The Counter Reformation

The four branches of the Protestant Reformation generated a significant response from Roman Catholicism. The Catholic Reformation had sought to reform those administrative problems and abuses that over the centuries had become accepted practice in the church. The Counter Reformation, however, was a deliberate rejection, a counteroffensive against the theological positions held by various Protestant groups. The frontal assault of Protestantism was answered by Roman Catholicism with a two-front counterattack: the work of the Society of Jesus, commonly known as the Jesuits, and the Council of Trent (1545–1563).

The Society of Jesus

The Society of Jesus was an instrumental force in the Counter Reformation. The society was founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola, a former soldier who was transformed to a vocation to serve God while recovering from wounds received in a battle. Initially frustrated in his attempts to become a priest, he was eventually ordained. In 1534 he and six compatriots joined together in a brotherhood with the desire to place themselves at the service of the pope. Six years later in 1540 the Society of Jesus was officially recognized as a religious order.

The Jesuits grew rapidly, numbering over 1,000 members by the time of Ignatius's death in 1556. They were highly influential due to their extensive work in education. With the Protestant Reformation raging all over Europe, the Jesuits were a significant counterforce that sought to re-establish the authority of the papacy and to uphold Roman Catholic theology. As educators of future priests, members of the hierarchy, and the elite of society, the Jesuits had the position and the ability to stand against the tide of the Reformation.

The Council of Trent

The Council of Trent, conducted in three discontinuous sessions between December 1545 and December 1563, was unquestionably the most significant council of its time, and possibly the most significant of the twenty-one councils in history. Catholics believed that substantive reform could only come through a council, but opinions on who should call such an assembly and the unwillingness of popes to initiate reform delayed action. When reform came, opinions varied on a basic question: should the church accommodate Protestants or reject their ideas? In many ways the Council of Trent was a triumph of conservatives and militants over more conciliatory and liberal forces.

At Trent session IV, April 8, 1546, the Council Fathers stated, “This discipline [the teaching of Christ] is contained in written books and unwritten traditions, which were received by the Apostles from the lips of Christ himself … and were handed on and have come down to us.”

The council addressed the two primary categories of the Reformation separately. The bishops believed that the administrative and discipline questions raised by the Protestant Reformers had merit, especially when the Catholic Reformation, prior to Luther's revolt, had recognized the same problems and sought their resolution. In an effort to strengthen and standardize clerical training, the council mandated that all dioceses establish seminaries to educate clerical candidates. Clerical discipline was addressed by maintaining residency requirements for priests and bishops in their respective parishes and dioceses. Bishops were given greater supervisory roles and power to adequately supervise priests, religious orders, and church holdings. The buying and selling of indulgences was eliminated.

The council's reform in areas of administration and discipline was balanced by a strong rejection of the theology proposed by the Protestant reformers. The council declared that faith alone was insufficient for justification; faith accompanied by manifestations of love and work was necessary for salvation. Luther's notion that Sacred Tradition (see Chapter 5) had no place in Revelation was rejected; Scripture and Tradition were part of Revelation. The council upheld the validity of the seven sacraments and rejected all ideas that the Eucharist was not the real presence of Christ. In short, the Council of Trent removed or reformed many administrative and clerical discipline abuses but held fast on all Roman Catholic theological principles, rejecting totally the ideas of the Protestant reformers.

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