Why was the Roman Catholic Church so powerful?
Its power had been built up over the centuries and relied on ignorance and superstition on the part of the populace. It had been indoctrinated into the people that they could only get to heaven via the church.
This gave a priest enormous power at a local level on behalf of the Catholic Church. The local population viewed the local priest as their ‘passport’ to heaven as they knew no different and had been taught this from birth by the local priest. Such a message was constantly being repeated to ignorant people in church service after church service. Hence keeping your priest happy was seen as a prerequisite to going to heaven.
This relationship between people and church was essentially based on money – hence the huge wealth of the Catholic Church. Rich families could buy high positions for their sons in the Catholic Church and this satisfied their belief that they would go to heaven and attain salvation. However, a peasant had to pay for a child to be christened (this had to be done as a first step to getting to heaven as the people were told that a non-baptised child could not go to heaven); you had to pay to get married and you had to pay to bury someone from your family in holy ground.
However, unfair and absurd this might appear to someone now it was the accepted way of life in 1500 as this was how it had always been and no-one knew any different and very few were willing to speak out against the Catholic Church as the consequences were too appalling to contemplate.
You were told that if you did not go to heaven then the likelihood was that your soul had been condemned to Hell. Heresy was visibly punished with public burnings which you were expected to attend. John Huss was accused of heresy and granted a safe passage to Constance in modern Switzerland to defend himself at trial. He never got his trial as he was arrested regardless of his guarantee of a safe passage by the Catholic Church and burnt in public.
The Catholic Church also had a three other ways of raising revenue.
Indulgences: These were ‘certificates’ produced in bulk that had been pre-signed by the pope which pardoned a person’s sins and gave you access to heaven. Basically if you knew that you had sinned you would wait until a pardoner was in your region selling an indulgence and purchase one as the pope, being God’s representative on Earth, would forgive your sins and you would be pardoned. This industry was later expanded to allow people to buy an indulgence for a dead relative who might be in purgatory or Hell and relieve that relative of his sins. By doing this you would be seen by the Catholic Church of committing a Christian act and this would elevate your status in the eyes of God.
Pilgrimages: These were very much supported by the Catholic Church as a pilgrim would end up at a place of worship that was owned by the Catholic Church and money could be made by the sale of badges, holy water, certificates to prove you had been etc. and completed your journey.
It was specifically the issue of indulgences that angered Martin Luther into speaking out against them – potentially a very dangerous thing to do.