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Counter Reformation


Counter Reformation, movement within the Roman Catholic church in the 16th and 17th centuries that sought to revitalize the church and to oppose Protestantism (see Reformation). Some historians object to the term as implying only the negative elements in the movement, and they prefer designations such as Catholic Reformation or Catholic Restoration. They stress the high spirituality that animated many leaders of the movement, which often had no direct relation to the Protestant Reformation.


Cries for reform of the church characterized the 15th century, as Christians reacted to the scandal of the Great Schism (see Schism, Great) and became more sensitive to religious abuses. The Italian religious reformer Girolamo Savonarola scathingly criticized the worldliness of his contemporary, Pope Alexander VI. The so-called observantist movement within the mendicant orders tried to recall members to a more austere life, and humanists such as Erasmus attempted to create alternatives to the sterile speculations of academic theology. Sincere as these efforts were, they long remained uncoordinated and failed to have a perceptible impact on the institution as a whole.


Only when Paul III became pope in 1534 did the church receive the leadership it needed to orchestrate these impulses toward reform and to meet the challenge of the Protestants. One of Paul's most important initiatives was to nominate sincere reformers such as Gasparo Contarini and Reginald Pole to the College of Cardinals. He also gave encouragement to new religious orders such as the Theatines, Capuchins, Ursulines, and especially the Jesuits. This last group, under the leadership of St. Ignatius Loyola, consisted of highly educated men dedicated to a renewal of piety through preaching, catechetical instruction, and the use of Loyola's Spiritual Exercises for retreats. Perhaps Paul's most dramatic action was the convocation of the Council of Trent (see Trent, Council of) in 1545 to deal with the doctrinal and disciplinary questions raised by the Protestants. Often working in an uneasy alliance with the Holy Roman emperor Charles V, Paul, like many of his successors, did not hesitate to use both diplomatic and military measures against the Protestants.


Beginning about 1542 a notably repressive current entered Roman Catholicism itself as the Index of Forbidden Books and a new Inquisition were instituted. The pontificate of Paul IV gave the most vigorous support to such measures. In Spain, the Inquisition became an instrument of the Crown, used effectively by King Philip II to ensure the orthodoxy of his subjects and to suppress both political and religious dissent.

Toward the end of the century, partly under the influence of the Council of Trent, a number of worthy bishops emerged in northern Italy, zealous to reform their clergy and instruct their people. St. Charles Borromeo of Milan became a model for many of them. The establishment of seminaries in many dioceses guaranteed a literate and morally upright clergy. In Rome, St. Philip Neri had religious texts set to music performed in informal gatherings, a practice that soon developed into the oratorio.

In Germany, Catholics remained restless after the Peace of Augsburg of 1555, regarded by many of them as a victory for the Lutherans (see Germany: Age of Religious Strife). German priests trained in Rome returned home better instructed and more eager to proselytize than their predecessors had been. St. Peter Canisius produced a catechism that was a useful, if inferior, counterpart of Luther's. With heavy foreign subvention and intervention on both sides, the tensions erupted in the horrors of the Thirty Years' War, which raged from 1618 to 1648 and left Germany devastated, its religious energies exhausted.

Because of the Wars of Religion in France, the Counter Reformation did not pick up momentum there until the 17th century. Devotion to the poor, as exemplified by St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac, especially characterized the French experience. Considerable attention was given there, as it was in Italy, to popular missions among the peasantry. Meanwhile, St. Francis of Sales, bishop of Geneva, published his Introduction to the Devout Life (1608), among the most popular of all works of Christian spirituality.

The spirituality of the Counter Reformation was activist, directed toward the evangelization of the newly explored territories in the Far East and in North and South America. A similar enthusiasm developed for the establishment of confessional schools, where the Jesuits took the lead. Despite the emphasis on activism, however, the Counter Reformation era in Spain produced two of Christianity's greatest mystics—St. Teresa of Ávila and St. John of the Cross.

Contributed By:
John W. O'Malley

1"Counter Reformation."Microsoft® Encarta® Encyclopedia 2001. © 1993-2000 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

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