Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

8.4: Effects of the Catholic Reformation

  • Page ID
    12485
  • 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. One significant new order along those lines was the Carmelites, an order of nuns reformed by St. Teresa of Avila starting in 1535. St. Teresa led a major reform that redoubled the nuns’ vow of poverty and their focus on prayer and purity (the reforms also abolished separate residences and lifestyles for nuns from rich and poor families). Likewise, many orders started opening hospitals and orphanages in the cities that provided care for both the sick and the poor and indigent. The early decades of the Counter-Reformation thus saw an "opening up" of the Church to its followers and a greater emphasis on the duties of the Church to laypeople.

    St. Teresa in ecstasy with an angel looming over her holding a golden spear.
    Figure 8.4.1: A famous depiction of St. Teresa at the moment she later claimed to have been overwhelmed by the divine presence. Like the statue of Ignatius of Loyola, the statue above is in the highly dramatized and emotional baroque style.

    A major focus of the Church was reconnecting with common people, something that many reformers (including popes) believed was only possible if the Church “put its house in order.” While Catholic monarchs continued to almost completely control the Church in their kingdoms (this was especially true of France), popes had at least moderate success in forcing bishops to stop living like princes, to have priests remain at least nominally celibate, and for church officials to actually live in the places they were supposed to represent. The moral qualities of members of the Church, while not universally exemplary, did come to more closely resemble their purported standards over time as a result.

    To better connect with laypeople, the Church began to sponsor a counter-propaganda campaign following, inspired by the success that Protestantism had enjoyed through the use of cheap print. Lives of saints, prayer books, and anti-Protestant propaganda were printed and distributed throughout Europe. The Church began to stage plays not just of Biblical scenes, but of great moments in the Church’s history. The new religious orders, including not just the Jesuits but the Capuchins, the Ursulines, and the followers of Vincent de Paul (who lived in the late sixteenth century) sponsored major charitable works, reconnecting the poor to the Church. All of these activities amounted to a cultural reaction to the Reformation that took from Protestantism its focus on the individual’s spiritual connection to God. In contrast to the austerity and even harshness of Lutheranism and (especially) Calvinism, the Catholic Church came to offer a mystical, emotional form of both worship and religious experience that was very appealing to many who may have originally been alienated from the institution.

    One social phenomenon that definitely benefited from both the Protestant and Catholic Reformations was literacy. More schools and universities – both church-supported and private – continued to come into being throughout the sixteenth century. All Protestant denominations emphasized the importance of reading the Bible, and as the Catholic Church waged its counter-propaganda campaign, the Church hierarchy came to regard general literacy as desirable as well. Overall, literacy climbed to between 5 – 10% of the population by 1600 across Central and Western Europe.

    • Was this article helpful?