Counter Reformation

Counter Reformation. Also called the Catholic Reform. Movement that took place within the Roman Catholic Apostolic Church in the 16th and 17th centuries . He tried to revitalize the Church and oppose Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation . It denotes the period of Catholic revival from the pontificate of Pope Pius IV in 1560 until the end of the Thirty Years War .


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  • 1 Fundamental aspects
  • 2 Background
  • 3 Instruments of the Counter-Reformation
  • 4 Council of Trent
  • 5 Basic Points of the Counter-Reformation
  • 6 Consequences of the Counter-Reformation
  • 7 Sources

Fundamental aspects

The Catholic Reformation or counter-reform occurs with a double objective:

  • Correct the flaws that the Catholic Church suffered and that had been the main cause of the Reformation.
  • To face this to stop it in its advance or to recover countries conquered by it.

It basically manifests itself in three aspects:

  • The reimplantation of the courts of the inquisition .
  • The creation of the Society of Jesus as a model religious order.
  • The meeting of the Ecumenical Council of Trent.


The 15th century was characterized by demands for a reform of the Church, in reaction to the Great Schism scandal in the West and to correct religious abuses. The Italian religious reformer Girolamo Savonarola ( 1452 – 1498 ) criticized the worldly attitude of his contemporary, Pope Alexander VI .

When Paul III became pope in 1534 the Church had the leadership it needed to orchestrate these impulses for reform and to meet the challenge of the rise of Protestants. One of the most important initiatives of Paul III was to appoint reformers such as Gasparo Contarini and Reginald Pole and incorporate them into the College of Cardinals.

He also promoted new religious orders such as the Theatines, Capuchins, Ursulines and especially the Jesuits . This last group, under the direction of Saint Ignatius of Loyola ( 1491 – 1556 ), was made up of educated men, dedicated to renewing piety through preaching, catechumenal instruction and the use of spiritual exercises established by Saint Ignatius where he should delve into personal meditation.

The most outstanding performance of Paul III was the convocation of the Council of Trent in 1545 to deal with the doctrinal and disciplinary questions raised by the Protestants. Acting often in a difficult alliance with the Emperor Charles V , Paul III, like many of his successors, did not hesitate to use both diplomatic and military measures against the Protestants.

Instruments of the Counter-Reformation


Index of Prohibited Books (Index Librorum Prohibitorum)

A powerful repressive current, beginning around 1542, penetrated Roman Catholicism itself when the Index of Forbidden Books and a new Inquisition were instituted. In Spain the Inquisition became an instrument dependent on the crown, used effectively by the Spanish monarchs, especially by King Felipe II to ensure the orthodoxy of his subjects and to suppress both political and religious dissent.

Towards the end of the century, partly under the influence of the Council of Trent, a group of bishops appeared in Italy, zealous to reform their clergy and instruct their people. The establishment of seminaries in many dioceses ensured a clergy honored in theological and moral order. In Rome , Saint Philip Neri ( 1515 – 1595 ) put music to religious texts and held informal meetings that soon led to the figure (and the physical space) of the oratory.

Trento council

Main article : Council of Trent


Session of the Council of Trent

Thanks to the decision of Popes Paul III and Paul IV, the insistence of the clergy and faithful and the collaboration of the monarchs Carlos V, Emperor of Germany and King of Spain , and Philip II of Spain , an Ecumenical Council met in the Italian city of Trento . Not only Catholic theologians but representatives of Reformed doctrines were invited to the council, but they did not attend. The council met, at long intervals, for 18 years because of the political problems and wars that were framed by Europe at that time.

The main goal pursued was to correct all those disciplinary errors and misrepresentations that had caused the Reformers to rise up against the church. The main decisions were the following:

  1. The doctrine of salvation: this is achieved by faith, by good works (alms, mortifications, confession, communion) and prayer.
  2. The sources of faith: they are the Bible and revelation. The Bible can be read but not interpreted freely but according to the dictates of the Doctors of the Church (theologians). The translation made by Saint Jerome in the 5th century known as the “Vulgate” was established as an authentic Bible .
  3. Sacraments: they are means of sanctification. Seven were established: baptism , confirmation, penance, communion, marriage , priestly order and extreme unction.
  4. In communion, the belief in the transubstantiation of the body and blood of Christ was established as a point of faith . The sacrament is done under two kinds (bread and wine) by the priests who celebrate Mass and under only one (bread) by the faithful.
  5. Marriage was established as an indissoluble sacrament. Only death can separate spouses. Because it is a sacrament, it is a way of sanctification, symbolizing the union of Christ with the Church.
  6. Priestly order: it had to be fulfilled after study in seminaries. Celibacy was made a vow for priests. Compulsory jurisdiction was established for officials: the pastor had to reside in his parish, the bishop in his diocese, etc.
  7. Church language: it was compulsorily Latin , used in religious services.
  8. Control of reading of the faithful: the Institution of the Index was created to point out the prohibited books for being harmful to Catholics and the church itself.

Basic points of the Counter-Reformation

  • Organized the discipline of the clergy: Priests should study and train in seminaries. They could not be priests before the age of 25, nor bishops before the age of 30.
  • Establishment of Catholic beliefs could have a dual origin: The sacred scriptures (Bible) or the traditions transmitted by the Catholic Church; only thus was the interpretation of the Bible authorized. They maintained the principles of image worship, such as that of the Virgin Mary .
  • They reaffirmed the infallibility of the Pope and the dogma of Transubstantiation

Consequences of the Counter-Reformation

  • Europe was divided into two great sectors of Christian faith: Catholics and Protestants or Reformists; these in diverse sects, among which the main ones were Lutheranism , Calvinism and Anglicanism .
  • The Catholic Church, for its part, despite the fact that it lost part of the controlled field in Europe, reorganized in its discipline with the counter-reform movement, avoiding later catastrophes.


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