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Chapter 5. The Catholic and Counter Reformations

In This Chapter

Reformers within the Church call for change

The Protestant Reformation forces the Church’s hand

The landmark meetings known as the Council of Trent

New orders and societies form to slow Protestantism and win souls back for the Church

The Inquisition searches for heretics and other enemies of the Church

Few would argue that the Protestant Reformation sneaked up on the Church and caught it off guard. As far back as Wycliffe and Hus, individuals noticed things about the Church and about its hierarchy that moved them to speak their minds and call for change. As time went on, more and more people echoed the sentiments of the early reformers, challenging the Church on matters of theology and practice and calling for an end to corruption and abuses. When no changes occurred, some reformers simply cut their ties with Rome and did their own thing.

Define Your Terms

The Catholic Reformation was the movement within the Catholic Church to end corruption and abuses and address once and for all the theological issues raised both by reformers and Protestants. The movement can also be referred to as the Counter-Reformation, because at this time the Church also slowed the spread of Protestantism and reclaimed many former Catholics.

Initially, the Church could dismiss the reformers as troublemakers and denounce their teachings. The Church dealt with some instigators by applying political pressure and with others by arresting or imprisoning them. On some occasions the Church tried to quiet the outspoken ones by executing them; this rarely had the desired effect, though.

By the time of Luther, Calvin, and some of the other Protestants who broke away from the Church, Catholics were leaving the Church in large numbers.

Would You Believe?

In the three centuries before the climax of the Protestant Reformation, several Church councils conducted by leading Church scholars and theologians convened to discuss reform and change. However, the overwhelming majority of problems pointed out by reformers were never dealt with in any significant way.

The Protestant Reformation may not have been entirely responsible for the Church’s decision to look inward and to address the issues raised by reformers and Protestants alike, but it did put the Church in a position where it really had no other choice. From a Protestant perspective, the Catholic Reformation began in response to the rise of Protestantism and ended about the time the Thirty Years’ War ended (see Chapter 8). From the Catholic perspective, the Catholic Reformation predates the Protestant Reformation because of the early calls for reform by Catholic leaders. Furthermore, because the Church considers itself in a state of perpetual introspection and always strives to deal with issues that arise, the Church would argue that the Catholic Reformation is never-ending.

Renewal and Reform

The earliest, and some of the loudest, reformers from the Church, such as Wycliffe and Hus, had genuine concern for the well-being of the Church and wanted to see changes made that would bring the Church back in line with what they believed was God’s design. But because the Church denounced them and their loyalty to the Church wavered, they hardly can be considered part of the Catholic Reformation.

Many other reformers within the Catholic Church, though, remained devoutly Catholic.

The Catholic Reformation was a grass-roots, bottom-up movement begun by both laymen and clergy. It climaxed with the papacy taking action, but the papacy resisted calls for reform for centuries. The papacy certainly feared the possible consequences of admitting that problems existed or that the theology of the Church was not sound, but loyal Catholics who called for a renewal of Biblical and Christian values had no desire to challenge the pope, make the papacy look bad, or diminish the status of the Church. Rather, they felt deep convictions to help correct the shortcomings that had hindered the Church from realizing its full potential.

Let's Get Fired Up

In the years following the Catholic Reformation, the Church officially attributed much of the corruption and abuses in the late-medieval Church to humanism and secularism. Ironically, two of the most passionate figures of the Catholic Reformation were also two of the greatest humanists, Thomas More and Desiderius Erasmus.

Define Your Terms

Humanism is the glorification of man and his potential.

Secularism is the emphasis on material things of this world rather than on things related to the afterlife and spirituality.

The humanists (see Chapter 2) were well read in the classics and in the original texts of the Bible. They recognized that something was amiss in the Church and called for reform.

The approach was an intellectual one. Thomas More wrote the famous work Utopia as a satire on the problems he saw in society. More stayed loyal to the Catholic Church even after Henry VIII broke away and formed the Anglican Church; More truly was devoted more to the Church than to his king.

His passionate defense of Catholicism cost him his life, but his martyrdom drew attention to his message.

One of More’s close friends, the Dutch humanist Erasmus, also used the power of the pen. Also like More, Erasmus never feared conflict or confrontation. In Erasmus’s Praise of Folly, he satirically ripped the papacy. He, too, remained loyal to the Church and always recognized the authority of the Church. Erasmus risked telling the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it was for him or the pope, because he cared about the Church.

As a Matter of Fact

Thomas More and Desiderius Erasmus became lifelong friends while Erasmus spent time studying in England. They shared a common passion for the Catholic Church and they wanted to see the Church institute some amount of reform. Though they respected Luther, they wanted institutional reform, not doctrinal changes to Catholicism. Because of their love for the Church, neither hesitated to comment on the state of the Church. Erasmus's most famous and important work, Praise of Folly, was dedicated to his friend Sir Thomas More.

A well-known group made up of less well-known individuals emerged in the early sixteenth century in Rome. The group, known as the Oratory of the Divine Love, consisted of both clergy and laymen and most were humanists. The members sought to live as the apostles lived, in an attempt to restore the holiness of Christ and the apostles to renew and reform the Church. They hoped to emulate the apostles’ exemplary lives by preaching to and caring for the sick and the meek—actions they no longer saw from the Church. As some of its members traveled from Rome to other places and founded new chapters, the piety of the Oratory found its way across Italy and eventually into other parts of Europe. Other members founded new orders, such as the Theatines Clerks Regular, or Theatine Regular Clerics. A few of the members of the Oratory went on to be high-ranking bishops and even popes.

Time for a Tune-Up?

One of the most influential members of the Oratory turned out to be Gasparo Contarini (1483-1542). Contarini served as an advisor to Pope Paul III (1468-1549) when Paul wanted a report on just what the problem seemed to be in the Church. After an investigation, Contarini compiled a report that said basically the same thing Erasmus said: perhaps the biggest problem in the Church was the papacy. Though it was a bitter pill for the pope to swallow, he acted wisely and calmly. Paul knew the Church, and even the papacy, needed to change. Despite resistance from several powerful Church leaders, Pope Paul III began to revamp some aspects of the papacy. Among other things, Paul ended the practice of simony, one of the things early reformers complained about the most. In keeping with promises he had made before

he became pope, Paul tried to gather together a Church council to discuss reform and to clarify Church doctrine. However, Paul III never succeeded in getting Church officials to agree on a time and place for such a council to convene.

Would You Believe?

Pope Paul III excommunicated Henry VIII for his divorce from Catherine and supported the Holy Roman Emperor in his war against German Protestants, who wanted religious independence from Rome. While he wanted to reform the Church, he wanted to slow Protestantism as well.

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