Counter-Reformation: Facts, Timeline, Causes and Definition


The Counter-Reformation was a movement within the Catholic Church to reform itself in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. It involved clarification and reform in the areas of doctrine, ecclesiastical structure, religious orders, spirituality, and politics. Such reforms included the foundation of seminaries for the proper training of priests in the spiritual life and the theological traditions of the Church, the reform of religious life to returning orders to their spiritual foundations, and new spiritual movement's focus on the devotional life and a personal relationship with Christ.


The Counter-Reformation, also called the Catholic Reformation, is the name given to the movement created within the Catholic Church in response to the Protestant Reformation that began with Martin Luther in 1517. The Protestant Reformation led to the separation of the Protestant churches from the Roman Catholic Church. It is usually said to have started when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the cathedral in Wittenburg, Germany calling for a discussion of "false doctrines" and "malpractices" within the Catholic Church as he saw them. These included the sale of indulgences and the doctrine underlying them, as well as the powers of the Pope. He had not, however, intended to create a rival church.

Luther was supported by several European leaders and religious provoking a religious revolution that began in Germany, and extending through Switzerland, France, Netherlands, England, Scandinavia and some parts of Eastern Europe, especially the Baltic countries and Hungary. The response of the Roman Catholic Church was the movement known as the Counter-Reformation or Catholic Reformation.

In 1543, the Roman Catholic Church convened the Council of Trent and established among other measures, the resumption of the Court of the Holy Office (Inquisition), the creation of the "Index Librorum Prohibitorum" with a list of books banned by the Church, and the encouragement of catechizing the people of the new world (Americas), with the creation of new religious orders dedicated to that effort, including the creation of the Society of Jesus. Other measures included the reassertion of papal authority, the maintenance of celibacy, the creation of the catechisms and seminaries, and the suppression of abuses involving indulgences. The Inquisition and the censorship exercised by the Catholic Church were also crucial in preventing the spreading of reformed ideas.

Using new religious orders like the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), which worked among the people, and addressing much of the corruption and complaints that had weakened the credibility of the Church hierarchy and given the Reformers many arguments, the Church managed to hold or reclaim most of Southern and Eastern Europe. The territories involved included Spain, Italy, Austria, France, and large parts of Poland, Hungary and Germany. By clarifying Catholic theology and eliminating ecclesiastical abuses, it hoped to either reabsorb or neutralize the Protestant movement while renewing the faith of the Catholic Church.

The Counter-Reformation was very successful in building the Church in South America and Asia mainly through the missionary work of Jesuits. But it could not entirely eliminate Protestants in Europe. The Counter-Reformation greatly revived faith and piety. It can generally be noted that the Counter-Reformation, especially if it is called the Catholic Reformation, had some reform objectives similar to those of the Protestant Reformation, even if it took a separate route from the latter, and that any positive accomplishment by the Counter-Reformation would eventually bring the Protestant churches closer to the Catholic Church, eventually leading to their conversion.

The Counter Reformation began in 1560 and ended in 1648 with the conclusion of the Thirty Years' War between Catholics and Protestants. Some defining moments were the creation of the Jesuits and the convening of the Council of Trent. In the end, the Protestant break was permanent and positions adopted or reaffirmed by the Catholic Church had a tendency to define the differences, but did little to mend them.

Historical Background

Although the Counter-Reformation is usually understood to have officially started with Pope Paul III (1534-1549) in the middle of the sixteenth century as a response to the Protestant Reformation, a need for Catholic renewal in the areas of Church abuses and immorality, the clergy, Christian life, and Church administration had been increasingly felt since the fourteenth century. But, the Great Schism (1378-1417), which made the whole Church preoccupied with politics, prevented any renewal from happening. Also, in the fifteenth century, the mean leading the Church was spiritually not healthy enough to lead any reforms. The Renaissance papal court (and even some of the popes themselves) was largely immoral, and many prelates were very secular. The efforts of reformers such as Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498), a fervent Dominican preacher in Florence, who preached against the corruption and abuses within the Church, did not bear much fruit, but faced strong opposition from the papacy and was executed.

Of course, some reform activities, such as the founding in 1497 of the Oratory of Divine Love, a society of laymen and priests devoted to charity and spiritual sanctification, could be seen. The worldly excesses of the secular Renaissance Church, epitomized by the era of Alexander VI (1492-1503), became a serious issue under Pope Leo X (1513-1522), who campaigned to raise funds in the German states through high-pressure sale of indulgences to rebuild St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Hadrian VI (1522-1523), who succeeded Leo X but became reform-minded, died too soon to accomplish anything. During the next papacy of Clement VII (1523-1534), the reform party quietly worked on, founding the Theatines (1524), the Capuchins (1525), and the Barnabites (1530), religious orders for evangelism as a counter proposal to the Lutheran threat. Finally, the sack of Rome in 1525, by the troops of Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire, damaged the prestige of the papacy, apparently helping to lead the Catholic Church toward a reform.

Three Main Instruments

The Counter-Reformation had three main instruments: The Council of Trent, the Roman Inquisition, and the the Society of Jesus.

The Council of Trent

Pope Paul III (1534-1549) initiated the Council of Trent (1545-1547, 1551-1552, 1562-1563), a commission of cardinals tasked with institutional reform, to address contentious issues, such as corrupt bishops and priests, indulgences, and other financial abuses. The Council clearly repudiated specific Protestant positions and upheld the basic structure of the Medieval Church, its sacramental system, religious orders, and doctrine. It rejected all compromise with the Protestants, restating basic tenets of Medieval Catholicism. The Council clearly upheld the dogma of salvation appropriated by faith and works. Transubstantiation, which holds that during communion or the mass the consecrated bread and wine substantially becomes the body and blood of Christ, was upheld, along with the Seven Sacraments. Other Catholic practices that drew the ire of Protestant reformers, such as indulgences, pilgrimages, the veneration of saints and relics, and the veneration of the Virgin Mary, were also strongly reaffirmed as spiritually vital.

However, while the basic structure of the Church was reaffirmed, there were noticeable changes to answer complaints that the Counter-Reformers tacitly were willing to admit were legitimate. This was especially true with respect to the accusation that the Church was too wealthy and too materialistic at the cost of its spirituality. This is why the term "counter-reformation" was coined, since many of the reforms were in response to the criticisms of Luther and other leading Protestant reformists. Among what were addressed by Catholic reformers was the growing divide between the priests and the flock; many members of the clergy in the rural parishes, after all, had been poorly educated. Often, these rural priests did not know Latin and lacked opportunities for proper theological training. Clergy education had long been a subject of discussion. But now, parish priests became better educated, while papal authorities sought to eliminate the distractions of the monastic churches. Notebooks and handbooks thus became common, describing how to be good priests and confessors.

The Council, by virtue of its actions, repudiated the pluralism of the secular Renaissance Church: The organization of religious institutions was tightened, discipline was improved, and the parish was emphasized. The appointment of bishops for political reasons was no longer tolerated. In the past, the large landholdings and institutional rigidity of the Church—a rigidity to which the excessively large ranks of the clergy contributed—forced many bishops to study law instead of theology, relegating many "absent bishops" to the role of property managers trained in administration. Thus, the Council of Trent combated "absenteeism," which was the practice of bishops living in Roman or on landed estates rather than in their dioceses. Secular practices were combated while the papacy clearly moved away from its Renaissance posture as a political Church tantamount to one of the Italian city-states. The Council of Trent also gave bishops greater power to supervise all aspects of religious life. Zealous prelates such as Milan's Archbishop Charles Borromeo (1538-1584), later canonized as a saint, set an example by visiting the remotest parishes and instilling high standards. At the parish level, the seminary-trained clergy who took over in most places during the course of the seventeenth century were generally faithful to the Church's rule of celibacy.

The Roman Inquisition

Paul III established the Roman Inquisition in 1542, because of the suggestion of Cardinal Caraffa, who saw the effective Spanish Inquisition instituted by Ferdinand V and Isabella in 1479. The purpose was to suppress Lutheran heretics in Italy. The group of six Inquisitors in the Holy Office of the Roman Inquisition were independent from bishops in their jurisdiction and could punish anyone except the pope. Cardinal Caraffa, who worked as Inquisitor General and later became Pope Paul IV (1555-1559), decided to punish heretics in high ranks most severely, so that all others beneath them might be saved based on their severe punishment. The Inquisition reached its peak during the papacy of Pius V (1566-1572), extirpating Italian Protestants. The Inquisition also made an "Index of Prohibited Books" (Index Librorum Prohibitorum), practicing censorship books considered to be theologically erroneous and harmful. Perhaps because of his deep involvement with the Inquisition to eliminate Protestantism, Paul IV is sometimes deemed the first of the Counter-Reformation popes.

The Society of Jesus

New religious orders were a fundamental part of this trend. Even before the installation of Paul III, orders such as the Capuchins, the Theatines, and the Barnabites were already founded. They strengthened rural parishes, improved popular piety, helped to curb corruption within the Church, and set examples that would be a strong impetus for Catholic renewal. The Capuchins, an offshoot of the Franciscan order notable for their preaching and for their care for the poor and the sick, grew rapidly in both size and popularity. The Capuchin order was based on the imitation of Jesus' life as described by the Gospels. Capuchin-founded confraternities thus took special interest in the poor and lived austere lifestyles. The Theatines were an order of devoted priests who undertook to check the spread of heresy and contribute to a regeneration of the clergy. The Ursulines, founded in 1535, focused on the special task of educating girls. All these orders' devotion to the traditional works of mercy exemplifies the Counter-Reformation's reaffirmation of salvation through faith and works, and firmly repudiated the sola scriptura of the Protestants emphasized by Lutherans and other Protestant sects. Not only did they make the Church more effective, but they also reaffirmed fundamental premises of the Medieval Church.

However, the Jesuits, founded by the Spanish nobleman and ex-soldier Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), were the most effective of the new Catholic orders. His Societas de Jesus was founded in 1534, and received papal authorization in 1534, under Paul III. An heir to the devotional, observantine, and legalist traditions, the Jesuits organized their order along military lines, strongly reflecting the autocratic zeal of the period. Characterized by careful selection, rigorous training, and iron discipline, the worldliness of the Renaissance Church had no part in the new order. Loyola's masterwork, Spiritual Exercises, reflected the emphasis of handbooks characteristic of the earlier generation of Catholic reformers before the Reformation. The great psychological penetration that it conveyed was strongly reminiscent of devotionalism. However, the Jesuits are really the heirs to the observantine reform tradition, taking strong monastic vows of chastity, obedience, and poverty and setting an example that improved the effectiveness of the entire Church. They became preachers, confessors to monarchs and princes, and educators reminiscent of the humanist reformers, and their efforts are largely credited with stemming Protestantism in Poland, Bohemia, Hungary, southern Germany, France, and the Spanish Netherlands. They also strongly participated in the expansion of the Church in the Americas and Asia, conducting efforts in missionary activity that far outpaced even the aggressive Protestantism of the Calvinists. After recovering from a severe battle wound, he took a vow to "serve only God and the Roman pontiff, His vicar on earth." Once again, the emphasis on the pope is a key reaffirmation of the Medieval Church as the Council of Trent firmly defeated all attempts of Conciliarism, the belief that general councils of the church collectively were God's representative on earth, rather than the pope. Firmly legitimizing the new role of the pope as an absolute ruler, the Jesuits strongly contributed to the reinvigoration of the Counter-Reformation Church.

Religious Revival

It should not be forgotten that the Counter-Reformation brought about a genuine revival of Catholic piety. Pius V, in spite of his involvement with the Inquisition, improved popular piety in an effort to firmly stem the appeal of Protestantism. A man of impoverished upbringing taken in by the Dominican Order, he was trained in a solid and austere piety. It is thus no surprise that he began his papacy by giving large alms to the poor, charity, and hospitals rather than focusing on patronage. As pontiff he practiced the virtues of a monk, known for daily meditations on bent knees in presence of the Blessed Sacrament. The exemplary piety of St. Charles Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan, was already mentioned above. St. Philip Neri (1515-1595), an Italian mystic based in Rome, founded the Congregation of the Oratory, whose core rule was love and affection. His spiritual wisdom was sought not only by common people but also by popes and cardinals.

Also notable were Spanish mystics such as St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) and St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) and French spiritual leaders, such as St. Francis of Sales (1567-1622). The Spanish mystics stressed the personal nature of faith and saw love as the basis of Christian faith, not obligation or duty. Even though they met with strong opposition, their work bore fruit and was eventually recognized by the popes. The French school of spirituality stressed the Church's role in continuing Jesus' mission, as well as the need for Bible study and personal faith. The Protestant emphasis on the Bible, on the necessity of an inner experience of renewal and on the role of lay-people within the Church led to renewed Catholic interest in the Bible, in spirituality as well as in lay-formation.

Protestantism Refuted

Free Videos
Free DVDs, Articles and Books