Key figures of the Reformation: Pope Clement VII

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third part of a nine-part series in which Fr. Dwight Longenecker examines the conflicts of the 16th century through its main players. Each article connects with contemporary Church life, showing the origin of the Protestant denominations and the challenges we face in the Catholic Church today. Links to the first two articles in the series can be found below this article.

As Americans, one of the freedoms we take for granted is the separation of church and state. We do not have an official state religion. Citizens are free to practice whatever religion they like or no religion at all. The government must remain neutral — neither supporting nor persecuting any particular religion, sect, or denomination.

It has not always been so. In the Middle Ages, Europeans were loyal to their local monarch or nobleman, but all were united in their greater allegiance to the Church. At the head of the Church was the pope who exercised both earthly and spiritual power. It is easy to see how this state of affairs came about. After all, every day everyone prayed that God’s kingdom might come “on earth as it is in heaven.”

If Jesus Christ was king and he appointed St. Peter as the royal steward in his absence, and if the pope was the successor of Peter, then it followed that the pope was in charge. That he was the ultimate authority was pictured by the statues and images of Peter holding two keys: one symbolizing earthly power, the other spiritual power.

Worldly wealth

This is the world into which Giulio de’ Medici was born into in 1478. An illegitimate nephew of Lorenzo, the leader of the famous banking family from Florence, Giulio’s father was murdered a month before his birth. For the first seven years of his life, the boy was brought up by a family friend before being taken in by his uncle.

As a son of one of the wealthiest families in Europe, Giulio was educated privately by the finest scholars available. The handsome boy was shy but intelligent, with quick aptitude and a musical gift. Along with his cousins Giovanni and Giuliano, he rubbed shoulders with the young Michelangelo, who was a member of the Medici household.

Due to the intrigues and family feuds that constantly plagued Florence, the Medici family were expelled from the city. Giulio and his cousin Giovanni wandered around Europe getting into various scrapes and being rescued and bailed out by their influential and wealthy relatives.

Worldly power

As Giovanni became more involved in Church affairs, Giulio trailed along. In 1513 Giovanni was elected pope, taking the name Leo X, and Giulio became his right-hand man. Skilled in diplomacy and administration, Giulio and his cousin, who were only in their 30s, ruled in tandem. In March 1517 Giovanni ordained Giulio and appointed him vice chancellor — officially second in command.

It is important to remember that the popes of this time did not see the exercise of worldly power to be inconsistent with the papacy. The pomp, predominance, and prestige were considered the proper role and function of the pope who was Christ’s representative on earth. 

Over the centuries, the papacy had accumulated huge tracts of land and enormous wealth. The pope was to be the steward of the kingdom — using the wealth and power for the good of the Church. That he enjoyed it personally was considered due compensation.

What Giovanni and Giulio couldn’t see was that this understanding of the papacy and the Church was already doomed. In both the spiritual and the earthly realms, an earthquake was already rumbling. In the same year Giulio was appointed vice chancellor, the German monk Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. In England the young King Henry VIII was already eyeing other young women at court, and in Europe the two great powers of France and Spain — newly enriched by the treasures that were flowing back from the New World — were flexing their muscles.

Detail, “Portrait of Martin Luther” by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1532. Photo: Public Domain

The papacy and power

Giovanni (Pope Leo X) died in 1521 and was followed by the Dutchman Adrian VI who only reigned one year. Giulio served the new pope as he had Leo X, and when Adrian died in 1523, Giulio was elected, taking the name Clement VII. Although he was a member of the wealthy Medici family, Clement VII was reported to be a personally devout and serious-minded pope.

His attempts at weeding out the corruption in the Church were frustrated as he became increasingly entangled in the power struggles in Europe. 

King Francis I of France and the Emperor Charles V of Spain were vying for power, and because he controlled most of Italy, Pope Clement was the third major player. Germany was divided into small kingdoms, while England was a lesser power that could still be a crucial ally to either France or Spain.

“Emperor Charles V in Armor,” 1550s. Photo: Public Domain

Throughout Clement’s papacy, politics overshadowed the faith. He tried to make an alliance with the French, which angered Charles, the Spanish emperor. 

In 1527 Charles hired German soldiers to invade Rome and capture the pope. When their commander died and they weren’t paid, the German soldiers sacked Rome. As Germans, they were sympathetic to the Lutheran cause. They ran riot — stripping churches of rich furnishings, breaking into palaces, raping, torturing, and killing. As his Swiss guards fought to the death, Pope Clement disguised himself and escaped along the top of the wall that runs from the Vatican to the Castel Sant’Angelo on the banks of the Tiber River. 

He was captured and had to pay a huge ransom, including the forfeiture of large tracts of the papal lands. Eventually he fled from Rome to take refuge in the nearby city of Orvieto.

England and Germany fall away

As pope, Clement’s cousin Giovanni never took the Lutheran threat seriously. The Church had dealt with heretics and fiery preachers and critics before. He thought Luther could simply be excommunicated. The punishment would be enforced by the civil authorities and the heresy stamped out.

But the tide was turning. The German people embraced the Protestant reforms, and the princes supported Luther. Meanwhile, in England Henry VIII’s marriage to Queen Catherine was on the rocks. He demanded an annulment from Pope Clement so he could marry Anne Boleyn. An annulment might have been granted, but Catherine insisted that their marriage was valid and that she was the rightful queen of England. 

King Henry VIII of England. Photo: duncan1890/iStock

The situation was complicated further by the fact that Catherine was the cousin of Emperor Charles V. After Rome was sacked by Charles V’s soldiers, Clement had backed away from his alliance with France and made a treaty with the emperor. It was politically impossible for him to offend the emperor by giving Henry VIII the annulment he was seeking.

Clement did what so many leaders have done when they are in a jam: He delayed. 

In 1532 Henry VIII met with the king of France to get his support for his marriage. When the archbishop of Canterbury died, Clement tried to appease the English court and approved the appointment of Thomas Cranmer. Cranmer declared Henry VIII’s and Catherine’s marriage invalid. In 1533 Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn were married. Clement responded by excommunicating Cranmer and the king. The English Parliament responded the next year with legislation that formally broke the allegiance of England to the papacy.

Meanwhile, the situation in Germany continued to deteriorate, with the Lutherans becoming more entrenched and each German prince deciding what religion to follow for himself and his people.

The trials of transition

Pope Clement VII came into a world in which all of Europe was united in allegiance to the overwhelming authority of the pope — Christ’s steward on earth. He left this life in 1534 with the Church broken by revolution, war, greed, and lust for power.

The broken power of the papacy was symbolized by Clement fleeing his palace in disguise while his bodyguards were being slaughtered. Manipulated by the French, bullied by the emperor, and betrayed by the English king, Clement was humiliated by his imprisonment and watched helplessly as nation after nation broke their allegiance to the papacy to go their own way.

What good could come of such a terrible time of trial? We have to be honest. In many ways the Catholic leadership of the time had only themselves to blame. They were deaf to the genuine cries for reform that had been echoing across the Church for nearly a century. Attached to their own worldly power and wealth, they were blind to the pressing need for reform and renewal.

“Pope Clement VII” by Sebastiano del Piombo, 1526. Photo: Public Domain

Pope Clement lived through the terrible trials of transition. Looking back on a life in which his world was turned upside down, it is no wonder that a few days before his death, he summoned his old boyhood friend Michelangelo and asked him to paint the frightening fresco The Last Judgment on the wall of the Sistine Chapel.

With Rome sacked, the pope a prisoner, and the union of Church and secular power diminished, the Church was finally ready for the renewal that would come with the Counter-Reformation. The popes who followed Clement began to turn the Church back to her true calling — to forsake the temptation of earthly power and follow once again the Lord who said, “My kingdom does not belong to this world” (John 18:36). 


Key figures of the Reformation: Henry VIII

Key figures of the Reformation: Martin Luther

Charles VFr. Dwight LongeneckerKey Figures of the ReformationPope Clement VIISpirituality
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