What Was the Counter-Reformation?

The Reform and Revival of the Catholic Church in the 16th Century

Council of Trent, fresco by brothers Taddeo and Federico Zuccari, in Hall of Farnesina Magnificience of Palazzo Farnese, Caprarola, Italy, 1560-1566
The Council of Trent (fresco by brothers Taddeo and Federico Zuccari, in Hall of Farnesina Magnificience of Palazzo Farnese, Caprarola, Italy, 1560-66). DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI / Getty Images

The Counter-Reformation was a period of spiritual, moral, and intellectual revival in the Catholic Church in the 16th and 17th centuries, usually dated from 1545 (the opening of the Council of Trent) to 1648 (the end of the Thirty Years' War). While it is normally seen as a reaction to the Protestant Reformation, the Counter-Reformation has roots going back to the 15th century, and is therefore sometimes called the Catholic Revival or the Catholic Reformation (and occasionally the Catholic Counter-Reformation).

The Early Roots of the Counter-Reformation

With the waning of the Catholic Middle Ages and the dawn of an increasingly secular and political modern age in the 14th century, the Catholic Church found herself affected by trends in the broader culture. Through a series of reforms of religious orders, such as the Benedictines, Cistercians, and Franciscans, in the 14th and 15th centuries, the Church tried to elevate the preaching of the gospel and to call laypeople back to Catholic morality.

Many problems, however, had deeper roots that affected the very structure of the Church. In 1512, the Fifth Lateran Council attempted a series of reforms for what are known as secular priests—that is, clergy who belong to a regular diocese rather than to a religious order. The council had a very limited effect, though it did make one very important convert—Alexander Farnese, a cardinal who would become Pope Paul III in 1534.

Before the Fifth Lateran Council, Cardinal Farnese had a longtime mistress, with whom he had four children. But the council pricked his conscience, and he reformed his life in the years immediately before a German monk by the name of Martin Luther set out to reform the Catholic Church—and ended up sparking the Protestant Reformation.

The Catholic Response to the Protestant Reformation

Martin Luther's 95 Theses set the Catholic world on fire in 1517, and nearly 25 years after the Catholic Church condemned Luther's theological errors at the Diet of Worms (1521), Pope Paul III attempted to put out the flames by convening the Council of Trent (1545-63). The Council of Trent defended important Church doctrines that Luther and later Protestants attacked, such as transubstantiation (the belief that, during the Mass, the bread and wine become the true Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, which Catholics then receive in Communion); that both faith and the works that flow from that faith are necessary for salvation; that there are seven sacraments (some Protestants had insisted that only Baptism and Communion were sacraments, and others had denied that there were any sacraments); and that the pope is the successor of Saint Peter, and exercises authority over all Christians.

But the Council of Trent addressed structural problems within the Catholic Church as well, many of which had been cited by Luther and other Protestant reformers. A series of popes, particularly from the Florentine Medici family, had caused grave scandal through their personal lives (like Cardinal Farnese, they often had mistresses and fathered children), and their bad example was followed by a significant number of bishops and priests.

The Council of Trent demanded an end to such behavior, and put into place new forms of intellectual and spiritual training to ensure that future generations of priests would not fall into these same sins. Those reforms became the modern seminary system, in which prospective Catholic priests are trained even today.

Through the council's reforms, the practice of appointing secular rulers as bishops came to an end, as did the sale of indulgences, which Martin Luther had used as a reason to attack the Church's teaching on the existence of, and need for, Purgatory. The Council of Trent ordered the writing and publishing of a new catechism to make it clear what the Catholic Church taught, and called for reforms in the Mass, which were made by Pius V, who became pope in 1566 (three years after the council ended).

The Mass of Pope Pius V (1570), often regarded as the crown jewel of the Counter-Reformation, is today known as the Traditional Latin Mass or (since the release of Pope Benedict XVI's Summorum Pontificum) the Extraordinary Form of the Mass.

Other Chief Events of the Counter-Reformation

Alongside the work of the Council of Trent and the reform of existing religious orders, new religious orders began to spring up, committed to spiritual and intellectual rigor. The most famous was the Society of Jesus, commonly known as the Jesuits, founded by St. Ignatius Loyola and approved by Pope Paul III in 1540. In addition to the normal religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, the Jesuits adopted a special vow of obedience to the Pope, designed to ensure their theological orthodoxy. The Society of Jesus quickly became one of the leading intellectual forces in the Catholic Church, founding seminaries, schools, and universities.

The Jesuits also led the way in a renewal of missionary activity outside of Europe, especially in Asia (under the lead of St. Francis Xavier), in what is now Canada and the Upper Midwest of the United States, and in South America. A revitalized Franciscan order, meanwhile, devoted many of its members to similar missionary activity in South America and Central America, the southern portion of the current United States, and (later) in what is now California.

The Roman Inquisition, established in 1542, became the chief enforcer of Catholic doctrine in the Counter-Reformation. St. Robert Bellarmine, an Italian Jesuit and cardinal, became perhaps the best known of all those involved in the Inquisition, for his role in the trial of Giordano Bruno for heresy and his efforts to reconcile Galileo's views that the earth revolves around the sun with the Church's teaching.

The Counter-Reformation had political effects as well, as the rise of Protestantism went hand-in-hand with the rise of nation-states. The sinking of the Spanish Armada in 1588 was the defense of the Protestant Elizabeth I against the effort of Philip II, the Catholic king of Spain, to reinstate Catholicism by force in England.

Other Chief Figures of the Counter-Reformation

While there are many important figures who left their mark on the Counter-Reformation, four in particular bear mentioning. St. Charles Borromeo (1538-84), the cardinal-archbishop of Milan, found himself on the front lines as Protestantism descended from Northern Europe. He founded seminaries and schools throughout Northern Italy, and traveled throughout the area under his authority, visiting parishes, preaching, and calling his priests to a life of holiness.

St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622), the bishop of Geneva, in the very heart of Calvinism, won many Calvinists back to the Catholic Faith through his example of "preaching the Truth in charity." Just as importantly, he worked hard to keep Catholics in the Church, not only by teaching them sound doctrine but by calling them to the "devout life," making prayer, meditation, and the reading of Scripture a daily practice.

St. Teresa of Avila (1515-82) and St. John of the Cross (1542-91), both Spanish mystics and Doctors of the Church, reformed the Carmelite order and called Catholics to a greater life of interior prayer and commitment to the will of God.

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