Although many Catholics and Protestants are aware of most of the events and personalities in the Protestant Reformation, few are aware of the events and personalities in the Catholic Reformation, better known as the Counter-Reformation.
The Reformation was not an overnight phenomenon of religious awakening. Numerous Protestant movements occurred within the borders of different countries, formed by the minds of priests and lay theologians with their own circumstances, ideologies, and ambitions. Some spread like wildfire; others required more time and political involvement to catch hold with the populous. Within their copious internal disagreements, the Protestants stood united on one thing: aversion to Catholic authority and teaching.
In response, the Catholic Church underwent a reformation the polar opposite of the Protestants’. Where Protestants divided into separate ideologies underpinned by the doctrine of sola scriptura, Catholics were unified as “one fold and one shepherd” by the harmony promoted and achieved in ecumenical councils and papal decrees (the Council of Trent, the Bull of Indiction). While Protestant ideas emerged through popular movements in various colleges and universities, the popes and bishops locked the door tight on heretical novelties in pontifical universities and reformed their seminaries.
And although Protestants strived to realize the admirable goal of promoting personal holiness, Catholics doubled down on the sacraments, liturgy, mysticism, and the monastic life while promoting the harmony of theology, art, and science. The more factions and ideas that permeated Protestant congregations, the more the Barque of Peter became a swift and necessary means to salvation.
Successful as this Counter-Reformation was, the voyage for the Barque was not smooth. Once solutions were discovered and decided on, they took decades to implement. As with many things in the Catholic Church, success required time and patience. But the Counter-Reformation was a resounding success, and the reasons are threefold: the Council of Trent, the Society of Jesus, and the saints. This trifecta provided the Church with a charter, educators, apologists, mentors, and a set of leaders who would stand as exemplars of the Faith.
The Council of Trent
No matter how we look at the sixteenth-century Church, reform was overdue. Blatant abuses were taking place among the faithful: cardinals took mistresses and sired children, politically savvy families bought and sold clerical offices, benefices for clergy rivaled those of earthly princes, and alms-based indulgences were promoted almost like traveling divine tradeshows—and that was just the clergy! Perhaps through this shameful example came spiritual laxity and mistrust in the Church among the laity. And where mistrust in authoritative figures exists, mistrust in authority also grows. Ergo, the faithful of the time had more than cause for concern—there was cause for reform.
The Council of Trent recognized this and set forth a means of achieving this reform:
Moreover, whereas it is the chief care, solicitude, and intention of this sacred and holy council, that, the darkness of heresies, which during so many years has covered the earth, being dispelled, the light, brightness, and purity of Catholic truth may, by the aid of Jesus Christ, who is the true light, shine forth; and that those things which need reformation may be reformed (The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, second session).
Reform was in order, but what, where, and how? In a Church that spanned the globe, not every location suffered from the same malady, and not every malady would be cured by the same reform. The Germans took swiftly to the teachings of Luther and Melanchthon, as did the Swiss to Zwingli. But the Spanish experienced a completely different cultural and political milieu: they clung to their Catholic Faith but were worn from reconquering the Moors and driving out Islam and were weakened by the turmoil of the Inquisition. Similarly, England had unique political problems and a culture crisis when support for the new Church of England and sympathy for Catholics superseded each other almost every decade.
Discipline or doctrine?
With such a tumultuous and varied landscape, what specific issues did the Council of Trent aim to address, and why? This was the first question the council had to answer: should the Church address discipline or doctrine? Wisely, the council fathers decided to address both, busting abuse and amplifying the promotion of catechesis and theological training.
Getting to the root of the problem—a nepotistic clergy—Trent stopped the practice of clerical pluralism, whereby bishops presided over one or more dioceses while not living in any of them but instead in the comfort and political refuge of Rome.
It is fitting that prelates reside in their own churches; if they shall do otherwise, the penalties of the ancient law are renewed against them, and new ones decreed. . . . [This] sacred and holy synod, adhering to those [decrees], declares, that all persons who are, under what name and title soever, even though they be cardinals of the holy Roman Church, set over any patriarchal, primatial, metropolitan, and cathedral churches whatsoever, are obliged to personal residence in their own church, or diocese, where they shall be bound to discharge the office enjoined them (Decree Concerning Reformation ch. 1).
The idea? Get the bishops and cardinals back in the midst of their flocks. And it worked. But the council wasn’t done with the clergy. Not only were clergy members neglectful of their sheep, they were neglecting education: others’ and their own.
What resulted was a dual solution of discipline and doctrine. Trent founded seminaries, or “seed places,” as we know them today. Chances are your local priests came from the local diocesan seminary or were sent to a common seminary in a nearby location. Trent required this:
The bishop, having divided these youths into as many classes as shall seem fit to him, according to their number, age, and progress in ecclesiastical discipline, shall, when it seems convenient to him, assign some of them to the ministry of the churches, [and] keep the others in the college to be instructed; and shall supply the place of those who have been withdrawn, by others; that so this college may be a perpetual seminary of ministers of God (Decree Concerning Reformation ch. 18).
And what should happen if the bishops failed to oblige this edict?
But if the prelates of cathedral and other greater churches should be negligent in erecting the said seminary, and in preserving the same, and should refuse to pay their share; it will be the duty of the archbishop sharply to rebuke the bishop, and to compel him to comply with all the matters aforesaid, and of the provincial synod [to rebuke and compel in like manner] the archbishop, and earnestly to take care that this holy and pious work be, wherever it is possible, as soon as possible proceeded with (Decree Concerning Reformation ch. 18).
Scripture and authority
The council went on to address nearly every contemporary Protestant idea without referring to persons, denominations, or places that were hotbeds of heresy. Rather than point fingers, the Trent fathers wanted to get to the heart of the doctrinal issues: Scripture and authority. Though the Bible says the Church is the “pillar and bulwark of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), Scripture and authority are, to this day, still the central points of disagreement between Catholics and Protestants. Trent aimed at the center with a simple and straightforward idea: don’t reinvent the theological wheel.
The fact is, the Church proclaimed nothing new at Trent but only confirmed what had been confirmed at the councils of Nicaea (A.D. 325) and Rome (A.D. 382), at the synod of Hippo (A.D. 393), and at the councils of Carthage (A.D. 397) and Florence (A.D. 1439), the latter less than a century before the Reformation: the validity of the inclusion of twenty-seven books in the New Testament and the deuterocanonicals of the Old Testament.
The various sessions and decrees of the council addressed broad but vital topics such as marriage, the sacraments, justification and salvation, indulgences, forbidden books, and more. Equally important and perhaps more enduring were its legacy decrees, which would eventually produce a material change for the Church. The council authorized and directed the Church to produce a catechism, a new liturgy for Mass (a new Missal), and a breviary.
These were lasting gifts to the Church, each of which in a similar form is practiced and used to this day: the Tridentine Mass, the Breviary for the Liturgy of the Hours, and the Catechism of Trent. These, in an artful sense, represent the council’s contribution to the theological virtues: a catechism for faith, a liturgy for hope, and a prayer book for love.
The disciplinary and doctrinal issues of the time were remarkably complex and diverse, but Trent was no reactionary council. The fact that it took three separate sessions spanning almost twenty years is a testament to that. There were no easy answers and few solutions to the conundrums and calamity going on—but such is the case with schism. Trent was the start of a two-century event in Church history that kicked off unprecedented advances in theology and apologetics, art and literature, and spiritual devotion amongst laity and religious. Trent was a masterpiece, and it is the pivotal event in the Counter-Reformation.
The Society of Jesus
Before his leg was nearly blown off and he barely avoided being crushed under castle walls crumbling before a French artillery barrage, Íñigo López de Loyola probably didn’t give much thought to religious piety. But as he lay recovering from his war wounds, he realized that fame in combat was no longer an option, and, to him, all was lost. But that’s exactly the mentality he needed to follow Jesus completely and set in motion a religious order that would in no small measure reform the Church.
After Íñigo López de Loyola converted—and after being formally challenged a half dozen times for his preaching, his novel spiritual exercises, and his ability to gather a large following—he went to Rome and obtained papal authority to preach his message and teach others his exercises. An unlikely success story: a man who wanted the world to know his name for soldiery came, through humility, to want no one to know his name. The world would come to know the name of his order for its work for the Church Militant: the Society of Jesus.
Typically, a religious order is named after its founder (e.g., Augustinians, Franciscans), but the fact that Ignatius wanted the name of Jesus in his order’s name sent reverberations throughout Christendom. Demand and protest letters poured into the Vatican, but the pope approved the name. The resultant press from this controversy might have been the very reason the Society of Jesus took off so quickly, but its success is likely more attributable to it fresh structure, its vows, and its distinct spirituality.
A unique order
The first reason the Jesuits enabled the Church to triumph in the Counter-Reformation was the uniqueness of the order itself. Although other orders, such as the Dominicans and Franciscans, were devoted to preaching and the care of souls, the Jesuits ordered themselves completely to the formation of the world: guiding spirituality in the laity and chartering religious vocations for those who discerned a calling. The order required no distinctive garb or habit and did not require community living and devotional arrangements. In fact, members of the order were forbidden to chant the Divine Office in groups but were encouraged to have private devotions.
The insurance for this novelty was an enduringly long training period that emphasized personal prayer and meditation so that a Jesuit—even if away from his people for a long time—would continue to grow in the spiritual life. The order was devoted to transforming the world.
The four vows of the Society are the source of its success: poverty, chastity, obedience, and especially the fourth: a vow of special obedience. Understanding the obedience vows of a Jesuit is vital to understanding what makes a true Jesuit. The first vow of obedience is to the hierarchy: go wherever you are ordered and perform whatever duties you are given. The second and special vow of obedience is specifically to the pope. It is obedience to worldwide mission, wherever and whatever the pope commands.
The reason is simple: the pope is the Vicar of Christ. If we desire to be obedient to Christ, then we will be obedient to his vicar on Earth. Yes, it would be troublesome to follow the orders of a pope who clumsily abandoned all pontifical duties, just as it was difficult in 1773 when Pope Clement XIII wrote Dominus at Redemptor decreeing his authority to “suppress and abolish the company.” Thankfully, the order was not suppressed in all geographic locations and survived to thrive again.
Although obedience to the vicar is a pious objective for anyone, the Jesuit order’s success is uniquely built on this exact principle. The vow goes: “I further promise a special obedience to the sovereign pontiff in regard to the missions” (Constitutions). By remaining obedient to the pope in regard to missions, a Jesuit frees himself to be of service to any general or individual need of the Church, at any time, in any location. A proper Jesuit eschews personal ambition, replacing it with an ambition to perform any task for his Church.
And this is why the Jesuits were so effective in the Counter-Reformation. When a seminary or school was needed, a Jesuit would go there to build it. When a church was having trouble with local heresy, a Jesuit would go there to teach. And if a country and a new tongue had never heard the gospel, a Jesuit would go there to preach. It was unquestionable at the time: if you needed a job done and done well, you called for a Jesuit.
The popes appreciated this. Pope Paul III, who convened the Council of Trent, and Julius III, who opposed the council, shared sentiments about the new mendicant order, each composing a papal bull outlining the general formulae to form the life and purpose. Julius III wrote:
Whoever desires to serve as a soldier of God beneath the banner of the cross in our society, which we desire to be designated by the name of Jesus, and to serve the Lord alone and the Church, his spouse, under the Roman Pontiff, the Vicar of Christ on earth, should, after a solemn vow of perpetual chastity, poverty and obedience, keep what follows in mind.
He is a member of a society founded chiefly for this purpose: to strive especially for the defense and propagation of the faith and for the progress of souls in Christian life and doctrine, by means of public preaching, lectures and any other ministration whatsoever of the word of God, and further by means of retreats, the education of children and unlettered persons in Christianity, and the spiritual consolation of Christ’s faithful through hearing confessions and administering the other sacraments (Exposcit Debitum).
Anyone even vaguely familiar with the Jesuits can be sure that these words are still in effect today. Another item of enormous influence on the Counter-Reformation was the spirituality Ignatius developed and transmitted through his Spiritual Exercises. The exercises were effective because they did not require years of spiritual training or formation but were made to be adaptable to individual needs and various stages of spiritual development. This flexibility was exactly the sort of spiritual antidote needed to combat the confusion and disarray among Christians at the time.
The evangelical mission of the Jesuits is unmatched in the last 500 years. They’ve created followings all over the world in the hardest-to-reach parts of the world, including nearly all of South America, the innermost reaches of China, the impervious culture of Japan, and a lasting faith in Portugal. Their universities and parochial schools can be found in all corners of the inhabited globe. Sixty years after the death of its founder, the Jesuits had established 272 colleges and twice as many secondary schools. The Spiritual Exercises and Ignatian retreats continue to aid and satisfy countless souls to this day.
The order has faced its own challenges since its rapid beginnings, but it is still filled with many esteemed thinkers, spiritualists, preachers, missionaries, and evangelists—all shepherds striving to continue the work of their founder. And it was through these men and the Ignatian principles that much of the Counter-Reformation success came to pass.
In addition to the ecumenical profits of the Council of Trent and the mission and education efforts of the Society of Jesus, the Counter-Reformation needed one thing for sure: saints. And good thing—when times needed bold men and women to step up, they did.
What’s important is not the number of saints or the fact that they were beatified and canonized. Yes, the Church needed holy men and women, but it was more in need of heroic men and women who were committed to breaking the mold of the status quo—men and women of action. The Church needed administrators as much as it needed theologians. The Counter-Reformation needed apologists as much as it needed scientists. The people needed a dose of humor as much as they needed a stern homily. The bishops needed a pope of boldness as much as they needed a pope of holiness. And that’s what the saints of the Counter-Reformation gave them.
I invite you to read my new book, Heroes of the Counter-Reformation. In it, you’ll discover the lives and achievements of ten heroic saints that charted the course, powered, and navigated the Barque of Peter through the most difficult period in the history of the Church. But my book is not a set of biographies. It is a practical guide to imitating and becoming friends with these saints. You’ll learn how to become an apologist like Robert Bellarmine, a rosary warrior like Pius V, a counselor like Francis de Sales, an educator like Ignatius of Loyola, or a reformer like Teresa of Avila. We’re all called to be saints, and while on Earth we’re called to convert the world.
Make no mistake: the Barque of Peter did not capsize in the sixteenth century. And with your imitation of the heroes of the Counter-Reformation, it will stay upright, its course swift, straight, and true.