The Catholic Church did not remain stagnant when the Protestant Reformation began. Many Catholics recognized the need for reform. Some interpreters suggest Catholicism merely reacted to Protestant efforts. Others argue the Counter Reformation came from a sincere effort on the part of the church to reform abuses.
I want to simply take a look at some Catholicism's efforts to correct abuses. After that, I'll talk about one of the chief proponents for Catholic reform.
I. Catholic Reform from Within
The Avignon period left European Catholics aware that the church needed reform. Many rose up within and without the church to push it toward reform. European Catholics strenuously objected to papal moral and financial abuses. Councils attempted reform but left the church's superstructure unchanged. Some Popes promised reform prior to their selection but once elected they conveniently forgot or directed their energies elsewhere.
Protestant reform and rebellion finally brought home the desperate need for reform. Just after the Reformation began, Emperor Charles V tried to convene a council to deal with the reform movement's threat. He hoped the council would institute reform and reunify the dissident bodies. The popes refused to respond. Some buried their heads in the sand and refused to recognize the situation's gravity. Others rejected the call for a council because they feared a return to conciliarism accopanied by a corresponding loss of papal power and prestige.
In 1512, the Fifth Lateran Council enacted some reform measures. The council met in Rome, but Leo X participated with a complacent attitude. The council enacted some reforms on paper but they accomplished little. Five years later Luther nailed his theses to the Wittenberg chapel door.
The Council of Trent, which met sporadically between 1545 and 1563, enacted some reform. The council established most current Catholic doctrine. Among its reforms were measures which established funds to teach the clergy the Bible. This responded to Protestant claims that the Catholic clergy was biblically illiterate--which it was! Further, the council ordered the clergy "to preach the gospel" instead of emphasizing church tradition. The council also forbade Monks to preach without license from the bishop. This measure gave bishops greater general oversight over preaching content in his See. It also gave a greater unity of content and avoided conflict between the regular and secular clergy.
In administrative and organizational details, the Council of Trent decreed that those bishops holding more than one major benefice (Cathedral Church) should resign all but one. The council also established the minimum age at 14 for those holding official positions.
The council also began a thorough reform of monastic moral life. Church leaders commanded clergy to exercise principles of stewardship and thrift in their management of funds. They also made solid efforts to bring the moral character of ecclesiastical officials to a higher plane. Clergymen could no longer keep concubines. Illegitimate sons could not hold church positions.
In doctrinal issues, the council pronounced the Apocrypha canonical. The council further stated that baptism removes the stain of Adam's sin (original sin). They condemned John Calvin's predestinarianism but adopted a modified doctrine of predestination. The council reaffirmed the seven sacraments as essential doctrine.
None of these reforms reduced tensions in Europe. The reforms served to let everyone know just where Catholicism stood and Catholicism enjoyed some fruit from their efforts. The Pope maintained solid control over the council guaranteeing continuing papal power. The council placed tradition on equal footing with Scripture as the basis for church authority. Further, the council declared the Vulgate version as the only authorized Scripture translation.
In addition to these reform efforts, other labors arose within Catholicism. We've spoken of the growth of mysticism among the Brethren of the Common Life and others. The church experienced a new wave of interest in theological education. The church also renewed the Inquisition as an instrument for arresting and trying heretics. The Inquisition operated over widespread areas even to the extent it was practiced on the American continent by enthusiastic Catholics.
During this period, probably out of necessity, the church began supervising all printed matter. They issued their first list of approved and prohibited books in the middle of the 1500s. Today Catholic books generally carry the notations, nihil obstat (nothing conflicts), or, imprimatur (it may be printed), to let faithful Catholics know whether the book is prohibited. For many years, the church placed the vernacular New Testament on the prohibited list.
II. The Society of Jesus
The Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits, stands as one of the church's most outstanding expressions of the Catholic Reformation. Ignatius Loyola, a former Spanish soldier of fortune, founded this order as a reforming society.
Loyola (1491-1556) served his King and Queen well as a soldier. He read widely of the romance of chivalry but as a soldier was a typical rough, crude man. During a military campaign a cannonball struck him, severely wounding him. One leg ended up shorter than the other ending his military career. Since he had no access to romantic literature in hospital, he read religious material. So entranced was he that he decided to serve the "queen of heaven" since he could no longer serve his earthly queen.
After his release from the hospital, Loyola went to Paris where he entered the famous University of Paris. Because of his age he felt somewhat out of place among the younger men on campus. His devotion and leadership skills soon caused a group to gather around him. Among them was Francis Xavier. This small "campus ministry" became the nucleus for the Jesuit order.
The Pope approved the order's formation in 1540 and made responsible only to himself. No Bishop or Archbishop could supervise Jesuits, they answered only to the Pope. Jesuits became the church's militia for recovering Europe from heresy. Jesuits formed the backbone of the Inquisition. Contemporaries described them as fanatics who beheaded kings if it furthered the church's cause. They're probably right!
Loyola instituted innovations which made their work highly effective. He did away with a number of medieval practices. For example, he discarded the Mendicant Orders' habits and uniform dress. He completely restructured the liturgy. He abandoned democratic government by organizing his society into a militaristic regime. Loyola's followers maintained a fierce loyalty to him, as general of the Order, and Loyola answered only to the Pope. He also introduced "simple" vows which a recruit could drop should one decide to leave the order. His order required a strict training period to acquaint the new Jesuit with the order's spirit. An inductee first went through "first probation" which served as an orientation period. The novice then served two years in "noviceship" which was devoted to self-denial. The Candidate then entered "tertianship," another period of self-denial after which he was a full member of the order.
The Jesuit order was successful by any standard. When Loyola died in 1556 over 1,000 Jesuit missionaries worked throughout the world. Canisius labored in Germany and reclaimed southern Germany for Catholicism. Xavier worked in Asia, India and as far east as Japan. Jesuits even followed the Conquistadores into America. Working out of encomiendas, a large estate centered around a school and a church, the Jesuits reached (enslaved) thousands of Indians. Catholic missionaries, some of whom were Jesuits, traveled throughout North America. Jesuits even had influential missionary works in Canada.
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