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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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7 occurrences of Dictionary_of_the_History_of_Ideas
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4. The Counter-Reformation. The Catholic revival
of the sixteenth century has two aspects. On the one
hand, like the Protestant Reformation itself, it can be
regarded as a religious revival, a reaction against the
ecclesiastical abuses that had been accumulating, and
a protest against the secularization of Church and
society. In this sense, if it ran parallel to the Lutheran
movement, it had in fact begun at an earlier date. And
one of its important features had been a purification
of the Church in Spain—a remarkable reform of
monasteries for example—before the end of the fif-
teenth century, that is to say, under Ferdinand and


Isabella, and chiefly through the piety of the latter.
One result of this was the fact that even the “Renais-
sance” in Spain had a peculiar character—it was
largely a regeneration of ecclesiastical scholarship, and
for a time it gave Erasmus a considerable influence
on the religious life of that country. In their program
for the New World the Spaniards gave a high place
to the idea of transplanting Christianity and a Christian
civilization to the other side of the Atlantic. Spanish
monks, using the Bible, canon law, and scholastic writ-
ings, assisted the transition to modern international law
by their works on the laws of war and the rights of
the native population, as they related to the overseas
empire. At the same time, the fanaticism and intoler-
ance of the Spaniards seems to have been an acquired
characteristic, a product of history. At an earlier date
they had been reproached by other Christians for their
laxity, their resort to infidel doctors, their visits to
Moorish courts, so long as the Muhammadans remained
in the peninsula. The enduring conflict with the infidel,
and the religious propaganda connected with it, helped
to make Spain more firmly Catholic, more intolerantly
orthodox, than any other country.

On the other hand there was a Counter-Reformation
in a stricter sense—the reaction against the Protestant
movement, which, to a Catholic was the greatest of
the disorders of the time. There was a moment when
some men were able to feel that the Catholic revival
might combine with the Lutheran movement, espe-
cially when more radical revolts had broken out and
a section of the Lutherans had taken a conservative
turn. A group of important Catholics were even sym-
pathetic to a certain form of the doctrine of justifica-
tion by faith; and when the accession of Pope Paul
III brought something of a turn towards a reformation
at Rome itself, the appointment of a number of cardi-
nals in the year 1534 was significant in the story, for
a handful of these belonged to this more liberalizing
group, including Cardinal Contarini and the English-
man, Cardinal Pole. The years 1537-41 saw the failure
of reunion negotiations which had been promoted in
France as well as Germany, and, from that time, the
men who had seemed prepared to broaden the basis
of the Church were in disrepute—indeed, more than
one of the Cardinals involved in this aspect of the
reforming movement was himself in danger from the

The years 1540-43 have special importance in the
history of the Counter-Reformation. In 1540 the Soci-
ety of Jesus was formed, and quickly attained an influ-
ence, though its widespread results were only to be
apparent in the second generation. In 1541 came the
failure of conferences between Catholics and Lutherans
at Ratisbon, so that the movement for comprehension
and reunion was now virtually at an end. And though
at this time there were disturbing manifestations of
Protestantism in a number of localities even in Italy,
effective action was now taken against the movement.
In 1542, Cardinal Contarini, the leader of the reformist
group died, and at about this time the stronger mem-
bers of that party passed off the stage, leaving Cardinal
Pole—a less effective personality—in the leading posi-
tion. In 1542, moreover, a General Council of the
Church was summoned; and, by this time, it had be-
come apparent that it would not represent an opposi-
tion to Rome in the way that the conciliar movement
of the fifteenth century had done. It would itself be
under the leadership of Rome.

Some controversy has been caused by the question
how far the leadership of Spain was responsible for
the turn which the Counter-Reformation took. Every-
where—in the peninsula itself, in Africa, in the Medi-
terranean and in America—Spain's enemy seemed to
be the infidel and the championship of orthodoxy had
become a major part of the national tradition. The
Jesuit Order was founded and organized by Spaniards
and its first generals were Spaniards. The new form
of papal Inquisition was influenced by the more pow-
erful and modern form of Inquisition that had been
established in Spain. The pope's chief assistants and
advisers at the Council of Trent, particularly on theo-
logical questions, were Spaniards. In the latter half of
the sixteenth century the Catholic party in the French
Wars of Religion and the supporters of Mary Tudor
in England looked to Spain, and the Counter-Reforma-
tion came to be identified with the aggressive policies
of Philip II.

At the same time one must not overlook the deter-
mined manner in which the popes set out to hold the
leadership in the Counter-Reformation. They were not
Spaniards; they were often anti-Spaniards, and now,
as in the past, they tended to be hostile to the Spanish
preponderance in Italy. The severest of the anti-
Protestant popes, Paul IV (Caraffa) had been a Domin-
ican and his religion may have been affected by his
residence in Spain at an earlier period in his life. But
even as Pope he found himself at war with Philip II,
and Spanish troops besieged him in Rome, where he
was defended by Lutheran mercenaries. The popes
were even a little hostile and jealous in their attitude
to the Jesuit Order at first, and this was partly because
that order seemed so closely connected with Spain. The
popes indeed would have liked to see the reform of
the Church carried out through committees and com-
missions in Rome, where in 1552 Julius III established
a Congregation of Reform.

Important sections of the Catholic world, headed by
the Emperor Charles V, had long wanted the summon-


ing of a General Council of the Church to reform
abuses, particularly the abuses in Rome. On various
occasions—in Germany early in the 1520's and in
France early in the 1550's—there had been threats of
a National Council of the Church to bring about eccle-
siastical reform within a single country. When the
Council met at Trent it made sure that its decrees
should reserve the rights of the pope, and should be
subject to his confirmation; also that he should have
the sole right of interpreting them. Throughout the
proceedings (which took place in three sessions be-
tween 1545 and 1563) papal diplomacy proved to be
remarkably effective. Perhaps the great dynamic fea-
tures of Protestantism, as it developed in later cen-
turies, lay in the way in which it confronted a man
with the Bible and allowed him to seize upon the things
which he internally ratified, the things which in his
spiritual experience he grasped as living and true; the
way also in which it could cut its way to the original
sources, and, by returning to the fountain of the faith,
disengage Christianity from the accidents of a long
period of intervening history.

Perhaps the great stabilizing feature of Catholicism
has been that it sought rather to preserve a tradition
of doctrine, so that a man did not just think out the
things he was to believe—he sought to discover the
teaching which had united Christians throughout the
centuries. On this system, at least one did not persecute
on behalf of doctrines that one had only recently
worked out for oneself. The impressive feature of the
Council of Trent is the way in which doctrine, instead
of issuing from some brilliant book by an individual
theologian, was threshed out by commissions that
sought to discover what had really been the tradition
of the centuries. On questions of dogma, a conservative
position was maintained. Against Luther's teaching
about the interpretation of the Bible it was agreed that
the Bible must be interpreted by the tradition and
conscience of the Church. And the authoritative ver-
sion was the Vulgate, which had been related to the
development of Church doctrine through so many
centuries. The Bible in the original languages was
available for academic work, but the decision of the
Church's doctrines was not to be transferred in a spirit
of literalism to the experts in philology.

Luther's doctrine of justification by faith was con-
demned at the first session of the Council in 1545, but
an opening was still left for the resurgence of the
tradition of Saint Augustine in the Jansenism of the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The doctrine of
predestination was condemned, but the Church had
never tolerated Pelagianism, and there was still room
in Catholicism for long quarrels between the Jesuits
and the Dominicans about the proportion to be attrib
uted to Divine Grace and to a man's free will in the
work of salvation. And though transubstantiation was
confirmed there was still room for controversy within
Catholicism about the interpretation of even this doc-
trine. In regard to an important dispute concerning
the question whether bishops held their power direct
from God or only through the pope—a controversy
in which the Spanish bishops were hostile to the
papacy—the Council failed to come to a clear decision.

In order to have a picture of the Counter-Reforma-
tion, however, it is not sufficient to see what was
happening at headquarters and in the central institu-
tions of Catholicism—one must have some impression
of what was taking place in the world at large. One
thing that was involved was the revival of preaching,
and in this connection some of the Observantine section
of the Franciscans, who reformed themselves in 1525
and became known as the Capuchins, become impor-
tant amongst the common people in Italy, France, and
Germany. During the numerous outbreaks of plague
that occurred in Italy, their fidelity and courage made
a great impression.

The Jesuits attacked the problem at a different level
and became important at first through their teaching
and influence in universities, though later they became
powerful at royal courts. Even in Spain where they
gained most adherents, and in France, where the sup-
porters of Gallican claims and particularly the Parle-
ment of Paris had special reasons for jealousy, they
suffered some opposition at first. When they went to
Cologne in 1544, some said that the urgent need was
rather for good bishops and parish priests. Just after
the mid-century, not only were many of the German
bishops still worldly-minded and indifferent to the
religious cause, but there were regions where it was
impossible for good Catholics to be served except by
priests who were actually married or living with con-
cubines, and preaching semi-Lutheran ideas. In the
1550's, however, the famous Jesuit, Canisius, began the
important work which saved the city and university
of Vienna from the Protestants who had come to ac-
quire almost absolute control. His influence extended
to Prague as well as to Ingolstadt, which became the
great Catholic educational center in the next genera-
tion. The same Canisius was responsible for the issue
of a catechism which was to be of great importance
in Catholic teaching. At the humblest level of all,
moreover, great efforts were made to inspire and nour-
ish popular piety.

Even so, it is difficult to see how the new influences
could have found a footing if they had not been
patronized by princes, particularly the Wittelsbachs
in Bavaria and the Habsburgs in Austria. The papacy
was wise enough now to make concessions to princes


who might have become Protestant for the sake of the
spoils; and the Bavarian princes were to acquire a good
deal of revenue from ecclesiastical sources on which
they were now permitted to draw. For a few years
from about 1563 the Duke of Bavaria sought to bring
his principality back to Catholicism but this imposed
upon him a difficult conflict with his parliamentary
estates and with the nobility. He succeeded in restoring
the Church only by high-handed measures and by
making encroachments on ecclesiastical jurisdiction
himself. In general, the restoration of the clergy and
the care for the educational work were calculated in
themselves to have a great effect, and even in Bohemia,
a traditional home of heresy, Catholic preaching and
Catholic saintliness began to exercise their influence