Until about 500 years ago, there was only one Christian church in western and central Europe. People from Portugal to Poland all belonged to the Roman Catholic Church. However, soon after the year 1500, people in many parts of Europe broke away from the Roman Catholic Church and began their own churches instead. This was known as the Protestant Reformation.
The leader of the early Protestant movement was a German theologian named Martin Luther. Luther believed that many of the priests of the Roman Catholic Church had become too concerned about wealth and luxury. Also, he disapproved of some practices in the Church. One such practice was that priests allowed people to pay money to the Church in exchange for committing various sins. Luther believed that it was wrong to allow people to buy the freedom to commit acts that were against the teachings of the Church.
Luther began to criticize the Roman Catholic Church in public, and he refused to acknowledge the authority of the Church. He said that instead he would follow the teachings of the Bible as he understood them. The officials of the Church declared that Luther was a heretic. However, the local German rulers did not punish Luther. Many of them resented the power of the Church and welcomed his ideas.
Luther and other Protestant leaders disagreed with the Church on several important issues. The Protestants believed that priests should be allowed to marry, whereas the Roman Catholic Church believed that priests should remain celibate. The Protestants believed that people should read the Bible for themselves, whereas the Roman Catholic Church believed that priests should interpret the Bible for the people.
During the decades that followed Luther, the Protestant movement spread throughout much of Europe. Over time, many different Protestant churches were formed. During this period, many wars were fought between local rulers who favoured Protestantism, and other local rulers who supported the Roman Catholic Church. In the end, many parts of Europe became Protestant, such as Scandinavia, England, and parts of Germany, Holland, and Switzerland.
However, the people and rulers of many other areas of Europe preferred to remain in the Roman Catholic Church. These areas included most of southern Europe, as well as Poland and Ireland. The Roman Catholic Church changed a few of its practices in response to Protestant criticism, but kept its most important beliefs.
In recent times, relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the various Protestant churches have become much more friendly. Some discussions have been held between Catholic and Protestant officials, in order to resolve some of their disagreements.