The Counter-Reformation (also Catholic Reformation or Catholic Revival) denotes the period of Catholic revival from the pontificate of Pope Pius IV in 1560 to the close of the Thirty Years' War, 1648.

The Catholic Reformation was a comprehensive effort, composed of five major elements:

  1. Doctrine
  2. Ecclesiastical or structural reconfiguration
  3. Religious orders
  4. Spiritual movements
  5. Political dimensions

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 by returning orders to their spiritual foundations, and new spiritual movements focusing on the devotional life and a personal relationship with Christ, including the Spanish mystics and the French school of spirituality.


The two terms highlight different aspects of the movement. The term Counter-Reformation, used primarily by non-Catholics, emphasizes the view that these reforms were prompted largely by the rise of Protestants and the threat they posed to Catholic institutions. In this view, the reforms were aimed primarily at reducing the loss of the faithful to Protestantism, and the term "Catholic Reformation" identifies it as an action of the Church, not a reaction to Protestant Reformers.

Scholars such as John C. Olin, late of Fordham University, and Henri-Daniel Rops, began using the term "Catholic Reformation" in the last half of the 20th century to emphasize the attempts at reform, theological and disciplinary, within the Roman Catholic Church that began before the traditional date of the launch of the Protestant Reformation by Martin Luther or before the Council of Trent (events such as the Fifth Lateran Council, the sermons on reform delivered by John Colet in England, the publication of Consilium de Emendanda Ecclesia by Gasparo Contarini, the founding of the Oratory of Divine Love, and so on), and to point out that many of Trent's reforms and the work of such reformers as St. Philip Neri, St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Teresa of Avila, while influenced by the response to the Protestants were far wider and more comprehensive than a mere response to the challenge of growing Protestantism. They argue that much of this was about suppressing abuses and corruption within the Roman Catholic Church for the sake of its own virtue, and that the reforms included more than just stamping out Protestant "heresy."

The Council of Trent

Pope Paul III (1534-1549) initiated the Council of Trent (1545-1563), a commission of cardinals tasked with institutional reform, addressing contentious issues such as corrupt bishops and priests, indulgences, and other financial abuses. The Council clearly rejected 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 the Catholic faith. The Council clearly upheld salvation appropriated by grace through faith and works (not just by faith, as the Protestants insisted). Transubstantiation, during which the consecrated bread and wine were held to be transformed wholly and substantially into the body, blood, humanity and divinity of Christ, was upheld, along with the other six Sacraments. Other 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 strongly reaffirmed as spiritually vital. The Council also commissioned the Roman Catechism, which still serves as authoritative Church teaching (the Catechism of the Catholic Church, issued in 1992, updates modern explications, but does not differ doctrinally).

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. Among the conditions to be corrected by Catholic reformers was the growing divide between the clerics and the laity; 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 (addressing the education of priests had been a fundamental focus of the humanist reformers in the past). Parish priests were to be better educated in matters of theology and apologetics, while Papal authorities sought to educate the faithful about the meaning, nature and value of art and liturgy, particularly in monastic churches (Protestants had criticised them as distracting). Notebooks and handbooks became more common, describing how to be good priests and confessors.

Thus, the Council of Trent was dedicated to improving the discipline and administration of the Church. The worldly excesses of the secular Renaissance church, epitomized by the era of Alexander VI (1492-1503), exploded in the Reformation under Pope Leo X (1513-1522), whose campaign to raise funds in the German states to rebuild St. Peter's Basilica by supporting use of indulgences was a key impetus for Martin Luther's 95 Theses. But the Catholic Church would respond to these problems by a vigorous campaign of reform, inspired by earlier Catholic reform movements that predated the Council of Constance (1414-1417): humanism, devotionalism, legalist and the observantine tradition.

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 forced many bishops to be "absent bishops" who at times were property managers trained in administration. Thus, the Council of Trent combated "absenteeism," which was the practice of bishops living in Rome or on landed estates rather than in their dioceses. The Council of Trent also gave bishops greater power to supervise all aspects of religious life. Zealous prelates such as Milan's Archbishop Carlo 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 overwhelmingly faithful to the church's rule of celibacy.

The orders

New religious orders were a fundamental part of this trend. Orders such as the Capuchins, Ursulines, Theatines, the Barnabites, and especially the Jesuits 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 Theatines were an order of devoted priests who undertook to check the spread of heresy and contribute to a regeneration of the clergy. 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 fathers were an order 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. These differing approaches were often complementary, as with the missions to rural areas poorly served by the existing parish structure. Members of orders active in overseas missionary expansionism expressed the view that the rural parishes, whose poor state of affairs contributed to the growth of Protestantism, often needed Christianizing as much as heathens of Asia and the Americas. The Ursulines focused on the special task of educating girls. Their devotion to the traditional works of mercy exemplifies the Catholic Reformations 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, they 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 1540 under Paul III. An heir to the devotional, observantine, and legalist traditions, the Jesuits organized their order along military lines, they strongly reflected 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. Even Loyola's biography contributed to the new emphasis on popular piety that had been waning under the eras of politically oriented popes such as Alexander VI and Leo X. 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 strongly characteristic of the new age of absolutism ushered in by the sixteenth century, the Jesuits strongly contributed to the reinvigoration of the Counter-Reformation Church.

Spiritual movements

The Catholic Reformation was not only a political and Church policy oriented movement, it included major figures such as Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Francis de Sales and Filippo Neri, who added to the spirituality of the Catholic Church. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross were Spanish mystics, whose spirituality focused on the internal life. Teresa gave herself the task to develop and write about the way to perfection in her love and unity with Christ. Her publications especially her autobiography The life of Theresa of Jesus had multiple effects not only on Religious. It is to be placed besides the Confessions of Augustine. Thomas Merton called John of the Cross the greatest of all mystical theologians. Ignatius of Loyola and Francis de Sales choose an active spirituality, that is an exact opposite of Teresa and John of the Cross. "To see God in all things" was a typical expression of Ignatius and a main theme of his Spiritual Excercises. The spirituality of Filippo Neri, who lived in Rome at the same time as Ignatius, was practically-oriented too, but totally opposed to the Jesuit approach. Said Filippo, "If I have a real problem, I contemplate what Ignatius would do ... and then I do the exact opposite". As a regognition of their joint contribution to the spiritual renewal within the Catholic reformation, Ignatius of Loyola, Filippo Neri and Teresa of Avila were canonized on the same day, March 12, 1622.

During the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church defended its Marian spirituality against what were considered Protestant heresies, while fighting the Ottoman Wars in Europe against Turkey which were fought and won under the auspices of the Virgin Mary. The victory at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 was accredited to her "and signified the beginning of a strong resurgence of Marian devotions". During and after the Catholic Reformation, Marian piety experienced unforeseen growth with over 500 pages of mariological writings during the 17th century alone. The Jesuit Francis Suarez was the first theologian to use the Thomist method on Marian theology. Other well known contributors to Marian spirituality are Lawrence of Brindisi, Robert Bellarmine, and Francis of Sales.

Decrees on art

Italian painting after 1520, with the notable exception of the art of Venice, developed into Mannerism, a highly sophisticated style, striving for effect, that concerned many churchmen as lacking appeal for the mass of the population. Church pressure to restrain religious imagery affected art from the 1530s and resulted in the decrees of the final session of the Council of Trent in 1563 including short and rather inexplicit passages concerning religious images, which were to have great impact on the development of Catholic art. Previous Catholic councils had rarely felt the need to pronounce on these matters, unlike Orthodox ones which have often ruled on specific types of images.

The decree confirmed the traditional doctrine that images only represented the person depicted, and that veneration to them was paid to the person themself, not the image, and further instructed that:

Ten years after the decree Paolo Veronese was summoned by the Inquisition to explain why his Last Supper, a huge canvas for the refectory of a monastery, contained, in the words of the Inquisition: "buffoons, drunken Germans, dwarfs and other such scurrilities" as well as extravagant costumes and settings, in what is indeed a fantasy version of a Venetian patrician feast. Veronese was told that he must change his painting within a three month period - in fact he just changed the title to The Feast in the House of Levi, still an episode from the Gospels, but a less doctrinally central one, and no more was said. But the number of such decorative treatments of religious subjects declined sharply, as did "unbecomingly or confusedly arranged" Mannerist pieces, as a number of books, notably by the Flemish theologian Molanus, Saint Charles Borromeo and Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti, and instructions by local bishops, amplified the decrees, often going into minute detail on what was acceptable. Many traditional iconographies considered without adequate scriptural foundation were in effect prohibited, as was any inclusion of classical pagan elements in religious art, and almost all nudity, including that of the infant Jesus. According to the great medievalist Émile Mâle, this was "the death of medieval art".

Church and its music

The demand by the Council of Trent for simplicity in music in order that the words might be heard clearly placed a serious stumbling block in the path of the development of polyphony in the mid-16th century.

The Council, in their Canon on Music to be used for the Mass, stated:

While this was worded fairly vaguely, the intent was clear. Complex polyphony was no longer deemed acceptable by the Council.

Palestrina's musical mastery and his skill at word setting greatly affected the outcome of this difficult situation. By composing a six-part polyphonic mass, called the Missa Papae Marcelli (Pope Marcellus Mass), of 1555, Palestrina demonstrated that polyphony was compatible with the mandates of the Counter-Reformation. Using an economy of notes, the mass setting conveys its words with surprising clarity. This represented a marked shift from the composer's earlier compositions, which often paired a single syllable with long strings of notes, called melismas, which obscured the text. The new, tighter style (which did occasionally resort to homophony) was both shorter and more comprehensible to the worshipper. The Pope Marcellus Mass was believed since the late 16th century to have been instrumental in preventing the abolition of polyphony. Recent scholarship, however, shows that this mass was composed before the cardinals convened to discuss the ban (possibly as much as ten years before). The mass was not, therefore, solely responsible for "saving" Catholic church music, as is sometimes claimed. Still, Palestrina's music would become the model for future generations of Catholic composers, and it continues to be held as an exemplar for polyphonic clarity.

Like Palestrina, the Flemish composer Jacobus de Kerle (1531/32-1591) also demonstrated to Council delegates that polyphony was capable of projecting the words in a coherent manner. It is quite possible that Kerle, not Palestrina, should be credited as the first "savior" of polyphony. Another composer, Vincenzo Ruffo (c. 1508-1587), also complied with the reforms of the Council of Trent. Ruffo devoted himself entirely to sacred music in the spirit of the Counter-Reformation. Ruffo, however, took a different approach by dispensing with polyphony in favor of composing chordal, or homophonic, mass settings. Later in life, he apparently grew dissatisfied with homophony and returned to polyphony.

After all of the debate during the third meeting of the Council of Trent, the council's solutions gave composers very little room for artistic expression. Composers such as Palestrina and Lasso would find other ways of expressing their sacred themes during the Counter-Reformation.

The Council of Trent brought about other changes in music: most notably developing the Missa Brevis, Lauda and "Spiritual Madrigal" (Madrigali Spirituali).

The inadvertent start of the scientific revolution

Some historians such as James Burke have noted some of the directives initiated in the Counter-Reformation had consequences that would ironically create even more formidable challenges to the Catholic Church's authority and very world-view. Specifically, efforts to reform the Julian calendar may have led to the Church's confrontation with Galileo and with the scientific world in general.

This came about with the initiative to make the Catholic Church more attractive to the common person. In addition to better training for the clergy, there was also the idea of making the Church's facilities and activities more attractive to the laypeople. Part of this included extensive decorations that would eventually spawn the elaborate baroque art style and more celebrations of holidays and similar events.

The need to have these events followed closely throughout the dioceses raised the problem with the accuracy of the calendar. By the sixteenth century the Julian calendar was almost ten days out of step with the seasons and the heavenly bodies. Among the astronomers who were asked to work on the problem of how the calendar could be reformed was Nicolaus Copernicus, a canon at Frombork (Frauenburg). In the dedication to De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1543), Copernicus mentioned the reform of the calendar proposed by the Fifth Council of the Lateran (1512-1517). As he explains, a proper measurement of the length of the year was a necessary foundation to calendar reform. By implication, his work replacing the Ptolemaic system with a heliocentric model was prompted in part by the need for calendar reform. An actual new calendar had to wait until the Gregorian calendar in 1582.

At the time of its publication, De revolutionibus passed with relatively little comment in the Catholic Church itself, which treated the conception as little more than a mathematical convenience. However, the fact that the Earth's motion directly contradicted literal readings of the Bible and Aristotle's philosophy eventually became an unavoidable issue. This occurred as scholars like Galileo Galilei believed they could amass physical evidence that supports heliocentrism (although Galileo himself failed to), or at least undermines acceptance for the literal accuracy of Ptolemy.

Major figures


  • Philipp M. Soergel: Wondrous in His Saints: Counter Reformation Propaganda in Bavaria. Berkeley CA: University of California Press, 1993

See also

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