The Impacts of Protestant and Catholic Reformations on Europe

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The cultural scene within sixteenth-century Europe was characterized by religious turmoil and the arise of two similar yet different religious ideologies: The Protestant and the English Reformations. The Protestant Reformation was a movement within Europe in the sixteenth-century that posed a religious and political challenge to the Roman Catholic Church and the authority of the Papacy. The most influential leaders of this movement were Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-1564). In contrast, the English Reformation, led by King Henry VIII, caused the Church of England to break away from the authority of the Papacy and the Roman Catholic Church. The Protestant and English Reformations both shared a common goal of reforming the Catholic Church; however, the reasoning for each reformation movement differed in terms of intent of the founders as well as ideology.

In Luther’s earlier life, he lived a very religiously conventional and conservative existence. He grew up in the middle class, and later completed an arts degree from the University of Erfurt in 1505 (Frankforter & Spellman 380). After that, he dropped out of his further studies and began his life at a monastery where he was eventually ordained a priest in 1507 (Frankforter & Spellman 381). He would then eventually begin to question the teachings of the catholic faith. “Luther was well into his thirties before anything caused him to question his medieval Catholic faith. He had been taught to think of himself as a sinner destined for judgement by a righteous and angry God. Fear of God and of eternal punishment had driven him to take monastic vows, but the fasts, prayers, and disciplines of the monastic life failed to bring him an assurance of salvation.” (Frankforter & Spellman 381).

The Protestant Reformation first began with the humanists of the Italian Renaissance. The humanists believed that the authenticity of the West’s civilization had diminished over the centuries, but still could be restored (Frankforter & Spellman 380). During the 16th century, Martin Luther’s beliefs and ideologies became the face of the Protestant reformation. “The man whose personal religious struggle became a catalyst for the Protestant Reformation, was not destined by birth or education to lead a rebellion” (Frankforter & Spellman 380). What helped him become the most well-known influence on the Reformation was the invention and use of the printing press. The spread of Luther’s ideas can be greatly accredited to the invention of the printing press – which helped spread his ideas to other people. “The press created a modern world – a place where debates among scholars and leaders are referred to the court of public opinion” (Frankforter & Spellman 380).

A major component of the Catholic religion that caused Martin Luther to question his faith was indulgences. Indulgences in medieval Catholicism became a major cause for the Protestant Reformation. Prior to the Reformation, indulgences were ways in which a sinner could reduce a punishment. “An indulgence was a dispensation from the need to do penance for one’s sins. Church doctrine held that while God freely forgave the guilt of sin, sinners still owed compensation for the moral damage caused by their sin. The souls of the dead who had not fully atoned for their sins in life were sent to Purgatory (not to Hell from which there was no release) to complete their penances before being admitted into heaven” (Frankforter & Spellman 381). He argued “the sale of indulgences contravened the teachings of the scriptures” (Guy 12). As previously mentioned, the printing press played a major role in terms of ideas being spread amongst Protestant Reformers. This is seen in works of propaganda in form of woodcut prints, such as The Sale of Indulgences. This scene represents the practice of indulgences that first roused Martin Luther to action (Frankforter & Spellman 382). The scene “depicts a richly mounted cardinal overseeing cash sales of spiritual goods in the form of the church’s dispensations from the consequences of sin” (Frankforter & Spellman 382).

Lutheranism spread to a few northern European countries such as, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Germany – where the movement first originated. However, “Lutheranism did not spread as widely as the brand of Protestantism named for John Calvin” (Frankforter & Spellman 389). John Calvin was a Frenchman who eventually settled in Geneva. Like Luther, Calvin was raised in the middle class and educated in the priesthood (Frankforter & Spellman 389). At age 25, Calvin took a step towards the principles in which he believed in. “Having been persuaded of the truth of Protestantism by an experience that he described as a burst of insight, he resigned the posts in the Catholic Church that provided his income” (Frankforter & Spellman 389).

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Similar to Luther, Calvin believed that human beings were captive to sin and are lost unless God saved them (Frankforter & Spellman 389). They also both agreed on the fact that the Bible was the sole guide to the faith and salvation was a gift from God. In addition, they both endorsed the concept of predestination – “the idea that humans could not affect God’s decision about their ultimate fate” (Frankforter & Spellman 389). However, they had different implications of Predestination. Lutheranism teaches that people have the ability to control certain facets of their lives while Calvinism believes that God has total sovereignty over humanity and there is nothing that people can do to change what happens.

In tangent with the Protestant Reformation, another major reformation was happening in England around the same time period. In the years leading up to the Reformation of the Catholic Church in England, the papacy was preoccupied with rebuilding its power. The Great Schism (1378-1417) played a major role in the church’s loss of authority because, it “had lessened respect for popes, and the Conciliarist movement had questioned the basis for their authority” (Frankforter & Spellman 392). England was one of the only major countries to ever break from the authority of the pope. Its decision to do so was owed more to politics than to religion (Frankforter & Spellman 395) in terms of diplomatic relations with Spain.

England had strong alliances with the Spanish kingdoms against France. Henry VII further reaffirmed this foreign policy by obtaining the hand of Catherine of Aragon – the daughter of Spain’s Ferdinand and Isabella, for Arthur, his son and heir (Frankforter & Spellman 395). “When Arthur died less than six months after the wedding, Henry decided to maintain the tie with Spain by obtaining papal permission for Catherine to wed his new heir, his second son, the future Henry VIII” (Frankforter & Spellman 396). A dispensation from canon law was required – (Leviticus 20:21) forbade a marriage between a man and his brother’s widow. Only one of Catherine’s children survived through pregnancy, a daughter named Mary. These circumstances feared Henry VIII because, he “doubted that England would accept a female heir to his throne and feared that after his death, the country would lapse back into a civil war from which it had recently emerged” (Frankforter & Spellman 396). As Catherine grew older and became infertile, Henry decided that his only chance for leaving a male heir to the throne, was finding a younger woman.

Since Catholic teachings forbade divorce, King Henry had to request approval from Pope Clement VII. When henry proposed this to Clement, he refused to grant Henry’s request. Reason being, it would reduce the papacy’s authority, and it would offend Emperor Charles V, “whose troops had recently sacked Rome – dominated Italy” (Frankforter & Spellman 396). While in the process of seeking an annulment of the marriage, Henry had an affair and fell in love with Anne Boleyn, the daughter of one of his courtiers, and later she became pregnant (Frankforter & Spellman 396). Aiding in the divorce process, was Thomas Cranmer. Cranmer “declared that he had never been validly married to Catherine and that Anne was therefore his legal wife” (Frankforter & Spellman 396). “To the king’s great disappointment, Anne then bore him another daughter, Elizabeth” (Frankforter & Spellman 396). Finally, when the papacy declared Catharine to be Henry’s legitimate wife, parliament passed the Act of Supremacy, “which severed ties with papacy and recognized the king as the head of England’s church” (Frankforter & Spellman 396). The king’s chairmen at the time was a humanist named Thomas More. He refused to swear allegiance to the king’s new church and was eventually executed.

To summarize, the two Reformations greatly impacted both European and religious history, whose similarities and differences contributed to the shaping of Christianity as a whole. John Calvin and Martin Luther each contributed their own ideologies and opinions to the formation of the Protestant Reformation. In addition, the Protestant Reformation revolved around the Church and much less around the founders’ personal lives, whereas the English Reformation was primarily motivated by King Henry XIII’s personal gain. Although both of these Reformations caused great political turmoil in the 16th century, they both played significant roles in the way people view and practice Christianity today.

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