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The Counter - Reformation was the movement within the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th and 17th centuries that tried to eliminate abuses within that church and to respond to the Protestant Reformation. Until recently, historians tended to stress the negative and repressive elements in this movement, such as the Inquisition and the Index of Forbidden Books, and to concentrate their attention on its political, military, and diplomatic aspects. They now show greater appreciation for the high level of spirituality that animated many of the leaders of the Counter - Reformation.

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The century before the outbreak of the Reformation was marked by increasing and widespread dismay with the venality of the bishops and their involvement in politics, with the ignorance and superstition of the lower clergy, with the laxity of religious orders, and with the sterility of academic theology. Movements for a return to the original observances within religious orders and the activity of outspoken critics of the papacy like Girolamo Savonarola were symptomatic of the impulses for reform that characterized sectors of the Catholic church during these years.

Not until Paul III became pope in 1534 did the Roman Catholic church receive the leadership it needed to coordinate these impulses and meet the challenge of the Protestants. This pope approved new religious orders like the Jesuits, and he convoked the Council of Trent (1545 - 63) to deal with the doctrinal and disciplinary questions raised by the Protestant reformers. The decrees of that council formulating belief and practice dominated Roman Catholic thinking for the next four centuries. Paul III, as well as his successors, also committed papal resources to military action against the Protestants.

The Counter - Reformation was activist, marked by enthusiasm for the evangelization of newly discovered territories, especially in North and South America; for the establishment of religious schools, where the Jesuits took the lead; and for the organization of works of charity and catechesis under the leadership of reformers like Saint Charles Borromeo. Somewhat paradoxically, there was also a renewed enthusiasm for contemplation, and the era produced two of the greatest representatives of Mysticism - Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.

John W O'Malley

A G Dickens, The Counter Reformation (1969); H O Evennett, The Spirit of the Counter Reformation (1970); A D Wright, Counter Reformation (1982).


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The Counter-Reformation was the label for the Roman Catholic revival of the sixteenth century. It emphasizes that the reaction to the Protestant challenge was the dominant theme of contemporary Catholicism. The movement is also labeled the Catholic Reformation and the Catholic renaissance, since elements of Catholic reform and revival predated the Protestant Reformation and were, like Protestantism, a response to the widespread aspiration for religious regeneration pervading late fifteenth century Europe. It is now better understood that the two reformations, Protestant and Catholic, though believing themselves to be in opposition, had many similarities and drew on a common past: the revival of preaching exemplified in the great pre - Reformation preachers like Jan Hus, Bernardino of Siena, and Savonarola; the Christ - centered, practical mysticism of the Devotio Moderna; the movement for ecclesistical reform headed by Cardinal Ximenez de Cisneros in Spain but also well represented by reforming bishops in France and Germany.

The Counter - Reformation is sometimes described as a Spanish movement. Over three thousand mystical works are known to have been written in sixteenth century Spain, suggesting that mysticism was a popular movement. But the dominant Spanish mystics were three aristocrats: Teresa of Avila (1515 - 82), John of the Cross (1542 - 91), and Ignatius of Loyola (1491 - 1556). Two of the three great instruments of the Counter - Reformation stemmed from Spain, namely the Society of Jesus and the Inquisition. The third was the Council of Trent, which was finally convened in 1545 after constant pressure from the Emperor Charles V, grandson of Spain's great reforming monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella.

The Society of Jesus (Jesuits), incorporated in 1540, was the most remarkable of the new orders of reformed priests (clerks regular) who lived among the faithful rather than withdrawing into monasteries. Other orders included the Theatines (1524), Somaschi (1532), and Barnabites (1534). The founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius of Loyola, sought to prepare his followers for a life of triumphal service and heroic self - sacrifice through his Spiritual Exercises, a series of practical meditations. The Jesuits ministered to the poor, educated boys, and evangelized the heathen. Francis Xavier (1506 - 52) a Spanish Jesuit, traveled to Goa, South India, Ceylon, Malaya, and Japan on his amazing missionary journeys. When Ignatius died, the society had around 1,000 members administering 100 foundations. A century later there were over 15,000 Jesuits and 550 foundations, testifying to the sustained vitality of the Counter - Reformation.

The Roman Inquisition was established in 1542 by Pope Paul III to suppress Lutheranism in Italy. Cardinal Caraffa, its Inquisitor General, later Pope Paul IV (1555 - 59), directed that heretics in high places should be dealt with most severely, "for on their punishment, the salvation of the classes beneath them depends." The Roman Inquisition reached its peak during the pontificate of the saintly zealot Pius V (1566 - 72), systematically extirpating Italian Protestants and securing Italy as a base for a counteroffensive on the Protestant north.

The corrupt hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church was dramatically reformed in the wake of the Council of Trent. Dioceses mushroomed in areas where there was felt to be a particular Protestant threat. Bishops carried out frequent visitations of their dioceses and established seminaries for the training of clergy. The number of church buildings and clergy increased markedly. The most vigorous of the reforming popes, Sixtus V (1585 - 90), established fifteen "congregations" or commissions to prepare papal pronouncements and strategy. Some Protestant gains were reversed under the direction of such theologians as Robert Bellarmine (1542 - 1621) and Peter Canisius (1521 - 97). The Counter - Reformation in general, and the Council of Trent in particular, strengthened the position of the pope and the forces of clericalism and authoritarianism. The genuinely spiritual foundations of these developments should not be denied.

F S Piggin
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

H Daniel - Rops, The Catholic Reformation; J Delumeau, Catholicism Between Luther and Voltaire; A G Dickens, The Counter - Reformation; P Dudon, St. Ignatius of Loyola; H O Evennett, The Spirit of the Counter - Reformation; B J Kidd, The Counter - Reformation, 1550 - 1600; The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, tr. A Mottola; M R O'Connell, The Counter - Reformation 1559 - 1610.

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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