German Reform: vested interests

The previous post pointed to the broad resentment of German society to the eternal taxation be it from the Church or from the Imperial Courts of the Emperor. There were other economic factors also in view: land, wealth and revenue. But consider the latter category. Perhaps revenue is from the sale of land, animals, crops, or other items; but perhaps revenue is the very stream of taxes causing the resentment – and your class thinks it belong to them. One person’s vested interest may very well be another’s burden.

Princes wanted what the free imperial cities already had, independence from the Church. They witnessed their territorial resources diverted to Rome to finance the Italian Renaissance, and their resentment and frustration intensified. A power struggle began in which the secular interests of the princes conflicted with the religious demands of the Church. Not only were the princes opposed to the papacy, but historically they were opposed to the imperial authority of the emperor as well. From the beginning, the impulse to reform the Church had mingled with the political intrigues and alliances of the time.

In August 1520, Luther very cleverly appealed to the German princes in his Appeal to the Ruling Class (also called the Appeal to the Princes). It was to be his most effective political writing. In it, Luther wrote, “The distress and oppression which weigh down all the Estates of Christendom, especially of German…have forced me even now to cry aloud that God may inspire someone with His Spirit to lend this suffering nation a helping hand.” In Luther’s writings, the princes could find religious justification for their political aims. As Luther put it, that prince who left the welfare of the Church to the Romans was violating his obligations as a German prince: “…In such a case, is it not the duty of every citizen to call the rest?” These princes were not primarily concerned in the power of the intellect or the advancement of humanism, nor were they concerned with the divine inspirations of Luther, but rather their main concern was with their interests and maintaining their political power. Political expediency outweighed religious convictions and theological issues.

In addition, the German nobility began to covet Church wealth that they saw as belonging to them. Philip Melanchthon, the German humanist and theologian wrote that “Under cover of the Gospel, the princes were only intent on the plunder of the churches.” The German church was the richest in Christendom and it was estimated that nearly a third of the whole landed property of the country was in the hands of the Church. In the eyes of the Princes, the Church infringed on their wealth and thus the Princes would be inclined to a religious reform that would allow them to confiscate ecclesiastical wealth. In conjunction with Luther’s movement, inflation, military costs, and the inflexibility of the nobility’s revenues made secularization of Church properties more attractive than ever before.

Luther appealed to the Knights/lesser nobility on the same basis – and they too wanted access to Church lands, wealth, and revenue (taxes)

The rising burgher business class and the poor also resented their monies being diverted to Rome. They saw the higher ecclesiastical orders, prelates, and bishops enjoy wealth, which many of them displayed openly. As a result, these actions provoked the indignation of the people, the jealousy of the upper classes, and the anger of the general public. Businessmen resented Church monasteries claiming exemption from taxation as well because in many cases the Church itself was the competition in manufacturing and trade.

The peasants resented everyone above them – and that included everyone – because every one of them found a way to tax the work of the peasants. But they particularly hated the annual tithe levied by the Church on their harvests. To the peasants, the Lutheran movement meant not only freedom from Rome, but also from the landowners who they felt forced them to work and yet remain to live in poverty. The peasants were as interested in political freedom as in religious reform. Long before Luther, tension was building. Discontent cut across class lines.

When Luther proclaimed in his Appeal to the Ruling Class, “All classes…are now oppressed by distress and affliction, and this has stirred not only me but every man to cry out anxiously for help,” he was voicing the sentiments of the German people. Fundamentally, Luther succeeded because his ideas appealed to people of all classes. His words caught their mood and captured their growing frustrations with a Church that disregarded their general welfare.

Outside the theologians, THE issue at this time was over material concerns rather than over religious differences. And it been this way for a long time. In 1457, Martin Heyer, Chancellor to Archbishop Dietrich of Mainz, wrote to Cardinal Piccolomini, the future Pius II, of the wrongs suffered by Germany: “…The Germans have been treated as if they were rich and stupid barbarians, and drained of their money by a thousand cunning devices…” All in German social classes were now focused on protecting their vested financial interests specifically against the Church. Rejection of Rome, therefore, was a further move toward financial and political independence.

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