How did European religious practices and institutions change after the plague, specifically as seen in the power and authority of the Roman Catholic Church?
The plague, or the Black Death (as it is also known) had a devastating effect on every aspect of European society. The Roman Catholic Church was no exception. Over time it had grown corrupt and when the plague arrived, many believers were already disenchanted with the Church, which they saw as the last bastion to which they were able to turn as the disease ravaged all corners of society.
As shown in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales (a literary cross-section of medieval society), many of the Church's servants were more interested in making money, drinking, hunting, partying, and sex than in doing God's work. The Pardoner, for example, was in possession of pardons (these happened to be stolen) that would clear an individual of his or her sins—for a price. Three of the four men of God in this piece are shown to be more interested in self than in shepherding the flock to which they were called to serve. Only the Parson is a servant in the truest sense of the word: living in same poverty shared by his parishioners, he shared all he had with others. Many people resented representatives of the Church.
Chaucer's descriptions provide clear examples of the corruption thriving in a large portion of the Church's representatives.
The Roman Catholic Church tried to explain the cause of the plague, painting the picture of an angry God set upon punishing sinners:
In Christian Europe, the Roman Catholic Church explained the plague as God’s punishing the sins of the people. The church called for people to pray, and it organized religious marches, pleading to God to stop the “pestilence.”
Already disillusioned with the Church, people's faith in the institution waned even more. Realistically, no one was able to control the plague. What little the doctors advised was not based on science. The devastation brought on by the disease further revealed the Church's frailties for its workers many times failed to offer comfort to the millions of victims becoming sick and ultimately dying.
It is noted that during the plague, many priests refused to enter the home of those who were infected by the disease. Others would attend families from a distance in exchange for large amounts of money: these men became extremely wealthy overnight. The people further lost faith in their ecclesiastical leaders. (It should be mentioned that there were many others—friars, priests and nuns—who made the ultimate sacrifice in caring for those infected by the plague...even in administering the last rites to others before they themselves died.)
In light of the Church's inability or failure to care for the sick, it lost the hold it had once had over the people.
Overall, the 1348 plague revealed the Church’s human side and left such a traumatic impression on minds of the people that it influenced Martin Luther’s Reformation movement in the 1500’s.
This weakened authority provided the perfect climate for Martin Luther to catch the attention of those disenchanted with Catholicism when he nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.
Luther had become disenchanted with a Catholic Church that used its power to promote ignorance in the masses and raise wealth for itself.
The people's lack of faith in the Roman Catholic Church reduced the Church's influence and power, while the purer doctrines being promoted by Martin Luther, as well as a lay person's ability now to read the Bible and disseminate information on his own, radically shifted the Church's position of power in society.
Luther developed a theology and a religious movement that rejuvenated the Christian faith and had a profound impact on the social, political, and religious thought of Western society.
The Roman Catholic Church was forced to make changes, especially as people began to turn away from their faith.
The plague influenced politics, the class system, and religion to name just a few. The face of Europe was changing—there was an emerging middle class. Feudalism was shattered because of the devastation to the population of peasants who worked the land. The focal point of the Church was shifted from that of a dominant authority in society that it had once been to an institution that was more accountable to the people and their salvation. Christianity once more became the focus of the Church rather than the legalistic bureaucracy it had been so recently.
Jesus of Nazareth was once again considered to be a personal savior and not a distant, judgmental God approachable only through priestly mediation. The Church returned to being a community of believers and not a legalistic, bureaucratic institution. In accomplishing these reforms, Luther transformed the face of Europe.