German Reform: taxation

As noted in an earlier post, the “Investiture Controversy” was not simply about who named and appointed a bishop or abbot. It was about power, politics and profits. Nationalized churches and the supremacy of the state over church affairs existed in France, Spain, and England long before Luther. Italy and Germany, however, did not experience this trend toward a nationalized church since they lacked effective national monarchies – both of these “countries” were highly divided

The monarchies of France and England had little money diverted from their treasuries to Rome. In Germany, on the other hand, clerical and papal abuses would supply ample incentive for religious reformers. Anti-clericalism and anti-papalism were bound to flourish in a society that allowed the clergy excessive power and wealth. The German Experience was much different.

When we speak of “Germany” in the modern sense, there is a latent image of a strong, unified people and a technocratic, efficient central power. In the years before the Reformation, the German tradition of princely territorial sovereignty was too strong to allow a centralized, absolute monarchy. Germany had failed to provide a cohesive unified government that was able to protect Germany against the fiscal and legal claims of Rome.

Every social group in Germany perhaps felt the economic liabilities of its connection to Rome more than the moral. German resentment of Roman economic exploitation and Roman attempts to dominate Germany politically and culturally played a large role in the birth of Protestantism. Economic resentment, when combined with social and religious issues, proved too overwhelming to be contained.

Furthermore, the ethical and moral reasons for this Church fund-raising were questionable. It was the general opinion in Germany that in the matter of taxation, the Roman Curia, a council that acted as a parliamentary body of the Church, placed unbearable burdens on the population. Numerous new indulgences were published without the consent of the German bishops and tithe after tithe was raised for a crusade, only to be diverted to another subject. German grievances against Rome from a financial point of view were getting more vocal and more frequent. “The Italians,” wrote Archbishop Berthold von Hennesberg in 1496, “ought to reward the Germans for their services, and not drain the sacerdotal body with frequent extortion of gold.”

But Rome was not the only “taxing authority” among German society. Even Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian (1508-19) resented that the pope drew a hundred times more revenue from Germany than he himself could collect – and besides in 1510 the HRE Maximilian was at war with Pope Julius II. For a time, he even considered the separation of the German Church from Rome. Maximilian would have had no objection to the establishment of a Germanic national church with only the loosest of ties with Rome. However, Jacob Wimpheling, the humanist and advisor to Maximilian, warned against separation on the basis that he could not expect persistent support from the princes, who were jealous of imperial power.

If such a separation had been accomplished, the course of Germany’s history would have been changed – the numerous revolts and civil wars within Germany after the Reformation might have been minimized – perhaps even the 30 Years War avoided. Germany would have followed an example similar to that of England under Henry VIII. A national church would have probably unified Germany and continued its cultural progress, as it did in England. Germany’s political situation, however, was different. The political struggle between the emperor and the princes was too strong and the emperor had limited authority. This tug of war between the emperor and the princes would prove beneficial to Luther many years later, but detrimental to Germany’s unification and progress.

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