Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


The Counter-Reformation or the Catholic Reformation was a strong reaffirmation of the doctrine and structure of the Catholic Church, climaxing at the Council of Trent, in reaction to the growth of Protestantism.

Even before the posting of Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, there had been evidence of internal reform within the Church, combating trends that heightened demands for radical demands to fundamentally alter the doctrine and structure of the Medieval Church and even contributed to anticlericalism of figures such as John Huss and John Wycliffe in the late fourteenth century. The Catholic Reformation, aimed at correcting the sources of the Reformation, and pronounced since the pontificate of Pope Paul III, was both retaliatory, committed to protecting Catholic institutions and practices from heresy and Protestantism, but also reformist, committed to reform the Church from within to stem the growing appeal of Protestantism. Broadly speaking, the Catholic Reformation, which climaxed in the Council of Trent the nineteenth of twenty-one Ecumenical Councils (the 1st being the First Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325, the 21st being the Second Vatican Council, convening quite recently under Pope John XXIII in the mid-1960s) represented a three-sided strategy: an autocratic church at the top liked to the individual by the parish church. The Catholic Reformation was a strong reaffirmation of the doctrine and structure of the Medieval Church, presiding over reforms that would improve its effectiveness.

The Council of Trent

The pontificate of Paul III (1534-1549) cumulated in the Council of Trent, who appointed a commission of cardinals to look into the need for institutional, but certainly not doctrinal, reform, uncovering the appointment of corrupt and worldly bishops and priests, traffic in indulgences, and other financial abuses. The Council of Trent, meeting in three sessions between 1545 and 1563, was the climax of the Catholic Reformation. The Council clearly repudiated specific Protestant positions and upheld the basic structure of the Medieval Church, its sacramental system, religious orders, and doctrine. It rejected all compromise with the Protestants, restating basic tenants of Catholicism. The Council clearly upheld the dogma of salvation by faith and works and unwritten tradition. Transubstantiation, during which the consecrated bread and wine were held to become (substantially) the blood of Christ, was upheld, along with the Seven Sacraments. Other Catholic practices that drew the ire of liberal reformers within the Church, such as indulgences, pilgrimages, the cult of saints and relics, and the cult of the Virgin were strongly reaffirmed as spiritually vital as well.


But while the basic structure of the Church was reaffirmed, there were noticeable changes. Among the conditions to be corrected by Catholic reformers was the growing divide between what the priests and the flock; many members of the clergy in the rural parishes, after all, had been poorly-educated, often not knowing Latin and lacking opportunities for theological education for many at the time, which was one of the fundamental focuses of the humanist reformers in the past. Parish priests became better educated, while Papal authorities sought to eliminate the distractions of the monastic churches. Notebooks and handbooks thus became common, describing how to be good priests and confessors.

Thus, the Council of Trent was dedicated to improving the discipline and administration of the Church. The worldly excesses of the secular Renaissance church, epitomized by the era of Alexander VI (1492-1503), exploded in the Reformation under Pope Leo X (1513-1522), whose campaign by to raise funds to rebuild St. Peter's Basilica in the German states by supporting high-pressure sale of indulgences was a key impetus for the ninety-five theses. But the Catholic Church would respond to these problems by a vigorous campaign of reform inspired by earlier Catholic reform movements that reformers opened up even before the Council of Constance (1414-1417): humanism, devotionalism, legalist and the observatine tradition.

The Council, by virtue of its actions, repudiated the pluralism of the Secular Renaissance Church, tightening the organization of religious institutions, improving discipline, and emphasizing the parish. No longer was the appointment of Bishops for political reasons a tolerant practice. In the past, the large landholdings and institutional rigidity of the Churcha rigidity to which the excessively large ranks of the clergy contributedforced many bishops studied lawnot theology, relegating many "absent bishops" to the role of property managers trained in administration. Thus, the Council of Trent combated "absenteeism," which was the practice of bishops living in Roman or on landed estates rather than in their dioceses. Secular practices were combated while the Papacy clearly moved away from its Renaissance posture as a political church tantamount to one of the Italian city-states. The Council of Trent also gave bishops greater power to supervise all aspects of religious life. Zealous prelates such as Milan's Archbishop Carlo Boromeo (1565-1584), later canonized as a saint, set an example by visiting the remotest parishes and instilling high standards . At the parish level, the seminary-trained clergy who took over in most places during the course of the seventeenth century were generally faithful to the churchs rule of celibacy.

The reign of Pope Paul IV (1555-1559), who is sometimes deemed the first of the Counter-Reformation popes for his resolute determination to eliminate Protestantismand the ineffectual institutional practices of the Church that contributed to its appealmarks these efforts of Catholic renewal. Two of his key strategies were the Inquisition and censorship of prohibited books. In this sense, his aggressive and autocratic efforts of renewal greatly reflected the strategies of earlier reform movements, especially the legalist and observantine sides: burning heretics and strict emphasis on Canon law. It also reflected the rapid pace toward absolutism that characterized the sixteenth century.

While the aggressive authoritarian approach was arguably destructive of personal religious experience, a new wave of reforms and orders conveyed a strong devotional side. Devotionalismnot subversive mysticismwould provide a strong individual outlet for religious experience, especially through meditation such as the reciting of the Rosary. The devotional side of the Counter-Reformation combined two strategies of Catholic Renewal. For one, the emphasis of God as an unknowable absolute rulera God to be fearedcoincided well with the aggressive absolutism of the Church of Paul IV. But it also opened up new paths toward popular piety and individual religious experience to its strong emotional and psychological side.

The Papacy of St. Pius V (1566-1572), in this sense, represented a strong effort not only to crack down against heretics and worldly abuses within the Church, but also improve popular piety in effort to firmly stem the appeal of Protestantism. An austere, pious man of impoverished upbringing taken in by the Dominicans, he was trained in a solid and austere piety. It is thus no surprise that he began his pontificate by giving large alms to the poor, charity, and hospitals rather than focusing on patronage. As pontiff he practiced the virtues of a monk, known for daily meditations on bended knees in presence of the Blessed Sacrament. Known for consoling the poor and sick, St. Pius V sought to improve the public morality of the Church, promote the Jesuits, and support the Inquisition. He enforced the observance of the discipline of the Council of Trent, and supported the missions of the New World. The Spanish Inquisition, brought under the direction of the absolutist Spanish state since Ferdinand and Isabella, stemmed the growth of heresy before it could spread.

The pontificate of Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590) opened up the final stage of the Catholic Reformation characteristic of the Baroque age of the early seventeenth century, shifting away from compelling to attracting. His reign focused on rebuilding Rome as a great European capital and Baroque citya visual symbol for the Catholic Church. The Baroque style and later Mannerism, along with the scientific revolution of Descartes and Galileo, who conceptualized a new way of thinking about nature that was not Aristotelian and not esoteric, but mechanical, marked a stabilization of society. The Baroque, after all, was concerned with creating order, reflecting some confidence that the order at question was understood and how to maintain it. The highest strata of the era consisted of the controlling elite class high nobles and aristocratic families, which were nominally religious, but primarily concerned with a culture of display. The decorative and well-lit interiors of Baroque religious architecture finally marked the stabilization of the Church and its shift from compelling the flock to attracting it.

The orders

New religious orders were a fundamental part of this trend. Orders such as the Capuchins, Ursulines, Theatines, and especially the Jesuits strengthened rural parishes, improved popular piety, helped to curb corruption within the church, and set examples that would be a strong impetus for Catholic renewal. The Theatines were an order of devoted priests who undertook the check the spread of heresy and contribute to a regeneration of the clergy. The Capuchins, an offshoot of the Franciscan order, grew rapidly, notable for their preaching and for their care for the poor and the sick, in both size and popularity. The Capuchin fathers were an order based on the imitation of Jesus' life as described by the Gospels. Capuchin-founded confraternities thus took special interest in the poor and lived austere lifestyles. These differing approaches were often complementary, as with the missions to rural areas poorly served by the existing parish structure. Members of orders active in overseas missionary expansionism often expressed the need that the rural parishes, whose poor state of affairs contributed to the growth of Protestantism, often needed Christianizing as much as heathens of Asia and the Americas, thus contributing to recovering significant territories that would have otherwise been lost to the Protestants. The Ursulines focused on the special task of educating girls. Their devotion to the traditional works of mercy exemplifies the Catholic Reformations reaffirmation of salvation through faith and works, and firmly repudiated the sola scriptura of the Protestants emphasized by Lutherans and other Protestant sects. Not only making the Church more effective, they reaffirmed fundamental premises of the Medieval Church.

However, the Jesuits, founded by the Spanish nobleman Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) were, by far, the most effective of the new Catholic orders. His Societas de Jesus was founded in 1534 and received papal authorization in 1534 under Paul III. An heir to the devotional, observantine, and legalist traditions, the Jesuits organized their order along military lines, they strongly reflected the autocratic zeal of the period. Characterized by careful selection, rigorous training, and iron discipline, the worldliness of the Renaissance Church had no part in the new order. Loyolas masterwork Spiritual Exercises reflected the emphasis on handbooks characteristic of the earlier generation of Catholic reformers before the ninety-five theses and the great psychological penetration that it conveyed was strongly reminiscent of devotionalism. However, they are really the heirs to the observantine reform tradition, taking strong monastic vows of chastity, obedience, and poverty and set an example that improved the effectiveness of the entire Church. They became preachers, confessors to monarchs and princes, and educatorsreminiscent of the humanist reformers, and their efforts are largely credited with stemming Protestantism in Poland, Bohemia, Hungary, southern Germany, France, and the Spanish Netherlands. They also strongly participated in the expansion of the Church in the Americas and Asia, conducting efforts in missionary activity that far outpaced even the aggressive Protestantism of the Calvinists. Even Loyolas biography contributed to the new emphasis on popular piety that had been waning under the eras of politically oriented popes such as Alexander VI and Leo X. After recovering from a severe battle wound, he took a vow to "serve only God and the Roman pontiff, His vicar on earth." Once again, the emphasis on the Pope is a key reaffirmation of the Medieval Church as the Council of Trent firmly defeated all attempts Counciliarism. Firmly legitimizing the new role of the Pope as an absolute ruler strongly characteristic of the new age of absolutism ushered in by the sixteenth century, the Jesuits strongly contributed to the reinvigoration of the Counter-Reformation Church.

See also: