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The Catholic Reformation

The Catholic Reformation followed the Reformation in the 16th century and helped to define the Catholic church as we know it.

Read time: 6 minutes, 3 seconds

The energy, new thinking and enthusiasm that shaped the Reformation that had part of its origin in Luther’s actions also had an effect among those who remained loyal to the Roman Church. The changes and developments that affect it are usually grouped together under the title of Counter-Reformation. It is true that a significant part of what was emphasised in this new movement was shaped in response to the Reformation, hence the term ‘Counter’ – but part of what happens is not absolutely dependent on the Protestant reforms, and so the title ‘Catholic Reformation’ is also used at times.

The defining event of the Counter Reformation, which determined its agenda and decisions was the Council of Trent. This was a gathering of bishops, archbishops and theologians which Pope Paul had been trying to call together from very early in his time in office (he became Pope in 1534), and finally started in 1545. It met from then until 1547, then again from 1551-1552 and finally from 1562-1563. Its first two sessions were largely dominated by defining an official theological position in opposition to the new Protestant theologies. Some of these statements were answering questions that had been left open for debate in earlier times. However, with the Protestant churches putting forward definitive statements, the Roman Church felt the need to do the same so that its believers would know what the differences were. The council insisted that human beings had a part to play in the their salvation by co-operating with the grace of God. It decreed that both Scripture and services were to be only in Latin, and that Scripture and Tradition (that is, the formal teaching of the church) were equally sources of authority. It defined the sacraments as seven, and reaffirmed the Pope as the head of the church.

The defining event of the Counter Reformation, which determined its agenda and decisions was the Council of Trent.

The third session was much more concerned with building a more tightly organised and better controlled church than there had been before. Provision was made for the effective training of priests, and for better contact between bishops and those over whom they had oversight. It also issued an a list of prohibited books, and prepared material for instructing lay people in their faith.

The Council also stressed the importance of mission. This was not a new idea, nor was it unique to the council. Even before the Council started to meet, renewing energy in the Roman Church had taken the form of the beginning of new religious orders, many of which had a missionary emphasis. Perhaps the most significant of these were the Jesuits, started by Ignatius Loyola. This order put an emphasis on significant inner change, brought about though a process of prayer and meditation, which Ignatius devised and codified as the Spiritual Exercises. This order was not enclosed as many of the older ones were, but saw its calling, in completely loyalty to the Pope, as going wherever the Pope sent them to educate, to preach, to teach and to found churches. The order was formally established in 1540 and became what has been called “the most powerful instrument of Catholic revival and resurgence in this era of religious crisis”(1)

Above all, the Jesuits were (and remain) a missionary order – even before they were formally established by the Pope, one of their first members had started on a mission journey which took him to India, to Malaysia, to Indonesia and to Japan. This man, Francis Xavier, eventually reached China just before his death in in 1552.

The Jesuits were identified as above all things loyal to the Pope.They were sometimes dubbed the “shock troops of the papacy” (not always in admiration) – they were at the forefront of presenting, arguing for and defending the newly defined and systematised theology and practice of the Catholic Church. Their mission was not only to places which did not yet have churches, but also to reconvert Protestants back to the Roman Church, and they were successful in this, as the sixteenth century gave way to the seventeenth.

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Christianity The Catholic Reformation

One of the reasons why mission became important was that at this period the world was opening up. Exploration was becoming more possible as marine technology improved, and new lands were being discovered by Europeans. This led to a conviction that they had a responsibility to spread the gospel.

A growth in interest in mysticism is also an aspect of the Catholic Reformation, reflecting this intensity of emotional response to God’s call.

But another reason was the split in the church in Europe. Prior to the sixteenth century reformation and the divisions that it caused, there had been only one church in Europe, and everybody was part of it. However, following the Protestant Reformation, Europe was now divided. Since each form of church was convinced it was correct, there was a desire to win over (for the Protestants) or win back (for the Catholics) those who belonged to the others. Thus mission was not only to new territories, but also across local borders within a redrawn and now divided Christendom.

As well as the educational work and preaching of the Orders, especially the Jesuits, there was the work the Roman Church did through art and music as a way of winning people back. What we call Baroque art – especially in sculpture, painting and music – has its origins in Counter Reformation piety. Partly as a reaction to what could be seen as an overly rational faith that developed in Protestantism (believe the right things, understand the systems of doctrine, study the Bible) the Roman Church emphasised emotional connection to God through worship and the sacraments – and demonstrated that, and encouraged it in the art and music that it developed and stimulated. Entering the beautiful space of the Baroque churches, hearing the beautiful and intricate music of the baroque style, and encountering God physically through the bread and wine transformed into the body and blood of Jesus were all ways to build faith.

A growth in interest in mysticism is also an aspect of the Catholic Reformation, reflecting this intensity of emotional response to God’s call. It was particularly a mark of the piety of France and Spain, countries where Counter Reformation Catholicism was especially strong.

A final aspect of the developing renewal, with its insistence on tighter structures and more conformity is the reinvigoration of the Holy Inquisition. This had started in the 12th century to combat heresy in various places, and with the energy of the Counter Reformation, it was renewed and identified with countries in a new way – thus, the Spanish Inquisition, the Portuguese Inquisition. Political leaders now took a role in enforcing the faith centred in Rome.

The shape of the faith and practice of Roman Catholicism that emerged from the Council of Trent, and the subsequent renewals throughout Europe, along with the foundations that followed missionary work largely determined the identity and expression of Roman Catholicism until the second Vatican Council in 1962.


1 John C Olin (ed) The Catholic Reformation; Savonorola to Ignatius Loyola, Reform in the Church 1495-1540
New York, Haperer and Row, 1969, p. 198