

Martin Luther was born in Germany in November 1483. Luther was a very bright scholar, who excelled in the subjects of law and theology (religious studies). Luther's father wanted him to become a lawyer; however, by the time Luther reached university he was much more intent on following the path of religion.

From a young age Luther was an extremely devout Catholic; he prayed with dedication and regularly went to confession. In 1505, at age 22, he left law school and decided to become a monk. He was ordained a priest in 1507 and, soon after, began studying for his degree in theology. Luther was awarded his doctorate (highest degree) in theology from the University of Wittenberg in 1511.

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Lecturing in Wittenberg

After receiving his doctorate at the University of Wittenberg, Luther began lecturing as a professor of theology. While he lectured on many aspects of the Bible, the longer he lectured, the more his lessons became focussed on the topic of man's salvation (pass into Heaven). Luther believed that people could be granted salvation by having faith in God and by appealing directly to God for forgiveness. He did not agree in the practice of 'buying' forgiveness from priests, which was becoming more and more common.

Disillusion with the Catholic Church

While lecturing in Wittenberg, Luther started questioning the integrity of the Church. Much of his disillusionment with the Church was due to what he considered to be the bad behaviour of some Catholic priests. In his local town, for example, a priest named Johann Tetzel had been selling 'indulgences' to people, in exchange for their salvation.

Selling indulgences to people meant that when somebody committed a sin, they could buy their forgiveness from God and be granted permission to enter heaven. When Luther heard the extent to which Tetzel was selling indulgences, he became infuriated. According to Luther, the only path to true redemption was through having faith in God and appealing to Him directly.

In addition to being unhappy about the way people were paying their way out of punishment for their sins, Luther was also appalled by the growing wealth of the Roman Catholic Church. The money that Tetzel and other priests were receiving from the sale of indulgences was being given to the office of Pope Leo X in Rome, to upgrade St Peter's Basilica.

Other things about the Catholic Church that annoyed Luther included the way that many priests were not practicing celibacy (which means having no sexual relations) and the way that Church sermons were conducted in Latin. Luther felt that Mass should be presented in the daily language that people spoke and understood. In the case of his local church, this would have been German.

Luther's 95 theses

Having become very disillusioned with the Catholic Church, Luther decided it was time that something was done. In October 1517, Luther wrote down 95 statements (known as his 95 theses) which reflected his discontent with the Catholic Church. In writing these statements, Luther's intention was, first and foremost, to create debate. He wanted to start people thinking about the hypocrisies within the Church and to encourage Church leaders to consider changing their ways.

Luther sent copies of his 95 theses to priests and members of the clergy in his surrounding area. Legend has it that he also pinned a copy of the statements to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. This is where regular university announcements were often posted.

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In addition to these actions, Luther printed copies of his theses, which were then distributed throughout Germany. Eventually, copies of the 95 theses reached other parts of Europe as well.

The response of the Church

Luther's 95 theses raised a large amount of controversy. The Church was enraged by Luther's actions and in June 1520, Pope Leo X issued him with a papal bull. This is a formal letter issued by the Pope under very special circumstances. The 'bull' refers to the metal seal which is stamped on the letter to make it authentic.

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Pope Leo's papal bull presented Luther with a stern threat: if he did not recant (take back) 41 of his 95 statements within two months, he would be excommunicated. Being excommunicated means having membership of a religious community taken away. The Church threatened Luther with this harsh penalty in the hope that he would apologise and stop spreading revolutionary, heretical ideas. Luther refused to back down and in December 1520, he publicly burned Pope Leo's papal bull. He was subsequently excommunicated in January 1521.

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Luther gains popularity

The Church, however, had underestimated Luther's popularity; in the few years since releasing his 95 theses, he had attracted thousands of supporters. Many of Luther's supporters felt similar disillusionment with the Catholic Church. Others liked the way that Luther wanted Church services to be presented in languages other than Latin, so that they could finally understand what was being preached.

Some of Luther's followers began protesting, which is where the word protestant originates; the actions of Martin Luther lead to a period of European history that is known as the Protestant Reformation. During this significant period of history, the Roman Catholic Church split into two major branches of followers: Catholics and Protestants.

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