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Counter Reformation


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The Counter Reformation (from about 1560 to around 1610 or as late as 1648, according to some historians) was a partially successful effort by the Roman Catholic Church to roll back the Protestant Reformation. Using new religious orders like the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), which worked among the people rather than retreating from the world in the manner of monks, and addressing much of the corruption and complaints that had weakened the Church and given the Reformers many arguments, the Church managed to hold or reclaim most of Southern and Eastern Europe. The terrirories involved included Spain, Italy, Austria, France, and large parts of Poland, Hungary and Germany. By clarifying Catholic theology and reducing objectionable practices, it hoped to either reabsorb or neutralize the Protestant movement while renewing the faith of the Catholic Church.

The Counter Reformation began in 1560 and ended in 1648 with the conclusion of the Thirty Years' War between Catholics and Protestants. Some defining moments were the creation of the Jesuits and the convening of the Council of Trent. In the end, the Protestant break was permanent and positions adopted or reaffirmed by the Catholic Church had a tendency to define the differences, but did little to mend them.

Local impact

The Roman Catholic Church paid renewed attention to the role of the parish priest who was directed to become much more involved in ministering to the social and cultural needs of the parish. A modernized administrative system was designed to help the priest to get to know all his parishioners individually and support them. He became responsible for registering baptisms and marriages, making house visits, delivering sermons, attending to annual Easter confession and communion, and conducting intensive confirmation classes.

Reacting against the eroticism of the Renaissance, the Counter Reformation preached chastity and defined strictly what types of sexual behavior were acceptable, even within marriage. Some medical doctors linked sexual immorality to physical illness. Several, for example, held that illicit sexuality caused tuberculosis.


The Jesuits fostered traditional beliefs and practices associated with saints, relics, and sacramentals and used exorcisms and visions for didactic and proselytizing purposes. They tried to purge popular piety of its "superstitious" elements. Unlike most religious orders, the Jesuits were not adverse to involving themselves in political matters, which tactic led ultimately to the order's expulsion from a number of European countries.


One of the main weapons used by the Counter Reformation Church to discipline its faithful was excommunication. In theory, this was the gravest spiritual punishment because it meant not only deprivation of the sacraments but also the termination of communication and human relations—no good Catholic was supposed to talk to an excommunicated one. However, the abuse of excommunication from the late Middle Ages onward led to its discredit in the minds of many Catholics. In 1563, the Council of Trent made the decision to reestablish excommunication as a punishment for disobedience, rebelliousness, or contumacy, no matter what the reasons were for the contumacy.


The aristocratic archbishop of Valencia Juan de Ribera (1532-1611) was frustrated in his initial attempts to institute the Counter Reformation in his diocese. He established a Tridentine seminary, the Colegio de Corpus Christi (1583-1604), to reform the clergy, promote popular piety, and serve also as his personal chapel, reliquary, museum, and mausoleum. Since the municipal government had resisted his call for them to loosen their control over the university, Ribera's seminary became a center for urban reform in Valencia. The bishop co-opted popular devotion (for example, to Dominican missionary Luis Bertrán) to serve his agenda. New saints whose devotions he could shape provided a tool for implementing his vision of the Church. He used sacred objects such as the holy relics in his treasury to gain cooperation aristocrats when he donate the relics to their favored churches.

The (lay) Third Order of Saint Francis was revived in 17th century Castile, establishing the Counter Reformation at all levels of society from royalty to peasantry. The priests vigorously developed and defended the concept of purgatory, which had been rejected by Protestant theology. Despite the Church's efforts to make its intercession the only means of benefiting departed souls, other folk beliefs remained common in popular religious culture.

Spanish America

The cult of Our Lady of Guadalupe in colonial Mexico supported and aided the Counter-Reformation by preaching and by the deployment of an associated iconography. By focusing on the importance of the miraculous apparition, Church elites, intellectuals, theologians, preachers, and artists succeeded in communicating certain ideals responding to specific religious and cultural projects of the crown and the Church in New Spain.

German states

From 1621 the Upper Palatinate underwent recatholization. The Church used newly discovered relics of the Catacomb saints in Rome. The relics were sent to Germany in large quantities to replenish the depleted stock of local relics. Such relics were used to help reconsecrate altars and provided objects of veneration. They also quickly became the focus of miracles, particularly the curing of illness or injury, thus filling the local voids left by the loss of pre-Reformation saints during the period of Protestant rule.


Friedrich Förner, a principal architect of the Counter-Reformation in Germany, is famous for his 1626 treatise on witchcraft, Panoplia Armaturae Dei. Taking a historical perspective, he argued the simultaneous rise of witchcraft and Calvinism represented the final stage in the devil's assault on Christianity. With the defeat of the Calvinist heresy in the first stages of the Thirty Years' War, in desperation the devil had employed witches in a last-ditch effort to destroy the Catholic faith. Förner's reconstruction of ecclesiastical history provided the ideological justification for the final assault on witchcraft, culminating in the many trials of the 1620s and 1630s.[1]


In Poland the Reformation had made its greatest gains around Crakow. Calvinism and sometimes Unitarianism became popular mostly among the nobility and the rich gentry, but had few followers among the peasants or shopkeepers. The Catholic Church fought back by taking back parish churches the Protestants had appropriated. The regulating of religious life comprised mostly attempts at the improvement of the morals of both parishioners and clergy as well as the sense of duty of the latter. Diocesan authorities stressed the need to explain the rudiments of the creed to the laity. Their religious practices and the ways they were to be molded represented a continuation of the medieval heritage.

Austrian Empire

From the 1580s to about 1650, most parishes had elementary schools, designed chiefly to provide candidates for the priesthood. After 1650, as the decisions of the Council of Trent took effect, the Church began intensive efforts to organize secondary schools as well. The goal was an educated laity among the middle classes and the lesser nobility. The Jesuits played a key role; their friaries became centers of intellectual, cultural, and religious life. For example, Jesuit school plays expressed Baroque aesthetic values and had a dramatic impact in the Hungarian and Bohemian regions. They influenced popular culture and popular theological beliefs and religious piety.


The Roman Holy Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (or "Propaganda Fide") was the papal organization governing missionary work throughout the world. It regarded the entire territory of 17th century Hungary as a missionary area. Ottoman-occupied Hungary and Transylvania needed help from the missionaries because of the disintegration of pre-occupation religious organizations, the rule of the "pagan" (Muslim) sultan, and the Protestantism of the princes of Transylvania. Royal Hungary needed missionary help to bolster an ailing Catholic Church and to bring Protestants back into the Catholic fold.

France and the Netherlands

Pollmann, (2006) compares the reactions of Dutch and French Catholics to the Reformation. Although both groups opposed the Protestants, French Catholics often took violent reprisals against them while Dutch Catholics were more passive. Among the causes of the difference in reactions were the dependence of the Dutch Catholic clergy on retaining the goodwill of the ruling class with its strong Reformed connections, the absence of Jesuit influence in the Netherlands, and the reluctance of the Dutch clergy to call on the lay population to take to the streets.

All of those reasons contrasted strongly with France, where the ruling class and priests often encouraged the laity to take violent actions against Protestants. The violence that often occurred between the two groups during the Reformation was not inevitable but dependent on local conditions.[2]

External links

Further reading

  • Dickens, A. G. The Counter Reformation (1969), the best introduction
  • Hsia, R. Po-chia. The World of Catholic Renewal 1540-1770, (2nd ed. 2005), 282pp; standard scholarly summary. excerpt and text search
  • Hsia, R. Po-chia. A Companion to the Reformation World (2004), 573pp; essays by 24 scholars cover the major themes excerpt and text search; ch 14-19 on Counter Reformation
  • Janelle, Pierre. The Catholic Reformation (1949) 402pp; broad survey with stress on culture and art online edition
  • Luebke, David, ed. The Counter-Reformation: The Essential Readings (1999) excerpt and text search, 9 essays by scholars
  • MacCulloch, Diarmaid. The Reformation (2005), 830pp; influential recent survey covers both Reformation and Catholic responses excerpt and text search
  • O'Connell, Marvin R. Counter-reformation, 1550-1610 (1974)
  • Olin, John. The Catholic Reformation: Savonarola to St. Ignatius Loyola. (1993) 218pp excerpt and text search
  • Pollen, John Hungerford. "The Counter-Reformation." in The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. (1908) old but detailed; strong Catholic viewpoint
  • Wernham, R. B. ed. The New Cambridge Modern History, Vol. 3: Counter-Reformation and Price Revolution, 1559-1610 (1968), essays by scholars
  • Wright, A.D. The Counter-Reformation (1982), advanced scholarly synthesis


  1. Wm. Bradford Smith, "Friedrich Förner, The Catholic Reformation, and Witch-Hunting in Bamberg," Sixteenth Century Journal 2005 36(1): 115-128
  2. Judith Pollmann, "Countering the Reformation in France and the Netherlands: Clerical Leadership and Catholic Violence 1560-1585," Past & Present 2006 (190): 83-120 online at EBSCO