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#25: Protestants: “The Church is morally corrupt!” Pope: “Correct. We repent!”

The “Becoming Catholic” series presents the biblical, philosophical, and historical evidence for why Eternal Christendom Founder, Joshua Charles, became and remains Catholic. The series table of contents is here.

Jan van Scorel, Pope Adrian VI (c. 1625)

Growing up a protestant, I was accustomed to hearing how bad the Catholic Church was before the “reformation.” The accusations typically fell into one of two categories: doctrinal, and moral. Either the Church no longer taught the “true gospel” (doctrinal), or its leaders were so corrupt that protestants were supposedly justified in separating from them and starting anew (moral).

But when I dove into the details myself, I found a fascinating story my fellow protestants had never told me about. Indeed, I doubt they had heard of it either. Just two years after Martin Luther was excommunicated, and before some of Europe’s most powerful leaders, the Catholic Pope openly admitted how deeply moral corruption had infected the Church, and that much of it stemmed from the papacy itself.

In other words, the Pope openly acknowledged the role that the sin of churchmen had played in the rise of Luther and what would later become known as protestantism. In fact, he claimed protestantism was a judgment from God for the sins of churchmen, including Popes.

This was a level of humility and honesty I never expected to see from reformation-era Pope given what I had been told about the Catholic Church by the various protestant preachers and theologians I looked up to in my formative years.

His papal name was Adrian VI. His reign was short—only from January 1522 to September 1523. But it was utterly remarkable in terms of how open and honest he was about the need for reform in the Church.

Adrian Florenszoon, or Adrian of Utrecht, was born in 1459 to humble parents. He would go on to study at the University of Louvain, where he eventually became a scholar and a theologian. In 1507, the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I appointed him as the tutor of his grandson, the Archduke Charles—the future Emperor Charles V. He became a bishop in 1516, and Pope Leo X made him a Cardinal in 1517, the same year Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church. When Archduke Charles became Emperor Charles in 1519, Adrian became his viceroy, in which capacity he heard of his election to the papacy in 1522.

The Dutch Pope faced immense challenges upon assuming the pontificate. Among them was the ongoing war between Charles and Francis I of France; the danger posed to Europe by the Ottoman Empire; Luther’s revolt in Germany; and the need for reform within the Church.

In 1522, Charles convened the Diet of Nuremberg, a gathering of the princes of the Holy Roman Empire to address the issues of the day. The Pope sent his nuncio, Francesco Chieregati, to represent him before the Diet. On January 3, 1523, Chieregati read to the Diet a document drafted by the Pope himself in which he not only condemned Luther’s errors, and the destruction of lives and property his followers had caused, but openly admitted the need for reform in the Church, and above all in the Roman curia. His words read like one of the classic statements of repentance from King David over Bathsheba, or the prophet Daniel over the sins of the people of Israel.

Upon reading them, the caricature of a hopelessly corrupt Catholic Church endlessly bent on depravity and error was shattered. I had never read any statement by Martin Luther or any of the other “reformers” that so openly expressed such repentance. After reading Pope Adrian VI’s words, I knew there was more to the “reformation” than I had been told, and I began to dig deeper.

The relevant portion of the Pope’s instructions to Chieregati are as follows1:

You [Chieregati] will also say that we frankly confess that God permits this persecution to afflict His Church because of the sins of men, especially of the priests and prelates of the Church. For certainly the hand of the Lord has not been shortened so that He cannot save, but sins separate us from Him and hide His face from us so that He does not hear. Scripture proclaims that the sins of the people are a consequence of the sins of the priests, and therefore (as Chrysostom says) our Savior, about to cure the ailing city of Jerusalem, first entered the Temple to chastise first the sins of the priests, like the good doctor who cures a sickness at its source.

We know that for many years many abominable things have occurred in this Holy See, abuses in spiritual matters, transgressions of the commandments, and finally in everything a change for the worse [et omnia denique in perversum mutata]. No wonder that the illness has spread from the head to the members, from the Supreme Pontiffs to the prelates below them. All of us (that is, prelates and clergy), each one of us, have strayed from our paths; nor for a long time has anyone done good; no, not even one [Ps. 14:3].

Therefore, we must all give glory only to God and humble our souls before Him, and each one of us must consider how he has fallen and judge himself, rather than await the judgment of God with the rod of His anger. As far as we are concerned, therefore, you will promise that we will expend every effort to reform first this Curia, whence perhaps all this evil has come, so that, as corruption spread from that place to every lower place, the good health and reformation of all may also issue forth.

We consider ourselves all the more bound to attend to this, the more we perceive the entire world longing for such a reformation. (As we believe others have said to you) we never sought to gain this papal office. Indeed we preferred, so far as we could, to lead a private life and serve God in holy solitude, and we would have certainly declined this papacy except that the fear of God, the uncorrupt manner of our election, and the dread of impending schism because of our refusal forced us to accept it. Therefore we submitted to the supreme dignity not from a lust for power, nor for the enrichment of our relatives, but out of obedience to the divine will, in order to reform His deformed bride, the Catholic Church, to aid the oppressed, to encourage and honor learned and virtuous men who for so long have been disregarded, and finally to do everything else a good pope and a legitimate successor of blessed Peter should do.

Yet no man should be surprised if he does not see all errors and abuses immediately corrected by us. For the sickness is of too long standing, nor is it a single disease, but varied and complex. We must advance gradually to its cure and first attend to the more serious and more dangerous ills, lest in a desire to reform everything at the same time we throw everything into confusion. All sudden changes (says Aristotle) are dangerous to the state. He who scrubs too much draws blood…

[W]e know how prejudicial it has been to the honor of God and the salvation and edification of souls that ecclesiastical benefices, especially those involving the care and direction of souls, for so long have been given to unworthy men.


  1. Pope Adrian VI, Instructions to Chieregati (1522); John C. Olin, ed., The Catholic Reformation: Savonarola to Ignatius Loyola (New York: Fordham University Press, 1992), 125-26, 127. ↩︎
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