Chapter 3: Reformations

Key Terms

Be sure you know what each term means and how it relates to the events in the chapter.

  • Indulgences
  • Martin Luther
  • “95 Theses”
  • Salvation by grace
  • Salvation by works
  • Diet of Worms
  • Predestination
  • Calvinism
  • Henry VIII
  • Anglicanism
  • Holy Office/Inquisition
  • The Catholic Reformation
  • Council of Trent
  • The Jesuits

The Protestant Reformation was the permanent split within the Catholic church that resulted in multiple competing denominations (versions, essentially) of Christian practice and belief. From the perspective of the Catholic hierarchy, these new denominations—lumped together under the category of “Protestant”—were nothing more or less than new heresies, sinful breaks with the correct, orthodox beliefs and practices of the Church. The difference between Protestant churches and earlier heretical movements was that the Church proved unable to stamp them out or re-assimilate them into mainstream Catholic practice. Thus, what began as a protest movement against corruption within the Church very quickly evolved into a number of widespread and increasingly militant branches of Christianity itself.

Ironically, “the” Reformation as the sundering of Christian unity was at least in part the product of prosaic reformations already occurring within the Church. The founding figure of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, used the humanistic education that had become increasingly common for members of the Church in formulating his arguments. Many early adopters of Protestantism were drawn to the new movement because they were already enthusiastic supporters of church reform. In part as a reaction to Protestantism but also in part as an extension of pre-existing reform movements, the Catholic hierarchy would go on to introduce important changes to both practice (e.g. colleges that trained priests) and culture (e.g. a new focus on the spiritual life of the common person) that did amount to meaningful reforms. These changes were long referred to as the “Counter-Reformation,” but are now recognized by historians as constituting a Catholic Reformation that was more than just an anti-Protestant reaction.

The Context of the Reformation

The context of the Reformation was the strange state of the Catholic Church as of the late fifteenth century. The Church was omnipresent in early-modern European society. About one person in 75 was part of the Church, as a priest, monk, nun, or member of a lay order. Practically every work of art depicted biblical themes. The Church supervised births, marriages, contracts, wills, and deaths—all law was, by implication, the law of God Himself. Furthermore, in Catholic doctrine, spiritual salvation was only accessible through the intervention of the Church; without the rituals (sacraments) performed by priests, the soul was doomed to go to hell. Finally, popes fought to claim the right to intervene in secular affairs as they saw fit, although this was a fight they rarely won, losing even more ground as the new more powerful and centralized monarchies rose to power in the fifteenth century.

Simply put, as of the Renaissance era, all was not well with the Church. The Babylonian Captivity and the Great Western Schism both undermined the Church’s authority. The stronger states of the period claimed the right to appoint bishops and priests within their kingdoms, something that the monarchs of England and France were very successful in doing. This led both laypeople and some priests themselves to look to monarchs, rather than the pope, for patronage and authority.

At the same time, elite churchmen (including the popes themselves) continued to live like princes. Not only did the papacy set a bad example, but attempts to reform the lifestyles and relative piety of priests generally failed. The papacy was simply too remote from the everyday life of the priesthood across Europe, and since elite churchmen were all nobles, they usually continued to live like nobles. In many cases, they openly lived with concubines, had children, and worked to ensure that their children receive lucrative positions in the Church. Laypeople were well aware of the slack morality that pervaded the Church. Medieval and early-modern literature is absolutely shot through with satirical tracts mocking immoral priests, and depictions of hell almost always featured priests, monks, and nuns burning alongside nobles and merchants.

These patterns affected monasticism as well. The idea behind monastic orders had been imitating the life of Christ; yet by the early modern period, many monasteries (especially urban ones) ran successful industries, and monks often lived in relative luxury compared to townspeople. Furthermore, the monasteries had been very successful in buying up or receiving land as gifts; by the late fifteenth century a full 20% of the land of the western kingdoms was owned by monasteries. The contrast between the required vow of poverty taken by monks and nuns and the wealth and luxury many monks and nuns enjoyed was obvious to laypeople.

The result of this widespread concern with corruption was a new focus on the inner spiritual life of the individual, not the focus on and respect for the priest, monk, or nun. New movements sprung up around Europe, including one called Modern Devotion in the Netherlands, that focused on moral and spiritual life of laypeople outside of the auspices of the Church. The handbook of the Modern Devotion was called The Imitation of Christ, written in the mid-fifteenth century and published in various editions after that, which was so popular that its sales matched those of the Bible at the time. It promoted the idea of salvation without needing the Church as an intermediary at all.

Within the Church, there were widespread and persistent calls for reform to better address the needs of the laity and to better live up to the Church’s own moral standards. Numerous devout priests, monks, and nuns abhorred the corruption of their peers and superiors in the Church and called for change: the Spanish branch of the Church enjoyed a strong period of reform during the fifteenth century, for example. Despite this reforming zeal within the Church and the growing popularity of lay movements outside of it, however, almost no one anticipated a permanent break from the Church’s hierarchy itself.


The specific phenomenon that brought about the Protestant Reformation was the selling of indulgences by the Church. Catholic doctrine held that even the souls of those who avoided hell did not go straight to heaven on death. Instead, they would spend years (centuries, usually) in a spiritual plane between earth and heaven called purgatory—there, their sins would be purged (note the overlap between the words “purge” and “purgatory”) through fire until they were purified. Only then could they ascend to heaven. In turn, an indulgence was a certificate offered by the Church that offered the same spiritual power as the sacrament of confession and penance: to have one’s sins absolved. Each indulgence promised a certain amount of time that the individual would not have to spend in purgatory after death. Naturally, most people would much rather proceed directly to heaven if possible, and so the Church found that the sale of indulgences to avoid time in purgatory was enormously popular.

At first, indulgences were granted by the pope for good acts that were supported by the Church; they were heavily associated with the crusades, both in terms of mitigating the normal spiritual consequences of the atrocities committed by the crusaders and in rewarding the crusaders for trying to recapture the Holy Land for the Church. Later, popes came to succumb to the temptation to sell them in order to raise revenue, especially as the Renaissance-era popes built up both their own secular power and patronized the art and architecture associated with the Vatican. By the early sixteenth century the practice was completely out of control. Roaming salesmen, contracted by the Church, sold indulgences without the slightest concern for the moral or spiritual status of the buyer, and even invented little jingles like “when the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs”—that was the sales pitch of John Tetzel, the specific indulgence salesman who infuriated the key figure in the Reformation, Martin Luther.

The concept of indulgences relied on the notion of a “treasury of merit”—a kind of spiritual bank—whose savings had been deposited by the sacrifices made by Christ and the saints. When someone bought an indulgence, they drew against that treasury in order to avoid time in purgatory. Another way to gain access to the treasury of merit was to possess, or even come into contact with, holy relics (typically the bones of saints). Thus, many rulers did everything in their power to create large collections. One German prince had his court preacher calculate the total number of years that his large collection of relics would eliminate from his and his subjects’ time in Purgatory; the total was 1,902,202 years and 270 days. There was another prince whose total was 39,245,120 years of get-out-of-Purgatory-free time. From this context, of widespread corruption and the fairly blatant abuse of the notion of spiritual salvation through the Church, Martin Luther emerged.


A 1528 portrait of Luther.

Martin Luther (1483–1546) was a German monk who endured a difficult childhood and a fraught relationship with his father. He suffered from bouts of depression and anxiety that led him to become a monk, the traditional solution to an identity crisis as of the early modern period. Luther received both a scholastic and a humanistic education, eventually becoming a professor at the small university in the city of Wittenberg in the Holy Roman Empire. There, far from the centers of both spiritual and secular power, he contemplated the Bible, the Church, and his own spiritual salvation.

Luther struggled with his spiritual identity. He was obsessively afraid of being damned to hell, feeling totally unworthy of divine forgiveness and plagued with doubt as to his ability to achieve salvation. The key issue for Luther was the concept of good works, an essential element of salvation in the early-modern church. In Catholic doctrine, salvation is achieved through a combination of the sacraments, faith in God, and good works, which are good deeds that merit a person’s admission into heaven. Those good works could be acts of kindness and charity, or they could be gifts of money to the Church—a common “good work” at the time was leaving money or land to the Church in one’s will. Luther felt that the very idea of good works was ambiguous, especially because works seemed so inadequate when compared to the wretched spiritual state of humankind. He could not understand how anyone merited admittance to heaven no matter how many good works they carried out while alive; the very idea seemed petty and base compared to the awesome responsibility of living up to Christianity’s moral standards.

In about 1510 Luther began to explore a possible answer to this quandary: the idea that salvation did not come from works, but from grace, the limitless love and forgiveness of God, which is achievable through faith alone. Over time, Luther developed the idea that it takes an act of God to merit a person’s salvation, and the reflection of that act is in the heartfelt faith of the individual. A person’s willed attempts to do good things to get into heaven were always inadequate; what mattered was that the heartfelt faith of a believer might inspire an infinite act of mercy on the part of God. This idea—salvation through faith alone—was a major break with Catholic belief.

This concept was potentially revolutionary because in one stroke it did away with the entire edifice of church ritual. If salvation could be earned through faith alone, the sacraments were, at best, symbolic rituals, and at worst distractions—over time, Luther argued that only baptism and communion were relevant since they were very clearly inspired by Christ’s actions as described in the New Testament. In Luther’s vision, the priest was nothing more than a guide rather than a gatekeeper who could grant or withhold the essential rituals, and a believer should be able to read the Bible directly rather than be forced to defer to the priesthood.

Having developed the essential points of his theology, Luther then confronted what he regarded as the most blatant abuse of the Church’s authority: indulgences. In 1517, Pope Leo X issued a new indulgence to fund the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Luther was incensed at how crass the sale of indulgences was (it was as bad as a carnival barker’s act in nearby Wittenberg) and at the fact that this new indulgence promised to absolve the purchaser of all sins, all at once. Furthermore, the indulgence could be purchased on behalf of those who were already dead and “spring” them from purgatory in one fell swoop. Luther responded by posting a list of 95 attacks against indulgences to the door of the Wittenberg cathedral. These 95 Theses are considered by historians to be the first official act of the Protestant Reformation.

The 95 Theses were relatively moderate in tone. They attacked indulgences for leading to greed instead of piety, for leading the laity to distrust the Church, and for simply not working—they did not, Luther argued, absolve the sins of those who purchased them. Written in Latin, the 95 Theses were intended to spark debate and discussion within the Church. And, while he criticized the pope’s wealth and (implied) greed, Luther did not attack the office of the papacy itself. It should be emphasized that calls for reform within the Church were nothing new, and Luther certainly saw himself as a would-be reformer at this stage, not a revolutionary. Soon, however, the 95 Theses were translated into German and reprinted, which led to an unexpected and, at least initially, unwanted celebrity.

Within two years, Luther was forced to publicly defend his views and, in the process, to radicalize them. A fellow professor and member of the Church, Johann Eck, publicly debated Luther and forced him to admit that the pope had the authority issue indulgences. This, however, led Luther to argue that the pope could be wrong if his position was not authorized by the Bible itself. In the end, Luther argued that the pope, and by extension the entire Church, were irrelevant to spiritual salvation. He argued that true Christians were part of the priesthood of believers, united by their faith and without need for the Catholic Church.

By 1520 Luther was actively engaged in writing and publishing inflammatory pamphlets that attacked the pope’s authority and the corruption of the Church. He was summoned to Rome to recant, but refused to go. In turn, the secular authorities stepped in. In 1521 Luther was tried at the Diet of Worms, the Holy Roman Empire’s official meeting of princes, where the emperor Charles V ordered him to recant. Luther refused and was declared an “outlaw” by the emperor, stipulating that no subject of the Empire was to offer Luther food or water, and suffer no legal penalty should Luther be murdered. Luther was swiftly taken into the custody of a sympathetic German prince, Frederick the Wise of Saxony, who spirited Luther away and allowed him to continue his work writing anti-papal propaganda.

A (highly dramatized) portrayal of Luther at the Diet of Worms painted in the nineteenth century.

Much of Luther’s, and Protestantism’s, survival owes to the simple fact that both the pope and Charles V were reluctant to threaten Frederick the Wise, who was one of the electors of the empire and one of its most powerful nobles, essentially a king in his own right. Frederick both genuinely supported and agreed with Luther’s views and also realized that he could benefit from rejecting the authority of the pope and, to a lesser extent, the emperor. Charles V had enormous prestige and some ability to influence his subjects, but practically speaking each prince was sovereign in his own domain. This loose overall control was disastrous for Catholic uniformity in the empire, as Luther’s doctrines, soon referred to as Lutheranism, rapidly spread. To make matters worse, Charles V was too preoccupied with wars against France to spearhead a genuine effort to crush Lutheranism. In turn, the French King Francis I extended royal protection to Lutherans in France, since doing so undermined the authority of Charles.

Luther’s position continued to radicalize after 1521. He claimed that the pope was, in fact, the Anti-Christ foretold in the Book of Revelation, and he came to believe that he was living in the End Times. He also personally translated the Bible into German and he happily met with his ever-growing group of followers. Initially a slur against heretics, the term “Protestant” was soon embraced by those followers, who used it as a defiant badge of honor.

Very quickly, Protestantism caught on across the empire, especially among elites, churchmen, and the educated urban classes. In the 1520s most Lutherans were reform-minded clerics, regarding Luther’s movement as an effective and radical protest against all of the problems that had plagued the Church for centuries. Part of the appeal of Lutheranism to priests was that it legitimized the lifestyle many of them were already living; they could get married to their concubines and acknowledge their children if they left the Church, which droves of them did starting in the 1520s. Thanks both to the perceived purity of its doctrine and the support of rulers, nobles, and converted priests, Lutheranism started spreading in earnest among the general population starting in the 1530s.

Charles V was in an unenviable position. As Holy Roman Emperor, he felt bound to defend the Church, but he could not do so through force of arms. He spent most of his reign fighting against both France and the Ottoman Empire, which were among the greatest powers of the era. Thus, in 1526 he allowed the German princes to choose whether or not to enforce his ban on Lutheranism as they saw fit, in hopes that they would continue to offer him their military assistance. He tried unsuccessfully to repeal this reluctant tolerance in 1529, but it was too late. Practically speaking, the German states ended up being divided roughly evenly, with a concentration of Lutheranism in the north and Catholicism in the south.

Luther was elated by the success of his message; he happily accepted the use of the term “Lutheranism” to describe the new religious movement he had started, and he felt certain that the correctness of his position was so appealing that even the Jews would abandon their traditional beliefs and convert (they did not, and Luther swiftly launched a vituperative anti-Semitic attack entitled Against the Jews and their Lies). Much to his chagrin, however, Luther watched as some groups who considered themselves to be Lutherans took his message in directions of which he completely disapproved.

Luther himself was a deeply conservative man. His attack on Catholic doctrine was fundamentally based on what he saw as a “return” to the original message of the Bible. Many Protestants interpreted his message as indicating that true Christians were only accountable to the Bible and could therefore reject the existing social hierarchy as well. In 1524, an enormous peasant uprising occurred across Germany, inspired by this interpretation of Lutheranism and demanding a reduction in feudal dues and duties, the end of serfdom, and greater justice from feudal lords. In 1525, Luther penned a venomous attack against the rebels entitled Against the Thieving, Murderous Hordes of Peasants, which encouraged the lords to slaughter the peasants like dogs. The revolt was put down brutally, with over 100,000 killed, and Lutheranism was able to keep the support of the elites like Frederick the Wise who sheltered it.

Still, the uprising indicated that the movement Luther had begun was not something he could control, despite his best efforts. The very nature of breaking with a single authoritarian institution brought about a number of competing movements, some of which were directly inspired by and connected to Luther, but many of which, soon, were not.


Sixteenth-century portrait of Calvin. Austere black clothing became associated with Calvinists, who rejected ostentatious dress and decoration.

The most important Protestant denomination to emerge after the establishment of Lutheranism was Calvinism. Jean Calvin, a French lawyer exiled for his sympathy with Protestantism, settled in Geneva, Switzerland in 1536. Calvin was a generation younger than Luther, and hence was born into a world in which religious unity had already been fragmented; in that sense, the fact that he had Protestant views is not as surprising as Luther’s break with the Church had been. In Geneva, Calvin began work on Christian theology and soon formed close ties with the city council. The result of his work was Calvinism, a distinct Protestant denomination that differed in many ways from Lutheranism.

Calvin accepted Luther’s insistence on the role of faith in salvation, but he went further. If God was all-powerful and all-knowing, and he chose to extend his grace to some people but not to others, Calvin reasoned, it was folly to imagine that humans could somehow influence Him. Not only was the Catholic insistence on good works wrong, the very idea of free will in the face of the divine intelligence could not be correct. Calvin noted that only some parishioners in church services seemed to be able to grasp the importance and complexities of scripture, whereas most were indifferent or ignorant. He concluded that God, who transcended both time and space, chose some people as the “elect,” those who will be saved, before they are even born. Free will is merely an illusion born of human ignorance, since the fate of a person’s soul was determined before time itself began. This doctrine is called predestination, and while the idea of the absence of free will and predetermined salvation may seem absurd at first sight, in fact it was simply the logical extension of the very concept of divine omnipotence according to Calvin.

Practically speaking, however, Calvinism involved a kind of circular argument about salvation. Those who were among the elect acted in certain ways: they lived according to the standards of behavior defined in the Bible, they refrained from worldly pleasures, and they strove to conduct themselves within the legal and social framework of their societies. Thus, good Calvinists were supposed to devote themselves to the study of scripture, temperate living, and hard work. Counterintuitively, it was not that these behaviors would lead to salvation; it is that the already-saved acted morally according to God’s will. Furthermore, one sign of being a member of the elect was financial success, because success was a side effect of the focus and hard work that the elect naturally, again through God’s will, exhibited.

After developing his theology and winning many converts, Calvin colluded with the city council of Geneva to enforce a whole set of moralistic laws that regulated almost every aspect of behavior. He was originally asked to reform the local church by the city fathers, then in 1555 he worked with a group of fellow French exiles to stage a coup d’etat. He created the Consistory, a group of Calvinist ministers who scrutinized the behavior of Geneva’s citizens, fining or imprisoning people for intemperate or ungodly behavior. The idea was that, predestination or not, Geneva would be the model Christian community.

While Lutheranism spread to northern Germany and the Scandinavian countries, Calvinism caught on not just in Switzerland, but in France (where Calvinists were known as Huguenots) and Scotland, where the Scottish Calvinists became known as Presbyterians. Everywhere, Calvinists set themselves apart by their plain dress and their dour outlook on merriment, celebrations, and the pleasures of the flesh. The best known Calvinists in the American context were the Puritans, English Calvinists who left Europe (initially fleeing persecution) to try to create a perfect Christian community in the New World.

It should be emphasized that Lutherans and Calvinists quickly came to regard one another as rivals, even enemies, rather than as “fellow” Protestants. Luther and Calvin came to detest one another, finding each other’s respective theology as flawed and misleading as that of Catholicism. While some pragmatic alliances between Protestant groups would eventually emerge because of persecution or war, for the most part each Protestant denomination claimed to have exclusive access to religious truth, regarding all others as hopelessly ignorant and, in fact, damned to hell.

The English Reformation

Whereas Lutheranism and Calvinism had both come about as protests against the perceived moral and doctrinal failings of the Catholic Church, the English Reformation happened because of the selfish desires of a king. Henry VIII (r. 1509–1547) had received a special dispensation from the papacy to marry his brother’s widow (a practice banned in the Old Testament of the Bible), Catherine of Aragon, aunt of Charles V and hence a member of the most powerful royal line in Europe. Catherine, however, was only able to bear Henry a daughter, Mary, and failed to produce a son. Henry decided he needed a new wife and another chance at a male heir, so he started an affair with Anne Boleyn, a young noblewoman in his court. Simultaneously, Henry petitioned the pope for a divorce—a practice that was strictly forbidden. The pope refused, and in defiance in 1531 Henry, under the auspices of a compliant local Catholic leader, divorced Catherine and married Anne.

When Anne did not produce a male heir in a timely manner, Henry trumped up charges of adultery and had her beheaded. In 1534, as papal threats escalated over his impiety, Henry issued the Acts of Supremacy and Succession, effectively separating England from the Catholic Church and founding in its stead the Church of England. the Church of England was almost identical to the Catholic Church in its doctrine and rituals, it simply substituted the king at its apex and discarded allegiance to the Roman pope. It also gave Henry an excuse to seize Catholic lands and wealth, especially those of England’s rich monasteries, which funded the crown and its subsequent military and naval buildup into the reign of his daughter Elizabeth.

Easily the best-known portrait of Henry VIII in the prime of life.

Henry went on to marry an astonishing total of six wives over the course of his life, with two divorced, two executed, one dying of natural causes, and the last, Katherine Parr, surviving him. In the end, Henry had three children: a young son, Edward, and two older half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth. They each took the throne in fairly rapid succession after his death in 1547; under Edward and Mary (both of whom died of natural causes after only a few years), the kingdom oscillated between a more extreme form of Protestantism and then an attempted Catholic resurgence. Elizabeth I went on to rule for decades (r. 1558–1603) as one of Europe’s most effective monarchs. Part of her success was in stabilizing the religious issue in England: she insisted that her subjects be part of the Church of England, but she did not actively persecute Catholics.

The end result of the English Reformation was that England and Scotland were divided between competing Christian factions, but ones very distinct to the British Isles in comparison to the more straightforward Catholic versus Protestant conflicts on the continent of Europe. The Church of England, whose adherents are known as Anglicans, had an official “high church” branch supported by the nobility and the monarchy itself. A growing movement within the Church of England, however, openly embraced Calvinism, and that movement became known as Puritanism (or “low church”)—still technically Anglican, but rejected by the Church hierarchy. Meanwhile, numerous Catholics continued to worship in secret. Finally, most of Scotland became devoutly Calvinist, under the Presbyterian branch of the Calvinist movement (many Scottish nobles remained Catholic until well into the seventeenth century, however).

The Effects of the Reformation

By the late sixteenth century, the lines of division within western Christianity were permanently drawn. Christianity was (and remains, although the enmity between the different groups is much less pronounced in the modern era) divided as follows:

The Catholic (Roman/Latin) Church

The Catholic Church remained dominant in almost all of southern Europe, including Italy, Spain, Austria, parts of the Balkans, and kingdoms like Poland as well. Catholic minorities existed either openly or in secret depending on the relative hostility of the local rulers throughout much of the rest of Europe.

The Eastern Orthodox Church

The Orthodox Church was the product of medieval divisions within the Church itself, pitting the western papacy against the Byzantine emperors. It was unaffected by the Protestant Reformation, since the Reformation occurred in Western Europe. Thus, the Orthodox church remained in place in Greece, parts of the Balkans, and Russia.

The Protestant Churches

“Protestant” came to mean all of the different groups that broke away from the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century. These denominations included Lutheranism, Calvinism, Anglicanism, and other (generally smaller and less historically significant at the time) denominations like Anabaptism. Protestant churches dominated in northern Europe, including much of Germany, the Scandinavian countries, Switzerland, England and Scotland. There was also a very significant minority of Huguenots (French Calvinists) in the southern half of France.

The Catholic Reformation

Historians have traditionally referred to the major changes that took place in the Catholic Church in response to the Protestant Reformation as the Counter-Reformation, a movement that was essentially reactionary. In the last few decades, however, historians have come to recognize that it is probably more accurate and useful to see this period of church history as a Catholic Reformation unto itself—the culmination of the reformist trends that had been present in the Church for centuries before Martin Luther set off the Protestant break with the Roman Church.

Luther, after all, had not set out to split the Church, but to reform it—hence the very term “reformation.” His position radicalized quite quickly, however, and he did openly defy both the pope and the Church hierarchy within just a few years of the posting of the 95 Theses. That being noted, one of the reasons that Lutheranism caught on so quickly was that there were large numbers of people within the Church who had long fought for, or at least hoped for, significant changes. Thus, while the Catholic Reformation began as a reaction against Protestantism, it culminated in reforming the Church itself.

The Initial Reaction

Initially, most members of the Church hierarchy were overwhelmed and bewildered by the emergence of Protestantism. All of the past heresies had remained limited in scope as compared with the incredible rapidity with which Lutheranism spread. For practical political reasons, the pope and various rulers were either unwilling or unable to use force to crack down on Protestantism at first, as witnessed with Charles V’s failed attempts to curtail Lutheranism’s spread. Lutheranism also spread much more quickly than had earlier heresies, which tended to be limited to certain regions; here, the fact that Luther and his followers readily embraced the printing press to spread their message made a major impact, with word of the new movement spreading across Europe over the course of the 1520s.

In historical hindsight, the shocking aspect of the Catholic Church’s initial reaction to the emergence of Protestantism is that there was no reaction. For decades, popes remained focused on the politics of central Italy or simply continued beautifying Rome and enjoying a life of luxury; this was the era of the “Renaissance popes,” men from elite families who regarded the papal office as little more than a political position that happened to be at the head of the Church. Likewise, there was no widespread awareness among most Church officials that anything out of the ordinary was taking place with Luther; despite the radicalism of his position, most of the clergy assumed that Lutheranism was a “flash in the pan,” doomed to fade back into obscurity in the end. By the 1540s, however, church officials began to take the threat posed by Protestantism more seriously.

The initial period of Catholic Reformation, from about 1540 – 1550, was a fairly moderate one that aimed to bring Protestants back into the fold. In a sense, the very notion of a permanent break from Rome was difficult for many people, certainly many priests, to conceive of. After about 1550, however, when it became clear that the split was permanent, the Church itself became much more hardline and intolerant. The subsequent reforms were as much about imposing a new internal discipline as they were in making membership appealing to lay Catholics.

The same factors that had made the Church difficult to reform before the Protestant break made it strong as an institution that opposed the new Protestant denominations: habit, ritual, organization, discipline, hierarchy, and wealth all worked to preserve the Church’s power and influence. Likewise, many princes realized that Protestantism often led to political problems in their territories; even though many of the German princes had originally supported Luther in order to protect their own political independence, many others came to realize that the last thing they wanted were independent-minded denominations in their territories, some of which might reject their worldly authority completely (as had the German peasants who rose up in 1524).

Among Catholics at all levels of social hierarchy, Catholic rituals were comforting, and even though rejecting the excesses in Catholic ritual had been part of the appeal of Protestantism to some, to many others it was precisely those familiar rituals that made Catholicism appealing. The Catholic Reformation is often associated with the “baroque” style of art and music which encouraged an emotional connection with Catholic ritual and, potentially, with the experience of faith itself. The Church continued to fund huge building projects and lavish artwork, much of which was aimed to appeal to laypeople, not just serve as pretty decorations for high-ranking churchmen.

Likewise, there was a wave of Protestant conversions that spread very rapidly by the 1530s, but then as the Protestant denominations splintered off and turned on one another, the “purity” of the appeal of Protestantism faded. In other words, when Protestants began fighting each other with the same vigor as their attacks on Rome, they no longer seemed like a clear and simple alternative to Roman corruption.

The Inquisition and the Council of Trent

The individual who launched the “hardline” movement of Catholic Reformation was Pope Paul III (r. 1534 – 1549). Almost from the beginning of his rule, Paul was on the offensive: he commissioned a report in 1536 to evaluate the possibility and necessity of reform, which concluded that there were numerous abuses within the Church that had to be corrected (e.g. the lack of education of the clergy, the practice of earning incomes from parishes that bishops never visited, etc.), but there was no budging on doctrine. In other words, the essential beliefs and practices of the Church were judged to be entirely correct and Luther (and soon, Calvin) was judged to be entirely wrong.

In 1542 Paul III approved the creation of a permanent branch of the Church devoted to holding Protestantism in check: the Holy Office, better known as the Inquisition. The Inquisition existed to search out signs of heresy, including Protestantism, in areas under Catholic control. It had the right to subject people to interrogation and torture and in extreme cases, to execute them. The (in)famous Spanish branch of the Inquisition was under the control of the Spanish crown, but its methods and goals were essentially the same. Inquisitions had been around since the Middle Ages—the first one was in 1184 and targeted a heretical movement in southern France—but they had always been short-term responses to heresy. Under Paul III, the Inquisition became a permanent part of the Church.

The popes that followed Paul III were similar in their focus on re-emphasizing orthodoxy and creating institutions to combat heresy. Paul IV (r. 1555 – 1559) created the “Index” of forbidden books (in 1549) that would go on to form the basis of royal censorship in all Catholic countries for the next two centuries. He also enforced the stance of the Church that the Bible was not to be translated into vernacular languages but had instead to remain in Latin, an explicit rejection of the Protestant practice of translating the Bible into everyday language for Christians to read and interpret themselves. According to Catholic belief, reiterated under Paul IV, the Bible had to remain in Latin because only trained priests had the knowledge and authority to interpret it for laypeople. Laypeople, left to their own devices, would simply get the Bible’s message wrong and endanger their souls in the process.

Paul III, Paul IV, and the subsequent pope, Pius IV, all oversaw an ongoing series of meetings, the Council of Trent, that took place periodically between 1545 – 1563. There, Church officials debated all of the articles and charges that had been leveled against the Church, from the sale of indulgences, to the importance of good works in salvation, to the spiritual necessity of the sacraments. While it was initially organized to try to reconcile, at least in part, with Protestantism, hardliners within the Church won out in the subsequent debates and the Council reaffirmed almost all of the controversial parts of church doctrine and disputed articles of faith; the major exception was that the cardinals and bishops banned the sale of indulgences in the future (the Church still issued them, but they were no longer simply sold for cash). The hard line on doctrine was distressing to Emperor Charles V, who had earnestly hoped that the Church would give ground on some of the doctrinal issues and thereby win back Protestants in his lands; he even tried to prevent Pope Paul IV from taking office because the latter was so intransigent.

A depiction of the Council of Trent (in the background) painted in 1588, when wars between Protestants and Catholics were raging.

While the Council of Trent would not budge on doctrine, it did propose one monumental change to the Church: henceforth, priests would be formally trained for the job. After Trent, the Church organized and funded seminaries, colleges whose express purpose was the training of new priests. There, all priests would acquire a strong scholastic education (and, soon, most seminaries also included a humanistic education as well), fluency in Latin, and a deep understanding of the Bible and the writings of major Christian thinkers. The ad hoc nature of higher education for priests gave way to a formal and universal requirement: all priests would be well educated, not just those who had sought out a university themselves. While abuses of power and moral laxness were not eliminated from the Church, the one definitive change for the better in terms of the experience of lay Catholics was that their priests were now supposed to be experts in Christian theology.

The Jesuits

Statue of Ignatius of Loyola at the Church of the Gesù in Rome, one of the original Jesuit churches. The statues are in the baroque style noted above, practically dripping with ornamentation and gilding.

In addition to the edicts and councils convened by the popes, the Catholic Reformation benefited from a resurgence of Catholic religious orders. The most important new religious order, by far, was the Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits. The Jesuits were founded by Ignatius of Loyola (1491 – 1556), a kind of Catholic counterpart to Luther or Calvin, in 1540. A Spanish knight, Loyola was injured in battle. During his recovery, Loyola read books on the life of Christ and the saints, which inspired him to give up his possessions and take a pilgrimage across Spain and Italy. He soon attracted a following and was even briefly imprisoned on suspicion of heresy, since he claimed to offer “spiritual conversion” to those who would follow his teachings.

Loyola wrote a book, the Spiritual Exercises, that encouraged a mystic veneration of the Church and a single-minded devotion to its institutions. The Exercises were based on an imaginary recreation of the persecution and death of Christ that, when followed, led many new members of the Jesuits to experience an emotional and spiritual awakening. That awakening was explicitly focused on what he described as the “Church Hierarchical”: not just a worldly institution that offered guidance to Christians, but the sole path to salvation, imbued by God Himself with spiritual authority.

As a former soldier, he founded the Jesuits to be “faithful soldiers of the pope.” The purpose of the Jesuits was to fight Protestantism and heresy, forming a militant arm of scholar–soldiers available to the pope. What made the Jesuits distinct from the other religious orders was that they were responsible to the pope, not to kings. They came to live and work in kingdoms all over Europe, but they bypassed royal authority and took their orders directly from Rome. This did not endear them to many kings in the long run.

By Loyola’s death in 1556, there were about 1,000 Jesuits; that number rapidly increased by the end of the century. Many became influential advisors to kings across Europe, ensuring that Catholic monarchs would actively persecute and root out heresy (including, of course, Protestantism). They also began a missionary campaign that sought to rekindle an emotional connection to the Church through its use of passionate sermons.

Ultimately, the most important undertaking of the Jesuits was the creation of numerous schools. The Jesuits themselves were required to undergo an 11-year period of training and education before they were full members, and they insisted on the highest quality of rigor and scholarship in their training and in the education they provided others. They raised young men, often nobles or rich members of the non-noble classes, with both an excellent humanist education and a fierce devotion to the Church. By 1600 there were 250,000 students in Jesuit schools across continental Europe. The schools were noteworthy for being free, funded by the Church and private gifts. Students had to apply for admittance, and the Jesuits working at the schools were far closer to their students than were the very aloof professors at traditional universities at the time. The products of Jesuit schools were thus young men who had received both an excellent education and a deep indoctrination in Catholic belief and opposition to Protestantism. Those young men, drawn as they were from families of social elites, often went on to positions of considerable political and commercial power.

Jesuits were also active missionaries, soon traveling all over the known world. Unlike many other orders of missionaries, the Jesuits distinguished themselves by not only learning the native languages of the people they ministered to, but of adopting their customs as well. They were the first successful missionaries in East Asia, founding Christian communities in Japan (in 1549) and China (in 1552). In the Chinese case, the Jesuits failed to make many converts, but they did bring back an enormous amount of information about China itself. The most noteworthy Jesuit missionary, Matteo Ricci, lived in the court of the Chinese emperor, was fluent in Chinese, and served as a court astrologer. It was the Jesuits who brought back the puzzling (to Europeans) reports of a highly sophisticated, rich, ancient culture that had achieved its power without Christianity.

Effects of the Catholic Reformation

The Catholic Reformation was happening in earnest by the 1530s. the Church adopted the use of the printing press and began reaching out to both priests and educated laypeople, often in the vernacular languages rather than Latin (although, as noted above, the Bible itself was to remain untranslated). The new fervor led to a revival of religious orders focused on reaching out to the common people rather than remaining sequestered from the public in monasteries and convents. One significant new order along those lines was the Carmelites, an order of nuns reformed by St. Teresa of Avila starting in 1535. St. Teresa led a major reform that redoubled the nuns’ vow of poverty and their focus on prayer and purity (the reforms also abolished separate residences and lifestyles for nuns from rich and poor families). Likewise, many orders started opening hospitals and orphanages in the cities that provided care for both the sick and the poor and indigent. The early decades of the Counter-Reformation thus saw an “opening up” of the Church to its followers and a greater emphasis on the duties of the Church to laypeople.

A famous depiction of St. Teresa at the moment she later claimed to have been overwhelmed by the divine presence. Like the statue of Ignatius of Loyola, the statue above is in the highly dramatized and emotional baroque style.

A major focus of the Church was reconnecting with common people, something that many reformers (including popes) believed was only possible if the Church “put its house in order.” While Catholic monarchs continued to almost completely control the Church in their kingdoms (this was especially true of France), popes had at least moderate success in forcing bishops to stop living like princes, to have priests remain at least nominally celibate, and for church officials to actually live in the places they were supposed to represent. The moral qualities of members of the Church, while not universally exemplary, did come to more closely resemble their purported standards over time as a result.

To better connect with laypeople, the Church began to sponsor a counter-propaganda campaign following, inspired by the success that Protestantism had enjoyed through the use of cheap print. Lives of saints, prayer books, and anti-Protestant propaganda were printed and distributed throughout Europe. The Church began to stage plays not just of Biblical scenes, but of great moments in the Church’s history. The new religious orders, including not just the Jesuits but the Capuchins, the Ursulines, and the followers of Vincent de Paul (who lived in the late sixteenth century) sponsored major charitable works, reconnecting the poor to the Church. All of these activities amounted to a cultural reaction to the Reformation that took from Protestantism its focus on the individual’s spiritual connection to God. In contrast to the austerity and even harshness of Lutheranism and (especially) Calvinism, the Catholic Church came to offer a mystical, emotional form of both worship and religious experience that was very appealing to many who may have originally been alienated from the institution.

One social phenomenon that definitely benefited from both the Protestant and Catholic Reformations was literacy. More schools and universities—both church-supported and private—continued to come into being throughout the sixteenth century. All Protestant denominations emphasized the importance of reading the Bible, and as the Catholic Church waged its counter-propaganda campaign, the Church hierarchy came to regard general literacy as desirable as well. Overall, literacy climbed to between 5–10% of the population by 1600 across Central and Western Europe.


The battle lines between Protestantism and Catholicism were firmly set by the 1560s. The Catholic Reformation established Catholic orthodoxy and launched a massive, and largely successful, campaign to re-affirm the loyalty and enthusiasm of Catholic laypeople. Meanwhile, Protestant leaders were equally hardened in their beliefs and actively inculcated devotion and loyalty in their followers. Nowhere was there the slightest notion of “religious tolerance” in the modern sense—both sides were convinced that anyone and everyone who disagreed with their spiritual outlook was damned to an eternity of suffering. The wars of propaganda and evangelism gave way to wars of muskets and pikes soon enough.

Image Citations (Wikimedia Commons):

Luther – Public Domain

Diet of Worms – Public Domain

Calvin – Public Domain

Henry VIII – Public Domain

Council of Trent – Public Domain

Ignatius of Loyola – Roy Sebastian

The Ecstasy of St. Theresa – Napoleon Vier


TCC Library Resources – Issues & Controversies in History Database Articles (you may be prompted to login with your MyTCC credentials to access)


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