I want to know what went wrong in the Church for it to end up corrupt by the 16th century.

  • 4
    What specific corruptions are you referring to? Indulgences? More?
    – curiousdannii
    Dec 4, 2022 at 12:19
  • 1
    Welcome to Christianity Stack Exchange. We're different to a lot of other sites, mainly because we look for questions that show evidence of research, rather than just making generalised claims. This may be why someone has voted to close your question. Please take our Tour and then edit your question: christianity.stackexchange.com/tour
    – Lesley
    Dec 4, 2022 at 19:42
  • 1
    Which body of persons are you asking about ? How do you define 'corrupt' ? In what were they corrupted - doctrine ? behaviour ? Church government ? The question is greatly lacking in clarity and detail.
    – Nigel J
    Dec 4, 2022 at 20:35
  • 1
    Perhaps ask this question in History Stack Exchange instead. But be more explicit about what you want ("corruption" is far too vague), and show what research you've already done. Dec 5, 2022 at 0:43
  • 1
    Read my answer to a different question here, but it contains the answer to your question as well: christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/80625/… If you think it does not answer your question clearly enough tell me, & I will try to answer you more specifically. A "sacral" society is one where the state institutions are united with religious institutions such as the Church. Throughout history mankind seems to have been addicted to the idea there should be a single religion in any society.. this leads to moral degeneration. Dec 6, 2022 at 11:48

1 Answer 1


How did the Western Church arrive at such a state of corruption by the sixteenth century?

There are many contributing factors in answering this question. But McLaurine H. Zentner in her undergraduate thesis on The Black Death and Its Impact on the Church and Popular Religion points to several underlining circumstances that fuelled the corruption leading up to the sixteenth century.

Corruption to one degree or another will exist in all religious institutions, regards if they are Catholic or some other Christian denominations or communities.

Corruption existed in the Church prior to the Black Death of 1347. But the Church reorganization of the clergy in the aftermath of this plague was probably the number one vehicle that changed the Church in a significant manner and not for the better.

In the aftermath of the Black Death of 1347-1351, many bishops ordained priests that were not fit to be members of the clergy. Since many dioceses were so understaffed, they ordained men who were not educated, lacked experience, greedy and underage to become priests. These and other factors contributed to the corruption of the Church by the sixteenth century.

McLaurine H. Zentner Is not the only scholar to put this together.

The Black Death, the pestilence that ravaged Europe during the years from 1347 to 1351, left a mark on Western society that would leave it forever transformed. Not only did the plague drastically reduce the European population; it also radically changed the medieval world by challenging the institutions that provided its people with stability and guidance. Perhaps the most important of these institutions during this time was the Church.

A major reason why the plague had such a damaging effect on the Church was due to the deterioration of its hierarchical bureaucracy before the onset of the plague had even begun. The Catholic Church had already begun experiencing a decline before the arrival of the plague. The Church had gradually become more secular as its focus turned toward wealth and political power. Thus, the Church already found itself at a disadvantage during this time because of its weakened state. The papacy had been moved from Rome to Avignon, a city located today in southern France, and its reputation suffered as a result. When the Black Death struck Europe in 1347, the increasingly secular Church was forced to respond when its religious, spiritual, and instructive capabilities were found wanting.

The loss of life among clergy members during the Black Death was substantial, and the repercussions of this were severe because it markedly weakened the manpower of the Church when the Christian world needed it most.

An early study by Hamilton Thompson revealed an estimated death rate of 40 percent among beneficed clergy during the first epidemic in York, England, and it is very possible that the death rate among the clergy was even higher than the rest of the population, due to their exposure to the sick and dying.5 During the height of the plague in 1349, roughly 45 percent of the priests in ten dioceses throughout England died, with some rates reaching as high as 50 percent in Exeter and Winchester. One of the highest rates of mortality recorded among priests during the Black Death was in the diocese of Barcelona, where it reached 60 percent between 1348 and 1349.

The demographic result of the plague had an enormous impact on the Church because it “created a short-staffed institution struggling to meet the pastoral needs of the laity.”

The massive depopulation caused by the Black Death affected not only the availability of priestly assistance to the Christian population but also the standard of quality in the work that was performed. The lack of competency among the clergy was a major repercussion of this depopulation. One of the major causes of this was the increased number of unqualified individuals the Church was forced to accept into its ranks. Ziegler writes, “During and immediately after the plague the usual rules governing the ordination of priests were virtually abandoned.” The Church found itself so decimated and in such a need of an ecclesiastical labor force that it was frequently forced to take in inexperienced and unskilled individuals to fill the vacancies left over from the death toll of the plague. He observes, “The Bishop of Norwich obtained a dispensation to allow sixty clerks aged twenty-one or less to hold rectories on the grounds, more or less categorically stated, that they would be better than nothing.” Another instance can be seen in Winchester during the years of 1349 and 1350, when twenty-seven new appointees “became sub-deacons, deacons and priests in successive ordinations and thus arrived virtually unfledged in their new offices.”

In many cases, Church leaders were obliged to reduce the minimum age requirements in order to fill the depleted ranks of the clergy. While the age of these new candidates was not the only factor in the decline in quality of the clerical services performed, it no doubt had an impact on the need of the Church to react quickly and effectively to the current crisis. Norman Cantor supports this claim, asserting, “During and immediately after the Black Death, priests were ordained at twenty rather than twenty-five. Monastic vows could be administered to adolescents at age fifteen rather than twenty. Priests took over parish churches at age twenty instead of twenty-five. It was a younger, much younger Church that came suddenly into being, and one now staffed heavily with undereducated and inexperienced people.”34 Before the Black Death, age and experience were vital traits required by the Church. After the first year of the plague, it was evident that this had changed.

The city of Hereford provides historians with blatant examples of instances where clergy members were often incapable of performing their clerical duties. William Dohar writes that in the diocese of Hereford there were “glaring cases of misfits at the altar, men who were patently inept at exercising the arts of arts, some on account of ignorance, poor training and spare opportunity for learning, others out of an incompetence that was not adequately challenged by the usual pastoral authorities of rural dean, archdeacon or bishop.”

Another major reason European Christians experienced a decline in trust and confidence in the clergy was due to the increased wealth they accrued during the aftermath of the Black Death. When the Black Death greatly diminished the ecclesiastical population, many members of the clergy saw an opportunity to increase their own wealth. Ziegler writes, “among these novice priests and the survivors of the plague there was noticeable a new acquisitiveness: a determination to share in the wealth which fell free for the taking after the Black Death.”

Not only did priests seek higher wages, they also made an effort to gain wealth through their services and other means. One way was to serve private chapels where wealthy patrons paid great amounts to have them direct private masses.

Another way that clergymen sought to gain a larger profit was through the greater importance they placed on indulgences. Gottfried notes, “From the 1350s, apparently on papal orders, new stress was put on indulgences, or grants of time off from purgatory bestowed by the church, which drew on what it termed a ‘treasury of merits’ or good deeds accumulated from Christ, the patristic fathers, and saints.” Because there was a greater emphasis on death and the afterlife, people became even more concerned with their fate after death and how their past sins would affect their judgment by God. He continues, “Indulgences were not given freely, but usually in anticipation of a gift of money; always mindful of turning a profit, church leaders began to sell them in increasing numbers to a richer public.” While it would be rather bold to make the argument that the Black Death was the major cause of the Protestant Reformation, these instances nevertheless were significant in that they pointed to the practices that incited the radical change that transformed the Church in the sixteenth century. Gottfried supports this claim by writing, “While indulgences were not the only thing that spurred Martin Luther, their use and sale inspired him to nail up his 95 Theses.”

The tensions between the clergy and laypeople were further strained by the gluttony of the clergy, and it caused them to lose faith in the institution of the Church itself. Although these actions were not representative of the entire clerical population, the actions of some of them were enough to paint the general reputation of the clergy in a negative light. Gottfried notes, “The idealized selfless image of the Christian clergy suffered during and after the Black Death.

Corruption was already prevalent throughout the Church before the plague struck Europe, and the problem worsened among clergy members throughout the aftermath of the Black Death. Heinrich complained that “every office and appointment among them could only be secured by money, or favoritism, or some other useful gift.” Gasquet states, “To the great dearth of clergy at this time may, partly at least, be ascribed the great growth of the crying abuse of pluralities.” Examples such as these show the often corrupt nature of many priests during this time and how their actions further worsened their reputation.

At the end of the pandemic, the the Church saw a rise in priestly vocation that were poorly instructed and trained properly. The selling of indulgences and other evils helped set the stage for the Protestant Reformation.

Effects of Black Death on the Catholic Church

Prior to the Black Death plague many Christians were undergoing persecution but a story detailing the tribulation of Sebastian who was a Roman soldier indicate that, after the plague many people resorted to accepting Christianity and abandoning their paganism nature[31].

When the Black Death plague struck, the Catholic Church accelerated efforts to raise money through the sell of masses for the dead and indulgences, which were believed, to pardon dead individual’s sins. Due to these activities, the church became a victim of heavy criticism where many religious leaders not in support of this move accused the church of hypocrisy.

In addition, the plague had a long-lasting effect on the religious thought as it resulted into despair throughout the entire family of Christianity. Many people re-visited their relationship with God and looked up to the church to mitigate the effects of the disease but more shocking to the Christianity family was the fact that even clerics died in great number from this disease.

As a sign of lack of faith in church, the Catholic Church lost its earlier “prestige, breaking down blind allegiance to the church and setting the stage for the Protestant Reformation”.

As a result of the Black Death plague, the number and the quality of clergy decreased in number as more clergies succumbed to the deaths of the disease leading to the church to scramble in trying to fill the positions. Lastly, the Catholic Church became largely to be associated with scandals that made its followers to severe relationship with the church.

Many looked for new ways of how morality of societal values could be restored and in away to show their lack of faith and trust in the church they explored others avenues.


Black Death plague has for a long time remained a significant period in the history of humankind. Its significance is traced to the devastating effects of the plague to the population of the humankind, the art world, and the literature materials. This is a period that Christianity foundations were shaken and severed, leading protestant reformation in later years.

At the same time, this was the period when the flagellant movements translated its values and it become more involved in social issues; while at the same time, promoting persecution of the Jews. What became important feature of this plague is that the role and position of the church in society underwent tremendous transformation. People doubted the powers of the church since prayers seemed not to work and miracles to save people became scarce.

Further, the responsibility of the church to take it upon itself the collection of tithes and sell of masses resulted in more discontent as more reports of corruption and misappropriation of funds became more pronounced among the followers. Attempts to rectify these anomalies failed as struggle for power and enrichment through corruption of alms and tithes heightened, the Catholic Church was unable to glue its fabrics that put it together, and reformations became inevitable which culminated in the split of the church. - The Catholic Church and the Black Death in the 14th Century Essay

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .