Counter-reformation

The movement for reform and missionary expansion within the Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, that was quickened, if not caused, by the Protestant Reformation.* It found expression in a variety of forms. One time-honored way to reform the church was to renew or reform monastic orders. Recognized by the pope in 1528, the Capuchins,* who sought to recover the ideals of Francis of Assisi, devoted themselves to charitable work and evangelism. Entirely new creations, indicative of the changing times, were the Theatines* (1524), Somaschi (1532), Barnabites* (1533), Ursulines* (1535), and Oratorians* founded by Philip Neri (1575). They sought to show that the old ideals of celibacy, chastity, self-sacrifice, and compassionate service were still practicable in the sixteenth century. The most important order to be founded, however, was the Jesuits,* established by a papal bull in 1540 but formed in Rome eighteen months earlier by Ignatius Loyola,* Francis Xavier,* and others. The “Company of Jesus” was intended to be a society of priests who ministered to the poor, educated boys, and evangelized the heathen. It certainly did these things, but it also proved to be a most powerful anti-Protestant force, counting among its theologians Robert Bellarmine* and Peter Canisius.*

Another traditional approach to reform was through a general council. Emperor Charles V wanted such a council in Germany, but the Vatican opposed this. Some Catholics, led by such men as Cardinal Contarini, wished to conciliate and win Protestants through dialogue (cf. Colloquy of Ratisbon,* 1541) and an ecumenical council, but it was the conservative element in the church that triumphed. This bore fruit in the Roman Inquisition from July 1542 and the Council of Trent* (1545-63). The latter was indirectly under the control of the papacy and had no intention of making concessions to Protestantism in its doctrinal declarations. Its disciplinary decrees were intended to reform the structure of the church, and included the establishment of seminaries in every diocese in order to improve the standard of the clergy.

With Pius V (1565-72), a period of internal reform began within the Roman Curia and Vatican. Militantly anti-Protestant, Pius also issued edicts against simony, blasphemy, sodomy, and concubinage in his own church. In 1568 he reformed the breviary, restoring the reading of Scripture to a dominant place. The devotional power of the Reformation was, however, reflected more in personal religion than in liturgical reform. Apart from the general increase in personal confessions and communions, this was the age not only of the mystics-Teresa of Avila,* the Carmelite, and Juan de Yepes known as John of the Cross,* but also of Francis of Sales,* author of Introduction to the Devout Life (1609), which related piety to real life situations outside the monastery.

The term “counter-reformation” is applied also in a political sense to the revival of the Catholic powers of Europe. This lasted from about 1562 to 1629, at a time when France was internally weak and the Hapsburg powers had a free hand for their foreign policies. Encouraged by Pius V, a league of Catholic princes which included Philip II of Spain existed to defend the church and destroy Protestantism. Though the Spanish Armada failed to capture England, success was registered in Europe-in Poland, for example. The Thirty Years' War* was from 1618 to 1635 a religious war, with Calvinists fighting Protestants. It was in this war that the Catholics achieved a great success in driving Hussitism and Protestantism from Bohemia and forcibly making that land adopt the old religion.

Some scholars would see the Counter-Reformation as beginning with such men as Jiménes* and Savonarola,* gaining impetus in the sixteenth century and continuing, with different degrees of success, through the centuries until today. Vatican II* is thus seen as a part of the whole movement for renewal.

A.W. Ward, The Counter-Reformation (1889); B.J. Kidd, The Counter-Reformation, 1550-1600 (1933); P. Janelle, The Catholic Reformation (1949); H. Daniel- Rops, The Catholic Reformation (1962); see also Cambridge Modern History, vol. II, chap. 9, etc.