The Counter Reformation

During the Middle Ages the Catholic Church had frequently been confronted by heresy and the threat of schism. Yet it had survived intact, only to be taken completely by surprise by the Reformation. Initially, reformers like Luther were regarded as no more serious a threat than the Waldensians and the Albigensians in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries or the Hussites in the fifteenth. The papacy, which had reached its lowest ebb by the turn of the fifteenth century, largely because of the process of secularization explained in Chapter 2, was probably quite unaware that the Protestant Reformation was potentially more dangerous than a medieval heresy with minority appeal.

The Church became much more conscious of the grave threat of disintegration during the 1520s and 1530s, took action during the 1540s and 1550s and seemed to have placed itself firmly on the offensive by the 1560s. It adjusted to this change by coming to terms with two basic questions. First, how could the Catholic Church, which Wycliffe had once described as ‘the Synagogue of Satan’,1 resist the growth of further offshoots from its trunk? And second, how could the Lutherans, Calvinists and Anabaptists be prevented from making too many converts at the expense of Catholicism? The first was dealt with by a carefully structured movement of internal reform to eliminate those abuses which had precipitated the emergence of Protestantism. This is generally covered by the description ‘Catholic Reformation’ (some historians, in fact, see this process as being more typical of a reformation than the achievements of Protestantism, which they regard as revolutionary). The second provoked a more militant response, best described as a ‘Counter Reformation’; the Church identified its enemies more accurately and developed a series of instruments with which to eradicate them. Although internal reform (by the ‘Catholic Reformation’) and external action (by the ‘Counter Reformation’) were part of the same process of Catholic regeneration in the sixteenth century, it is worth separating them for the purpose of analysis.

The Catholic Reformation took the form of spiritual revival, movement towards institutional improvement, and attempts to heal the schism by trying to come to some form of agreement with Protestants on the basis of shared beliefs.

During the Middle Ages the Church had been assisted in times of crisis by an apparently spontaneous growth of several new religious orders which had purified it spiritually and, for a while, strengthened its institutions. The eleventh century produced the Order at Cluny, sanctioned by Gregory VII, while the thirteenth century saw the recognition of the Dominicans and Franciscans. This process of revival through inner regeneration was resumed in the sixteenth century; it was no coincidence that the period in which the Church faced its greatest danger also saw the most intensive activity of religious orders and of individuals who were inspired by mystical fervour. Spain led the way, with St Ignatius Loyola (1491–1556), who established the Society of Jesus, St Teresa (1515–82) and St John of the Cross (1542–91). Italy, meanwhile, produced the Cappuchines (1529), the Barnabites (1530), the Ursulines (1535) and a series of Oratories and Brotherhoods, the most famous of which was the Oratory of Divine Love in Rome (1517). The general effect was to emphasize the need for institutional reform, particularly in the Papal Curia, and to bridge some of the gap between clergy and laity which had given Protestantism so many prospects for recruitment.

This need for reform was not an awareness suddenly reached in the late 1520s and 1530s. It had been realized by a series of Cardinals and Popes, including Adrian VI (1522–3), but little had been accomplished. The turning point came in 1527 with the sack of Rome by the troops of the Emperor Charles V. This had a profound psychological impact on the Church. It occurred, according to an Italian bishop, ‘because all flesh has become corrupt; we are citizens not of the holy city of Rome, but of Babylon, the city of corruption’.2 Thus reform became more urgent because its delay seemed to have incurred a terrible divine reminder. The first major step was the appointment of a Reform Commission of Cardinals by Pope Paul III which reported in the Consilium directorum cardinalium de emendanda ecclesia (1537) that the major problem was the secularization of the papacy itself and that major change could be accomplished only from above. ‘You have taken the name of Paul. We hope that you will imitate his charity … you, we hope … have been chosen … to heal our sickness, to unite Christ's sheep again in one fold, and to avert from our heads the wrath and already threatening vengeance of God.’2

How could this be accomplished? The Papal Curia resisted the measures taken by Paul III in 1538 to end absenteeism and nepotism, and it became apparent that a major institutional development would be needed. Again, the Church produced a medieval idea as a solution, the convocation of a Church Council, although one designed to be more productive than the brief sessions of 1512 and 1536. The Council of Constance (1417) had expressed the possibility of conciliarism as an instrument of reform in its Decree Frequens: ‘A frequent celebration of general councils is an especial means for cultivating the field of the Lord and effecting the destruction of briers, thorns and thistles, to wit, heresies, errors and schism.’5 The Council of Constance had, in 1415, considered itself appropriately constituted and sufficiently representative to undertake a ‘general reformation of the Church’.4 The Council of Trent, which convened in the years 1545–7, 15512 and 1562–3, saw the partial and successful application of these principles and the accomplishment of a series of reforms by conciliar recommendation, largely under pressure from the Spanish delegation. These included a ban on the use of monetary Indulgences, new attention to the education of the clergy by means of theological seminaries, and a close examination of the duties and responsibilities of bishops. The reforming spirit seems, therefore, to have arisen from the grass roots of the religious orders and to have become institutionalized as a result of a closer co-operation between the papacy and the Church Councils. There was, however, no radical innovation. The revival of Councils was not based on any weakening of papal authority or the establishment of any real democratic process. The sixteenth–century Church came to terms with its problems within a thoroughly traditional and hierarchical framework.

The Catholic Reformation attempted to win Lutheran converts back to the Church by argument and doctrinal compromise, at least until 1541. From the beginning of the threatened secession, Catholic theologians like Eck and Cajetan engaged in disputations with Luther. During the 1520s the Papal Curia included moderating groups who believed that the Lutheran emphasis on justification by faith could be accommodated within the body of the Church's teachings. This, it was argued, was due to the nature of the medieval Church, which had not undertaken any really rigid definition of doctrine and had allowed, for example, the development of Augustinian and Thomist interpretations. Protestantism was, in effect, a further exploration of the Augustinian approach, while late medieval Scholasticism had been based more on the methods of St Thomas Aquinas. The majority of the papal party still branded Lutheranism as heresy and stated categorically that re–assimilation could not take place without fundamental doctrinal changes. For a while, however, moderation had a say, and some sort of doctrinal synthesis was sought at Ratisbon in 1541. Only when this failed did the Church finally give up hope of winning back Protestants by compromise and begin to concentrate all its resources on the use of coercion.

This was the main characteristic of the Counter Reformation. It would be a mistake to see 1541 as a dividing line between the Catholic Reformation and the Counter Reformation, as each operated throughout the century. But the emphasis of the earlier period was mainly on internal reform, while the later period saw a much more militant approach to the problem of separatism.

Effective treatment of the enemy required easy preliminary identification. This was one of the basic purposes of the doctrinal decrees emanating from the Council of Trent. The majority of the delegates, who were staunchly behind the Pope, believed that dogma should be tightened so as to remove the area of ambiguity within which the moderates of both Catholicism and Protestantism had worked to effect a compromise. Between 1545 and 1547 the Council of Trent emphatically denounced the Protestant emphasis on justification by faith, reaffirming the role of the sacraments and the power of the Church to act as an intermediary between man and God. It also declared that the traditions of the Church were of equal importance to the scriptures, thus warning that any individual interpretation ran the risk of lapsing into heresy. In 1562 the Council restored in full the credibility of purgatory, invocation of the saints and the absolute supremacy of the Pope. The uncompromising nature of the decrees is evident in the frequently repeated phrase applying to anyone of a different view: ‘Let him be anathema.’ Not: ‘Let him be persuaded.’

One of the major obstacles to reconciliation between Protestants and the Church had been that of papal supremacy. The Catholic Reformation accepted it but, within the prevailing atmosphere of papal corruption, with understandable reservations. Some of the more democratic sentiments of Nicholas of Cusa still exerted a slight influence, as did the declaration of the Council of Constance (1415) that ‘this Synod, legally assembled, is a general council, and represents the Catholic church militant and has the authority to speak directly from Christ; and everybody, of whatever rank or dignity, including also the Pope, is bound to obey this council’.4 The Counter Reformation, however, based its attack on Protestantism on a total reaffirmation of papal power. Pius II had anticipated this in his 1459 bull Execrabilis, in which he described any process undermining the authority of ‘the vicar of Jesus Christ’ as ‘pestiferous poison’.5 The Council of Trent saw open, if not unanimous, approval of papal autocracy, agreeing that no Conciliar recommendations could be applied without papal sanction. In return, the papacy was expected to provide the vanguard of the counter offensive against Protestantism, which it did with the assistance of militant orders, like the Jesuits, and specially adapted instruments, like the Inquisition and the Index.

The Spanish Inquisition, set up during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella for the suppression of religious minorities, was imported into Rome in 1542 as the Holy Office. The date, significantly, is one year later than the failure of doctrinal discussions with the Protestants at Ratisbon; the use of the Inquisition exemplifies the abandonment of conciliation in any form. The Regulations of the Holy Office contained what could have been the battle cry of the Counter Reformation: ‘No man must debase himself by showing toleration toward heretics of any kind.’6 Pope Paul IV (1555–9) who, as Cardinal Caraffa, had been instrumental in getting the Inquisition established in Italy, put this view even more forcefully: ‘Even if my father were a heretic, I would gather wood to burn him.’6 A medieval approach, certainly, but the result, in practical terms, was remarkably successful. Italy was virtually purged of Lutheranism, just as Spain had been of heresy. An effort was also made to control the output of religious and secular literature from the printing presses. Pope Alexander VI had first pointed out the dual nature of printing in his bull of 1501: ‘The art of printing is very useful in so far as it furthers the circulation of useful and tested books; but it can be very harmful if it is permitted to widen the influence of pernicious works.’7 Paul IV formally established the Index auctorum et librorum prohibitorum (Index of Prohibited Authors and Books) in 1559, which rapidly became the main means of issuing papal approval or condemnation of any publication. The Counter Reformation also spread its influence to painting and music in an effort to integrate culture more closely with the aspirations of the Church and to establish visual and other types of sensuous assistance for Catholic doctrine.

The two areas most closely connected with the Catholic Reformation and the Counter Reformation were Spain and Rome. Spain provided the influence for both reform and counter offensive, while Rome provided leadership and institutions.

During her struggle with the Moors in the Reconquista Spain had developed a crusading spirit which made her the most militant of Catholic states and certainly the most accustomed to fighting religious dissent. But she also had the greatest capacity for internal ecclesiastical reform, as the activities of Cardinal Ximenes proved, and for religious devotion (hence the considerable number of mystics and orders originating in Spain). Without the Spanish example it is doubtful whether Catholic regeneration could ever have got under way. Rome, after all, was the centre of corruption, and needed a powerful shove from outside.

The existing hierarchical nature of the Church could be retained only if change was led by the papacy. Hence the Spanish initiative in the Catholic and Counter Reformations had to pass to Rome. The process was a gradual one; Spanish religious fervour influenced the growth of Italian orders and oratories which, in turn, prevailed upon the Popes to sponsor reform. The most obvious link between Spain and Rome was the official recognition by Pope Paul III in 1540 of the Society of Jesus. With a leader of Spanish origin, this dedicated itself to the full restoration of Roman authority. The Jesuits were among the papal party's most influential spokesmen at the Council of Trent. The papacy was not, however, inclined to extend its acceptance of Spanish religious influences to being politically subservient to Spain. The Neapolitan Pope Paul IV (1555–9) engaged in constant diplomacy against Philip II for the ejection of Spanish political power from southern Italy.

Other areas made their own adaptations to the Catholic and Counter Reformations. The Italian states, which had been the most secular area in Europe at the time of the Renaissance, had been battered into submission by a series of invasions by Catholic powers in the Italian Wars. They all accepted the Inquisition, although Venice was less heavily influenced than the others. Spain continued in the fervour which had started the process of regeneration, now reactivating it in a sporadic but unsuccessful attack on northern Protestantism. Austria and the southern German states also adopted a political and military solution to the religious divisions within the Holy Roman Empire, their conflict with Calvinism and other Protestant sects eventually leading to the Thirty Years’ War. France experienced a more immediate purge in the form of civil war. All of these were examples of the final emergence of the papacy and its hierarchy from corruption, and the renewal of the concept of the Church Militant.

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