{15}     Catholic Counter Reformation

ERA 5 << Modern Church (1): Reformation & Struggles (AD 1500–1700) >> SESSION 4

Reference: Gonzalez, volume 2, chapters 12-13

        15.1.1  Queen Isabella’s reformation in Spain

·         Problems: When Isabella became queen in Spain [1474], there were many problems in the church: [1] Many prelates were also great lords, and they did not care about their religious duty. [2] Lower clergy were insufficiently trained. [3] Monasticism was at a low ebb. The larger convents and monasteries were places of retreat for the illegitimate children of royalty and nobility.

·         Reforms: Isabella planned to reform the church so she obtained from the pope the right to fill high ecclesiastical posts. Francisco Jimenez (or Ximenes) de Cisneros (1436–1517) was an austere Franciscan monk and was confessor to the queen, and later appointed as archbishop. Isabella and Jimenez reformed the monasteries. They printed books and a multilingual edition of the Bible, affirming the superiority of the Bible over tradition.

        15.1.2  Activities of the Inquisition

·         Inquisition: In 1478, the Inquisition was placed by the pope under the authority of Ferdinand and Isabella. The objective was to purge the church of false adherents. It was first under Tomas de Torquemada, a Dominican friar. Doctrinal deviation was severely punished and tortured. It was used against heretics who were mostly Jews who had been converted under duress. It sought to purify the church through austerity, devotion, and scholarship, but insisted on strict adherence to traditional dogma. Coercive penalties included confiscation of goods and property, imprisonment, public scourging, the galleys, exile, and death.

·         Unjust practices: The Inquisition operated on many unjust rules. [1] It acted on the presumption that the accused was guilty until he could establish his innocence. [2] People were encouraged to inform on one another. Secrecy was a primary feature of inquisitorial procedure. [3] After imprisonment the accused was deprived of all visitation by his friends. Papers bearing upon his case were kept from him. He was not even informed of the names of his accusers or those who gave testimony against him. [4] The testimony of the most unworthy witnesses was considered acceptable—even that of Jews, heretics, and excommunicated persons. On the other hand, only those who were non-relatives and known as zealous for the orthodox Catholic faith could testify in behalf of the accused. [5] Painful torture of the accused was permissible in order to extract confessions and information on accomplices. The intention was to provide a deterrent to others who might be inclined to heresy.

·         Against Jews: It was decreed [1492] that all Jews must either accept baptism or leave all territories under Isabella and Ferdinand. About 200,000 Spaniards of the Jewish faith were condemned to exile.

·         Against Moors: Jimenez was appointed Inquisitor General [1507], and appointed regent after the monarchs died [1516]. He forced the conversion of Moors and the result was rebellion and bloodshed.

·         Against Protestants: During the Reformation, the target was turned to the Protestants. Perhaps 2,000 were burned as heretics. Thousands were exiled.

·         End: The Spanish Inquisition was not abolished until 1834. In the 250 years of the Inquisition [1478–1834], the number of executions was not known. A conservative figure was about 15,000. But it could be as high as 150,000.


        15.2.1  Suppression of Protestantism with theological arguments

·         Jacobus Latomus (1475–1544)—This Flemish theologian was a theological advisor to the Inquisition. He believed that it was sufficient to understand the Bible perfectly with Latin alone, so he argued that there was no need to study the Bible in Hebrew or Greek.

·         Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621)—He was the systematizer of Catholic theology against Protestants. He helped in the accusation against Galileo (1564–1642), who taught the theory of the Earth rotating around the sun. The Inquisition declared [1616] that it is the Earth, not the sun, that is at the centre of the universe and that the sun moves around the Earth. Galileo’s theory was condemned as heretical. Bellarmine’s book Controversies was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books [1592] because he believed that the pope possessed indirect, but not direct, temporal power.

·         Caesar Baronius (1538–1607)—He was a Cardinal and a Catholic historian. He wrote Ecclesiastical Annals answering Protestant historians’ contention that Roman Catholicism had deviated from original Christianity.

        15.2.2  New monastic orders

·         Effect: The founding of these new orders led to a new respect for the RCC.

·         Oratory of Divine Love [1517–1527]—It was an informal organization of 60 important church leaders. The main objective was in deepening spiritual life by spiritual exercises. It also supported works of charity and reform. Giovanni Pietro Caraffa (1476–1559), who became Pope Paul IV [1555], was the most famous member of this organization.

·         Theatine Order [1524]—It was founded by Gaetano di Tiene (1480–1547). The order followed the threefold rule of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but with an additional emphasis in preaching, teaching, and social services.

·         Capuchin Order [1525]—It was founded by Matteo da Bascio (1495–1552). It was a reformed branch of Franciscans, wearing pointed hood and bare-footed. They appealed to the peasants with its self-sacrificing spirit of service and popular type of preaching.

·         Ursuline Order for women [1535]—It was founded by Angela Merici (1474–1540). It chief objective was to care for the sick and to educate girls.

·         Discalced (“Barefoot”) Carmelites [1562]—It was founded by Teresa of Avila (1515–1582). She had frequent visions. She founded many convents throughout Spain. She spent much time in mystical contemplation leading to visions or to ecstasy. Her book The Way of Perfection [1566] stressed the importance of praying with the mind—but without despising vocal prayer. Her book Interior Castle [1577] was a classic exposition of the stages of mystical prayer. For her, the purpose of the life of prayer is to progress through 7 dwelling places until reaching God Himself.

·         Male branch of the Discalced Carmelites [1568]—It was founded by John of the Cross (1542–1591) after he became an ally of Teresa. He was a famous mystic who wrote two wellknown books Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night of the Soul [1587]. The latter book describes the journey of the soul from its bodily home to a union with God.

·         Society of Jesus or Jesuits [1540]—Ignatius Loyola (1491–1556) gathered a group of well-educated monks at Montserrat (near Barcelona), aiming at winning back believers from Protestantism. They swore vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to the pope. In addition, they operated like a military, vowing to serve the pope “without delay”. With sanction by Pope Paul III, the Society of Jesus or Jesuits was founded [1540].

o        Objectives: [1] to reform the church from within, especially through education, [2] to fight heresy, especially against Protestants, [3] to preach the gospel to the pagan world.

o        Results: It began an offensive against Protestants patterned after the military, contributing to the polemic against Protestantism. Their missionary zeal led them to carry Christianity to the Far East and the Americas. They regained southern Holland and Poland for the RCC.

o        Loyola’s book: Loyola’s famous book Spiritual Exercises [1548] was used to guide the Jesuit recruits into a spiritual experience that would make them faithful members of the order. It was a program of meditation for 4 weeks with a main theme in each week: purgation of sin, the kingdom of Jesus Christ, the passion of Jesus Christ, and the risen Jesus Christ.

o        Problems: The ethical relativism of the Jesuits made them justify any means to accomplish their ends. Their undue interference in politics made them unpopular.

        15.2.3  Papal reforms

·         Pope Adrian VI [1522–1523]—He had lofty ideals and wanted to reform the Catholic church but his reign was short.

·         Pope Clement VII [1523–1534]—He also wanted to reform but there was the break with England and the troops of Charles V sacked Rome.

·         Paul III [1534–1549]—He was tainted with nepotism—his son was made duke and his grandsons made cardinals. He continued the system of exploitation collecting funds from all European nations, approved the Jesuits, called the Council of Trent. He appointed a commission of 9 reform-minded leaders who were authorized to report the abuses in the church. They attributed the corruption in the church to the fault of former popes and corrupt cardinals who had sold offices indiscriminately [1537].

·         Paul IV [1555–1559]—He equated the need for reformation with strict uniformity, increased the activity of the Inquisition to the point of terror, published the Index of Forbidden Books [1559], cleansed the Roman curia and eliminated nepotism. The Index listed the books that the faithful were not permitted to read. In the first edition, the books of Erasmus and Protestant editions of the Bible were included. The Index was kept up to date until abolished in 1966.

        15.2.4  Missionary efforts

·         Catholic missionary century: The 16th-c was the great century of Roman Catholic missions. After the heavy losses to Protestantism in Europe, the RCC began a major missionary effort to regain its influence by sending missionaries to outside Europe, subsequently gaining Central and South America, Quebec, Indonesia, and the Philippines. In 17th-c, Pope Gregory XV created the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith [1622].

        15.2.5  Reconciliation effort

·         Colloquies: Leading Protestant and Roman Catholic theologians sought to reach an understanding in a series of colloquies in Germany, including Frankfurt [1539], Worms [1539], and Regensburg [1541]. The Protestants were led by Bucer, Melanchthon, and Calvin. The Roman Catholic side was led by the Catholic humanists. They were disciples of Erasmus who were sympathetic to the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith, and did not wish to see the division of the Western church.

·         Regensburg [1541]—Cardinal Gasparo Contarini (1483–1542), who played a leading role at this colloquy, had himself had a conversion experience similar to Luther’s. While agreement was reached over justification by faith, there was no room for compromise in the questions of transubstantiation and papal authority.

·         Impact: The failure of the attempts to conciliate the Protestants opened the door to the Roman hardliners. The council was called [1542] after the failure of the colloquies.


15.3  Council of Trent [15451563]

        15.3.1  The meeting

·         Reluctance: After the conciliar movement, the popes were afraid of convoking the general council for the fear that it would again claim supremacy over the popes. However, the RCC needed to deal with the serious challenge of Protestantism. The council was called by Pope Paul III [1534–1549] to deal with the challenge. There were 5 different popes between the beginning and the end of the council.

·         Papal control: It was met in Trent in northern Italy. In the first session, there were 31 prelates, increasing to 213 in the last session, but still very far from being representative of all churches. There were 3 separate sessions [1545–1547, 1551–1552, 1562–1563]. At most of the 25 meetings, there were never more than 75 present. Italians always accounted for about three-quarters of the attendees so the council was under tight papal control.

·         Objectives: The objectives were: [1] to define Roman Catholic doctrine in opposition to Protestantism, and [2] to introduce disciplinary reforms within the RCC.

·         Issues: There were definitions of doctrine over a wide range of areas—Scripture and tradition, original sin, justification, the sacraments, purgatory, relics and images, indulgences. The council produced more definition and legislation than the previous 18 general councils put together. Afterwards, Pope Pius IV confirmed all the decrees of the council [1564].

·         Impact: Trent dominated the RCC for 400 years, the period after the council being called “Tridentine Catholicism” (adjective of Trent). It ended with the Council of Vatican II [1962–1965].

        15.3.2  Measures of reform

·         Internal reforms: The council made numerous reforms, including: [1] bishops were to reside in their sees; [2] pluralism (holding of several ecclesiastic offices by one person) was condemned; [3] relics and indulgences were regulated; [4] seminars were founded to train priests; [5] the study of Thomas Aquinas was promoted.

·         End of conciliarism: It marked the final triumph of papal absolutism against conciliarism.

        15.3.3  Reaction against Protestantism

·         On the Vulgate: The Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, was declared to be authoritative in matters of dogma; in opposition to the Protestant emphasis of the authority of the Bible in its original languages.

·         On tradition: Tradition has authority parallel to the Bible; in opposition to the Protestant emphasis of sole authority of the Bible (sola scriptura).

·         On sacraments: There are 7 sacraments; in opposition to the Protestant acceptance of only 2 sacraments instituted by Christ.

·         On the mass: The mass is a true sacrifice; it can be offered for the benefit of the deceased; in opposition to the Protestant rejection of the repetitive sacrifice in the mass and prayer for the dead. (The Catholic cross showing the body of Christ on it represents a symbolic opposition to the Protestant cross without any body, as Protestants believe that the sacrifice of Christ is now complete.)

·         On transubstantiation: Communion in both kinds is not necessary (up to now, the laity received only the bread). The dogma of transubstantiation was reaffirmed; in opposition to the Protestant opposition to transubstantiation and the Protestant insistence for both kinds given to the laity.

·         On justification: Justification is based on faith and subsequent good works done; in opposition to the Protestant teaching of justification by faith alone (sola fide).


Spiritual effects of medieval sacraments (from Enns’s book)




regeneration, confers spiritual life


nourishes spiritual life


strengthens spiritual life


restores spiritual life if lost through sin

Extreme unction

heals the soul; sometimes the body also

Holy orders

creates rulers of the church


God’s blessing on family; children produced; heaven filled with the elect


        15.4.1  Impact of the Reformation

·         End of papal control: The Reformation [1517–1545] meant the end of the control of the universal church by the papacy. Yet, the national churches did not break completely from the past. Both Protestants and Roman Catholics accepted the great ecumenical creeds (Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed). Both held similar doctrines on Trinity, the deity and resurrection of Christ, the Bible as revelation from God, the fall of man, original sin, and the need for moral life for the Christian.

·         End of widespread corruption: Reformation forced the RCC into their own reforms and missionary work. The widespread corruption of the medieval Roman Church never appeared again.

·         Unity of Protestants: The Protestants agreed on salvation by faith alone, the sole authority of the Bible as an infallible rule of faith and practice, and the priesthood of all believers (everyone can approach God individually). In addition, each denomination held its own particular doctrinal viewpoint (denominational distinctives).

·         End of reconciliation: For several decades, the Protestant reformers hoped that a universal council would prove them right and set the pope’s house in order. But exactly the opposite took place. The Council of Trent was not a truly international and ecumenical tribunal, but rather a tool in the hands of the papacy. After that, reconciliation with Protestantism was impossible.

·         Accessibility to the Bible: By emphasizing the Bible as the final authority and the right of private interpretation, the Reformation encouraged the translation of the Bible into the vernacular. Indeed, the success of the Reformation in different nations was almost always preceded by the publication of the Bible.

·         Creeds: The Reformation was the second great period of creedal development after the first period between 325 and 451.

·         Religious wars & tolerance: There was general agreement among Christians that the church was by essence one, and that its unity must be seen in structure and hierarchy. The view of national unity was linked with religious uniformity. This caused many wars of religion between Catholics and Protestants. Such violence was due to the firmness of the convictions of the leaders. Eventually, the conclusion was reached that religious agreement was not necessary for the security of the state. Gradually, a policy of religious tolerance was reached.

·         Collapse of political unity: The ancient dream of political unity under the empire collapsed. The last one who had such a dream was Charles V. After him, the emperors were little more than kings of Germany.

·         Change of power: The medieval foundations—the papacy, the empire, tradition—were no longer solid. The ancient feudal system was gradually replaced by the early stages of capitalism which was partly stimulated by the insistence on thrift and industry by the reformers.

·         Individualism & democracy: Protestantism led to religious individualism. The assertions that justification was by faith alone and that man could have direct personal access to God raised the importance of the individual. This led to an insistence of political equality and the rise of democracy both in the civil and the ecclesiastic governments.

·         Continuing hope: The reformers stood firm on their faith in the power of the Word of God. They hoped that one day the RCC will listen to the Word and reforms advocated by them will take place.



[1] treasure our heritage

The Reformation marked the beginning of the modern era. Religion was the main force and component of human history.

[2] appreciate God’s providence

Though bringing many struggles, the Reformation also brought many benefits to the church, the society, and western culture.

[3] avoid past errors

The many unbiblical decisions of the Council of Trent were reaction to challenges. Decisions made in such situations must be careful.

[4] apply our knowledge

The elements in Protestantism condemned by Trend are precisely the elements that Protestant should defend, based on the Bible.

[5] follow past saints

Some monastic leaders, though part of the RCC, wrote inspired writings that can teach all Christians.



        What were the good and the bad about Jimenez, the Inquisitor General of the Spanish Inquisition?

o        Jimenez was an austere monk and a scholar. He wanted to reform the church and correct the corruption. He was even imprisoned for 10 years for refusing to participate in corrupt practices.

o        He was over-zealous in his work for the Spanish Inquisition which executed perhaps 2,000 people and forced another 300,000 to exile under him. He tried to force conversion of Jews and Moors, resulting in rebellion and bloodshed.

        What were the unbiblical decisions made at the Council of Trent? What were the Protestant positions for those issues?

o        The Council of Trent was not an international or ecumenical gathering. There were only 31 prelates in the first session, and 213 in the last. It was a tool in the hands of the papacy.

o        The main objective is to condemn and repel Protestantism. The decisions include:

          The Vulgate (Latin translation of the Bible) is authoritative in the matters of dogma. [Protestant: The Bible in its original languages is authority.]

          Tradition has an authority parallel to that of the Bible. [Protestant: The Bible is the sole authority.]

          There are 7 sacraments. [Protestant: There are 2 sacraments: baptism and holy communion.]

          Mass is a true sacrifice. [Protestant: The holy communion is symbolic remembrance. However, according to Calvin, it has spiritual value and is a means of grace.]

          Mass can be offered for the benefit of the deceased. [Protestant: Nothing can be done for the benefit of the deceased.]

          It is not necessary for the laity to receive both the bread and the wine. [Protestant: Both the bread and the wine are for the laity.]

          Justification is based on good works done through the collaboration between grace and the believer. [Protestant: Justification is completely by God’s grace and by faith. Good works are the result of justification but are not necessary for salvation.]

o        A list of extra-Biblical practices of the RCC includes: (from Enns’s book)

          purgatory [593]

          prayer to Mary, saints, and angels [600]

          kissing the pope’s foot [709]

          canonization of dead saints [995]

          celibacy of the priesthood [1079]

          rosary (prayer beads) [1099]

          transubstantiation [1215]

          confessing sins to a priest [1215]

          7 sacraments [1439]

        What was the main reason for the many religious wars? Was it a legitimate reason?

o        The predominant view was that national unity was linked with religious uniformity. The theory was that different religions among the citizens would undermine the security of the state.

o        Using persecution to force uniformity in religion is absolutely not supported by the Bible. Even God has never compelled anyone to seek him. God allows man a free-will, even though evil came into the world because of it.

o        Uniformity of religion is an ideal case but diversity in religion does not by itself cause the downfall of the state.