The Catholic Counter Reformation

The Catholic Church responded to the Reformation with the Counter Reformation. What was this and why did the Catholic Church feel the need to respond?

The Roman Catholic Church was the greatest power in Europe prior to 1500. It was the largest landowner, exempt from all taxes, and the richest institution. It could--and did--demand taxes (tithes) from its followers. But the Church of 1500, headed by the Pope--who claimed to be the spokesman of God on Earth--was abusing its power. The popes were more and more involved in secular affairs and less concerned with spiritual matters. Many believed that the Church had become corrupt and they wanted changes.

Of the reformers who attempted to make changes, the most famous was Martin Luther. He wanted to purify the church and to eliminate much of the structure of the church, such as the monasteries. Most importantly, he believed that man did not need the Church or the priesthood to experience God directly. Luther was obsessed with discovering if this was true or not and he thought he found it in the words of Paul: "the just shall live by his faith." Luther believed that man could be saved by simply accepting God and this was a radical change from what the Roman Catholic Church taught. The Church believed that good works and sacrifice were necessary to enter heaven. Also, Luther contended that faith alone was important and that the only authority was the Bible. His contention meant that the Pope and priests of the Catholic Church had no authority. Ultimately, Luther broke from the Roman Catholic Church. He was excommunicated by the Pope in 1521 and the break of western Christendom was assured.

The Catholic Counter Reformation was the church's response to the events of the Protestant Reformation. Thousands of people flocked to the new Protestantism, leaving the Catholic Church behind. The Catholic Church decided to try to reform the church from within. At first, it left the response to reformers in the hands of individuals, such as Ignatius Loyola. He was an ordinary clergyman who had trained as a soldier. His goal was to give birth to a new religious order, which combined the intellectual distinction of humanism with a reformed Catholicism. His hopes were that this new order would appeal to powerful political and economic groups. Thus, he founded the Society of Jesus in 1534, with the purpose of preaching and winning over new converts to the church. They became the Jesuits and dedicated themselves to teaching, constantly stressing the importance and power of preaching. The Jesuits believed that it was essential for Christians to be united and they believed that Protestant theology was flawed. The Protestants believed in Predestination, which offered salvation to the educated and wealthy laity. Technically, the poor were included, as well. But what about the other side? A person might suffer a lifetime of suffering and despair""tormented by the horror of inevitable damnation. In the face of this frightening view of the future, the Jesuits offered people hope. They proposed a religious rebirth based on tradition, ceremony and the ability of the priest to offer forgiveness. In order to gain as much strength as possible for their movement, the Jesuits sought positions as confessors to rulers and princes. Then, using their influence, they urged them to use their power and energies to strengthen the church in their regions.

By the 1540's, more than twenty years after the Reformation began, it was clear that a Catholic Counter Reformation was underway. This Counter Reformation accepted the need for reform, but did not attack the traditional hierarchy and authority of the church. Instead, they turned aggressive and hostile towards the Protestants. The Inquisition, which had been in existence for many years, expanded its activities. Wherever Catholic jurisdiction prevailed, unrepentant heretics--i.e. Protestants--were subject to death and imprisonment.

In an attempt to educate the people in the ways of the Catholic Church, even as they were moved emotionally, schools and universities were built throughout Europe and churches were designed in a new way. A distinctive style of art and architecture was cultivated, with cherubic angels and saints ascending to heaven. This baroque style was intended to move the hearts of the loyal Catholics, as well as potential converts, much as a skillful preacher sought to move the intellect. Whereas the Protestants believed that religion should be a private, intellectual affair, the Catholic Church strove to touch people's emotions.

Many of the Catholic leaders and reformers were aware of the abuses and problems, which had prompted Martin Luther to leave. But, instead of breaking with the doctrinal and spiritual authority of the pope and the clergy, they continued with their attempts to change the church from within. In order to do this, the church studied and redefined its doctrines according to the Council of Trent, which met in 1545. The Council of Trent continued to work for the reform of the Catholic Church until 1563. Church doctrine was modified and unified, many of the corrupt practices of the church, such as the selling of indulgences, were abolished and the pope was given full and final authority in all Church matters. The Council of Trent also issued a mandate that the church would be the final judge of the Bible and demanded that all texts be taken literally, wherever possible. The intention of the mandate was to make things as clear as possible to church members at a time when the new Protestants were already separating into different branches and there was much confusion.

There was also a repressive side to the Counter Reformation. In addition to the expansion of the Inquisition, censorship was enforced through an Index of Prohibited Books. The Catholic Church wanted to prevent the spread of Protestant ideas.

The policies of the Counter Reformation""enlightened education, the building of churches, powerful preaching, censorship and oppression""were very successful. Thousands of people returned to a Catholic Church. It wasn't the same Catholic Church, though. It was continuing to change and grow and would continue to do so for many years to come.

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