The Counter-Reformation: How did the Catholic Church Reinvent Itself?

The Counter-Reformation is represented by images of burning piles of books and crowds of Jesuits but also by splendid baroque churches and increased literacy.

Aug 11, 2023By Barbora Jirincova, PhD History

counter reformation


The Counter-Reformation or the Catholic Reformation? However we name it, we are talking about the same thing — or are we? In the case of the Protestant Reformation, we know exactly what Martin Luther and others like him did and we have learned to connect their actions with positive values like modernity or even democracy and freedom of thought. In contrast, Catholic reform has been closely tied with the Counter-Reformation and is still seen as a reactionary, despotic movement. The truth is, as usual, more complicated than that.


The Counter-Reformation of the Catholic Reformation

The Catholic faith defeats Protestant heresies, by Johann Michael Rottmayr, 1729, Karlskirche Vienna, dome fresco, via Wikimedia Commons


The Counter-Reformation was not just a reaction to the Reformation. The famous Council of Trent was the council that people had been calling for, for two hundred years. When Martin Luther explained what was wrong with the Church, he was not the first to say it out loud. And people listened because he gave them answers to the questions they had been asking for a long time. Among them: Is this the Church Jesus meant when he gave Saint Peter the keys?


Are these prelates in their luxurious gowns with all their splendor, their mistresses, and their secular power the shepherds of souls? What would Jesus say?


Not everybody wanted to part with thousands of years of the Church’s history and split the Church in two. Tradition is important, and so are rituals. Luther himself didn’t part from everything. He, himself, was given Catholic education and read Catholic authors, and they inspired him. But in the end, he decided to split the Church to build a new tradition and new rituals. Some heard his call but the others refused it.

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The Need for the Catholic Reformation

Saint Peter in Tears, by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1650 – 1655, via Wikimedia Commons


Those who refused to hear the call of Martin Luther and decided to stay under the wings of the Catholic Church with its 1500 years of tradition, did not do so out of greed for either power or wealth. Some remained loyal out of fear; fear for one’s soul can be a great incentive. But most of them felt it was wrong to part with tradition.


Yet they also saw that the Church needed reform. English theologian John Wycliffe and Czech preacher John Hus called for reform in the 14th and 15th centuries. On the very council that burned John Hus as a heretic, the cardinals swore to the new pope to reform the Church. The reform did not come. The new pope and his successors fought for power with the Council.


The Renaissance papacy that came in the 16th century had crossed all imaginable lines. The popes had mistresses, appointed their children to positions within and outside the Church, led wars, ruled as secular rulers, and used their immense wealth to create splendid works of art. Historians of art love them for it, and we love them for it as we travel around Rome and admire its beauty. But the believers of the 16th century would rightly ask whether their soul is safe in the hands of those who must be unworthy in the eyes of God. And those literate enough to put their fears into words asked the right questions and called for reform: Girolamo Savonarola, Pico della Mirandola, and Erasmus of Rotterdam, to name just some of them.


The Protestant Reformation

Luther Before the Diet of Worms, by Anton von Werner, 1877, via Staatsgalerie Stuttgart


Scholars today cannot agree on whether we should call it the Counter-Reformation or the Catholic Reformation. Some say that the Catholic Church decided to undergo reform only after the Protestant Reformation started and only to be able to strike back. Thus, it should be called the Counter-Reformation. Others proclaim that the calls for reform came from within the Church, and Luther and his successors had nothing to do with it. Who is right? Both.


Catholics clearly saw the need for reform and understood why people followed Luther. But they decided to act only when the Protestant Reformation started, won followers, and worse, gained powerful supporters. Whole states suddenly left the Catholic camp, and even in places where rulers remained faithful, they could not ensure that their subjects followed suit because there was nothing to offer them. The empty, secular, corrupted Church that Martin Luther rightly criticized had nothing to offer to the desperate souls hungry for spiritual relief. Catholics had to think, act, and grow if they were to win back their positions.


Furthermore, the Catholic Church had to overcome its fear of the very thing it had dreaded since the time of Saint Paul — change. The Catholic Reformation was a masterpiece in many ways. But what is most remarkable is that the Church convinced its believers and to a certain degree itself, that nothing had changed. The cardinals, bishops, churches, liturgy, and education looked completely different before and after the Council of Trent. But, emphasis was put on tradition and continuity, nonetheless.


The Council of Trent

Pope Paulus III has a vision of the Council of Trento, by Sebastiano Ricci, 1687-1688, via WIkimedia Commons


In schools, we teach that the Counter-Reformation started with the Council of Trent. The Council of Trent took place from 1545 to 1563, not only in Trent but also in Vicenza and Bologna. Those long years were filled less with theological disputes than with the political intrigues of secular rulers and the different interests of various popes, cardinals, and emperors. The majority of the decrees originated in the last sessions of the Council with the Spanish King Philip II and the diplomatic Pope Pius IV presiding. These two men acted in accord and thus brought the needed political support for the reform.


The Council of Trent, Pasquale Cati, 1588, Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome, via Wikimedia Commons


The Council of Trent greatly disappointed everybody who thought it could reconcile the Protestant and Catholic split. Because it only confirmed what the Protestants refused. The matter of the Sacraments was settled. Martin Luther lowered the number of sacraments and significantly reduced their meaning when he emphasized faith. The Council of Trent proclaimed the importance of the sacraments. When Luther criticized the church tradition and encouraged his followers to abide by the Bible only, the Council of Trent declared that the Church fathers were as important as the Bible itself and that their writings were binding for all Christians. When Luther found mistakes in the Latin translation of the Bible (the Vulgate), the Council of Trent insisted that God and his angels led Saint Jerome when writing this translation. So there could be no mistakes. But secretly and silently, the corrections were made. All rituals were to remain the same, but after the success of singing in Protestant churches, the Council emphasized music during the mass.


The Council of Trent and the Counter-Reformation

The Council in Trident, by Johann Cranach, 1788, Fresco, Library of the College Eger, via hung-art


The Council of Trent is rightfully called the Counter-Reformation council. Because it addressed the issues which the Protestants raised and gave the answers that no Protestants could ever agree with. For the Protestants, it was too late; they could not change their minds now, or could they? It turned out that it was not dogma that converted their souls. It was the culture and practical acts of the bishops and cardinals won them their positions and finished the crisis. Because the Council of Trent was just the beginning, this was not the reform itself. Its sole goal was to ensure that nobody would ever doubt dogma again; nobody would ever question the tradition or the authority this tradition brought. The Council aimed to strengthen that doctrine, the base on which the Church had stood for centuries, and wipe out any deviations. It clearly stated: if you want to stay with us, accept that some things will never change. But within this framework, everything changed.


The Catholic Reformation

Portrait of Charles Borromeo, by Giovanni Ambrogio Figino, 1575 – 1599, via Pinacoteca Ambrosiana


First, the Church changed the clergy. It created a new ideal of a priest as a moral, chaste, and highly educated person. The new clergy would not shame the Church, and the bishops responsible for their dioceses from now on kept them under strict supervision and punished their moral transgressions accordingly. The new priests were to stand visibly apart from their believers. Priests now changed places often and never stayed in their hometowns.


Bishop gained more power and responsibility. Apart from strict control over his clergy, the bishop was now put on a pedestal as a moral model. He was to be very educated and had to preach often. When a bishop came to preach, it was to be a show worth remembering. The Catholics also had great help from baroque culture in all its splendor.


Furthermore, new orders would spring up. Education would thrive, and literacy would rise in Catholic regions. The new ideal of a Catholic would be created at the Jesuit schools — creating well-educated, impressive young men who would fervently defend their faith. Even women gained influence when they displayed their Catholic faith and discussed it in educated circles. The Counter-Reformation could start.


The Counter-Reformation

Equestrian portrait of Gustav II Adolph Wasa, Johann Jakob Walter, 1632, via Wikimedia Commons


The Council of Trent fortified the dogma. The Catholic Reformation created a new culture. In the 17th century, the Church was ready to regain its position. These new Catholics would not tolerate Protestant confession among their subjects. They applied strict measures against the so-called heretics — in Bavaria, Austrian lands, Czech lands, Hungary, England, and France. The Protestants were sent into exile, prevented from entering prominent positions, deprived of their possessions, and violence was sometimes used against them.


The Protestants in the 17th century stopped religious disputes and began their political struggles. So, Catholics were similarly persecuted in Denmark, Sweden, Saxony, England, and other places. The century of religious wars was about to begin. It would be bloody, and there would be no winner. But one thing we can be sure of. Without the Catholic Reformation, the Catholic Church would have stood no chance in this struggle.

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By Barbora JirincovaPhD HistoryBarbora is a historian and a university teacher from the Czech Republic. She studies the history of women and the early modern ages. She holds a Ph.D. in history from Charles University in Prague, where she teaches. She is passionate about teaching history to the broader public. Understanding history can make the world a better place. She is also a contributing writer and copywriter and loves writing on various topics.