Since the time of St. Catherine of Siena (14th cent.) there had been a growing demand for reform—of the clergy, of Christian life, and of ecclesiastical administration. Probably the Great Schism did more than anything else to prevent change, for in its duration ecclesiastical politics preoccupied those who might have been busy with reform. In the 15th cent. the papacy was too weak to lead any movement, much less a drastic reform of the kind called for by Girolamo Savonarola. A key factor in the stagnation in Christendom was the general worldliness and negligence of the prelates who—with their kings and princes—really ran the church. Such was their power that in the only vigorous papal effort at reform of the century, the mission of Nicholas of Cusa in Germany (1451), the papal legate dared not touch the bishops. At the time the most publicized scandal was the immoral Renaissance papal court.
Of all the evils the papal scandal proved to be the easiest remedied, once it was attacked by Paul IV. Before he became pope, Paul was (as Cardinal Carafa), with St. Cajetan (1480–1547) and others, a member of a small reform party at Rome. The nucleus was a society of priests and laymen, the Oratory of Divine Love, founded (1497) at Genoa for charitable work and then extended as a spiritual movement in the Curia itself. The reformers in Rome were helped from abroad by men of the prestige of St. Thomas More, Erasmus, St. John Fisher, and Cardinal Jiménez.
However, the first major reform efforts failed; these were the Fifth Lateran Council (see Lateran Council, Fifth) and the election of Adrian VI, who died too soon to accomplish anything. In the next pontificate (Clement VII, 1523–34) the reform party worked on quietly, forming the core of resistance to Lutheranism; they founded the Theatines (1524) and the Capuchins (1525), religious orders to evangelize the common people. Meanwhile Protestantism expanded, and the sack of Rome (1527) convinced even the most complacent cardinals that political gambling was a danger to the church. The influence of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V weighed on the side of reform.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.