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History of the Roman Catholic Church - Part IV

A.        On the Eve of the Reformation: the religious culture of the medieval church

1.         Secularization of the Papacy

·      Alexander VI (1431-1503; became pope in 1492) gained the papacy through bribery. He is generally regarded as the most notorious pope in all of history who, according to Lindberg, “is one pope to whom the title 'father,' if not 'holy,' may be literally applied. His many mistresses bore him at least eight known children, the most famous of whom are Cesare Borgia and Lucrezia Borgia" (53).

·      Pope Julius II, elected to the papacy in 1503, has been termed "the savior of the papacy" for his attempts to restore dignity and culture to Rome. He summoned the great artists of the Renaissance to Rome and set them to the task of restoring the Holy City to its former glory. He commissioned Donato Bramante, greatest of the living architects, to rebuild St. Peter's church. Julius himself set the cornerstone on April 18, 1506. The work was directed by a succession of architects, including Raphael and Michelangelo, until its dedication in 1626. It was Julius who brought Michelangelo to Rome and commissioned him to paint the ceiling of the Cistine Chapel (1508-1512). Pope Leo X succeeded Julius in 1513 and continued the construction of St. Peter's Basilica. On the other hand, Julius was also regarded as a political and military barbarian whose primary passion was warfare!

·      Julius was succeeded by Leo X (1513-21). Upon his installation as pope he is reported to have said: "Now that God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it!" Evidently, he did.

2.         Religious life of the Laity

3.         The Sacrament of Penance

B.        The Protestant Reformation . . .


C.        The Catholic “Counter”-Reformation and The Council of Trent

The term “Counter”-Reformation, when used of developments within the Catholic church of the 16th century, is somewhat misleading. Steven Ozment explains:

"Modern historians interpret the Counter Reformation of the sixteenth century as less a reaction to the success of Protestantism than the continuation of late medieval efforts to reform the medieval church. . . . While Protestant success can be said to have had a 'catalytic effect' on Catholic reform, making it more urgent and earnest than it might otherwise have been, the Counter Reformation was far more complex than simply a response to the Protestant challenge" (397).

Michael Mullett (The Catholic Reformation [New York: Routledge, 1999]) agrees:

“A traditional view of the reinvigoration of Catholicism that got under way from the 1540s onwards is that at that juncture the Church was shaken by the impact of the Protestant Reformation out of apparently almost total torpor to rid itself of chronic abuses: the phrase ‘Counter-Reformation’ sums up a view of a defensive, as well as aggressive, and somewhat delayed, reaction to Protestantism, without whose challenge the Catholic Church could hardly have revived itself out of its own depleted moral and spiritual resources” (1).

Mullett contends, rather, “that the renovation of the Catholic Church that gained momentum from the time of the Council of Trent (1545-63) represented an accelerated continuity of earlier reform trends and a number of realisations of earlier aspirations” (1; emphasis mine). Even the Council of Trent, says Mullett, “had its precedents in the conciliar reforming proceedings of the fifteenth century and indeed may be seen as the fulfillment of those late medieval councils” (3).

Major Developments in 16th Century Catholicism:

1.         Roman Catholic Theologians of Prominence

a.         John Eck (1486-1543) - Professor at Ingolstadt who debated Luther at Leipzig.

b.         James Hochstraten (1460-1527) - Known for his anti-Lutheran writings, primarily on the issue of justification by faith.

c.         John Cochlaeus (1489-1552) - He wrote over 190 treatises, the majority of which were against Luther. His biased and distorted biography of Luther was the main source for Catholic studies of the reformer and served to widen the breach between Catholic and Protestant.

d.         Peter Canisius (1521-1597) - He led the counter-reformation in Germany.

e.         William Van der Linden (1525-1588) - Despite his anti-Protestant polemics he maintained a conciliatory spirit toward the Lutherans and worked for reconciliation until the end of the Council of Trent.

f.          Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) - He became a saint in the RCC in 1930. His systematic refutation of Protestant doctrines served as the chief source for anti-Protestant polemics for centuries to come. However, because of his belief that the pope did not have direct temporal power over the entire world, Pope Sixtus V threatened (1590) to place his writings on the Index. Bellarmine was involved in the trial of Galileo in 1616 when the latter's doctrine that the earth revolves around the sun was declared heretical by the RCC.

g.         Cardinal Cesar Baronius (1538-1607) - His monumental work, Ecclesiastical Annals (1607), filled 12 volumes and traced the history of the church from its inception up to 1198. He tried to demonstrate that the RCC had not, as claimed by the Protestants, departed from the doctrines and practices of the first century church.

Numerous Dominican monks also directed their efforts against the Protestant surge, among whom were Cardinal Thomas de Vio Cajetan (1468-1534), Luther's opponent at the Diet of Augsburg; Francisco de Vitoria (1492-1546); Melchior Cano (1509-1560); Bartolome Medina (1528-1580); and Domingo Banez (1528-1604).

2.         Ximines and Early Reform in Spain

Reform began in the Catholic church in Spain in the late 15th century under the leadership of Queen Isabella and Francesco Ximines, a Franciscan monk and later archbishop of Toledo. His efforts included enforcement of strict discipline in the monasteries, a revival of biblical studies at the University of Alcala, and a printing of the Greek NT. Although traditional Catholic doctrine was unaffected, the moral and intellectual progress of the Spanish clergy was notable.

3.         Religious Societies

a.         The Oratory of Divine Love (1517) - This was an informal organization of both clergy and laity (around 60 at first) that desired reform and emphasized works of charity and deepening of spiritual life.

b.         The Theatine Order (1524) - This order brought new respect to the church in Italy by binding priests to the three-fold rule of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

c.         The Capuchin Order (1525) - Stressed austerity of life and service to others.

d.         The Ursuline Order (1535) - This order was composed of women only and was designed to care for the sick and to educate young girls.

4.         The Inquisition

The Inquisition had first been used in the 13th century to suppress the Albigenses in southern France. It was revived under Isabella in 1480 in Spain. Pope Paul III proclaimed in a papal bull (1542) the legality of the Inquisition as a means for dealing with heresy. Through the use of torture, threat of death, imprisonment, burning at the stake, the RCC sought to extract confessions of faith and retractions of Protestant allegiance. Most were assumed guilty until proven innocent, never saw their accusers, and often were forced to testify against themselves. In Spain alone, during the first 18 years of its use, 114,000 were accused, of whom 10,220 were burned at the stake and 97,000 were sentenced to life imprisonment.

Cardinal Caraffa, who initially served in Spain, was determined to install the Inquisition in Rome as a universal, permanent department of the papacy. "Caraffa simply believed that error had no right to exist" (Thompson, 510). On July 21, 1542, Pope Paul III followed Caraffa's advice and sanctioned the Roman Inquisition and extended its authority throughout the Christian world. The Pope gave the inquisitors virtually unquestioned, unchallenged authority. By the mid-forties the Inquisition was introduced to France. In 1555 Cardinal Caraffa was elected to the papacy as Pope Paul IV (d. 1559).

Caraffa was so committed to the Inquisition that he set up interrogation chambers in his own house, saying: "If our own father were a heretic, we would carry the faggots to burn him!" On another occasion he said: "No man is to lower himself by showing toleration toward any sort of heretic, least of all a Calvinist!"

5.         The Index

The Index, or Index librorum prohibitorum, was used as early as 1543 by Pope Paul III but didn't become official papal policy until Paul IV issued it in 1559. It was an attempt to curb the influence of Protestant thought by creating a list of books that the faithful of the RCC were not permitted to read. The use of the Index did not finally come to an end until Pope Paul VI in 1966.

6.         Ignatius Loyola and the Society of Jesus (Jesuits)

Don Inigo de Onez y Loyola, i.e., Ignatius (1491-1556), was the youngest in a family of thirteen children who spent his early years seeking fame and fortune in the military. He "grew up a courtier and caballero, captive to the romantic ideals of medieval chivalry" (Ozment, 410).

Both his legs were severely injured in a battle against the French in 1521, whereupon he spent much time in a hospital enduring excruciating pain and ultimately unsuccessful therapy. During long periods on his bed he studied and meditated on religious literature that focused on the life of Christ and famous saints in history. In March, 1522, he made a pilgrimage to a shrine hear Barcelona. There he entered a cave at Manresa where he spent the next ten months in solitude. He underwent a profound spiritual experience that led him to devote himself to the church and the pope. After a brief trip to the Holy Land he devoted 12 years to study and eventually settled at the Sorbonne in Paris. There he, with nine other men (among whom as Francis Xavier), founded what would become the Society of Jesus (1534). They vowed poverty, chastity and obedience to the pope. The organization was recognized and approved by Pope Paul III in 1540 and Ignatius was elected its first general on April 7, 1541. He held that office until he died on July 31, 1556.

The Society's major functions included education, suppression of dissident elements, and foreign missions. In 1548 Ignatius published his Spiritual Exercises, "the Counter Reformation's manual of self-discipline for clergy and laity" (Ozment, 412). The focus of the treatise was special disciplines or exercises designed to induce certain feelings or states of mind. Ozment explains:

"Ignatius learned through his struggle with physical pain how to control mental anguish; mastery over basic physical reactions gave him insight into more complex psychological responses. The Spiritual Exercises built most perceptively on the interconnectedness of emotion, belief, and behavior. What justification by faith had attempted to accomplish for the anguished Protestant saint, Ignatius' disciplined exercises tried to do for the troubled Catholic saint. The routines it prescribed overcame old habits and prepared individuals for new states of mind and morality by playing directly on their basic emotions of fear and love. Particular sins, for example, were eliminated by attacking each with all five senses and the mind's power of imagination at regular daily intervals" (412).

The course of study extended over four weeks during which the student lived in absolute solitude, as fully cut off from sight and sound of the outside world as possible. Visualization and use of the imagination to see and feel spiritual realities was at the heart of the program. According to Lindsay (History of the Reformation), the outstanding feature of the Exercises is

"the minute knowledge they display of the bodily conditions and accompaniments of states of spiritual ecstasy, and the continuous, not to say unscrupulous, use they make of physical means to create spiritual abandon. They master the soul by manipulating the body" (II:541).

Ozment points to the obvious contrast between Ignatius and Luther:

"In the persons of their founders the antithetical character of original Protestant and Counter Reformation piety is strikingly revealed. Whereas Luther had despaired of calculated efforts at self-reform and salvation, concluding that neither sublimation nor repression, no matter how diligently practiced, could ever bring peace of mind, Ignatius carefully examined himself and discovered a self-control like that of the first man, who could sin or not sin at will. Here was a new type of religious self-confidence that ran counter not only to the Reformation, but to much traditional spirituality as well" (412).

Devotion, discipline and strict obedience to the higher authority of the pope were the hallmark of the Jesuits. Each member vowed

"to abandon his own will, to consider ourselves bound by special vow to the present pope and his successors to go, without complain, to any country whither they may send us, whether to the Turk or other infidels, in India or elsewhere, to any heretics or schismatics, as well as to the faithful, being subject only to the will of the pope and the general of the order."

The Jesuit devotion to hierarchical order and authority, particularly their blind obedience to the pope, is nowhere better seen than in the famous thirteenth rule in the Spiritual Exercises:

"If we wish to be sure that we are right in all things, we should always be ready to accept this principle: I will believe that the white that I see is black, if the hierarchical church so defines."

Such was the dedication and vision that inspired the Jesuits and made them "fully a match for Lutherans and Calvinists during the confessional wars that engulfed Europe between 1560 and 1648. With the assistance of determined rulers, an estimated one-third of earlier losses to Protestants within the empire, especially in Hapsburg Austria and Bavaria and major Rhenish episcopacies, was recovered by century's end" (Ozment, 416).

The Jesuits reached a peak of over 36,000 members in 1964. In the unrest following Vatican II, membership fell to less than 25,000 in 1988.

7.         The Council of Trent (1545-1563)

Before the Council of Trent convened, one final attempt was made to reunite Protestants and Catholics through a series of discussions initiated by Charles V. Sessions were held in Hagenau in June 1540, but with little progress. Talks began in earnest at Worms (the place of Luther's historic stand!) in January of 1541, the primary participants being John Eck (famous Catholic theologian), Gasparo Contarini (1483-1542, a moderate who was able to agree with the Protestants on every issue except transubstantiation and papal authority), and Philip Melancthon (Luther's successor).

The emperor then ordered the talks to be moved to the city of Regensburg. A work drafted at Worms by the most irenic spokesmen for each side, known as the Book of Regensburg, became the basis for discussion. Serious debate got underway in April of 1541. The two sides agreed on the first five articles of the Book, the most important point of which was the doctrine of double justification. "According to the doctrine of double justification, man was justified before God both by an alien, imputed righteousness, as the Lutherans maintained, and an inherent righteousness partly of his own creation, as the medieval church had traditionally taught" (Ozment, 406). The final authorities on both sides, however, ultimately were to find the doctrine artificial and unacceptable. The attempt at reconciliation had failed. The theologies of Rome and the Reformation were simply incompatible, a fact that Trent was soon to make clear.

The Council opened on Dec. 13, 1545, and extended to Dec. 4, 1563, although there were extended periods of inactivity. Sessions 1-10 took place from 1545-47 under Pope Paul III; sessions 11-16 from 1551-52 under Pope Julius III; sessions 17-25 from 1562-63 under Pope Pius IV. Since the Italians numbered almost 3/4 of the voting representatives, the Pope was assured of maintaining control of the outcome. The men who dominated Trent, writes Ozment,

"had no romantic illusions about reunion with Protestants and were not prone to compromise. Their overriding concerns were, first, to establish the machinery for tight control over religious life so that a revolution like that of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin would never again occur in the church and, then, to find new ways to make traditional religion more appealing to laity, including the many who had succumbed to Protestantism" (406-07).

Ozment summarizes Trent's conclusions:

"Trent rejected the Reformation on every important doctrinal issue. Against justification by faith the council reaffirmed the traditional view that faith formed by works of love saved people, salvation coming to man on the basis of an acquired, inherent righteousness, not an imputed, alien righteousness. The sacrament of penance, which Protestants had attacked as mischievous and burdensome to conscience, continued in its traditional form. Against Protestant belief in the sole authority of the Bible, Trent upheld two sources of church authority: Scripture and tradition, the rulings of popes and councils. The council reaffirmed the seven sacraments against the Protestant reduction to two. It reiterated the traditional belief that the Mass repeated Christ's sacrifice and the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist became the very substance of Christ's body and blood. . . . Trent permitted laymen to receive communion in bread only, a reflection of the traditional division between the laity and the clergy. . . . The council gave purgatory, indulgences, the worship of saints, and the veneration of relics and sacred images a new endorsement, while calling for an end to manifest abuses" (407).


"The positive benefits of the council," notes Thompson, "were enormous. It clarified Catholic teaching, improved the efficiency of church organization, cured abuses, left the papacy stronger than ever, and filled the Catholic world with confidence and religious zeal. It is appropriate now to refer to Tridentine Catholicism, in respect to the Council of Trent" (521).

After Trent, three hundred years passed before Vatican I (1868-70) and another hundred years before Vatican II (1962-65). It wasn't until Vatican I that an official statement was made asserting papal authority and infallibility. The doctrine of Mary wasn't addressed until 1854 when, by papal decree the doctrine of her immaculate conception was asserted, and again in 1950 when the doctrine of her bodily assumption into heaven became dogma. Although Trent's language has been modernized, its theology has never been altered. In other words, the theological decisions of Trent remain official Catholic dogma. To reject them is heresy.

Now equipped with an official system of dogma, an army of faithful Catholics led by the Jesuits sought to proselytize, educate and, if necessary, coerce the populace back into the fold of the mother church. Backed by the threat of the Inquisition and aided by the stifling spirit of the Index, the papacy was able to halt Protestant gains in 1560 (except in Holland). If not religiously, then politically, economically, geographically, and socially, the Counter-Reformation was a success.