‘Though in the 1530s and 1540s it appeared as if Europe might become Protestant, a century later the picture was reversed – Catholicism had ended its decline and was showing a vigour and dynamic that compared favourably with a now rigid Protestantism.’ H. G. Koenigsberger, George L. Mosse,. and G. Q. Bowler, Europe in the Sixteenth Century (Longman, 1989), 207.There is a useful summary of the Catholic Reformation here. This post is also indebted to Diarmaid MacCulloch's quite excellent Reformation: Europe's House Divided 1490-1700 (Allen Lane, 2003).
List of Counter-Reformation popes
Paul III (1534-49) Alessandro Farnese
Julius III (1550-55) Giammaria Ciocchi del Monte
Paul IV (1555-59) Gian Pietro Carafa
Pius IV (1559-65) Giovanni Angelo Medici
Pius V (1566-72) Michele Ghisleri
Gregory XIII (1572-85) Ugo Buoncompagni
Even before the Protestant Reformation, there were movements for renewal within the Catholic Church. In the 15th century the 'devotio moderna' in the Netherlands had practised a Christianity that stressed the inner and the spiritual as opposed to ritual and dogma. In southern Europe the oratory movement began with founding of the Oratory of San Girolamo [Jerome] in Vicenza in 1494. In 1517 the Oratory of Divine Love was founded in Rome and included in its membership many important dignitaries of the Church. It practised prayer, frequent confession, communion, and charity in the visitation of hospitals. These oratories were allied with old, strict religious orders such as the Carthusians (founded 1084) and the Observant Franciscans. In 1485 Henry VII confirmed his predecessor’s grant of a convent for the Observant Franciscans in Greenwich.
In 1524 Gian Pietro Carafa, the future Pope Paul IV, a member of the Rome Oratory was instrumental in founding the Theatine order whose task was to remedy the deficiencies of the regular clergy by concentrating on preaching and pastoral work. In 1525 the Capuchins, a reforming branch of the Franciscans, who revived the old stress on preaching an poverty, were founded in the Italian Marches. The famous female teaching order, the Ursulines, were founded in 1535 by Angela of Merici.
Although reform was underway before the advent of Protestantism, the most famous of the new orders was set up specifically to counter ‘heresy’. The movement originated in Spain and the context is important. The country was eager to stress its Catholic orthodoxy and the Spanish Inquisition had been set up in 1478 to crush religious dissent. The religious orders had remained powerful, and the medieval chivalric tradition was especially strong (see Don Quixote). These factors combined to produce a religious order that was like no other in the Catholic Church.
Iñigo López de Loyola - Ignatius Loyola (1491?-1556) (left) was born into the Basque nobility. In 1521 he was badly wounded by a cannon ball while helping to defend the citadel at Pamplona from capture by the French. During his long and painful convalescence he read chivalric romances as well as the lives of the saints. When he recovered he dedicated himself to the Black Madonna at Monserrat in 1522 and in subsequent years wrote down what were to become his Spiritual Exercises, ‘one of the most influential books in the history of the Western Church’ (MacCulloch, 221). In 1523 he travelled to the Holy Land, but he was turned back by the Franciscans, who were at that time discouraging pilgrims because they were continually having to find ransoms for Christian prisoners. In 1528 he went to study at the Sorbonne (he was there with Calvin and Rabelais) where he formed a circle of like-minded friends, including the Navarrese nobleman’s son, Francisco de Javier (Francis Xavier) and conceived the idea of fighting heresy in Europe as well as Islam in the east. On 15 August 1534 he and a small group of friends, met at Montmartre and swore vows of poverty and chastity and a third vow to go to the Holy Land when their studies were finished. In January 1537 they reached Venice but found their progress barred by the war with the Turks, which meant that all commercial sailings were cancelled. They then decided that they would offer their services to the pope and call themselves the Company (soon to be known as Society) of Jesus.
In Rome, however, Ignatius found that he had powerful enemies, notably the fiercely anti-Spanish Neapolitan Carafa. One problem was the anomalous status of the Society as they were not monks or friars but secular priests. Were they to have a rule? In 1539 Ignatius submitted his rule to Paul III and in September 1540 the bull ‘Regimini militantis Ecclesiae’ gave them official recognition.
The Society was based on military principles. It was to be governed by a ‘Superior-General’ elected for life, with Ignatius elected the first general in April 1541. Under him were ‘provincials’ who governed a region, and the ‘rectors’ who ruled individual houses.
The new order had a distinctive spirituality, expressed through the ‘spiritual exercises’, a training of the mind through a series of visual exercises. Loyola’s stress on the senses profoundly affected Jesuit art and architecture, which was rich and elaborate, seen, for example in the Gesù Church in Rome (1568-75). This could not have been more different from Calvinism. Another huge difference lay in theology: the Calvinists believed in predestination while the Jesuits stressed the freedom of the will. But in other respects the two movements were similar, showing a common zeal and self-discipline and at time espousing similar radical politics.
The Jesuits became the shock-troops of the Counter-Reformation, showing remarkable energy and success. They concentrated on three areas of activity: the cultivation of rulers, education, and missionary work. They became famous as confessors, very lenient ones in the eyes of their Catholic critics. In using ‘casuistry’ to help people grapple with complex moral problems they came under attack for dishonesty and ‘jesuitical’ practices. They founded schools and universities in order to train elite young men to spread the faith. Peter Canisius founded universities in the southern part of the Holy Roman Empire. Their schools were free (financed by energetic fund-raising) and taught dancing, drama and PE as well as the usual curriculum. They were secondary schools and catered for merchants, gentry and nobility.
One of the most remarkable of the Jesuits was Francis Xavier who in 1542 began his ‘prodigious decade’ of Asian mission (MacCulloch, 433).
The most innovative of all the Jesuit missions was that pioneered by the Italian Robert de Nobili in India, who adopted the dress of a high-caste Hindu. In China, Matteo Ricci began on his arrival by wearing the dress of a Buddhist monk and then (when he knew the culture better!) Confucian scholars.
The papacy and reform
Given the power structure of the Catholic Church, reform had to come from above, and this meant the papacy. In the early 16th century the popes were preoccupied with their role as political rulers. The sack of Rome in 1527 was seen by many devout people as God’s judgement on a corrupt papacy. In 1534 Alessandro Farnese became pope as Paul III. In 1537 he created a reform commission, which was dominated by members of the Oratory of Divine Love. Three of its members were especially significant: the Venetian diplomat and Christian humanist, Cardinal Gasparo Contarini (1483-1542), the English exile Reginald Pole and the pious ascetic Gian Pietro Carafa.
The Colloquy of Regensburg
Among both Catholics and Protestants, there were those who wished to heal the breach. These included Contarini and Pole who sympathized with the doctrine of salvation by faith and Luther’s disciple Philipp Melanchthon, a humanist scholar, who wanted to find common ground with Catholics.
In 1541 Melanchthon and Contarini met at Regensburg (Ratisbon) under the auspices of Charles V while the Imperial Diet was operating. The two quickly reached agreement on a formula concerning justification but could not agree on transubstantiation, the papacy and the veneration of the saints; and in the end both Luther and the pope rejected the formula on justification.
The failure of Regensburg ended hopes of compromise. Contarini died under house arrest in August 1542, a broken man, and Italian evangelicals fled north in despair. The hour of the hard-liners, led by Carafa had come. Paul III resolved to enforce orthodoxy ruthlessly. He had already recognized the Jesuit order. In July 1542 the Inquisition was re-organized in Rome along Spanish lines to counter the growing infiltration of Protestantism into Italy. Carafa:
‘Even if my own father were a heretic, I would gather the wood to burn him.’The Council of Trent
There was now considerable pressure on the pope, especially from Charles V, to call a general council, a move that he at first resisted, remembering how councils had in the past asserted their superiority over the papacy. On 22 May 1542 a council was called to the city of Trent (Trento; now in Italy, then in the Tyrol and part of the Holy Roman Empire). The Council of Trent laid down guidelines for dogma and pointed towards a greater centralization within the Church and a greater enforcement of religious uniformity.
The first session (1545-9) proved to be one of the most fruitful for theological definitions as it tackled the key Lutheran doctrines of Scripture and justification and thus marked the moment when many evangelicals realized that their break with Rome was decisive. The Council decreed that:
• sola scriptura was false and truth was conveyed through tradition as well as Scripture;To the dismay of Charles V, it proved harder to achieve administrative reform. The first session forbade pluralism in the holding of bishoprics but it was unable to deal with the problem of non-resident bishops. In 1548 the Council moved to Bologna (outside the emperor’s dominions) because of the plague, and this sabotaged Charles’s attempts to involve the Protestants in the proceedings.
• the Vulgate was the authentic text of the Bible sin
• was remitted in baptism
• humanity retains free will after the fall, and therefore human beings can obey God’s commands
• the seven sacraments of the medieval church were ‘instituted by Christ’, and essential to salvation.
Paul’s successor Julius III recalled the Council to Trent.
The second session (1551-2) reaffirmed transubstantiation and stressed the importance of oral confession. But the session was suspended in a stalemate when the Protestants appeared and demanded that the bishops should be freed from their allegiance to the pope. Paul IV (Carafa) was suspicious of the Council and was embroiled in a war with Philip II (which also involved war with England). His successor Pius IV recalled the Council.
The third session sat from 1562-3. Under pressure from Carlo Borromeo, the archbishop of Milan, the impetus for reform was growing. But the pope was not in control of European developments. Pius had recalled the Council partly because he was alarmed at the French monarchy’s initiatives at religious conciliation. The Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I also wished to conciliate the Lutherans, following the fragile Peace of Augsburg in 1555. The German delegation was small, but for the first time a French delegation attended led by the Cardinal of Lorraine. With the support of Philip II, the Spaniards were also well represented but the young Queen Elizabeth forbade the papal delegate to enter England.
Since most doctrinal matters had been settled in previous sessions, most of the work of this session concerned the life and structuring of the Church. The Council condemned pluralism and decreed that every diocese was to have a seminary to train the clergy. Some abuses – the proliferation of masses said for special occasions, some aspects of popular piety, and the sale of indulgences - were condemned. But the Council was nearly wrecked over the question of the relative powers of the pope and the bishops. Did the bishops derive their authority from the pope or directly from Christ? Eventually a compromise formula was found and in practice the government of the Church became increasingly centralized over the subsequent centuries. Early in 1564 the pope ratified the actions of the Council. A special commission was formed to implement the decrees while another revised and reissued the Index of Prohibited Books.
In 1566 a new Catechism was issued followed by a Breivary (1568) and Missal (1570) were issued by the pope.