Counter-Reformation

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The Counter-Reformation was the response of the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th and 17th centuries to the (Protestant) Reformation and the advance of Protestantism in Europe. Some historians prefer to call this response the Catholic Reformation or the Catholic Revival.

For a brief account of the Protestant Reformation, often said to have begun in 1517 when Martin Luther (1483-1546) nailed to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral his catalogue of abuses and corruption in the Roman Catholic Church (the Ninety-five Theses), see Protestant Reformation.

The Roman Catholic response to the (Protestant} Reformation has a variety of interrelated aspects - doctrinal, institutional, social, and political. On the one hand, the Church implicitly acknowledged the justice of some of Luther’s criticisms and embarked on reform; on the other, it resisted many of his criticisms, responding with clarification and defence of its distinctive doctrines and practices.

  • Central to the Catholic response was the Council of Trent, called by Pope Paul III (reigned 1534-1549) in 1545 and holding twenty five sessions between then and its conclusion in 1563. The Council accepted that some of Luther’s objections were justified and, e.g., prohibited the granting of indulgences for financial gain, but at the same time it reaffirmed central elements in Catholic teaching and practice, e.g., the Church’s insistence that salvation depends on faith and works, not on faith alone (as Luther had claimed), the doctrine of transubstantiation, the traditional seven sacraments, and the veneration of saints. The Council also called for improvements in the training of priests and prohibited clerical absenteeism, requiring bishops to live in the see for which they had responsibility rather than, e.g., living permanently in Rome.
  • Many of the religious orders were reformed: monks and nuns were required to take their vows more seriously, discipline was more strictly enforced, and monastic life was reinvigorated. Conspicuous amongst those responsible for this monastic revival were the Spanish mystics St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) and St. John of the Cross (1542-1591), who together reformed the Carmelite Order. The first half of the 16th century also saw the establishment of new religious orders such as the Capuchins (i.e., the Friars Minor Capuchin) in 1525, and the Society of Jesus (more familiarly, the Jesuits), founded by Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556) and given the formal approval of Pope Paul in 1540.
  • The Church sought to prevent the dissemination of ideas and opinions it considered subversive of its authority. In 1542 Paul III established the Supreme and Sacred Congregation of the Roman Inquisition (usually referred to simply as the Inquisition) for the prosecution of individuals accused of heresy. (Amongst those it investigated was the astronomer Galileo (1564-1642), condemned in 1633 for his heliocentric theory of the universe, forced to recant and to spend the rest of his life under virtual house arrest). In 1559 Pope Paul IV (reigned 1555-1559) initiated the compilation of the Index librorum prohibitorum (Index of Prohibited Books), a list of books which were judged to contain heretical opinions or constitute a threat to morality and which Catholics were not allowed to read without special permission. (The Index was revised and augmented many times over the following four centuries until its abolition in 1966.)
  • In many countries the secular authorities acted in alliance with the Church to combat the spread of Protestantism: wars were fought and entire populations relocated in order to recover or preserve the catholicism of certain regions of Europe. For example:
in 1546 the Emperor Charles V (1500-1558, reigned 1519-1556) came to an agreement with Pope Paul III to halt the spread of Protestantism within the Holy Roman Empire and in the following year, in alliance with Maurice, the Elector of Saxony, he fought and defeated the army of the Schmalkaldic League (an alliance of Protestant rulers within the Empire), at the battle of Mühlberg.
in England the Catholic Queen Mary I (reigned 1553-1558) reversed the changes introduced by her father Henry VIII (reigned 1509-1547), returned the English Church to the jurisdiction of the Pope, and repealed the Protestant measures introduced by her half-brother Edward VI (reigned 1547-1553). During her reign several hundred Protestants who refused to accept these changes were martyred, most of them burnt at the stake.
in France the so-called Wars of Religion, a period of mutual hostility, civil unrest, and open warfare between the Protestant Huguenots and the Catholic majority, lasted from 1562 to 1598, when the Protestant Henry of Navarre, who had became king as Henry IV (reigned 1589-1610) and converted to Catholicism, granted the Huguenots significant rights under the Edict of Nantes.
in the early years of the Dutch Revolt (1568-1648) Alexander Farnese, appointed Governor General of the Netherlands by Philip II of Spain, conducted between 1578 and his death in 1592 a series of campaigns which succeeded in bringing back the southern provinces of the Netherlands under Spanish, and thereby Roman Catholic, control.
in the Habsburg Empire Rudolf II (reigned 1576-1612) acted throughout his reign to suppress Protestant activity, and many Protestants , to escape persecution, migrated to other parts of Europe. After Rudolf’s death the Bohemian Revolt (1618-1620), a rebellion led by the Protestant nobility and clergy in Bohemia, ended with their defeat at the Battle of White Mountain (1620), and the territory of the present Czech Republic was secured for Roman Catholicism.

Overall, the Counter-Reformation certainly succeeded in reforming many practices of the Catholic Church of the period. It also had some success in halting the spread of Protestantism. Nowadays, and since the 17th century, while Northern Europe is predominantly Protestant, Southern Europe has remained Roman Catholic. Germany, the home of the Reformation, is divided between a Catholic south and a Protestant north....