CHAPTER VI. HENRY VIII (ii), 1509-32 - BIRTH OF THE REFORMATION
To men of this school, a schism in the Church never presented itself as a desirable end. Luther had not yet burned Pope Leo's Bull when Colet died; Lutheranism changed More into a reactionary, as, centuries later, the French Revolution changed Edmund Burke; Erasmus would not range himself beside the stormy controversialists of Germany and Switzerland. To the scholars, the Roman system was not irreconcilable with truth; its defects were accidents, excrescences, curable by the application of common-sense and moral seriousness. In the eyes of Luther and Zwingli, the corruption of Rome was vital, organic, incurable. Ecclesiastical Authority was the corner-stone of the Roman system: Colet and More never attacked it; Luther attacked it because it maintained opinions which he held to be fundamentally false; but in England it is possible to doubt whether the attitude of More and Colet would ever have been officially discarded, had it not been for the political and personal considerations which led Henry and Cromwell to trample ecclesiastical authority under foot. Nevertheless, by their attacks on ecclesiastical abuses, Colet and More helped intelligent people to perceive that the abuses were intolerable, and to acquiesce even in the extreme remedy of schism rather than continue to endure the burden.
It is not disputable that the existing corruption was so serious that some kind of Reformation was absolutely necessary. Where the head is corrupt, there cannot be much general health. If the spiritual head of Christendom were unworthy of his office the ecclesiastical body was certain to suffer; nor could much spirituality be looked for therein, if it habitually acquiesced in the election of Popes in whom spirituality was the last quality recognisable. The climax was perhaps reached when a Borgia - Alexander VI. - was raised to the papal throne; a man who revelled in the practice of every imaginable vice, and shrank from no conceivable crime. The mere fact that such an election was possible is sufficient proof of the utter absence of religious feeling in the ruling ranks of the clergy: nor was its presence compatible with the appointment either of his free living and warlike successor Julius II. or of Leo X. who followed - a person of no little culture, a patron of art and of letters, whose morals were not exceptionally lax as compared with those of the average Italian noble, but in all essentials a pagan. With few exceptions, the princes of the Church owed their position to their connexion, by birth or otherwise, with great families; not a few of them were territorial lords of considerable dominions, for whom it was a sheer necessity to be politicians first, whether they were scholars, ministers of the Gospel, or mere pleasure-seekers afterwards. Italians completely dominated the college of cardinals, looking upon the control of the Church as a national prerogative. The characteristics of the ecclesiastical princes were shared in due degree by bishops and abbots. The fact that until recent years learning had been practically a clerical monopoly necessarily made the clergy the fittest instruments for carrying on much State business, thereby withdrawing many of the better men from the service of religion to the service of politics. In brief, the whole system tended to entangle the able members of the ecclesiastical body in the temptations not so much of the Flesh and the Devil as of the World.
Further, the monastic system had utterly fallen away from its pristine ideals. It had served a great purpose. Born as it was when the world was just emerging from paganism, and the Roman civilisation was being engulfed in the flood of barbarian invasion, the men and women who withdrew from the desperate turmoil without to the sheltering walls of the monastery or the convent, invested with a sacrosanct character which was at least in part respected, found therein the opportunity for prayer, meditation and study which was denied them elsewhere. They could maintain a standard of piety, and keep a rudimentary education from altogether dying out. For centuries they were the only source of alms and succour to which the afflicted and needy could turn; and so long as the rules of the Orders were observed in the spirit and in the letter, they were a genuine help towards a life of self-devotion, of self-abnegation whereof the ultimate motive was not always a subtle form of self-seeking. But as time passed, the monasteries became the recipients of the bounty of pious benefactors. Their inhabitants, in spite of ascetic regulations, found that life was none so hard - at least in comparison with that of serfdom or villeinage; luxuries were not less available than to the laity. The privileges of the sacred office gave increasing opportunities for vicious indulgence when once corruption had entered a Religious house. Promotion became the prize of intrigue instead of the recognition of piety; till it came to be no scandal when a political priest was rewarded for his services by presentation to the rule of a wealthy abbey, with which he was connected only as the chief recipient of its revenues, as when Wolsey had St. Albans bestowed on him in return for his diplomatic labours. Apart from the diatribes of zealots and the evidence of interested informers, apart also from the inclination to generalise from well authenticated but extreme examples, it is evident that, in the absence of a positive religious enthusiasm, the system was peculiarly liable to grave degeneration; and it was long since there had been any active spiritual revival to counteract that tendency.