The Catholic church was not caught
unawares by the Reformation. It had been steadily battling opposition,
resistance, and heresy for over four hundred years; much of the opposition
against the church throughout the fifteenth century involved issues that
closely paralleled those splitting the church in half during the early
Reformation. In answer to the growth of the Protestant movement, the Catholic
Church instituted its own series of reforms that balanced real reform
with a strident and conservative reaction to Protestantism. This movement
was called the Counter-Reformation.
Many aspects of this movement were genuine reforms.
Groups such as the Modern Devotion and the Oratory of Divine Love were
organizations that included both clergy and lay people and encouraged
a return to simple ethical living and piety, principles that had been
championed by Desiderius Erasmus.
Other aspects were conservative reactions to the criticisms
levelled against the church by Protestants and Reformers. The most important
of the reactionary movements was the Society of Jesus or the Jesuits,
founded by Ignatius of Loyola in the 1530's and recognized officially
by the Catholic church a decade later. Ignatius was a brilliant and visionary
man; he was also an uncompromising and severe fanatic. The basis of the
Society of Jesus was a return to the strictest and most uncompromising
obedience to the authority of the church and its ecclesiastical hierarchy.
The entire spirit of the Society can be summed up in Rule 13 of Ignatius's
"Rules for Thinking with the Church": "I will believe that the white that
I see is black if the hierarchical Church so defines it." Ignatius was
a brilliant and intelligent man, so the extent of his fanaticism in regard
to obedience is hard to explain, but its origins can be found in his conversion
experience. In 1521 he was wounded in a battle with the French. While
recovering, he read the classics of Christianity and was deeply impressed
by the lives of the martyrs and the saints. This instilled in him a deep
sense of the value of absolute sacrifice; he underwent a conversion and
dedicated his life to the same level of self-sacrifice that he saw in
the lives of the saints.
While his first and most important theme was unquestioning
obedience to anything and everything that the Church hierarchy said, his
second and more lasting theme was self-mastery. His book, Spiritual
Exercises ,was designed to teach people how to deny themselves completely.
The purpose of this self-denial, of course, was obedience to the church.
Unless one could perfectly deny one's self and one's feelings, one could
never perfectly obey the dictates of the church hierarchy.
At the start, the Jesuit movement was a small movement.
The original Society of Jesus had only ten members. By 1630, it had over
fifteen thousand members all over the world. For Ignatius dedicated the
mission of the Society to the extirpation of heretics who refused to obey
the church—this not only included Protestants, but non-Christians as well.
The Society of Jesus became over the next few centuries the most powerfully
influential carrier of Western culture and Christianity to the non-Western
The Protestant gains in Europe and the chaotic evolution
of the Counter-Reformation finally forced Pope Paul III in 1545 to convene
a council in Trent in order to define church doctrine once and for all.
This council, called the Council of Trent, worked on this problem in three
separate sessions from 1545 to 1563. This council eventually advised some
far-reaching reforms in the abuses practiced by the church, such as the
selling of indulgences. The Council forced bishops to reside in the region
they presided over and also forbad the selling of church offices. On the
reactionary side, the Council advised that a seminary be built in every
diocese so that church doctrine could be fully and accurately represented.
The reforms were very bold in many respects, but they were too little
and too late. The new Protestant churches were the wave of the future;
and Catholicism—although it would remain a major religion—would in a few
centuries cease to be the majority religion in the Western world.