The Renaissance is an Age of Reform. Church reform is a consistent theme in the career of every pope, every Holy Roman Emperor, every French or English king. In order to understand the Renaissance papacy better, both in its strengths and in its weaknesses, it is useful to think a bit more abstractly about reform. I think this is often not done today, even by people who talk about reform, and it shows. I think as well that it can be shown that many of the corruptions that today are associated with the Renaissance papacy were byproducts of attempts at reform. Reform is easy to talk about. But reform done badly, or misconceived, or improperly supported, often breeds its own corruptions.
Reform is practical, and therefore has to be understood in terms of ends and means. In particular, reform consists of capabilities exercised in means to achieve remedial ends. Not every such exercise of capabilities is reform; admonition, rebuke, and mitigation, for instance, are all remedies to a problem, but considered on their own fall short of reform. Reform requires that the remedial end be actual correction of the problem. If you haven't corrected the problem, you haven't completed the reform.
If reform is a particular kind of exercise of capabilities in means for remedial ends, there are certain things that always need to be considered, with respect to all three elements here, end, means, capability. Since the end always defines the action, we start with the end.
First, the end must be appropriate to its context (which, in cases of reform tends to be a specific set of problems as it intersects with a specific set of cultural and material resources).
Second, the means must be proportionate to the end. That is to say, the means need to be something that can actually achieve the end.
Third, the means themselves must be appropriate to their context.
Fourth, the means must be feasible given one's actual capabilities.
Fifth, the capabilities that are exercised must be appropriate to their context.
Things often go wrong when there is failure in any of these matters. For instance, the end must be appropriate to its context. This means, among other things, that it must be something that can genuinely be a reforming end in context. One way in which people violate this is that they take something that was once a subordinate end -- that is, an end that is an end because it is also a means to a higher end -- and they give it a sort of zombie longevity, in which they keep aiming at this end even when its time has passed. The Renaissance suffered from a general bedazzlement with the idea of a general council directly and immediately reforming the Church "in root and branch" or "in head and members". But a general council is a Church instrument (more specifically, it is the Church using itself as a society to address problems); it can be an end, but it is not an end in its own right. But people especially in the early part of the Renaissance kept insisting on calling general councils even when it was clear that they had no definite idea of what problems they would be used to solve. People insisted on it without regard for whether it was appropriate. Vast sums of money were wasted on attempts to call general councils (often unsuccessfully) for things that would obviously have been better handled in other ways.
A major form of problem is also found in other agendas, that is, some end that is not remedial but is in fact governing the choices made. The Christian powers throughout the Renaissance keep talking about reform, but when you look at their actions, their decisions, and often their explicit reasoning, it is clear that the end governing much of their policy with regard to church reform is to redirect funds from the Church (especially the papacy) to themselves. Now, there is no sense whatsoever in which 'church reform' can be stretched so far as to mean 'redirecting money away from ecclesial ministries to Christian kings fighting wars against other Christian kings'. Yet over and over this is what happens, and the reason it happens so consistently is that this was one of the goals. The Christian kingdoms of Europe systematically stripped the Church in order to increase their revenues. When Protestant Sweden or Protestant England literally seized and sold off their monasteries to expand their treasuries, they were engaged in only an extreme form of what the Catholic kingdoms (including themselves) had long been doing already. When Catholic, princes had to be more indirect about it, but they did the same where they could. And this end, which is not a remedial end at all, is often dictating the 'reforms'. Why did the Christian princes keep insisting on general councils? There were several reasons, but one very central one was that the Council of Constance accidentally taught them that they could use a general council to redirect funds from the Church to themselves under the label of 'reform'.
Likewise, the means must be proportionate to the end. One of the continual problems of the Renaissance is that people keep trying to make means work even if they repeatedly fail. The defense of Christendom against the Turks is an excellent example. Over and over again, people try to use the method of crusade. The very most competent organizers among the popes are just barely able to pull something together for a very short while, and yet again and again, the lesson was not learned. (What actually defended Renaissance Christendom from the Ottoman Turks was the Muslim Safavid Empire to the east of the Ottoman Empire, a relatively organized state whose border with the Ottoman Empire was long, was highly contested, and involved no major geographical features that could prevent large armies from invading. It's not that Europe wasn't a high priority for the Ottomans, but Europe was a minor threat, while the Safavids were a major one. And later, what actually blocked Ottoman advance into Europe was not crusade but holy league, the ad hoc, mostly defensive organization that had been adapted to good effect by Alexander VI and refined by Julius II.) What's most remarkable is that crusades had only rarely achieved their goals for centuries. If you wanted to defend Europe against the Ottomans, relying on crusades was not a reasonable means, but it's the one that they kept trying to repeat.
The means must be appropriate to their context. Despite their many failures, the Renaissance popes were mostly men who were very good at this. Even so, we see occasional failures on this point. Adrian VI, for instance, attempted to weed out corruption by removing, left and right, the worldly cardinals that he held lived too luxuriously. You could very well imagine that this would in some contexts have been an excellent to do. What actually happened was that all curial business suddenly collapsed to a crawl. Yes, some of the cardinals under Leo X had grown very worldly. That did not mean that they weren't doing anything important, or that they were doing it incompetently. The Renaissance in fact is unusual in that popes and cardinals tended to be extraordinarily competent people. The cutthroat of Renaissance politics meant in general that if you got that far, you were extremely good at something important. Most bishops in history have been relatively mediocre -- not especially talented, not especially good at organizing, not especially good with money. But there are periods where this is not the case, and the Renaissance is one of them. The curial officials Adrian inherited may sometimes not have been very good at living devout lives, but they were very good at doing their jobs, and when he got rid of them all of a sudden, nothing worked properly.
The means must also be feasible given our capabilities. I think of all the requirements, this is the one we ourselves perhaps struggle most with. For this series I read a lot of commentary, both scholarly and unscholarly, about the Renaissance papacy, and one of the most common things I found was people criticizing the Renaissance popes for not doing something that, if they had done it, would obviously have been disastrous. I think there is a common view that the way you handle (say) hoarding of benefices is by just stopping people from doing it. But corruptions arise from conditions. The reason why there were so many corruptions with regard to benefices and sell of offices is because the demands of reform and society meant that none of the cardinals ever had enough money to do all the things that they were supposed to be doing. So, naturally, like every human being, they looked for ways to have enough money. The result is what these things were locked in; you could not stop them without shifting the incentives that guaranteed that they would always be arising.
In the Renaissance, the big issue with feasibility was almost always money. This is something that they appreciated very well (perhaps at times to the detriment of appreciating other things) and that for some reason we understand very poorly. The Renaissance popes all have really fancy things. They collect statues, paintings, jewels, fine clothes, and so forth. And over and over you find them criticized for it. In so many cases, I felt like someone needed to sit the critics down and have a little dialogue with them:
ME: OK, so imagine that we have a time machine and you jump back in time and convince the popes to sell off all the art and get rid of Pius II's gemstone collection, and so forth. What then?
CRITIC: What do you mean?
ME: Well, obviously you can't just have piles of money lying around. It's Renaissance Italy; if you have piles of money, it will be get stolen by bandits or something. And you can't give it to a bank, because the bank has a similar problem.
CRITIC: Of course, the point is not to have piles of money but to give it away to the poor.
ME: Ah, noble goal. And then?
CRITIC: What do you mean?
ME: What happens when you have a major expense?
CRITIC: What do you mean?
ME: Exactly what I said. You need a large sum of money. Maybe you need to travel somewhere distant, or hire extra soldiers or guards, or pay a ransom. Or maybe you are hit with plague or famine or invaders and suddenly there are large numbers of people in need. You don't have piles of money lying around, so you have to get it from somewhere.
CRITIC: I guess you'd have to borrow it.
ME: Yes, you'd have to take out a loan, which needs collateral, or, if it were a really serious emergency, you'd have to pawn something, which requires collateral. So, tell me, what would work? It needs to be something easy to transport, something that people tend to want, something that can be used as collateral for very large sums. Do you know of anything that is small, in high demand, and very expensive? It would be useful to have something like that.
It's by no means necessary to deny that all these luxuries were capable of having a corrupting influence. But that doesn't imply that simply eliminating them was a genuine option in the Renaissance, when popes constantly had to take out loans for major expenses and pawn things for emergency expenses. I suspect people have an aversion to thinking that they themselves could be in danger of being corrupted by what they literally find unavoidable, but in reality corruptions often arise because of the things we cannot avoid. They are often rigged-up solutions for dealing with problems that are otherwise usually insurmountable.That is why reform is often so difficult. Renaissance nepotism arose because the demands made on popes repeatedly exceeded the resources that were offered to them, so starting at the beginning with Martin V, they had to fall back on family, and once they dipped into that well, they couldn't stop as long as the incentive structure stayed the same. (The Tridentine papacy's attempt to stamp out nepotism would become almost comical as pope after pope tries to eliminate nepotism and in papacy after papacy has to appoint family members to important positions to get essential things done. Maybe the Renaissance popes should have worked harder to solve the problem, but when after Trent we get a whole string of popes who do try very hard, we discover that it was not as easy as one might have thought.)
The capabilities that are exercised must also be appropriate to their context. A good example of failure on this point is the repeated tendency of the Christian princes, in the name of reform, to try to do things that they did not have the authority to do. It was obviously inappropriate for France and the Empire to wreak havoc with so many papal conclaves in an attempt to get a pope who would do what they wanted; and yet again and again they tried, sometimes to extremely detrimental results for everyone.
All of this is very negative, so it's worth looking at a clear Renaissance success. Nicholas V establishes a project of evangelizing and inspiring devotion by means of books and buildings. Except perhaps for Adrian VI and Paul IV, all of the Renaissance popes after him were on board with this. There are obvious limits to books-and-buildings evangelism, but I think history has clearly shown since that they were right, and that this was a genuine way to evangelize and inspire Christian devotion -- and that is undeniably a reasonable end for church reform, pursued by an effective means. Not only did they have the capability for it, the Renaissance had an unusually great capability for it; things were feasible for them in matters of architecture and related fields, that would probably not be possible for us. They had the enthusiasm, the well-funded systems of artists' workshops, the artist in constant interaction and competition with each other, the continual discovery of new methods and techniques that they were eager to try out, the humanist vision that, inspiring in itself, could awe when translated to stone and paint, the brilliant minds funneled to the right places and given the means to work on their craft for decades and decades in the most extraordinary circumstances. And the capabilities were being fueled by everything in their society, so everything they did on this basis integrated with all sorts of other things in their society. If you were to propose building big, beautiful church buildings and nice palaces for ecclesiastical use today, people would reject this out of hand; we know this because, the 'big, beautiful church buildings' people are around, and they are constantly mocked by other devout Christians on social media. Perhaps that's right; we certainly don't have Renaissance capabilities in this area, and our capabilities arguably lie in a very different direction. But for Renaissance reformers, it was church reform, and they did it as church reform, and, excelling on every single point -- capabilities, means, and end -- it was a reform that has been unbelievably successful, and continues to be successful. Whatever our own capabilities, we have not done anything that can compete with its success.
It is worth keeping in mind, also, that we are not so clever as we think. When you look at the Renaissance papacy, the customs and culture may be somewhat different, but the mistakes are recognizable, because we continue to make similar ones -- confusing means and ends, advocating ends while simultaneously eliminating the available means for it, not developing the appropriate capabilities for what we intend to do, mismatching means and end in such a way that we end up creating incentives for corruption in the name of reform. We do it all. It is very difficult to argue, though, that we manage to be as impressive in making such mistakes as the Renaissance popes were.
Obviously I am not a historian of the Renaissance. The following historical works I found to be especially helpful (although I often disagree with the evaluations of the authors):
Ludwig von Pastor, The History of the Popes, Volumes I to XVI, various publishers, 1899-1951. This is still the best way to get the overall view, and I've largely followed him with occasional supplementation or adaptation. The entire forty-volume set is available on Internet Archive; Wikipedia helpfully has the links.
John W. O'Malley, Trent: What Happened at the Council, Belknap Press (Cambridge, MA: 2013).
Christine Shaw, Julius II: The Warrior Pope, Blackwell (Cambridge, MA: 1996).