The Reformation: the Catholic Response

Posted on November 19, 2011 by


After doing some initial reading on the Reformation, I decided that I wanted to delve deeper into the Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation. I knew this topic would be crucial in improving my understanding of the Reformation. Unlike my previous project, I turned directly to the school databases in order to find more accurate information on the topic broadly known as the Counter-Reformation. Subsequent to sifting through a few encyclopedia-like sources, I narrowed down my search for the primary source document that my research would hinge on. Finding this primary source was perhaps the most difficult part of the project, but thanks to the Hanover College Historical Texts project, I was able to find a document that was extremely relevant to my research. The document I discovered was a transcription of the fifth session of the Council of Trent, an organization that was at the core of the Catholic response to the reformation. Further on, I will go into more detail about the Council itself. Overall, the information I was able to extract from the document was very useful in helping me to better understand the Reformation as a whole.

Beginning with the school databases, I soon learned that the Counter-Reformation, taking place around the same time as the Protestant Reformation (the 16th century), actually consisted of 2 separate movements. One of the movements was a defensive reaction against the already in-progress Protestant Reformation, but the other was a reform of the Catholic Church itself. Upon learning this, I realized that the Catholic Church may have already been pushing itself towards a reform by the time the Protestant Reformation initiated in full. Prior to the actual Counter-Reformation, there was lots of criticism of the attitudes and policies of the popes and clergy, and many people were calling for a reform in the church. The Catholic Church responded to this by creating several new religious groups, such as the Theatines, Capuchines, Ursulines, and Jesuits, in order to display a revival to the critics. As the situation escalated, Pope Paul III, the first pope during the Counter-Reformation, created the Council of Trent.

The information I learned after this divides itself into two sections: the Counter-Reformation and the Catholic Reform. For the purposes of this post, I will start with the Counter-Reformation.

While the Council of Trent (more details on the Council later) was huge in impacting the Counter-Reformation, they were not the only organization created in order to fight Protestantism. The Roman Inquisition, established in 1542, was designed to combat heresy. It was quickly realized that the Inquisition was much more successful in controlling doctrines and practices in areas where Protestant leaders were more powerful than the Catholic Church compared to similar groups designed with the same objective in mind. Perhaps the most apparent examples of direct involvement, whether political or military, against Protestant growth are the policies of Emperor Charles V and Philip II, a prominent case being the Spanish Inquisition.

In contrast to the actions of the Catholic leaders, several wars broke out when Catholic governments attempted to stop the spread of Protestantism in their countries. A civil war began in France in 1562 and remained unresolved until 1598, while a rebellion in the Netherlands lasted from 1566 to 1648. A religious war between Spain and England initiated in 1585 and continued until 1604. All of these conflicts, including the Thirty Years’ War show us just how much violence surrounded the Reformation.

Less direct methods of combating Protestantism were also employed. Theologians, such as the Jesuit Robert Bellarmine, attacked the position of the Protestant Reformers. Unfortunately for the Catholic Church, the writings of Luther and Calvin had a much more powerful impact among the general populace. The church also placed much emphasis on missionary endeavors to places colonized by Catholic nations, and there were several attempts to reconvert England and Sweden, both formerly Catholic areas.

The information I gathered from here on pertains to the part of the Counter-Reformation known as the Catholic Reform. In Spain, during the early 1500’s, the cardinal Fransisco Ximenes de Cisneros tried to end the abuses that had been developed in the church. In addition, the Council of Trent made attempts to eradicate the abuses developed in the clergy itself. Bishops were ordered to live in their dioceses, visit parishes, and establish seminaries to train priests. The Capuchins played a major role in the revival movement due to their preaching, the Jesuits and Dominicans lead a renewal of philosophy and theology at Catholic universities, and Jesuit institutions were implemented to instruct upper-class European Catholic families. Books on meditation and personal reform became very popular, and other institutions were established to teach catechism (a sort of religious Q and A for the purpose of centralizing church teachings). As an additional effect of the Catholic Reform, there was a flourishing of art and literature.

As I realized after discovering all this information, the Council of Trent was one of the most important organizations in the Counter-Reformation overall. Initiated by Pope Paul III (as stated above), it was an ecumenical council with the authority to alter the doctrines and practices of the Catholic Church. There were three major periods of discussion: the first from 1545-1547, the second from 1550-1552, and the last from 1562-1563. The decrees of the council were issued on a wide range of topics, and a few of these even impacted the church in the New World. The Council established that bishops should be the pastors of their dioceses, not merely run them from afar. Several financial issues were regulated, such as the endowment and support of benefices and the creation and regulation of religious works. The Council also released lists of forbidden book as well as passing restrictions regarding the translation of the Bible. Several of their decrees were designed to reform the clergy and emphasize the authority of the bishop in his diocese. Catechisms were also implemented in the diocese. Due to the distances involved, the ecclesiastical provinces of Mexico and Peru were unable to implement the decrees of the Council until around 1585.

The primary source document I analyzed was a transcription of the Fifth Session of the Council of Trent. I specifically looked at the “Decree on Reformation”, as I felt that pertained most directly to my research. The “Decree” contained a lot of information on the specifics of the laws the Council passed in order to change the Catholic Church. Originally, the church had established that those who received a paycheck, as it were, from the church were required to interpret scripture (or find a “competent substitute”)

” But, for the future, let not such prebend, prestimony, or stipend be bestowed save on competent persons, and those who can themselves discharge that office; and otherwise let the provision made be null and void.”

The Council changed it so only “competent persons” should be paid by the church, and of these people the money goes only to those who interpret scripture (instead of the other way around). Overall, the document really focuses on returning to scripture and increasing the salaries of those involved with the scripture. The decrees make attempts to increase the overall education of the clergy, and it also requires the government to provide for the church is necessary.

” let them at least have a master–to be chosen by the bishop, with the advice of the chapter–to teach grammar gratuitously to clerics, and other poor scholars, that so they may afterwards, with God’s blessing, [Page 26] pass on to the said study of sacred Scripture.”

The decrees also places emphasis on assessing people in positions of authority among the clergy to make sure there are no incompetent personnel in those positions. Finally, lectureships were incorporated in several churches and monasteries, seemingly for the purpose of increasing the number of Catholics by spreading awareness. Such lectures likely contain anti-Protestant sentiment in order to “defend” Catholicism.

Overall, I found this primary source document to be extremely helpful in increasing my understanding of the Reformation as a whole. The Council of Trent played a huge role in reforming the Catholic Church, yet, considering the prevalence of Protestantism today, were not quite as effective in reducing Protestantism. The primary source showed me that the church made serious efforts to fight corruption and ensure that their staff truly deserved the positions they were in. The research also showed me how much conflict surrounded the Reformation. In general, I enjoyed this research and came away with some useful skills regarding primary sources.

Works Cited:

Counter-Reformation.” Encyclopædia BritannicaEncyclopædia Britannica Online School Edition.
Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 2011. Web. 3 Nov. 2011.

Donnelly, John Patrick. “Counter Reformation.” World Book Advanced. World Book, 2011. Web.  3 Nov. 2011.

Schwaller, John F. “Council of Trent.” In Thomas M. Leonard, ed. Encyclopedia of Latin America: Amerindians through Foreign Globalization, vol. 1. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2010. Ancient and Medieval History Online. Facts On File, Inc.
ItemID=WE49&iPin=ELAI0085&SingleRecord=True (accessed November 3, 2011).

Trans. Waterworth, J. The Council of Trent: The Fifth Session. 17 Jun. 1546, manuscript. London: Dolman, 1848. Hanover Historical Texts Project. 1995. Hanover College. 7 Nov. 2011 <>

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