1.15 Counter Reformation
The Catholic Reformation or the Counter Reformation was the other phase of the great movement known as the Reformation. It was based on the assumption that the primary purpose of its leaders was to cleanse the Catholic Church in order to check the growth of Protestantism.
Modern historians have shown that the beginnings of the movement for Catholic reform were entirely independent of the Protestant revolt. During the closing years of the 15th century a religious revival was ushered in Spain by Cardinal Ximenes, with the approval of the monarchy. Schools were established, abuses were eliminated from the monasteries, and priests were urged to accept their responsibilities as shepherds of their flocks. The movement was launched chiefly for the purpose of strengthening the church in the war against heretics and infidels. However, it had considerable effect in regenerating the spiritual life of the nation. In Italy also, since the beginning of the 16th century, attempts had been made to make the priests of the church more worthy of their Christian calling. But the task was difficult due to the paganism of the Renaissance and the extravagance of several religious orders dedicated to high ideals of piety and social service.
The Catholic reform was slow until after the Protestant Revolution began to make serious inroads upon the ancient faith. Catholics were dismayed by the great increase in unorthodoxy. Protestantism, together with a variety of radical sects made inroads in almost half of the traditional Catholic nations of Europe. England, the Scandinavian countries, Switzerland, much of Germany, Poland, and the Dutch speaking parts of the Netherlands, had accepted the Protestant faith by the middle of the 16th century. Italy was not immune to Protestant teaching.
1.15a The Reform Popes
The abuses in the papacy under the Medici Pope,
Leo X had caused the Lutheran revolt. His nephew, Clement VII became
pope after him. He continued to act too much like an Italian prince
and too little as the moral and religious leader of Catholicism.
The first of the Popes to attempt a purification of the church was
Pope Adrian VI of Utrecht. But his reign of only twenty months
was too short to enable him to accomplish much. The campaign against
abuses within the church was not renewed until the reign of Pope
Paul III (1534-1549). He and three of his successors, Paul IV
(1555-1559), Pius V (1566-1572), and Sixtus V (1585-1590),
were the most zealous crusaders for reform. They reorganized papal
finances, and followed a policy of appointing to high Church office
men renowned for their virtue and learning rather than for family
position or financial profit. Those clerics who persisted in idleness
and vice were severely dealt with. Thus, by the turn of the 17th
century a remarkable reformation had gradually been introduced in
the papacy, among the cardinals, down through the priests and monks.
1.15b The Council of Trent (1545-1565)
The Council of Trent was the outcome of the reforming zeal of the individual popes. General Councils of the Church had been convened earlier, even before the Protestant Revolt to bring about reformation in the Church, but little had been accomplished. Pious Catholics felt that every effort should be made to restore the unity of the Church. It was argued that a clear statement of Catholic doctrine might refute the errors of the many new theologies that had cropped up during the Protestant Revolution.
The situation in Europe was not favorable to convene a General Council at the earliest. There was mutual hostility between Catholics and Protestants. National rivalry persisted between Italians and Germans. The chief Catholic ruling families of Europe - the Hapsburgs of Germany and Spain and the royal house of France were at war with each other.
In spite of these various difficulties Pope Paul III called for a meeting of the General Church Council. This met in the city of Trent, at intervals between 1545 and 1565. This Council was one of the most important in the history of the Church. It brought about great reform in the Church. Its contribution was significant in the preservation of the Catholic faith. The Protestants, whom the pope invited to participate in the council, absented themselves. The work of the Council of Trent was twofold, dogmatic and reformatory. The council also established many reforms in the Church and contributed significantly to preserve the Catholic faith. The Council attempted to define Catholic beliefs and to counteract Protestant teachings. Its work became a major force in the Counter Reformation, the renewal movement in the Catholic Church during the 16th and 17th centuries.
1.15c Decisions of the Council
The Council of Trent made no compromise with the Protestants on the dogmatic issue. Without exception the dogmas of the Christian religion challenged by the Protestant Reformers were upheld. The Council confirmed the chief points in Catholic theology expounded in the 13th century by Saint Thomas Aquinas. The Council agreed that historic tradition as well as the Bible should be taken into account as the Christian religion and the Church alone had the right to interpret the Holy Scriptures. The spiritual authority of the pope was confirmed. The papal supremacy over every bishop and priest was expressly maintained. The Pope was recognized as the supreme interpreter of the Canons (Church law).
The Council of Trent, besides reaffirming its faith in the dogmas of the Christian religion, passed important laws for the elimination of abuses and for reinforcing the discipline of the Church over its members. Bishops and priests were asked to abandon worldly pursuits, and give themselves completely to spiritual endeavor. To eliminate the evil of an ignorant priesthood it was held that a theological seminary must be established in every diocese. Latin was retained as the official and liturgical language. However, sermons were to be preached in the vernacular.