From the perspective of our secularized modern society, it’s difficult to comprehend the far-reaching influence and power the Roman Catholic Church had over society from about the sixth century on. At the time when the Protestant Reformation began in the 16th century, the Roman Catholic Church wielded enormous power over the affairs of everyday life in Europe.
Underlying the church’s power was one foundational belief. It was believed that the church, and therefore its representatives, had power over the eternal destiny of people’s souls. If you lived the way the church said you should live, you would go to heaven, after first suffering for a time in purgatory. If you broke the church’s laws you would go to hell, unless you repented. After all, the church claimed to hold the sacred keys of Saint Peter which could open and close the gates of heaven. The church was seen to be God’s gatekeeper.
The church had influence over people’s lives from birth to death through:
- Baptism – Babies were sprinkled to remove original sin from them.
- Naming – Parents were encouraged to name their children after canonized saints and angels[i].
- Confession – All Catholics were required to make regular confession of their sins to the priest for forgiveness[ii].
- Penance – As a show of remorse for sin and in order to win favour and acceptance with God, some people would punish themselves through whipping, fasting, or other forms of penance. Confession is also a work of penance.
- Communion – Regular church attendance and participation in communion was believed to blot out some sins and protect a person from sins that would condemn a person to hell[iii].
- Marriage – Marriage conducted in the way prescribed by the church was a necessary part toward making a Christian holy.
- Extreme unction – A priest dipped his finger in oil and marked a sick person’s body with the sign of the cross to blot out his sins before death.[iv] To die without this ritual being performed was seen to be a curse.
- Annual church festivals – Each year, citizens participated in around 100 days of church-appointed festivals celebrating different saints and important religious dates.
Christians regularly participated in the rituals and celebrations of the church because they believed that their participation helped them become more holy and that they would be condemned by God if they didn’t. Some of these rituals, called sacraments, were and still are considered to be necessary for salvation.
Under the Church’s Displeasure
Like other secular states, the papacy had armed forces to inflict physical punishment upon the disobedient. But the papacy had another very effective form of punishment to control those who disagreed with her. The Roman Church also used spiritual chastisements and fear.
Anathema and Excommunication
If you displeased the church by living contrary to its teachings, you could be pronounced anathema, or cursed, and be excommunicated or cut off from the “life-giving unity of the Church.”[v] A person who is excommunicated cannot take part in the important rituals of the church. Since virtually everyone believed that the church was the gate to heaven, this threat had real power, not only over the common people, but over their rulers as well.
If a ruler displeased the pope, the whole nation could be placed under the pope’s interdict. An interdict prohibited citizens of that nation from taking part in church rituals such as mass, baptism, confession and marriage.[vi]
For a nation to be placed under the pope’s interdict was an extremely serious matter, because people believed that it was through participation in the rituals, or sacraments of the church, that the people were made acceptable to God. To be placed under the pope’s interdict was to be frowned upon by God and to be made a prey of the devil.
The importance and all-encompassing nature of religious events in people’s lives combined with the threat of corrective actions ensured that religion was constantly on the minds of the people. Unlike in today’s secular society, religion in the sixteenth century could not be avoided. As a result, the church was a powerful influence on society.