Early Modern European -- the Phoenix and the Flame: Catalonia and the Counter Reformation by Henry Kamen

By Eire, Carlos M. N. | The Catholic Historical Review, January 1996 | Go to article overview

Early Modern European -- the Phoenix and the Flame: Catalonia and the Counter Reformation by Henry Kamen


Eire, Carlos M. N., The Catholic Historical Review


The Phoenix and the Flame: Catalonia and the Counter Reformation. By Henry Kamen. (New Haven: Yale University Press. 1993. Pp. xvi, 527. $45.00.)

Can one say that the Counter-Reformation succeeded if forty years after the Council of Trent it was still possible to find cathedral canons trying to murder their own reforming bishops? Is the failure of the Council of Trent made evident by the remark made by a Spaniard to a Jesuit super: "I really don't know why the fathers of the company go to Japan and the Philippines to look for lost souls, when we have here so many in the same condition who do not know ether or not they believe in God"?

A decade ago Gerald Strauss generated a significant controversy when he proposed in Luther's House of Learning (Baltimore, 1978) that the German Reformation had failed in many ways. Henry Kamen has now made a similar claim about Catholic attempts at reform with this impressive study of the Counter-Reformation in Catalonia. Whether or not this book causes a comparable debate remains to be seen. On page after page, Kamen details the myriad ways in which the objectives of reforming clergy were frustrated in Catalonia As there is no denying the fact that the Council of Trent brought about significant changes in Catalonia, argues Kamen, there is also no denying the fact that "generations were to pass before the aspirations of Trent could be implemented, if indeed they were ever put into practice" (p. 431). The greatest change, according to Kamen, took place in the realm of worship, in the standardization of the liturgy and in the vivification of the sacraments of penance and marriage. Almost everything else that has been traditionally touted as a success-the reform of the clergy, the improvement of lay morals, the intensification of piety-turns out to be an illusion. Stereotype after stereotype is demolished: even the dreaded Spanish Inquisition turns out to be a paper tiger. Only the Jesuits seem to weather Kamen's acid test, standing out as the one undeniable success story of the Catholic Reformation.

The weight of the evidence marshaled by Kamen is staggering. Nonetheless, as was the case with Strauss in Germany, the nature of the sources used will undoubtedly raise questions about the validity of the author's conclusions. In one important way, Kamen's perspective is similar to that of the Tridentine reformers themselves. It is assumed throughout the study that the process of reform took place from the top down, as some sort of spiritual Reaganomics. …

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