The Popes and European Revolution

By Owen Chadwick | Go to book overview
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6 The Catholic Reformers

The motives which led men to want change were as various as possible.

At his simplest the reformer was the old medieval preacher who saw how people who came to church still murdered or fornicated, and wanted the Church to preach better, or discipline more rigorously, so as to raise the moral standards of Christian men. This kind of new Savonarola welcomed warm devotions and new cults and revivalist missions which stirred the hearts of the common people. If he were more sophisticated, he turned his attention to the training of pastors, so that more instructed or more devoted priests might help their congregations to righteousness—this was the reforming drive typical of the Counter-Reformation. If he were eminent and won high office, he found himself perplexed amid the legal niceties of State law and Church law and tried to amend the constitution—inevitably by seeking the aid of the State. For the glaring necessity was to take old endowments which did no good and convert them to parishes or causes which needed money; and such fiddling of rights of property or sacredness of trusts could not happen without the aid of lay ministers willing to risk hostility from vested interests—in short, using State power to trample upon ancient rights. If he were a lay politician, he was frustrated by this need every day; and how far he was prepared to go depended on his prudence or rashness, his ability to persuade lords or bishops, and the readiness of his sovereign to give up a quiet life and face trouble.

Into these traditions of the Counter-Reformation, and cutting across their assumptions, came a new kind of Catholic reformer. He may loosely be defined as one who turned against the excesses (as he saw them) of the Counter-Reformation. Though he stood by the inheritance of the Counter-Reformation, in wanting dedicated priests, celibacy of the clergy, the enforcement of the canons of the Council of Trent, he criticized some features of the Catholic tradition which the Counter-Reformation fostered. Get the people into church and all will be well?—but still they murder and fornicate, we should repel from church when we must. Make excuse for the sins of a suffering people, be gentle when you hear their confessions?—on the contrary, they may need severity, even to a refusal

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