Counter Reformation

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Counter Reformation

The Counter-Reformation (also known as the Catholic Reformation) refers to the period of reform, renewal, as well as reaffirmation of Roman Catholic doctrines and structure that occurred in response to the Protestant Reformation. Key to the Counter Reformation was the Council of Trent.

"Counter Reformation" or "Catholic Reformation"

The two terms highlight different aspects of the movement. The term Counter-Reformation emphasizes the view that these reforms were prompted largely by the rise of Protestants and the threat they posed to Catholic institutions. In this view, the reforms were aimed primarily at reducing the loss of the faithful to Protestantism. The term Catholic Reformation or simply Catholic Reform identifies it as an action initiated by the Catholic Church, rather than a reaction to Protestant Reformers.

Scholars, such as John C. Olin, began using the term "Catholic Reformation" in the last half of the 20th Century to emphasize the attempts at reform, theological and disciplinary, within the Roman Catholic Church that began before the traditional date of the launch of the Protestant Reformation by Martin Luther or before the Council of Trent (events such as the Fifth Lateran Council, and the sermons on reform delivered by John Colet in England).

Council of Trent

Pope Paul III (1534-1549) initiated the Council of Trent (1545-1563), a commission of cardinals tasked with institutional reform, to address contentious issues such as corrupt bishops and priests, indulgences, and other financial abuses. The Council rejected 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 tenets of the Catholic faith. The Council upheld salvation appropriated by grace through faith and works (not just by faith, as the Protestants insisted). Transubstantiation, during which the consecrated bread and wine were held to be transformed wholly and substantially into the body, blood, humanity and divinity of Christ, was upheld, along with the other six Sacraments. Other practices that drew the ire of Protestant reformers, such as indulgences, pilgrimages, the veneration of saints and relics, and the veneration of the Virgin Mary were strongly reaffirmed as spiritually vital. The Council also commissioned the Roman Catechism, which would serve as authoritative Church teaching until it was replaced by the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992.

But while the basic structure of the Church was reaffirmed, there were noticeable changes to answer complaints that the Counter Reformers tacitly were willing to admit were legitimate. Arrangements were made for parish priests were to be better educated in matters of theology and apologetics, while Papal authorities sought to educate the faithful about the meaning, nature and value of art and liturgy, particularly in monastic churches (Protestants had criticised them as distracting). Notebooks and handbooks became more 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 that had led to to the Protestant Reformation during the time of Pope Leo X (1513-1522) (whose campaign to raise funds in the German states to rebuild St. Peter's Basilica by supporting sale of indulgences was a key impetus for Martin Luther's 95 Theses) was responded to. The Catholic Church initiated this campaign of reform at the Council of Trent, inspired by earlier Catholic reform movements that predated 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: the organization of religious institutions was tightened, discipline was improved, and the parish was emphasized. The appointment of Bishops for political reasons was no longer tolerated. In the past, the large landholdings forced many bishops to be "absent bishops" who at times were property managers trained in administration. Thus, the Council of Trent combated "absenteeism," which was the practice of bishops living in Rome or on landed estates rather than in their dioceses. The Council of Trent also gave bishops greater power to supervise all aspects of religious life. Zealous prelates such as Milan's Archbishop Carlo Borromeo (1538-1584), 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 overwhelmingly faithful to the church's rule of celibacy.

Pope Paul IV

Pope Paul IV (1555-1559) is sometimes deemed the first of the Counter-Reformation popes. He had resolute determination to eliminate Protestantism - and the ineffectual institutional practices of the Church that contributed to its appeal. 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. Devotionalism provided an individual outlet for religious experience, for example, through meditation by 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 ruler - a God to be feared - coincided 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.

Pope Pius V

The papacy of Pius V (1566-1572) represented a strong effort not only to crack down against heretics and worldly abuses within the Church, but also to improve popular piety in a determined effort to stem the appeal of Protestantism. A man of impoverished upbringing taken in by the Dominicans, he was trained in a solid and austere piety. 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 bent knees in presence of the Blessed Sacrament. 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.

Pope Sixtus V

The pontificate of Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590) opened up the final stage of the Counter Reformation. His reign focused on rebuilding Rome as a great European capital and Baroque city, a visual symbol for the Catholic Church.


New religious orders were a fundamental part of the Counter Reformation. Orders such as the Capuchins, Ursulines, Theatines, the Barnabites, 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 Jesuits, founded by the Spanish nobleman and ex-soldier Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), were the most effective of the new Catholic orders. His Societas de Jesus was founded in 1534 and received papal authorization in 1540 under Pope 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. Loyola's masterwork Spiritual Exercises reflected the emphasis of handbooks characteristic of the earlier generation of Catholics before the Reformation. The great psychological penetration that it conveyed was strongly reminiscent of devotionalism. However, the Jesuits are really the heirs to the observantine reform tradition, taking strong monastic vows of chastity, obedience, and poverty and setting an example that improved the effectiveness of the entire Church. They became preachers, confessors to monarchs and princes. Their efforts stemmed 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 outpaced Protestantism. Even Loyola's 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 of Conciliarism, the belief that general councils of the church collectively were God's representative on earth, rather than the Pope. 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.



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