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The Catholic Reformation or the Counter Reformation was a strong reaffirmation of the doctrine and structure of the Catholic Church, climaxing at the Council of Trent, partly in reaction to the growth of Protestantism. Even before the posting of Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, there had been evidence of internal reform within the Church, combating trends that heightened radical demands to fundamentally alter the doctrine and structure of the Medieval Church and even contributed to the anticlericalism of figures such as John Huss and John Wycliffe in the late fourteenth century. The Catholic Reformation, aimed at correcting the sources of the Reformation, and pronounced since the pontificate of Pope Paul III, was both retaliatory, committed to protecting Catholic institutions and practices from heresy and Protestantism, but also reformist, committed to reform the Church from within to stem the growing appeal of Protestantism. Broadly speaking, the Catholic Reformation, represented a three-sided strategy: an autocratic church at the top linked to the individual by the parish church. The Catholic Reformation was a strong reaffirmation of the doctrine and structure of the Medieval Church, presiding over reforms that would preserve its effectiveness.

The Council of Trent

The pontificate of Paul III (1534-1549) culminated in the Council of Trent, who appointed a commission of cardinals to look into the need for institutional, but certainly not doctrinal, reform, uncovering the appointment of corrupt and worldly bishops and priests, traffic in indulgences, and other financial abuses. The Council of Trent, meeting in three sessions between 1545 and 1563, was the climax of the Catholic Reformation. The Council clearly repudiated 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 tenants of Catholicism. The Council, using vehicles such as the Tridentine Creed, strongly reaffirmed as spiritually vital:

  • the dogma of salvation by faith and works,
  • the authority of unwritten tradition,
  • transubstantiation of the consecrated bread and wine into the substantial body and blood of Christ,
  • seven sacraments
  • indulgences,
  • pilgrimages,
  • the cult of saints, relics, and the Virgin.


While the basic structure of the Church was reaffirmed, there were noticeable changes to answer complaints that the Catholic Reformers tacitly were willing to admit were legitimate. Among the conditions to be corrected by Catholic reformers was the growing divide between the priests and the flock; 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 theological education at the time. (Addressing the education of priests had been a fundamental focus of the humanist reformers in the past.) Parish priests now became better educated, while Papal authorities sought to eliminate the distractions of the monastic churches. Notebooks and handbooks thus became common, describing how to be good priests and confessors.

In addition, between 1512 and the 1560s a movement of 'evangelical Catholics' of high-ranking member of the curia, called Spirituali, actively tried to reform the church through reform of the individual. Members of orders active in overseas missionary expansionism often expressed the need 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, thus contributing to recovering significant territories that would have otherwise been lost to the Protestants. The Ursulines focused on the special task of educating girls. and other Protestant sects. Not only making the Church more effective, they reaffirmed fundamental premises of the Medieval Church.

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