Understanding Catholic Motives During the Reformation

Posted on November 18, 2011 by


When first beginning this project, there was little I knew about the reformation. Other than the fact the reformation was about religion, everything else was unfamiliar territory. What seemed best was to pick a baseline for a subject, and from there get more specific and go more in depth into that one subject. I decided of all the other viable topics, I chose Catholicism. Not because it would necessarily be easy but because I thought that I could incorporate other topics such as John Calvin and Martin Luther into my project.

The Catholic Church was practically the ruling government over the nobles in Europe. In fact, in the past after Rome had adopted what is now known as “Roman Catholicism” Christians who were once persecuted, for example the story of Perpetua (from the story The Martyrdom of Perpetua) whom was executed in Carthage for being Christians suddenly became the most favored people in Rome. As a matter of fact, in order to serve in the military one had to be Christian. This idea was also somewhat true in the 16th century concerning that members of the Catholic Church were favored among others. What used to be a religion that sometimes saw genocide against its people suddenly became the most favorable and popular religions in Europe and beyond.

The 16th century was not the best of times for the Catholic Church. New ideas started emerging from what the Catholics viewed as “corrupt” religious officials (bishops, priests, etc.). Thus the Council of Trent was formed. The Council of Trent was in a sense a religious version of our legislative branch of government. Initiated by Pope Paul III in 1545, the Council of Trent was meant to create institutional reform and also meet the conflict of corrupted religious hierarchs and illicit religious financing such as indulgences. The other goal in order to counter reform from still emerging branches of the Christian faith such as Lutheranism, Calvinism, and the soon to be rival the Protestants, was to uphold the structure of the Medieval Church, doctrine, sacramental system, and religious orders. The Council of Trent would later go to give unbelievable amounts of power to religious officials wherever was needed to effectively counter emerging Christian societies in communities from fear of “losing ground” from other religions. The Council of Trent would later attempt to increase “appeal” by putting their own reform into effect. This reform was inspired by Catholic reforms that pre dated the Council of Constance during the early 15th century who promoted more traditional beliefs in being devoted to one faith only; Catholicism.

“I, ——, with a firm faith, believe and profess all and every one of the things contained in the symbol of faith, which the holy Roman Church makes use of, viz.:

I believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made;

Who, for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man;

He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate; suffered and was buried;

And the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures;

And ascended into heaven; sitteth on the right hand of the Father;

And he shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Ghost, the Lord, and Giver of life; who proceedeth from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified; who spake by the Prophets.

And one holy catholic and apostolic Church;

I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins;

And I look for the resurrection of the dead;

And the life of the world to come. Amen.”

Those were the words that every member within the Council of Trent lived by. Every member of the Council of Trent also lived by the normal rules of Catholicism. However the members of the council had to live by the Tridentine Creed, which was in essence a summary of what the Council of Trent stood for as well as more extensive prayer and dedication within the church. In the information I found, no motives were expressed as to why the creed existed but most likely it exists to keep members of the council loyal to the church and to maintain and uphold traditional Catholic belief and teachings.

It is somewhat safe to say that the Catholic Church was somewhat paranoid that they would have all their power taken from in front of them by these emerging branches of the church. It is hard to fully understand the Council of Trent’s motivations just as almost everything else in history however it is probable that since the church “rivaled” the state in the 16th century that they wanted to remain in power. In addition the medieval age was a time period when almost every noble that thought they could achieve absolute power over a region would attempt to do so.

The Council of Trent was lead by the Pope and consisted of almost every Catholic position, Bishops, Cardinals, Priests, Jesuits, and others. Their objectives were simple, maintain control over the areas with Catholic influence, keep people in check, and stop any reform or opposition that served as a potential threat to the Catholic reign of religious power. Christian influence had by now even spread as far as East Asia. Proof exists in many of the letters send to St. Francis Xavier from India and the Society of Jesus at Goa, Japan. The messengers who first arrived in Japan found that they were extremely successful in converting the natives into being followers of god. This was also very true in India, somewhat due in part to the fact that Christian society had been set up there centuries before.

Though the Catholic Church faced many challenges from Protestant, Lutheran, Calvinist, and other reformist uprisings, the Catholic Church managed to maintain its dominance to every corner of where it existed. It is hard to imagine how they could possibly control almost every living, breathing, human in Europe during the reformation, but somehow with gradual, small reform that appealed to the people, mostly due in part to the Council of Trent’s “jurisdiction.” This time was also important to the idea of expansion within the church to more areas of the known, civilized, world. Even though today the Catholic Church is still the most prominent in the world of Christians. However they were unsuccessful in completely preventing what people like Martin Luther had started. Today there are many more branches within the term Christian, while Catholicism remains to be the most popular; Protestants are not far behind, while Lutherans and other smaller but widespread branches of the Christian Church exist everywhere. The Council of Trent was very successful in creating a future for the Catholic Church regardless of intention or not.


Works Cited

Henry James Coleridge, ed., The Life and Letters of St. Francis Xavier, 2d Ed., 2 Vols., (London: Burns & Oates, 1890), Vol. II, pp. 295-301; reprinted in William H. McNeil and Mitsuko Iriye, eds., Modern Asia and Africa, Readings in World History Vol. 9, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), pp. 13-19.


González, Justo L. The Story of Christianity. New York. Harper SanFransisco. 1984. Print.


Dillenberger, John. Martin Luther. New York. Doubleday. 1962. Print.


Pollen, John Hungerford. “The Society of Jesus.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 14. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 15 Nov. 2011 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14081a.htm&gt;.


CounterReformation.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2011. Web. 16 Nov. 2011.


[Translated in Martin D.W. Jones, The Counter Reformation:  Religion and Society in Early Modern Europe.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 70.]

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