Sixteenth Century Catholicism: More Reaction Than Reform? Simon Lemieux Provides an Overview of 16th-Century Catholicism, Focusing on the Key Issues Often Selected by Examiners

By Lemieux, Simon | History Review, March 2009 | Go to article overview

Sixteenth Century Catholicism: More Reaction Than Reform? Simon Lemieux Provides an Overview of 16th-Century Catholicism, Focusing on the Key Issues Often Selected by Examiners


Lemieux, Simon, History Review


A historical riddle might well begin thus, 'When is a reformation not a reformation? When its" the Catholic Reformation'. To study the reform, renewal and changes which the Catholic Church underwent in the sixteenth century is to embark on a journey into the complexities of definition, causation and legacy. This article will not attempt to give a potted history of the movement but instead will focus on a few key themes, not least those which examiners are often fond of asking. The areas to be covered are, firstly, that of terminology: what terms best describe this period in the Catholic Church's history, a reaction to Protestantism or an ongoing reformation and renewal movement? Is it best understood as a Counter Reformation, a Catholic Reformation or perhaps a century of Catholic renewal, as some more recent historians have termed it? Secondly, the role and contribution of the religious orders will be surveyed: what precisely was their function in this reform process? The importance of the papacy will then be covered: did they initiate, shape or merely accept the changes that took place? The purpose and impact of the Council of Trent will also be considered: how did it alter and determine the reforms? Finally, the success or otherwise of the changes to the Catholic Church in the seventeenth century needs assessing.

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Counter Reformation or Catholic Reformation?

The issue of definition lies at the heart of most of the historical debate about this topic and especially its origins. Was it essentially a reaction by the Papacy and the Catholic Church to the Protestant Reformations of Luther and Calvin, a somewhat panicked measure to try to regain lost ground, a theological counterattack? The emphasis in this interpretation is on change, and a somewhat defensive outlook. The implication is: no Luther, no Catholic reforms, at least not as we know them. It was therefore very much a Counter Reformation to counteract Protestantism. On the other hand, some would emphasise the role of continuity and the ongoing nature of renewal and reform in the Church. According to this approach, the Catholic Church was undergoing change in any case and therefore what the Protestant Reformation did was to hasten and shape reform. The movement should therefore be seen on its own terms as a Catholic Reformation.

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When looking at the facts, there is evidence on both sides. Those advocating a 'counter' view would highlight, firstly, the way in which the most significant reforms took place after 1517 and the publication of Luther's 95 theses. These include the creation of the Roman Inquisition in 1542 to flush out heretics and the publication of the first Index (of prohibited books), again in 1542. The three sessions of the Council of Trent (1543-63), and the subsequent publication of the Tridentine Decrees in 1564, perhaps above all epitomised the stridently anti-Protestant nature of developments within the 16th century Catholic Church. The decrees re-stated traditional Catholic doctrine concerning such matters as justification, the use of the Latin Vulgate edition of the Bible and the role of saints. Such statements frequently ended with what are termed 'anathema clauses', which condemned as heretical either those who denied the Catholic viewpoint or those who adopted a Protestant view, such as a belief in 'sola fide', that one is saved by faith alone.

Yet there is perhaps stronger evidence that what Luther and his fellow Protestants did was to catalyse or accelerate the process of Catholic reform. There is, for example, ample proof of renewal and change prior to 1517, and that many developments were not connected to the challenge of the 'Evangelical Movement' as Protestantism was then known. Firstly, it is necessary to note that reform was nothing new in the Catholic Church. In religious orders, for example, the Franciscans were set up by Francis of Assisi in the 13th century as a response to the perceived lack of spirituality in the more established religious orders. …

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