Counter -- Reformation and Catholic Reformation Revisited

By Mullett, Michael | History Review, December 2000 | Go to article overview

Counter -- Reformation and Catholic Reformation Revisited


Mullett, Michael, History Review


In History Review, Issue 17 (1993), Dr Fernando Cervantes ably argued that the reform changes which took place within the Catholic Church within the sixteenth century `ran parallel to the Protestant challenge and [had] origins which preceded Luther'. The whole thrust of this article was to cast doubt on the assumption, contained in the very term `Counter-Reformation', to the effect that the overhaul of Catholicism in the sixteenth century was a simple reflex reaction to the shock of the Protestant Reformation. Even so, 30 years ago, in a textbook carrying the traditional title The Counter Reformation Professor A. G. Dickens perceived that `The whole modern history of the [Catholic] Church does not spring either from a unique revival of the sixteenth century, or from a single response to the traumatic shock administered by Luther and Calvin.' Awareness of the medieval roots of the sixteenth-century Catholic revival in fact shifts our emphasis in understanding it away from perception of reaction to `shock' and towards insight into continuity, so that we come to see the early-modern Catholic revival as the largely successful culmination of medieval aspirations towards the rebuilding of the Church.

Today We Have Naming of Parts

The terms that historians use and coin for the phenomena they study often give away their underlying attitudes to the nature of the events and institutions they describe. Nowhere is this truer than in the vocabulary used for the transformation of the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century and early-modern period: as Cervantes puts it, `Counter-Reformation or Catholic Reformation?' Historians do not, and perhaps ought not to try to, work isolated from their own convictions, and Catholic historians, especially if they are guided by their Church's belief that its safety from terminal harm is guaranteed over time by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, may be expected to emphasise the internal Catholic roots of early-modern Catholic recovery, independent from the stimulus of reaction to a Protestant challenge. The works of two notable French Catholic writers, Pierre Janelle (The Catholic Reformation) and H. Daniel-Rops (The Catholic Reformation) carry the same titles in English, and the original French title of Daniel-Rops' book claimed that the Catholic Reformation was `an era of renewal' (`une ere de renouvenu'), while he insisted that the processes he was describing amounted to `renascence, not Counter-Reformation'. As for Janelle, he argued that `The Catholic Reformation began before the Protestant revolt as a continuation of the Christian humanist movement of the fifteenth century', while his publishers pointed out that he corrected `the world's generally mistaken impression that Catholic reform, commonly termed the Counter-Reformation, was a consequence of and reaction against the Protestant Reformation'.

Before we proceed, it is worth pointing out that stress on the self-generated origins of the sixteenth-century improvements in the quality of the Catholic Church requires the historian who propounds that outlook to take a long-term view of processes and to reach back into medieval Church history to find the web-springs of early-modern renewal. While admitting the malaise of the pre-Reformation Church, Janelle, in his chapter `Early Reactions against the Disease', stressed such features as ardent lay piety and papal moves towards renewal in the decades before the eruption of Protestantism. In his chapter `The Awakening of the Catholic Soul', Daniel-Rops drew attention to the pre-Protestant revivification of the religious orders and to early episcopal reformers such as Cardinal Ximenes de Cisneros (1435-1517). However, the reason that one needs to be aware of these pre-Reformation precedents of early-modern Catholic re-invigoration has to do with a topic that we have not yet taken up, the meaning of such words as `reform' and `reformation'. Today, our sense of the word reform implies forward change in an institution, as in `reform of the Health Service', `reform of the Welfare State' and so on: `radical changes for the better in political, religious or social affairs', as the dictionary says. …

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