What was the Counter-Reformation?
The Catholic Church, after being bombarded with Protestant attacks for several years, finally began to make some positive changes, using a program known as the Counter-Reformation. This was aimed at stopping the spread of Protestantism. The Church reaffirmed many of its core teachings, but it admitted its errors with regard to simony and abuses of clerical power and quickly remedied these errors. The Counter-Reformation also saw the reemergence of the Inquisition, in which heretics were sought out and punished.
First, let’s briefly look at the Reformation of the 16th century so we can understand the historical context of the Counter-Reformation. For most of the Middle Ages the pope was a central figure in the politics of Western Europe. The power and influence of the Roman Catholic Church in Europe peaked during the 13th century, but this prestige would not last. Diplomatic missteps by the pope, the rise of nation states, increased heretical movements, and the Black Death in the following century greatly weakened the position of the papacy. By the 1500s there was a growing desire to reform the beliefs and practices of the church. One of the most reviled acts committed by the church was the selling of indulgences which supposedly pardoned sins. Martin Luther, a German monk and scholar, posted his famous 95 Theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg decrying the practice. Reformist ideas quickly spread across Europe, thanks in no small part to the recent innovation of the printing press. The Reformation took hold in large parts of Germany, Scandinavia, the British Isles, Switzerland, and the Netherlands over the course of the 16th century.
Alarmed by these developments but divided in opinion over what to do, the church eventually called a council in 1545 at Trent in Northern Italy. A series of meetings took place to discuss the future of the church over several years from 1545 to 1563. The sessions sought to oppose the Reformation and reaffirm key tenets of Catholic doctrine such as the veneration of Mary and the celibacy of the clergy, but also looked to make moderate reforms and prevent abuses of power. The selling of indulgences was not banned, but officials were instructed to be on the lookout for corruption. It would not be until 1567 that the practice of selling indulgences for financial gain would be formally banned by Pope Pius V. In other areas the church looked to tighten its grip on the lives of those who remained faithful. For example, the Papal Index, a list of forbidden texts blacklisted by the church, first appeared in 1559.
As you can imagine, these were difficult times for the church but as is so often the case in history, troubled times produced strong leaders. The Catholic Church benefited in the 16th century from a succession of tough and capable popes, few more so than Sixtus V. Sixtus inherited great financial problems caused by lawlessness in the countryside surrounding Rome. In a sign of things to come, Sixtus had four young bandits hanged on the day of his coronation. When the families of the young men pleaded for mercy, Sixtus apparently replied:
“As long as I live, criminals must die.”
The heads of brigands lined the streets to Rome as Sixtus embarked on a ruthless campaign to root out corruption and banditry. He also personally oversaw a revitalization of the city of Rome, levying heavy taxes to rebuild the city after decades of neglect. Further afield he carefully managed the conflict between France and Spain to maintain the balance of power in the church’s favor. By the time of his death in 1590, the perilous finances of the church had fully recovered and while his short and harsh rule won him few friends during his lifetime, he is generally regarded as one of the most important popes in history.
As well as strong leadership from above, the Counter-Reformation was driven by other key factors, in particular the efforts of the Jesuits. The Society of Jesus was co-founded in 1540 by Ignatius of Loyola and is still active to this very day; Pope Francis is the first Jesuit pope. In the 16th century the Jesuits travelled across the world providing religious and educational instruction in Africa, Asia, and the Spanish and Portuguese colonies of the New World. In short, the Jesuits helped to globalize the Catholic faith and were hugely influential in shaping education at home and abroad. In 1615 there were 372 colleges across the world, and by the 18th century that number had doubled. The willingness of Jesuits to endure long and dangerous journeys across the world was an important aspect in the revival of the Catholic Church during the Counter-Reformation.
The emergence of an elaborate style of art, architecture, and music also helped the people to connect with the church. Baroque art was notable for its grand sense of spectacle and great contrasts of light and darkness. Such works as Paolo de Matteis’ Triumph of the Immaculate demonstrated a style meant to reflect the sheer majesty of the divine.
Baroque architecture was ornate and dramatic in stark contrast to the simplicity of the early Protestant churches. Baroque was also a form of music, notable for its ornamental style which was more complex than the music of the Renaissance period. In short, the Baroque style was extravagant, detailed, and meant to be larger than life.
The final aspect of the Counter Reformation that we’re going to look at is war. Though sometimes known as the Wars of the Reformation, the many conflicts which occurred in the 16th – 18th centuries were not always caused by religious disputes. The Thirty Years War may have started as a dispute between Catholic and Protestant states in the Holy Roman Empire, but expanded into a massive conflict involving virtually every major European state. The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 brought an end to the war and is generally viewed to be the end of the Counter-Reformation period.
In summary, the Counter-Reformation was a vigorous response by the Catholic Church to the challenges made by the Reformation movement that began in the 1500s and ended with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. The Counter-Reformation was characterized by the confirmation of Catholic doctrine, religious orders, and a dramatic style of art, buildings, and music intended to inspire. The Counter-Reformation had a lasting impact not only on the history of Europe, but on the world as the large number of Catholics in such countries as Brazil, Mexico, and the Philippines shows.
Let’s look at a couple of review questions before we go:
1. Which of the following practices ended after the Council of Trent?
- Celibacy of the clergy
- Selling of indulgences
- Veneration of Mary
- None of these
The answer is D). Though the selling of indulgences was one of the main points of contention against the Church, the act was reformed rather than banned by the Council of Trent. The practice was further modified by Pope Pius V in 1567, a few years after the council’s final session.
Which of the following terms best describes the Baroque style?
- None of these
The answer is C). Whether in architecture, art, music, or sculpture, Baroque was intended to be an elaborate display of the majesty of the divine.
Thanks for watching, and happy studying!