One must remember that the Protestant reformation had only limited success. The two most powerful monarchies in Europe, Spain and France, remained Catholic, as did Austria, Italy, Portugal, Hungary, Poland and parts of Germany. Still, Protestant success had been rapid and posed a serious threat to the Catholic Church. As a result, the Church went through its own Catholic Reformation, also known as the Counter Reformation, in which it reformed itself, defined its theology, reestablished the pope’s authority in the now reduced Church, and prepared for a counter-offensive against the Protestants.
The Church had often been challenged with criticism in the past, but each time had patched things up with internal reforms. Therefore, at first it saw Protestantism as just another protest that a few reforms could mend and failed to recognize the deep philosophical and religious issues involved. Since many Church abuses were the result of the financial problems deeply rooted in the later Middle Ages, maybe it was too much to expect reforms of abuses at this time. However, those problems only got worse in the 1500s. Inflation, loss of lands and revenue to the Protestants, and invasions of Papal lands left Pope Paul III with only 40% of the revenues his predecessor had jus ten years earlier. As difficult as it would be, the threat of further losses to the Protestants made reforms all the more necessary. In 1536, Pope Paul III established a fact-finding commission to find out why there was so much protest and what could be done about it. The resulting report, Advice on the Reform of the Church, blamed the Church for many of its problems and called for reforms that would convince the Protestants to rejoin the Church. Two things resulted from this report. First, the Church failed to accept responsibility for its problems, making what few reforms that result only half-hearted. Consequently, Protestantism kept expanding.
The second result was that the Church, rather than trying to reform itself, decided to attack its enemies. In 1542, the pope brought the Inquisition into Italy, giving the Inquisitor general authority over all Italians. This effectively uprooted any elements of Protestantism in Italy and restored the pope’s authority over the whole peninsula. To a large extent, the Inquisition helped put an end to the Italian Renaissance, since it suppressed Italy’s vigorous intellectual life for the sake of conformity to the Church. Remarkable individuals, such as Galileo, might still come along, but they would face the Inquisition’s repression for any new ideas they might propose. The Church was also waking up to the dangers that a free press presented to the established order. In 1543, the Inquisition published the first Index of Prohibited Books, the first full-scale effort to limit or destroy the free expression of ideas through the press. It would not be the last. Among its victims was the report Advice on the Reform of the Church, since it was seen as giving solace to the Protestants and their ideas.
However, by the mid-1540s, it was becoming increasingly apparent that the Catholic Church would have to institute serious reforms if it were to halt the rising tide of Protestantism. These reforms came from two directions: the Papacy at the top and the grassroots (popular) level below.
One problem facing the Church was the wide variety of interpretations people had of the Bible and other Church writings. This was not a new problem, but it became an urgent one when faced with competing Protestant interpretations. Consequently, Pope Paul III called a general Church council that met at Trent, Italy to define decisively what the official doctrines of the Church were. People remembered the threat to the pope’s power that councils had posed during the Great Schism a century earlier. Naturally, the pope was nervous about this and tried to restrict the council to working on Church doctrine instead of reforms that might threaten his position.
The Council of Trent met in three sessions from 1543 to 1563. Popular hopes focused on the desire to restore Christian unity, since Protestant representatives were supposed to attend (but never did). Even if it did not achieve such unity the Council did revitalize the Catholic Church and restore the pope’s power within the Church. It strictly defined religious doctrine. It emphasized the role of both faith and good works in achieving salvation. It declared the Latin Vulgate Bible the only acceptable form of scripture, thus excluding any vernacular translations. It also reaffirmed the validity of all seven Catholic sacraments and the writings of such Church Fathers as St. Augustine as sources of religious truth. It kept the elaborate ritual and decoration of the Church, since they were inspirational for the mass of illiterate Catholics with little or no understanding of Church dogma. It also enacted various reforms, ensuring clergy were better educated and their morals better supervised. The pope was even able to restore his authority over local church and clergy at the kings’ expense.
Although the Council of Trent did not peacefully restore Christian unity, it did reestablish the authority of the popes within the Catholic Church, giving it the power to launch an offensive against the Protestants to reclaim formerly Catholic lands. Also restoring the Church’s spirit was a new religious order: the Society of Jesus, commonly known as the Jesuits.
The Jesuits’ founder, Ignatius Loyola, (1491-1556) was quite similar to Luther in how he achieved inner religious peace, although the two men arrived at some very different conclusions about their respective faiths. Loyola was born a Spanish noble and, like Luther, had no initial plans for a religious career, being a soldier by profession. Also, like Luther, a somewhat dramatic event turned his life to religion. Instead of lightning, it was a leg broken by a cannonball while defending a fort that forced him into a long period of convalescence and ultimate conversion. Instead of the tales of war and chivalry that Loyola liked, the only reading material available was religious in nature. Eventually, this literature had its effect. Loyola experienced an intense conversion and decided to devote his life to Christ.
Like Luther, Loyola almost killed himself trying to purge his guilt. He finally obtained some inner peace by deciding the Devil was responsible for any self-doubts and despair one had for sins he had already confessed to the Church and done penance for. Loyola developed a four-week long set of spiritual exercises help others achieve similar inner peace. These exercises first had people contemplate their sins and their eternal consequences in Hell for two weeks, then contemplate Christ’s life, sacrifice on the Cross, and resurrection for a week, and finally contemplate the final ascension into Heaven.
After a pilgrimage to Palestine, Ignatius decided to get an education in order to preach more effectively. In school he gathered a loyal core of followers, the most famous being Francis Xavier. In 1536, they went to Rome determined to win souls, not by the Inquisition or the sword, but by educating people, especially the young who are most impressionable.
In 1540, they founded the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuits. The order was organized along military lines with four ranks or classes. Members were expected to show absolute obedience to their superiors, the pope and God. Instead of ascetic activities such as endless praying and whipping themselves, the Jesuits performed Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises and menial labor. Discipline was rigorous, but flexible, helping the Jesuits produce some remarkable leaders. The Jesuits also carefully selected their target audience from two main groups in society: nobles and children. As the confessors for royalty and nobles, they exercised considerable influence on religious policies within catholic states. They also ran numerous schools, believing that if they could influence children at an early age, they would remain loyal Catholics for the rest of their lives.
The order grew rapidly and became the virtual “shock troops” of the Catholic Church. They had missionary activities to South America (still mostly Catholic) and Asia. Within Europe, they spearheaded the Catholic reformation by strengthening the Church’s power in areas it still held while restoring allegiance in such areas such as Bohemia and parts of Germany.
With their Church on much firmer ground than before, many Catholics felt ready to go on the offensive against Protestantism. What resulted was a series of religious wars that would engulf Western and Central Europe for the next century.