Catholic Reformation and Counter-Reformation

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Catholic Reformation and Counter-Reformation

Scholars use the terms Catholic Reformation and Counter-Reformation to identify the changes in the Roman Catholic Church that occurred in the 1400s and 1500s. The phrase Catholic Reformation generally refers to the efforts at reform that began in the late Middle Ages and continued throughout the Renaissance. Counter-Reformation means the steps the Catholic Church took to oppose the growth of Protestantism in the 1500s.


Toward the end of the Middle Ages, many people became unhappy with the behavior of high-ranking officials in the Catholic Church. At the same time, many Christians were searching for new ways to express their devotion to God. Their concerns triggered a movement for reform.

Complaints about church officials were widespread in the 1400s. Some of the most common charges were that church officials ignored church laws; that popes were corrupt; that cardinals lived in luxury; and that bishops did not reside within their dioceses*. Several councils in the 1400s and early 1500s attempted to address these problems. However, many officials—especially the popes—did not support reforms.

Meanwhile, many Christians craved better ways of expressing their faith. In the Netherlands, a movement called the devotio moderna encouraged people to form religious communities like those within the early Christian church. Mystics* recorded their experiences of an intimate union with God. Humanists* like Desiderius Erasmus called for changes in the way the Catholic faith was taught, studied, and practiced.


In 1517 a German monk named Martin Luther challenged the Roman Catholic Church on many points of doctrine. For example, he argued that only the grace of God could save people from punishment after death and that human actions could not lead to salvation. He also based his theology* on the Bible rather than on the traditions and practices of the church. Luther's actions marked the beginning of the Protestant Reformation*. The rapid growth of Protestantism alarmed Catholics, and they demanded that church leaders deal with the situation.

The Council of Trent. After many delays, Pope Paul III called bishops and religious scholars together at the Council of Trent. The council, which held three sessions between 1545 and 1563, had two central tasks. The first was to address Protestant teachings that questioned the Roman Catholic Church. The pope considered this issue the council's highest priority. The second was to reform the church, especially the papacy*. The council's internal conflicts made these difficult tasks nearly impossible.

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The council responded to Protestant teachings by affirming traditional Catholic beliefs. It addressed Luther's Bible-based theology by stating that Christians should base their religious views both on the Bible and on the spiritual authority of the Catholic Church. After discussing Luther's teachings on salvation, the council announced that God's grace was the most important factor, but that humans have some responsibility for their own salvation. The council also defended the Catholic position on other questions of theology.

The council also made efforts to reform church offices. It passed new laws requiring bishops to live in their dioceses and pastors to live in their parishes. In addition, it required each bishop to operate a seminary, a school to train future priests, in his diocese. However, the pope's representatives in the council blocked any attempts to reform the papacy. In fact, the papacy ended up with even more power when it became responsible for interpreting and enforcing the council's new laws.

The Papacy. Popes continued to take the lead in fighting the spread of Protestantism throughout the 1500s. In 1559 Pope Paul IV became the first pope to publish an Index of Prohibited Books, a list of books Catholics were not allowed to read without the permission of a bishop. When religious wars broke out in Europe in the mid-1500s, popes began to supply Catholic armies with troops and weapons, as well as spiritual support, in their battles against Protestant states. Realizing that the Protestants challenged their power, many Catholics stopped criticizing the pope in a show of unity. Pope Sixtus V (ruled 1585–1590) took this opportunity to strengthen his curia, the body that helped him govern the church.

The papacy also became more visible in Catholic teachings. Before the Reformation, Catholic catechisms* did not mention the papacy. Most European Christians probably had no idea that the pope was an important part of their religion. When Protestants began to challenge the pope's authority, the Catholic Church quickly reformed its catechisms to make the pope part of the definition of the church. Catholics began to define themselves as papists, followers of the pope.

Local Authorities. Important as the pope was, local authorities had a much greater effect on individual Catholics. By the end of the 1500s, high church officials had formed partnerships with the monarchs in Catholic countries. Local bishops also assumed stronger roles in their religious communities. The most important of these men was Carlo Borromeo, the archbishop of Milan. Borromeo studied the decrees of the Council of Trent and published his own set of rules and regulations, known as Acts of the Church of Milan (1582). This influential book established codes of conduct for both Catholic clergy and laypeople*.

Keeping the Faith. Reform-minded Catholics were committed to fighting ignorance and superstition among their members. This battle took many forms. During the late 1500s, bishops and pastors began to give more attention to their sermons than ever before. Humanism* played a strong role in this golden age of Catholic preaching, promoting a belief in the power of the spoken word. Religious orders such as the Jesuits* established networks of schools for boys, which taught both Catholicism and humanist studies.

Catholics worked to spread their beliefs in the 1500s. In new "Schools of Christian Doctrine," Catholic laypeople used the catechism to teach boys and girls the basics of their religion. Before the Protestant Reformation, the schools' goal was to instruct students about how to practice their religion. By the end of the 1500s, however, the schools were teaching students how to understand and defend their Catholic beliefs. Overseas, large numbers of Catholic missionaries tried to bring their faith to cultures in newly discovered lands—by force if necessary.

The Catholic Church strengthened its identity by showing a renewed interest in its traditions, especially those that Protestants did not share. Some religious orders doubled in size between 1540 and 1700, and new orders sprang up at the same time. The new male orders built some of Europe's most beautiful Catholic churches. Church officials and Catholic royalty commissioned religious artworks. Catholic scholars revived scholasticism, a movement that blended Christian teachings with ancient philosophy. Devotion to the saints regained popularity, and more Catholics took up the old practice of making pilgrimages, or journeys to sacred places.

Women and the Church. In the late 1500s, women took increasingly active roles in the church. One of the most important was Teresa of Ávila, who founded many convents and reformed the Carmelite order of nuns. Another was Barbe-Jeanne Acarie, who helped bring the Carmelites to France and who used her house as a religious meeting place.

French nuns began to minister to the public in the 1600s. One of their most important activities was the organization of schools for girls. Other nuns worked outside their convents nursing the sick and running hospitals.

(See alsoCensorship; Councils; Popes and Papacy; Protestant Reformation; Religious Literature; Religious Orders; Religious Thought; Trent, Council of. )

see color plate 10, vol. 2

* diocese

geographical area under the authority of a bishop

* mystic

believer in the idea of a direct, personal union with the divine

* humanist

Renaissance expert in the humanities (the languages, literature, history, and speech and writing techniques of ancient Greece and Rome)

* theology

study of the nature of God and of religion

* Protestant Reformation

religious movement that began in the 1500s as a protest against certain practices of the Roman Catholic Church and eventually led to the establishment of a variety of Protestant churches

* papacy

office and authority of the pope

* catechism

handbook of religious teachings

* laypeople

those who are not members of the clergy

* humanism

Renaissance cultural movement promoting the study of the humanities (the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) as a guide to living

* Jesuit

belonging to a Roman Catholic religious order founded by St. Ignatius Loyola and approved in 1540

Power of the Pen

Biographies of saints and books that praised devout lifestyles were powerful tools in the Catholic Reformation. Spain produced some of the most popular Catholic writers, including Francisco de Osuna and the great Christian mystics Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross. During the 1600s France became the major source of books on devotion. The best known among these are Francis de Sale's Introduction to the Devout Life (1609) and Treatise on the Love of God (1616).

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Catholic Reformation and Counter-Reformation

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