Catholic Reformation, Counter-Reformation

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Catholic Reformation, Counter-Reformation



Future Opportunities. In 1517, the future of the Catholic Church seemed brighter than it had been for some time. Christian humanists were working to reform the Church without badly disrupting it. The reconquista of the Iberian peninsula from the Muslims had recently been completed. The Medici Pope, Leo X, was a brilliant diplomat and patron of art and humanism who was successfully defusing the long-standing political issues between the papacy and the monarchies. Most significantly, the voyages of exploration by European sailors had opened new opportunities for bringing Christianity to millions of unbelieving souls and offered the promise of outflanking Islam, the great nemesis of medieval Christendom. Christopher Columbus was motivated by ambition and greed but also by orders from Ferdinand and Isabella to Christianize the nonbelievers he might find in the “Indies,” and the same was true of the Portuguese captains in their voyages to the Indian Ocean. When Pope Alexander VI issued his decree of 1493 dividing the unknown lands between Spain and Portugal, he mandated the bringing of the Gospel to the pagans as their first responsibility. The realization that the Europeans had encountered an entirely unknown people in the Americas raised a serious problem: Medieval theologians had denied the possibility of humans living outside of the known world. Were the American natives human and capable of becoming Christian? Some clergymen defended the medieval tradition, but most were eager for an affirmative answer so that the vast populations being found could become part of the Church.

Las Casas. Missionaries arrived in the West Indies before 1500 and had immediate success in gaining converts. They found that the demands of the other Spaniards for labor from the natives were disrupting the work of conversion. They also quickly recognized how rapidly the American Indian populations were declining from European diseases, disruption of their societies, and over exploitation for labor. In 1511 a Dominican preached a sermon denouncing the treatment of the natives. One of those who heard the sermon was a priest, Batholeme Las Casas, who was deeply affected. He spent the rest of his long life defending the rights of the American Indians, and he had many allies among the Spanish missionaries. Las Casas and his allies had little long-term influence in reducing the burden of Spanish colonization on the Native Americans, but the process of Christianizing them proceeded rapidly. By 1600, with few exceptions, the natives had become Christian wherever the Spanish had conquered.


The Council of Trent was a series of religious councils held from 1545 until 1563 that sought not to condemn Protestantism but rather to consolidate the power and prestige of the Catholic Church, centralize and strengthen its organization, eliminate obvious church abuses, define ambiguous doctrine, and restate its position on challenged doctrines, The following are excerpts from the Thirteenth and Twenty-second sessions that address the seven sacraments.

Examples of the Decrees of the Council of Trent, 1545–1563.

Thirteenth Session, Chapter IV: Since Christ our Redeemer declared that it was truly His body which He offered up in the form [sub specie] of bread, and since the church has moreover always accepted this belief, this holy council declares once more that by the consecration of the bread and the wine the whole substance of the bread is converted into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord, and the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood, which change is aptly and properly termed trans-substantiation by the Catholic church.

Thirteenth Session, Canon 1: If any one shall deny that the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ together with his spirit and divinity, to-wit, Christ all in all, are not truly, really and materially contained in the holy sacrament of the Eucharist, and shall assert that the Eucharist is but a symbol or figure, let him be anathema.

Thirteenth Session, Canon VI: If any one shall say that Christ, the only-begotten son of God, is not to be worshipped with the highest form of adoration (Latrioe) including external worship, m the holy sacrament of the Eucharist, or that the Eucharist should not be celebrated by a special festival, nor borne solemnly about in procession according to the praiseworthy and universal rite and custom of the holy church, nor held up publicly for the veneration of the people and those who adore it are idolaters, let him be anathema.

Twenty-second Session, Canon I; If any one shall say that a real and fitting sacrifice is not offered to God in the mass, or that nothing is offered except that Christ is given us to eat, let him be anathema.

Twenty-second Session: Canon II: If any one shall say that the words, “This do in remembrance of me,” Christ did not institute the apostles as priests, or did not ordain that they themselves and their successors should offer up His body and blood, let him be anathema.

Twenty-second Session, Canon III: If any one shall say that the sacrifice of the mass is only a praiseworthy deed or act of edification, or that it is simply in commemoration of the sacrifice on the cross and is not in the nature of a propitiation; or that it can benefit only him who receives it and ought not to be offered for the living and the dead, for sins, punishment, atonement, and other necessary things, let him be anathema.

Sources; Edward JVtcNall Burns and Louis Snyder, eds., The Counter Reformation (Princeton; Van Nostrand, 1964), pp. 136–137.

Translations and Reprints, Volume II (Philadelphia; University of Pennsylvania, 1897), pp. 28–29.

Xavier and Ricci. The Portuguese missionaries faced a different situation in Asia. There they found sophisticated religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, whose members were not likely to be impressed by European military power, and Islam, whose members were familiar with Christianity and hostile to it. The rate of conversion to Christianity was far less there than in the Americas, yet enough converts had been won by 1534 that the Pope erected a bishopric at Goa in India. Portuguese missionary activity, however, is always associated with the Jesuit St. Francis Xavier. He arrived in India in 1541, where he baptized thousands mostly from the lowest castes. He moved on to the Malay Peninsula and Japan before dying on an island off the coast of China in 1552. The goal of Christianizing China was taken up by the Italian Jesuit, Matteo Ricci. Ricci learned an enormous amount about Chinese culture and society, and his own accomplishments in European science and mathematics made him one of the most respected Europeans in China ever. His synthesis of Chinese culture with Christianity won him great success among the Chinese, but he also set the stage for a bitter controversy over the use of Chinese traditions by Chinese Catholics in the next century.

Slow Response. Catholic success overseas helped to balance the losses Catholicism suffered in Europe following the rise of Protestantism. The failure of Pope Leo X and the cardinals to grasp the nature of the issues raised by Martin Luther prevented any effective response for two decades, by which time Protestantism was too well established to be rooted out. One reason for the slow response was that for many in the upper levels of the Church, Luther's beliefs seemed little different from the reform advocated by Christian humanism. The presence of a Catholic reform predating Luther is the principal reason why many historians prefer the term Catholic Reformation over Counter-Reformation, which has the connotation that whatever reform the Church undertook in the sixteenth century was done only in response to Protestantism. The best-known movement was the Oratory of Divine Love, a number of local institutions across Italy that arose largely from the life and charitable work of St. Catherine of Genoa. She inspired priests and laymen in Genoa to form the group in 1497. Similar organizations appeared across Italy, but the most significant was organized in Rome by 1517, and its main activity was hospital visitations. Its members included future cardinals Gasparo Contarini and Gaetano da Thiene, as well as Gian Pietro Caraffa, who later became Pope Paul IV.

Other Orders. New religious orders arose in the early sixteenth century. The Capuchins were a strict branch of the Franciscans, whose name came from the four-cornered hood that became their identifying feature. Their rule, approved by the papacy in 1528, stated that they were to live in small groups with an emphasis on preaching to the urban poor. They also staked out roles as chaplains to soldiers and sailors. Another new order that had its roots in Italy was the Company of St. Ursula, founded in 1535 when Angela Merici heard the pledges of perpetual virginity from twenty-eight young women. They dedicated themselves to an active life of teaching girls while living at home and wearing ordinary clothing. They made a sharp break with the traditional cloistered orders of nuns, but their success in attracting women raised fears in the higher clergy of unsupervised single women. By 1600 the Ursulines were forced to return to a more traditional type of convent, housing schools for upper-class girls within their walls. The Capuchins, early Ursulines, and several smaller orders that were organized in the same era reflected the attitudes of the Brethren of the Common Life and the Christian humanists against the restrictions of traditional monastic life and in favor of an active life in the world.

Jesuits. By far the most successful in breaking the mold of traditional religious orders was the Society of Jesus, founded in 1534 by St. Ignatius Loyola. He drew up a rule for the order that was highly innovative for its time. The name he chose, the Society of Jesus, was controversial because no previous order had presumed to include Christ's name in its title. Also controversial was Loyola's idea that the members not be required to assemble regularly during the day for common prayer, as was true for all monks previously, but be permitted to say those prayers alone. This innovation had the effect of allowing the Jesuits to be active in the world, for they did not have to return to their houses several times a day. The refusal to wear a monk's habit had a similar effect of permitting the Jesuit priest to be an active participant in the world's business. Despite opposition from such influential prelates as Cardinal Caraffa, Pope Paul III gave his approval to the Society of Jesus in 1540. At a time when the Protestants' major challenge to Catholicism was their denunciation of the authority of the papacy, Loyola emphasized that obedience to the pope was necessary to be a good Christian. His declaration that Jesuits ought to be ready “to believe what seems to us to be white is black, if the Church so defines it” refuted the Protestant rejection of the authority of the Catholic Church.

Dedicated Members. These innovations and attitudes would not have had much impact if Loyola had not found an approach to religious life that had strong appeal to the young Catholic men of his era and ever since. The Society had demanding admission requirements. New members were carefully screened for intelligence, good health, and social skills before being accepted for a lengthy probationary period. Only after nine years of proving that they were committed to accepting the Society's discipline and living up to its goals were they permitted to become full members by taking a fourth vow of obedience to the papacy along with the traditional three vows of a monk. The number of Jesuits increased at an astounding rate throughout the sixteenth century. Loyola had devised a system of training that yoked together intelligence, discipline, and the freedom to take personal initiative when appropriate to the goal of doing “All for the Greater Glory of God.” Nearly all of what Loyola devised for the Jesuits was intended to enhance the goal of being active in the service of God among His people. This active service may have been the principal source of its great appeal, for the Jesuit could see the results of his labors, whether as preacher, teacher, or missionary, unlike the monk whose task of praying for the salvation of souls rarely produced obvious successes. Yet, the Jesuit remained a part of a committed group who provided encouragement, constructive criticism, companionship, and a sense of belonging largely absent from the life of the parish priests. The result was to form a group of men who were the elite of Catholic Europe, whose highly successful labors for the Church deemed them the cutting edge of the Counter-Reformation.

Clement VII. For all of Loyola's brilliance in designing his new order, it might not have had much success if the church it served had remained less than worthy of such commitment and service. The election of a reforming Pope, Adrian VI, in 1522 as successor to Leo X was quickly undone by his death a year later. His successor, Clement VII, was, like Leo, a member of the Medici family. Not as great a patron of artists as Leo, Clement was just as obtuse when it came to understanding the issues involved in creating the Reformation. His vacillation in decision making was made worse by being caught between French king Francis I and Emperor Charles V in their wars to control Italy. It was in the context of those wars that the major event of Clement's reign, the sack of Rome by imperial troops, took place in 1527. Under Charles's thumb for most of the rest of his reign, he refused Henry VIII's request for an annulment from Catherine of Aragon. While Clement was ready at the Emperor's urging to grant some concessions to the Lutherans, such as clerical marriage, he adamantly refused Luther's demand that a general council of the Church meet in Germany as the only way of healing the division in the Church. The popes refused to consider a council unless it remained under their control. The Lutherans refused to accept a papal-dominated council as legitimate. Despite calls for a council from Catholics as well, Clement and his successor Paul III did not yield to the entreaties until Paul felt secure that he could control any council convened.

Council of Trent. Paul III, elected in 1534, was little different from his predecessors. He was trained a humanist, had four illegitimate children before becoming a priest, and actively promoted his relatives as any other pope. He was, however, more willing to act to reform the Church. One decision was approving the Society of Jesus in 1540, although he could not have foreseen the large role the Society would have in the Counter-Reformation. In 1542 he instituted the Inquisition in Rome, which never became as notorious as its Spanish counterpart. He named prominent reformers as cardinals, including Contarini and Caraffa. Paul III appointed Contarini to head a commission to investigate the papal court and recommend reforms. Its report detailed the problems all too thoroughly and laid them at the foot of the papacy, to Protestant delight and Paul's chagrin. Paul shelved it without action. Contarini served as papal delegate to a meeting at Regensburg in Germany in 1541 to try to reach a compromise with the Lutherans, whose spokesman was Philip Melanchthon. Agreement was reached on several key issues, but the meeting collapsed over the definition of the Eucharist. At last secure that he would control it, Paul III agreed to summon a general council. The place chosen was Trent, which was in lands ruled by Emperor Charles V yet Italian-speaking and on the south side of the Alps, thus satisfying both emperor and Pope. When the Council of Trent opened in December 1545, only four archbishops and thirty-one bishops, mostly Italians, were present. Attendance increased slowly during this first set of sessions that lasted until March 1547 and never exceeded one hundred bishops. France's king refused to send any French bishops on the grounds that the French Church did not need reforming, and if it did, he and his bishops would do it without outside interference. The Lutherans were invited to send observers, but it was made clear that they could not address the council nor take part in the discussions or voting. Some Lutherans did go to Trent but left when they realized they had no voice. In March 1547 the outbreak of war between Charles V and the Lutherans forced the suspension of the council, which Pope Julius III reconvened in 1551. The second set of sessions lasted just over a year when renewed fighting in Germany again halted it.

Assertion of Power. Pope Paul IV, elected in 1555, strongly opposed the council. He believed the Pope had the authority to reform the Church without it. Already seventy-nine years old when elected, he had a hot temper and an overwhelming sense of papal power. He hated Protestants and Spaniards with about equal passion, the latter because of their abusive rule in southern Italy, his homeland. He provoked a war with Spain in which he used the French and German Lutherans in an effort to drive the Spanish out of Italy. Despite using Protestant mercenaries, he made draconian demands for Catholic rulers to eradicate heresy, pushing Mary of England into rash acts of repression. Paul IV established the Index of Forbidden Books to make it clear to Catholics what works they could not read. The Index listed individual books as suspect in doctrine, such as Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince (1513), and those authors whose entire body of works were banned. Luther and Calvin were listed, but also Erasmus. Paul attempted to cleanse the city of Rome as Calvin had Geneva, prohibiting gambling, dancing, and prostitution. He also placed severe restrictions on the Jews in the Papal States, imposing heavier taxes on them, segregating them more completely from Christians and placing numerous Judaic works on the Index.

Successor. Paul IV became the model Counter-Reformation Pope, although no other was as harsh as he. His successor Pius IV, was determined to maintain traditional Catholicism. Pius IV believed that the council was the best way to strengthen the Church in combat with the Protestants. In 1561 the largest number of bishops, 270 in all, including finally a French delegation, arrived at Trent to resume the council. Although the earlier sessions had done some defining of doctrine, the third set of sessions, which lasted until December 1563, was the most productive. The key consideration was defining Catholic doctrine as distinct as possible from Protestant positions. Every Catholic doctrine and practice that had come under challenge was affirmed in the most conservative interpretation found in scholasticism, which usually came from St. Thomas of Aquinas. Thomist theology gained victory over Christian humanism. Papal supremacy was also affirmed, and the popes emerged from the council with more control over the bishops and the national churches than it had before. Trent also made important strides in reforming the Church. The role of the bishop as pastor of his diocese was emphasized, and his authority over the clergy in it, including over monasteries, which often had independence from episcopal oversight, was enhanced. The bishops were required to build seminaries in their dioceses for educating their priests, which by the early seventeenth century largely eliminated the complaints about the ignorance of the common priest. Bishops were also required to be in residence in their dioceses for six months of the year and to undertake visitations of all their parishes every two years. The obligation of clerical celibacy was reaffirmed, and the bishops were required to enforce it strictly on their priests. As the Tri-dentine decrees began to take effect across Catholic Europe, the quality of the clergy improved dramatically, and the complaints against it that had fueled the Reformation became a thing of the past.

Increased Tension. The Council of Trent exacerbated the differences between Catholic and Protestant, not reduced them, as many had hoped for when it began. No one could argue, as some did before 1545, that they did not know what the official Catholic positions on the contested doctrines were. Compromise was impossible once Pius IV published the council's decrees in early 1564. Philip II ordered them accepted in his realms immediately, although he included reservations on points that threatened to reduce royal authority over the Church. In the next several years the other Catholic rulers and authorities accepted them. The one exception was France, where Trent's decrees were denounced as undermining the liberties of the Gallican Church, and the French never did accept them before the French Revolution. Nonetheless, the implementation of Trent's decrees in northern Italy, Spain, and the Spanish Netherlands surrounded France with lands where they were transforming the Church. It created something of a moral imperative for the French bishops to adopt them in practice as well.

Implications. Trent clearly identified the enemy for both sides of the confessional divide. Any hope lingering among the Protestants that the entire Church might accept their doctrines was unsustainable after 1563, while any possibility that the Catholic Church might offer a compromise to the Protestants to bring them back to unity with Rome was also gone. Religious war had already reared its ugly head two decades earlier, but there now was a new militancy on both sides that would lead to nearly a century of bloody religious warfare across Europe.


Henry Outram Evennett, The Spirit of the Counter-Reformation (Cambridge & London: Cambridge University Press, 1968).

Hubert Jedin, A History of the Council of Trent, 2 volumes (London: Thomas Nelson, 1957–1961).

John O'Malley, The First Jesuits (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993).

John Olin, Catholic Reform: From Cardinal Ximenes to the Council of Trent, 1495–1563 (New York: Fordham University Press, 1990).

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