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8: The Catholic Reformation

  • Page ID
    12488
  • Historians have traditionally referred to the major changes that took place in the Catholic Church in response to the Protestant Reformation as the “Counter-Reformation,” a movement that was essentially reactionary. More recently, however, historians have come to recognize that it is probably more accurate and useful to see this period of church history as a Catholic Reformation unto itself – the culmination of the reformist trends that had been present in the Church for centuries before Martin Luther set off the Protestant break with the Roman Church.

    Luther, after all, had not set out to split the Church, but to reform it - hence the very term "Reformation." His positioned radicalized quite quickly, however, and he did openly defy both the pope and the Church hierarchy within just a few years of the posting of the 95 Theses. That being noted, one of the reasons that Lutheranism caught on so quickly was that there were large numbers of people within the Church who had long fought for, or at least hoped for, significant changes. Thus, while the Catholic Reformation began as a reaction against Protestantism, it culminated in reforming the Church itself.

    • 8.1: The Initial Reaction
      The initial period of Catholic Reformation, from about 1540 – 1550, was a fairly moderate one that aimed to bring Protestants back into the fold. In a sense, the very notion of a permanent break from Rome was difficult for many people, certainly many priests, to conceive of. After about 1550, however, when it became clear that the split was permanent, the Church itself became much more hardline and intolerant.
    • 8.2: The Inquisition and the Council of Trent
      Pope Paul III launched the “hardline” movement of Catholic Reformation. In 1542 he approved the creation of a permanent branch of the Church devoted to holding Protestantism in check: the Holy Office, better known as the Inquisition. He and subsequent popes held the Council of Trent, that took place periodically between 1545 – 1563. There, Church officials debated all of the articles and charges that had been leveled against the Church.
    • 8.3: The Jesuits
      In addition to the edicts and councils convened by the popes, the Catholic Reformation benefited from a resurgence of Catholic religious orders. The most important new religious order, by far, was the Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits. The Jesuits were founded by Ignatius of Loyola (1491 – 1556), a kind of Catholic counterpart to Luther or Calvin, in 1540.
    • 8.4: Effects of the Catholic Reformation
      The Catholic Reformation was happening in earnest by the 1530s. the Church adopted the use of the printing press and began reaching out to both priests and educated laypeople, often in the vernacular languages rather than Latin (although, as noted above, the Bible itself was to remain untranslated). The new fervor led to a revival of religious orders focused on reaching out to the common people rather than remaining sequestered from the public in monasteries and convents.
    • 8.5: Conclusion
      The battle lines between Protestantism and Catholicism were firmly set by the 1560s. The Catholic Reformation established Catholic orthodoxy and launched a massive, and largely successful, campaign to re-affirm the loyalty and enthusiasm of Catholic laypeople. Meanwhile, Protestant leaders were equally hardened in their beliefs and actively inculcated devotion and loyalty in their followers.

    Thumbnail: Council of Trent, painting in the Museo del Palazzo del Buonconsiglio, Trento; CC BY-SA 3.0 UNported; Laurom via Wikipedia).

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