The Catholic Reformation

                 Although Lutheranism was readily embraced by many in Europe, it would be a mistake to assume that everyone in Europe had grievances with the Roman Catholic Church. Although approximately 40 per cent of Europe became Protestant, many areas remained staunchly Catholic, and some rulers who had become Protestant later regretted their decision and returned to the Catholicism. A majority of Europeans found their spiritual needs met by the Church, and many loved the rich ceremony and liturgy it embraced. The Church’s work with the sick and its intellectual tradition inspired many. By far the most important reason that most Europeans remained Catholic is they believed their best chance of salvation lay with the church’s teaching and observation of its sacraments.


Even humanists who criticized the church remained loyal to it. Although they agreed with Luther about the need for reform, they saw no reason to toss the whole structure. Said one famous humanist:


I agree with much in Luther and admire him….But there are in his teachings some blemishes which I dislike. His assertion, for example, that we sin even when we perform a good work is a misplaced proposition….He thinks it proved that the Pope is not universal bishop by divine right. I cannot say emphatically enough how much this displeases me.


Erasmus was offended by the inflexibility of Luther’s teachings and feared that the reform movement might destabilize the entire continent, a fear no doubt influenced by the Hapsburg-Valois wars in which German princes were allied with the French against the Holy Roman Emperor. Many other humanists and scholars agreed with him that the cure for the ills of the church might be worse than the illness itself. The operation could not be called a success if the patient died.


Even so, the Church felt the need to respond to the spread of Protestantism. It did so by reasserting the authority of the Pope and strengthening its own organization. Although some reforms were enacted, the church did not abandon its fundamental tenants.


Early efforts to reform the church had predated Luther. The Spanish Inquisition, founded in 1480, was the work of a scholarly Spanish cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros. The Inquisition not only waged war against heretics; it also imposed strict discipline on the Spanish clergy.


The Spanish Inquisition was the brainchild of Cisneros, but funded by Queen Isabella of Spain, who was herself a fervent Catholic, and made him her confessor and leading spiritual advisor. It is a prime example of radical religious practices ran rampant. Thousands of Jews, Moors (Spanish Muslims) and Protestants were executed by the Spanish government in elaborate but grotesque public ceremonies. The attempt to purge Spain of anyone and everyone who was not mainstream Catholic left Spain with a doubtful legacy, and added to the “black legend” of Spanish atrocities against the Indians of North and South America.


It is important to note that had other European monarchs possessed Isabella’s passion for Catholicism (which they did not) it is doubtful they would have been able to mount so vigorous a persecution as the Spanish Inquisition, as they did not have the funds at their disposal which she had.


An attempt at reconciliation was sponsored by Emperor Charles V with the Regensburg Colloquy, which sought to find common ground between Catholics and Protestants. Although a draft statement was formulated, feelings were too intense, and all groups rejected the statement.


A number of Popes resisted reform as the idea seemed to suggest the need for a general council of the church. Since church councils typically attempted to reduce the power of the Pope, none were willing to take the chance. Pope Paul III (r. 1534-1549), stating that “fish stink from the head down, saw the need for a church council, remarking “we must do this because all the world is in fear and sorrow.”


When a majority of the College of Cardinals opposed his plans, Paul III increased the number of cardinals. Two of his appointments were his teenaged grandsons.


The Council of Trent: The Church Council instituted by Paul III met for eighteen years, 1545-1563, although it was not continuously in session. Four popes came and went while the council was in session. It proved to be the most important church council in one thousand years; but made the split with Protestantism permanent. Unlike the Council of Constance, the delegates at Trent voted as individuals, not as nations. Since the largest delegation was Italian as was Paul III, the Pope could rest easy that the Council would not undermine his authority.


Among the principals adopted by the Council:



The Council also adopted a number of reforms:



Responses to the Protestant Reformation continued under Pope Paul IV, (Pope 1555-1559) who was elected over the objection of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. He had once declared “If my own father were a heretic, I would gladly carry the wood to burn him.” The Council of Trent did not meet during his Papacy, as he believed that he could best institute the necessary reforms, and refused to continue it.  Rather than attempt to reconcile differences with Protestants, the Pope reinforced orthodoxy within the church. As part of his reform efforts, he invented the “ghetto,” specified areas within cities in which Jews were to be confined. They were allowed to leave these neighborhoods only during certain times. In 1555, he issued a bull stating that the Jews were guilty of killing Christ and therefore should be slaves. Jews in many areas of Europe were required to wear yellow caps to identify themselves, could not own land, and were excluded from many professions.


Among Paul IV’s other decrees, he instituted the infamous Index of Prohibited Books, a list of books which he considered “unholy and dangerous.” Among the banned works were the complete writings of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Knox as well as the works of Erasmus, Machiavelli’s The Prince, Boccaccio’s Decameron, and the Koran. Books were sometimes prohibited for their content, at other times because the author’s lives were considered disgraceful.


Ignatius of Loyola and the Society of Jesus: The Society of Jesus was the most prominent of a number of new church orders founded in response to calls for reform within the church. It was founded by Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) a Spanish nobleman and war veteran who was greatly influenced by his reading of Thomas á Kempis’s Imitation of Christ.  Loyola vowed to rekindle Catholic orthodoxy within Europe. His beliefs brought him under suspicion by the Inquisition, and he was imprisoned for 42 days while a tribunal debated whether he was a heretic. He was eventually found not guilty and released.


Members of the Society of Jesus called themselves Jesuits. They saw education as the church’s chief weapon against heresy. By the time of Loyola’s death, the Jesuits had founded thirty five colleges. They also were very active in missionary work. Loyola encouraged Jesuit missionaries to learn the language of the country where they were living. As a result of their efforts, widespread conversions to Catholicism took place all over Europe, Asia and among the Indians of South America. A notable member was Francis Xavier who converted thousands of Asians to Christianity despite numerous hardships.


Xavier was particularly impressed by the Japanese. He wrote: “they are a people of excellent morals—good in general, and not malicious.”


Other Orders arose from the Catholic Reformation, often called the Counter-Reformation; although none were as successful or as well known as the Jesuits. Among them were the Carmelite order on Nuns, founded by Teresa of Avia.