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A History of the Reformation (Vol. 2 of 2)

The papal Curia oppressed them


The

towns presented an entirely different picture. There was a solidarity binding together all the civic population. The ordinary division of ranks, made by greater or less possession of wealth or by social standing, existed, but it did not prevent a common mode of thinking. We can trace the same thoughts among artisans, small shopkeepers, rich merchants, and the patricians of the towns. No country presented so many varieties of local character as Italy; but the inhabitants of Venice or Florence, Milan, Naples, however else they might differ, were all on the same spiritual level. They thought much about religion; they took the moral degradation of the Church and of the clergy to heart; they longed to see some improvement, if it was only within their own city. They were clearsighted enough to trace the mischief to the influence of the Roman Curia, and their belief in the hopelessness of reforming the evil Court gives a settled despondency to their thought which appears in most of the Chronicles. The external side of religion was inextricably interwoven with their city life. The civic rulers had always something to do with the churches, monasteries, and other ecclesiastical foundations within their walls. They had no great interest in doctrine; what they wanted was a real improvement in the moral living of clergy and of people. When an Italian town was blessed with a good and pious Bishop, it is touching to see how the whole population rallied round him.

When

we turn to the outstanding men of the Italian peninsula, whose opinions have been preserved in their writings or correspondence, we find, to begin with, a great variety of religious opinions whose common note is unconstrained hostility to the Church as it was then constituted. The institution was a necessary evil, very important as a factor in the game of politics, useless for the religious life. This sentiment existed almost universally, both among those who merely maintained a decorous relation towards the existing ecclesiastical institutions, and among those who really believed in Christianity, and acknowledged its power over their mind and life. The papal Curia oppressed them; they were hopeless of its reformation, and yet there was little hope of a revival of religion, with its social worship and its "sacraments" unless it was reformed. The feeling of hopelessness is everywhere apparent; the deepest spiritual longings and experiences were to be treasured as sacred secrets of the heart, and not to be spoken about. Yet the work of Savonarola had not been entirely consumed in the fire that burnt the martyr, and the earlier message of Luther had found an echo in many Italian hearts.

Sec. 2. _The Italian Roman Catholic Reformers._

There is no evidence of any widespread acceptance of the whole of Luther's teaching, little appreciation of the thought that the Church may be conceived as a fellowship of God with man depending on the inscrutable purpose of God and independent of all visible outward organisation, none of the idea that the Visible Church Catholic exists one and indivisible in the many forms in which men combine to listen to the Word and to manifest their faith. The Catholic Church was always to these pious Italians the great historical and external institution with its hierarchy, and its visible head in the Bishop of Rome. A reform of the Church meant for them the reformation of that institution. So long as this was denied them they could always worship within the sanctuary of their own souls, and they could enjoy the converse of likeminded friends. So there came into existence coteries of pious Italians who met to encourage each other, and to plan the restoration of religion within the Church. Humanism had left its mark on all of them, and their reunions were called academies, after the Platonic academies of the earlier Renaissance. The first had come into being before the death of Leo. X.--a society of pious laymen and prelates, who met in the little church of Santi Silvestro et Dorotea in the Trastevere in Rome. The associates were more than fifty in number, and they were all distinguished by their love of the New Learning, the strict purity of their lives, and their devotion to the theology of St. Augustine. The members were scattered after the sack of Rome (1527), but this _Oratory of Divine Love_ gave rise to many kindred associations within which the original members found a congenial society.


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