The Counter Reformation

 

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 world.

   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.

 

 

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