What challenges did the Church face during the fourteenth century?

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Despite attempts in the early thirteenth century and beyond to reform the Roman Catholic Church from within, corruption within the Church continued to run rampant and collided sharply with a crescendoing series of crises that developed in the fourteenth century. These included the Great Famine of 1315–1317 and the Black...

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Despite attempts in the early thirteenth century and beyond to reform the Roman Catholic Church from within, corruption within the Church continued to run rampant and collided sharply with a crescendoing series of crises that developed in the fourteenth century. These included the Great Famine of 1315–1317 and the Black Death that began to devastate Europe around the year 1348. The Church seemed to be helpless to stop these crises. Prayers did not seem to work, and institutional intercessions failed to prevent the sufferings and massive death tolls. This shook many common people's faith in institutional Christianity.

The Great Schism that began in 1378, in which rival political and national factions elected different popes (ending with one pope in Rome and one in Avignon), added to perception that the Catholic Church was in disarray and disrepair.

Starvation, immense fatalities from the bubonic plague, and open leadership dysfunction at the top of the Church hierarchy fueled the rise of movements dedicated to reforming and purifying the Roman Catholic Church. One prominent movement, the Lollards, was closely associated with John Wycliffe in Oxford. Wycliffe was a cleric who was highly critical of Catholic Church practices and called for the Church to abandon its material possessions. He also translated much of the Bible into English without Church authorization, a vital attack on the Church's monopoly on Biblical authority. Other dissidents include John Hus, a Bohemian reformer who began preaching in support of Wycliffe in 1398.

The Church was able to withstand and repel all these crises during the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, but the groundwork was laid for the Protestant reform movement that was to come. It is a testament to the power of the Church in this period that it was able to weather the immense pressures these crises brought to bear.

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The Church faced many challenges during the fourteenth century. However, the most significant challenges to the Church came from within, in the Great Schism, lay piety, and challenges to the Church's official doctrines.

The first major challenge for the Church was the Great Schism. With the death of Pope Gregory XI in 1378, the College of Cardinals met to elect a new pope. Both French and Italian cardinals wanted to elect a pope from their own country. Neither side would compromise, and the result was that both factions elected a pope from their own country, resulting in two popes; one in Rome (at the Vatican) and one in Avignon (in France). The Great Schism lessened the prestige of the papacy by creating two distinct popes, neither of whom had the complete support of Europe. Moreover, nations in Europe split over their allegiance to the opposing popes. For example, France and Spain supported the Avignon popes, while England and Germany supported the Roman popes. Furthermore, the Great Schism highlighted the indecisiveness and competing interests within the Church. The Schism ended in 1417, with the return of one pope ruling from Rome.

During the fourteenth century, many Europeans wanted a more "personal" touch from their religion and so turned to new forms of religious practice. For example,many Christians turned to charity work in order to strengthen their faith thorough philanthropy. Many Europeans also turned to mysticism. Mystics taught that people could become closer to God not through official teachings but through charity work, love, and self-reflection. The Church viewed mysticism as a challenge to its authority, because mysticism encouraged people to reflect inwardly about their religion instead of using the Church as their spiritual guide.

The last major challenge to the Catholic Church during the fourteenth century was on a theological level, and the Church viewed this challenge as heresy. Throughout the fourteenth century, some prominent scholars began to challenge some of the official Church doctrine. For example, John Wycliffe and his followers (called Lollards) rejected the miracle of transubstantiation (the turning of water and bread into the body and blood of Christ during the Catholic mass). Jan Hus, a follower of Wycliffe’s teachings, brought Lollard ideas to Prague, where they became popular. Hus was burned at the stake because of his Lollard beliefs. During the fourteenth century, the Church fought back against challenges to its authority and its official doctrine.

The fourteenth century proved to be a strenuous time for the Church, and many of the challenges the Church faced would ultimately lead to its biggest challenge of all: Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation of the 1520s.

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The greatest challenge that the Catholic Church faced in the fourteenth century was the Black Death. Originating in Venice and spreading all over Europe, the plague killed millions. Since the clergy worked closely with the dying, the disease seemed to target them. Some clergymen even abandoned their responsibilities and fled into the countryside, leaving lay people to hear confessions. The fatality rates also adversely affected church tithing. Many people questioned God and the church's authority during this difficult time. Some people even turned to immorality; they saw no sense in purity if they were only going to die anyway.

Another challenge to the Catholic Church was the frequent state of war in Europe. The instability the wars caused spread to Italy. There was a feud between Phillip the Fair of France and the Papacy which ultimately would end in the Babylonian Captivity, which was a period of seventy years in which the pope lived in Avignon as the king's vassal.

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The Church faced many challenges during this century.  Three of the most important were heresies, the Black Death, and the Great Schism.

During this century, the Church was starting to face heresies and demands for reform that in some ways foreshadowed those of Martin Luther.  The most important of these heresies was Lollardy.  This idea was first propounded by John Wycliffe.  He called for a reduction in the power of Church officials like the Pope and he challenged such basic Church doctrines as the transubstantiation of the bread and wine at Communion.

The Church was also challenged by the Black Death.  It was unable to stop or even to explain this horrible tragedy.  This reduced its legitimacy and people's faith in it.

Compounding all of this was the Great Schism.  The Church essentially split in two with two different popes (and sometimes three) all claiming to be legitimate.  This brought the credibility of the Church into great doubt among many people.

All of these challenged the Church and helped to weaken it during the 1300s.

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