Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

The Catholic Reformation in the Sixteenth Century

by Fr. Cuthbert, O.S.F.C.


This article, from 1927, examines the achievements of the 16th-century Catholic reformation as well as the obstacles encountered as a result of the Protestant Revolt.

Larger Work

The Ecclesiastical Review


449 – 462

Publisher & Date

The Dolphin Press, Philadelphia, PA, November 1927

The great religious revolt of the sixteenth century which was to divide Western Christendom as it had never been divided before, was in part a moral revolt, in part an intellectual revolt, and in part a political revolt: nor can it be rightly understood unless these three aspects are kept in mind. A world-revolution was inevitable in any case even though Luther and Calvin had kept within the bounds of Catholic orthodoxy and Henry VIII had not been led astray by his amours. The medieval system as a system had at last broken down and was but a mockery of its former self and of the ideals of life it had sought to realize. The Holy Roman Empire was no longer even a respected phantom. The new national feeling had almost everywhere displaced the sentiment for a universal commonwealth of Christian peoples; intellectual activity in its more vital form had left the scholastic cloisters and passed over to the new Humanism: the community spirit in which medievalism had been fostered had given way to a rampant individualism. Neither the new nationalism, nor Humanism, nor the new Individualism were inherently evil things and unchristian. Rightly directed, they might have ushered in a new phase of Catholic civilization of unmixed benefit to the spiritual welfare of the Church. Medieval civilization was after all but a phase through which the Catholic world must pass to a richer future: it was certainly not the last word in Christian civilization. "The old order changeth, yielding place to new" is the law of all life in this imperfect world of ours. Change had to come and revolution was inevitable owing to the rigidity into which the medieval system had fallen, rendering it incapable of assimilating new ideas and movements and responding to the vital needs of the time. Yet the secular revolution need not have become a religious revolution. That it did so become was partly due to the intimate alliance between religion and the secular system, but still more to the fact that religion in its institutional form had itself become secularized and so had lost its sanctity in the eyes of the people at large and in losing its sanctity had lost its moral authority. And for that the clergy and the religious orders were mostly to blame.

It is easy to prove — and today no serious student of history whether Catholic or non-Catholic will deny — that when the religious revolt came, it found most ardent support from those who had most to gain in temporal ambition and self-indulgence from a break with the Pope and the Church. It was certainly not in the interest of a deeper spirituality or purer morality that Henry VIII plunged England into schism, nor was it from any religious motive that Elizabeth made England a Protestant nation. The princes who supported Luther in Germany had but one end in view, to establish their tyranny over their petty states and the same purpose had Gustavus Vasa when he forced Protestantism on Sweden with the power of the sword. It was not for the sake of liberty or religion that Protestantism was made the State religion, but to satisfy the ambition of princes and the greed of the nobility who benefited by the confiscation of ecclesiastical property. As so frequently happens in times of revolution, the Protestant revolution of the sixteenth century was exploited by those who were clever enough to turn it to their own personal advantage: and the last thing these exploiters would have welcomed was a reformation which would have purged the Church of the abuses and corruptions that had marred her spiritual beauty and lessened her spiritual authority as this would have made the Church once again the recognized spiritual and moral power to whose judgments princes and nations must bow in matters affecting Christian morality. It was to the interest of the princes, as it was now become the principle of the National State, that the State should recognize no law but its own will — in other words, that it should become a non-moral power. That was the most radical political result of the religious revolution. Even the so-called Catholic States, led by France, went over to the political heresy and retained their Catholic character only in an attenuated form. France as a State was French first and Catholic afterward under the new regime which began with Francis I and was carried forward by Richelieu. Undoubtedly it was the non-moral principles and frequently enough the immoral purposes of princes and nobles which established the Protestant Reformation in power and accounted for the diminished authority of the Church even in professedly Catholic States. Yet to stop at that would be to give a very superficial explanation of the great religious revolt. The National State came in the process of a very natural evolution of political ideas: in some sense it was a necessary evolution of the later medieval revolt against feudalism which had already set in in the thirteenth century. Yet, as we have said, it need not have become the non-moral and non-Catholic State it did become.

So too, there was no inherent reason in the new Humanism of the fifteenth century to make it eventually take the pagan character it assumed in the Italian Renaissance with its repercussion upon European thought generally.

We must face the facts if we are to derive any profit from the reading of history; and we Catholics more than others have need to face the facts if we are to benefit the Catholic cause in the world. For neither Luther nor Elizabeth nor any other Protestant adventurer could have overthrown the authority of the Church and broken up Catholic civilization, had not the power of the Church been already weakened by internal causes and the ground prepared for the revolt which followed by the failure of those who should have been the mainstay of the Catholic people, their leaders in thought and conduct. Both in thought and conduct, the leaders failed the people, and so left them the prey to wolves who devoured them.

The disease which sapped the spiritual vitality of the medieval Church was secularism in two of its most insidious forms — love of temporal power and wealth and intellectualism devoid of spirituality.

The spiritual failure of the later medieval schools — we refer to the theological schools — was almost the death-knell of medieval Catholicism. When the revolt came, there was not one schoolman in Christendom who could deal effectively with the heretics in argument. Many there were who rushed into the fray and produced treatises which satisfied the schoolmen themselves and were hailed by them as a crushing reply to the heretical opposition. But the need of the time was not to satisfy the schoolmen but to convince the wavering multitude or at least to bring home to them that the argument was not altogether on the side of the heretical disputants. It was not until nigh upon three-quarters of a century had elapsed that the first schoolman appeared whose treaties compelled a reluctant worldwide respect in the opposite camp: and he was of the new line of schoolmen whom the revolt had brought into being. But by the time Blessed Robert Bellarmine wrote his Disputationes de Controversiis Protestantism was already fairly established. Had there been but one theologian of the character and mental calibre of Bellarmine when the revolt first began, the history of the revolt might have been very different from what it is. The outstanding quality of Bellarmine was that he understood the temper of his time and united to a keen intelligence that divine charity which alone gives true insight in dealing with men. But the products of the early sixteenth-century schoolmen are not conspicuous either for an understanding intelligence of the world around them or for divine charity. Thought in the schools had been cut off from the actual realities of life and from the deeper spiritual purpose of life: scholasticism had become a schoolboy's playground when the schools were not regarded as the stepping-stone to some personal ambition. Even when the individual was actuated by some nobler purpose, the effect of the schools was to deaden the spirit or narrow his mental outlook. The general result was intellectual insincerity and a mental incapacity to see beyond the narrow walls of the schoolroom. What activity of thought there was of any real value, came from the inspiration of the new Humanism. To this we owe in part the priceless meditations of Thomas à Kempis.

But the schools in their eager quest for cheap speculative brilliance failed to assimilate the deeper purpose and sincerity of the early Humanist spirit, and so became more and more blind leaders of the blind, unheeding, or rather not comprehending, the warning of à Kempis.

It is hardly to be wondered at, that in the world at large, even the ecclesiastical world, theology was at a discount, and that those who aspired to any degree of intellectual culture sought it not in the theological schools but elsewhere. As Father Laynez complained to St. Ignatius, the cultured prelates at the Council of Trent knew little of theology. Live men — and the early sixteenth century was very much alive — are not attracted to effete sciences: and scholastic theology as taught in the schools at this period was in no sense a live science.

Thus it came about that what leading there was in religious intellectual life came not from the schools but from outside — whether the leading was orthodox or unorthodox: mostly in the early part of the century it tended toward unorthodoxy, driven thereto in part by the unsympathetic attitude of the conservative theologians who resented the challenge they were incapable either of understanding or of directing. The failure of the schoolmen at that critical moment gives food for thought; it is not to be overlooked or minimized by those who came after them.

Yet the failure of the schools was but a consequence of the general depression of the spiritual life brought about by the prevalent worldliness which had fastened upon the Church at large, and more particularly upon the clergy and religious orders. The ecclesiastical profession had in fact become little more than a secular profession whether within the cloister or in the ranks of the secular clergy. Men entered the cloister or the ecclesiastical profession not from any deep religious motive, but — to put it bluntly — because it provided an honorable maintenance at the least and, if one had ability, preferments which were not lacking in solid earthly emoluments. The hundredfold promised by our Lord to His disciples was taken in no spiritual sense. Not that the cloisters and the clerical estate, even at the worst, were lacking in saints and men of good will. Had it been so the Church would have been doomed indeed. The leaven was there which was eventually to purify the Church, but as a body, both religious and clergy, had come to anticipate their reward in this world, trusting in more or less blind fashion to its continuance in the next. How otherwise can one explain the pagan luxury of the Roman court, the unchurchmenlike lives of most of the bishops and higher clergy, the laxity of the cloisters? And it was not merely that this worldliness had invaded private life within the sanctuary; it was the predominating force in public policy. Bishops were appointed not for the spiritual welfare of the diocese, but too frequently for purely political or family reasons: the diocese was not thought of save as a means to enrich the episcopal incumbent, who oftentimes never set foot in his diocese. So too with benefices of lesser rank. The Popes themselves had come to regard their temporal principality as of more concern than their spiritual office; and their family interests were a more immediate anxiety than the care of the Church. Monasteries and convents thought more of enriching themselves than of doing useful service for the souls of men. Nor were their consciences troubled at the incongruity of their aims. Secularism had become their religion and the sanction of their moral code that was where the real evil lay. It was a state of things that might well fill the more spiritually minded with despair and unbalance the sensitive mind of a Savonarola. The miracle of grace is that all Western Christendom did not lose its faith.

Happily the leaven that was to bring about the Catholic Counter-Reformation was already at work before Luther affixed his ninety-five propositions to the door of the church at Wittenberg. It was manifesting itself both within the cloister and in the world at large. The latter years of the fifteenth century had seen the beginning of a new revival amongst the religious orders. Not only were new religious congregations founded, the most notable being the Order of Minims, but reform movements were taking place in the older orders; such as the Benedictine reform of Bursfeld in Germany and the reform of the Franciscan Discalceati in Spain; whilst in Florence, Savonarola had begun a reform amongst the Dominicans. The ground was thus prepared for the great revival of the religious life which took place in the following century. Outside the cloisters too religious piety was again blossoming with a renewed lustre like the early vernal flowers which betoken a new spring. The Blessed Nicholas von Flue was no isolated phenomenon amidst the degeneracy of the later fifteenth century. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the revival of Catholic piety was everywhere manifesting itself in associations for works of charity as well as in more individualistic forms. Thus in the days of Leo X there was established in Rome a confraternity for the care of the sick; at Brescia in Italy, St. Angela Merici had formed an association of ladies for teaching the poor children and nursing the sick. But what is to be particularly noted is the frequent combination of the newly revived piety with the spirit of Humanism. Dean Colet, Thomas More and Bishop Fisher are examples that at once come to mind. And so too does that remarkable company who met in Rome during the first quarter of the century, whose meeting-place was known as the Oratory of the Divine Love, from whom sprang some of the most ardent champions of the Counter-Reformation.

Thus forces were already working for a Catholic Reformation when Luther launched forth his call for revolt against the authority of the Church and the Catholic tradition.

One is tempted to speculate upon the course the Catholic reformation would have taken had not the Catholic world been cast into the horrors of the religious war which followed. For the Protestant Reformation deflected the course of Catholic reform from a normal development and brought about conditions under which the normal liberties of the Church were restricted and Catholic thought and action conscribed to meet the menace of an almost universal revolt against the authority and existence of the Church. Freedom of thought became subject to a rigid censorship and surveillance; authority pressed its claims more closely; Catholic life generally was lived as in a state of siege. And for that Catholics have a sore grievance against the Protestant revolt.

On one point only was the Catholic reform movement not deflected from the course it might have run in more normal conditions, and that was the restoration of the ecclesiastical state to its proper spiritual purpose. That indeed was at the root of all reform: and its achievement was the singular glory of the Catholic reform movement in the sixteenth century.

The renovation of the ecclesiastical state and its restoration to the purity of its vocation had indeed been the great problem which had taxed the patience and energy of reforming Popes and prelates and of many a saint since the far-off days of St. Gregory VII, the great Hildebrand. The evil was largely due to that medieval polity in which Church and State (to use a modern phrase) were regarded as two aspects of the Christian commonwealth and in which the spiritual and civil powers were closely interwoven. The theory was right and exalted. As an ideal it represents the ultimate conception of Christian civilization. It was not the theory but the practical application of the theory that went wrong. Ambition and other human motives on the part of the representatives of both powers led to innumerable evils and confusion, the chief evil being the secularization (in its worst sense) of the clerical state. When bishops and abbots became feudal lords and benefices became the appanage of civil officials, human nature being what it is, the worst consequences were bound to follow. Thus celibacy which as a universal law of the priesthood is only tolerable when the spiritual ideal of the priest is active, was bound to break down in practice when the priest came to be little more than a civil official immersed in secular administration and affairs: and not all the laws continuously passed against clerical concubinage could prove effective, when the spiritual character of the priesthood was lost sight of. Let it be admitted that the administration of the temporal power by ecclesiastics was a practical necessity at a time when the laity were not sufficiently educated to undertake the administration, and further that in the hands of ecclesiastics the administration proved more beneficial for the State than it would otherwise have been; yet it remains a fact that the temporal power benefited by the clerical order to the great loss of the spiritual power. The clerical order gained in power and wealth, but it lost its sanctity and spiritual independence; and it lost too its spiritual and moral influence. The low estate into which the clergy and monastic orders had fallen at the beginning of the sixteenth century, notwithstanding the decrees of general and provincial councils and the reforming zeal of a long line of reforming prelates and saints, was due to that flaw in the medieval system which immersed the clergy in purely temporal affairs. The break-up of the medieval political system conferred at least this good upon the Church that, in the matter of the clergy, it afforded an opportunity for a more radical reform than had been possible hitherto: and the reform came about the more speedily in those countries where the Protestant Reformation had completely cut off the Church from the State: though everywhere the good effect was immediately seen. The Council of Trent in its decrees for the reform of the clergy did little more, except in the matter of the institution of diocesan seminaries and exemptions from episcopal authority, than to reenact the decrees of previous councils. In fact there was little more it could decree: the fateful element in the Tridentine decrees was the new liberty now given to the Church to enforce the decrees.

Nor was it merely in the relations of the spiritual and civil powers that the break-up of the medieval system gave freedom to the Church. During the past three centuries the authority of the bishops had been enormously hampered by the system of privileges and exemptions enjoyed by religious orders, cathedral chapters and other institutions, as well as by privileged individuals. Doubtless in the beginning the granting of these privileges and exemptions had met a real need. The universal faculties granted directly by the Pope to the mendicant orders to preach and hear confessions wherever they went, was due to the general neglect of the parish priests to fulfil these duties of their office. But privilege begat privilege until the regular orders had come to exercise almost all the duties of the parochial clergy without dependence on episcopal authority. When in 1529 the new Franciscan Reform of the Capuchins renounced the privilege of exercising pastoral duties in the diocese of any bishop without his consent, they were regarded as blacklegs by other orders. But in too many instances the exemptions from episcopal authority had been obtained from the Holy See not for any public good but merely for the advancement of the ambitions or interest of the institution or individual. Pope Martin V on his elevation to the papacy in 1417 had acknowledged that the reestablishment of the proper authority of the diocesan bishops was a needed reform and that the lessening of episcopal control was undermining the moral authority of the papacy itself. It had already undermined the sense of responsibility for their dioceses in the minds of many bishops. But the system had become entrenched in vested interests; and it needed the great upheaval of the sixteenth century to shake it out of its self-complacency. The reestablishment of episcopal authority as well as of episcopal responsibility was one of the good results of the Council of Trent and indirectly of the great revolution. Into the details of the thorough purging of the clerical state it is unnecessary to enter here. Abuses which had flourished for centuries and grown more blatant as time went on, vanished rapidly. One has but to contrast the state of the clergy in the seventeenth century with that in the early days of the sixteenth century to recognize an almost miraculous renovation. Remnants of the old abuses still survived in the countries which forced the Holy See to acquiesce in concordats which were but one degree less baneful than schism; where the authority of the Holy See and episcopal control were deliberately thwarted by the civil power. It was in the new missionary countries created by Protestantism that the Church came more completely into its new freedom, strange though it may seem: for here she was less hampered by the survivals of the decadent medieval system which the new nationalist monarchies held to for their own purposes. The Disestablished Church was in fact the free Church in all that concerned her most vital interests, at least where the new nationalist monarchies were concerned.

We have said that the menace of Protestantism deflected the Catholic revival of the sixteenth century from the normal course of its development. The reaction against decadent medievalism at the beginning of the sixteenth century gave promise of a religious revival similar to that which marked the thirteenth century which has been styled the most creative century in Christian civilization: at least it was a century when the constructive genius of the Catholic spirit had free play and manifested in a remarkable degree the power of the Church to assimilate and consecrate to religion the progressive activities of the human spirit. Everywhere amidst the pagan splendor of the Renaissance there were evidences of a similar revival looming in the near future. What the dialectic movement had done for Thought in the twelfth century, Humanism did in the fifteenth — it lifted intelligence out of the ruts where Thought lay inactive and directed the thinking mind toward a new activity, and already at the beginning of the sixteenth century the Catholic spirit had seized upon it and once again religious thought was uttering itself with a new accent of sincerity, searching for the deeper things of life and expounding Catholic teaching with a more intimate conviction. To English readers the best-known instances of this new phase of Catholic Thought are the Imitation of Christ and the works of Blessed Thomas More. The main note in the new religious literature was its search for more positive and practical knowledge as a means to the conduct of life, as opposed to the metaphysical and speculative thought of the later middle ages. In a more normal peaceful development a new school of Catholic theology, embracing all problems of Catholic thought, would probably have been built up, distinct from scholasticism, as scholasticism itself is distinct from patristic theology; adding a new glory to the intellectual life of the Church. Some idea of what it might have been in its freedom and richness is found in the works of the great Spanish mystics. As it was, the main active interest in the revival of theology was directed toward the controversies aroused by the Protestant revolt against the authoritative Church and the new political conditions of the time. Polemic largely ousted mere positive science.

Even in regard to the development of Catholic political thought, necessitated by the break-up of the medieval system, Catholics were not free to pursue a normal peaceful course. The Protestant revolt affecting in this matter even the Catholic nations, had definitely established a political conception which was in direct contradiction to the Catholic conception of a Christian State, both as regards the moral unity of the Christian people and the liberty of the subject. The utmost the great Jesuit theologians could do (and they did it powerfully) was to assert these principles and to seek to temper the wind to the shorn lamb. It was impossible in the face of the new monarchist nationalism to reestablsh the moral authority of the papacy in political life, so badly betrayed by ecclesiastics themselves in their greed for temporal power in the fifteenth century. That too must be left to a later generation: yet that is the cornerstone of the Catholic political structure. In the last period of the middle ages the temporal claims of the Popes and the higher orders of the clergy had become an abuse that was bound to be swept away in the inevitable political evolution, an abuse that was fatal to the spiritual and moral authority of the Church in politics. In a normal development the clearing away of the abuse would have left open the path to the reestablishment of that authority over the nations of Europe and the Church with the Pope would still have remained the acknowledged court of appeal as to the morality of political acts. Catholic political thinking would thus have taken a new constructive activity. Instead it had to remain mostly on the defensive of the principles themselves without attempting any really constructive policy. Yet in the fifteenth century, the old question of the spiritual and temporal powers had been revived with special reference to the new political tendencies and was agitating the minds not only of such revolutionary thinkers as Marsilius of Padua, but of orthodox theologians such as Nicholas of Cusa.

The revival of intellectual activity within the Church thus was deflected from a progressive movement into a defensive movement with the limitations and rigidity which defence demands in the face of a mortal enmity: and so far the promised revival of Catholic life was sadly shorn of creative achievement. In its defensive aspect the counter-Reformation directed by authority was itself a splendid achievement: but it was not the achievement that might have been — the achievement of a fuller liberty and expansion of Catholic thought in all departments of life: and for that the Protestant revolt was responsible.

And yet, as we have said, one thing was achieved of enduring value and fundamental importance to the life of the Church, the restoration of the spiritual ideal of the priesthood and the ecclesiastical state generally, without which the authority of the Church would never have been vindicated. That was the essential foundation of all reform which hitherto for many centuries had baffled all legislative decrees. To have achieved that, it was worth while to have sacrificed much: and to retain that, must ever be the first concern in any forward movement of Catholic life which aims at making good what the Counter-Reformation in its necessarily rigid attitude of defence had perforce to sacrifice.

It is well to note how this needed renovation of the spiritual character of the ecclesiastical vocation was brought about. It mainly turned on the assertion and enforcement of three essential elements in the priestly life: evangelical poverty, apostolic zeal, and that sacred study which fits a priest to perform the work of the ministry. The lack of these three essential elements it was which had wrought such devastation of the clerical character during the Middle Ages amongst those who had the care of souls. In place of the ideal of evangelical poverty, there had been too generally the solicitude and even the greed for wealth; secular preoccupations had ousted the apostolic spirit, and as to study and the knowledge requisite for preaching and the direction of souls, it was more often than not, conspicuous by its absence. In the course of the middle ages it had come to be accepted that evangelical poverty was a counsel of perfection to be sought in the cloister; that it was a proper condition of the ecclesiastical state generally was a doctrine entertained only by the very few: and the heretical reactions which denied the right of property to the Church and fanatically demanded the renunciation of all property by the clergy only tended to make the clergy more tenacious of their right. But the right to a reasonable sustenance was too frequently confused with the right to amass wealth out of the goods of the Church; and the apostolic poverty imposed by our Divine Lord on the ministers of the Gospel was lost sight of in the assertion of the right to property:1 much in the same way as at all times most Christians are apt to forget that the Christian's right to property does not allow of inordinate luxury. As a reaction against this abuse in the early part of the sixteenth century there arose new clerical religious orders which voluntarily renounced all benefices and fixed emoluments and depended entirely on voluntary alms; such as the Theatines and Barnabites and (except for the upkeep of their colleges) the Jesuits; whilst amongst the old orders there arose a number of reforms vowed to a severer poverty, the most notable being the Capuchins. Such renunciation could not be asked of the general body of the clergy, but it was a gesture in the right direction, of which the direct outcome was the enforcement by the Council of Trent of the ancient decrees against pluralities and of the obligation of residence on the part of those who held benefices with the care of souls. The enforcement of these decrees went far to abate the abuse; but it was the newly revived piety of which the new religious orders and confraternities were a symbol, which wrought a more spiritual turn of mind upon which the decrees of the Council fell as upon fruitful ground.

The revival of apostolic zeal was largely due to the new religious orders, notably the Jesuits and the Capuchins; though the work of the Oratorians in Rome founded by St. Philip Neri, and of other societies of secular clergy had a remarkable influence on the body of the secular clergy. In the atmosphere created by the heroic labors of those orders and societies, the Tridentine Decrees imposing afresh the obligation of bishops and parish priests to preach and to give religious instruction had a more successful issue than similar decrees of previous councils: but that was partly due to the restored authority and religious energy of the bishops, and to the new seminary system of education for the priesthood, in which spiritual training was combined with theological education. The seminary education was of course conditioned by the circumstances of the period: it lacked the wide scope and intellectual freedom of the greater theological schools of the thirteenth century they shared the general limitations imposed on Catholic intellectual activity by the prevalence of heresy and schism. But they fulfilled the immediate requirements of training a body of priests who took their priestly vocation seriously and were capable of instructing the people in the truths of the Catholic Faith: they inculcated the true character of the priesthood as a Divine vocation and not a secular profession; and not a few of them were nurseries of confessors and martyrs for the Faith. What the papacy and hierarchy in the height of its temporal power was unable to effect, was now brought about in the hour of peril — an educational system which could produce priests trained in the spirit of the priesthood.

The Counter-Reformation purified the Church, and in particular the clerical order, as it had not been purified for many centuries. Doubtless the Protestant revolt which at one period seemed about to overwhelm practically the whole of the Western Christendom, with the exception of Spain and Ireland, stirred the Catholic reformers to a more intense energy than might otherwise have been shown. If it set limitations to the Catholic revival, it also aroused a new loyalty and in the end saw the Catholic Church emerge stronger spiritually and morally than it had been for a long period before the revolt challenged its very existence.

1. It must, however, be remembered that the lower clergy were very often miserably poor and that their extreme poverty often drove them to secular occupations to supplement their scant stipends. This was largely due to the abuse of absentee rectors who drew the emoluments and employed vicars to do the work at a starvation salary.

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