10 MAKING CONNECTIONS BETWEEN IDEAS: The Reformation and Counter-Reformation

Although Martin Luther’s original goal was to reform the Catholic Church, the end result of his activities was a split in the Christian Church. His protest led to the establishment of Protestant Churches who “protested” against perceived corruption and heresy in the Catholic Church.

The Protestant Case against the Church

The popes who presided over the church in the decades immediately preceding the Reformation were favorite targets for Protestant criticism. All of them were corrupt to varying degrees, were more focused on secular issues than religion, and were great patrons of the arts. In these ways, they acted as Renaissance princes more than spiritual leaders.


A painting of Pope Alexander VI by Cristofano Altissimo (Source: Wikimedia)

Alexander VI (r. 1492–1503) is perhaps the most emblematic example. He was born in Spain into the increasingly powerful Borgia family. He gained his position as archbishop of Valencia through nepotism when his uncle was elected as Pope Callixtus III. After Alexander’s election to the papacy, rumors circulated that he had bribed his way into the holy office; historians, however, debate whether this claim can be substantiated. Alexander was reputed to be irresistible to women; he acknowledged four illegitimate children (and there may have been more) and strategically married them into powerful Spanish and Italian families to increase the prestige and power of his family. He was also a patron of the arts. He commissioned artists such as Raphael and Michelangelo, and he commissioned Pinturicchio to paint an apartment in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican that is today known as the Borgia Apartment.

Abuses by the popes themselves were a microcosm of abuses that were present throughout the top levels of the church hierarchy. It was difficult, for instance, to regulate clerical celibacy. Many clerics were secretly married, and bishops relied on the revenue they received from levying an extra tax on priests who had children. The ostentatious lifestyle in which the pope and the clergy lived negatively affected the perception of the church.

These abuses were bad, but if there had not been problems at the local level, the abuses at the top of the church hierarchy (among bishops, cardinals, and the papal court) would not have mattered as much. There were, however, two main problems with the church for many Catholics. First, there were not enough clergy in rural areas, and therefore often no priests to perform the sacraments. This led to pluralism – priests holding multiple positions – or villages with non-resident priests. This was compounded by the fact that many priests were not trained or qualified to be clergy. Many were relatively illiterate; this became an increasingly important problem as literacy rates rose and congregations learned more about the Bible.

The Initial Catholic Response

Amidst this laundry list of difficulties, Catholics did not respond quickly or effectively to Protestant charges. As a result, many cities converted to Lutheranism. Protestants used these abuses at the local level as part of their campaign against the Catholics, but their greatest objection was to the theology of the Catholic Church.

The Catholic response began under Paul III (r. 1534–49). Though he came from the corrupt Farnese family and was himself a corrupt pope, he was the first pope to tackle corruption in the church and to reform it more broadly. Crucially, he concentrated on appointing better cardinals who then dealt with the problems under their jurisdictions. Under Paul’s leadership, the major efforts to reform the Catholic Church began – the Council of Trent was convened, the Society of Jesus established, and the Roman Inquisition called into being.


Title page of Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Index of Prohibited Books), 1564.

Protestants were skillful at using printed media to convey their message, and the Catholic authorities realized the danger of print. As a result, the church’s heresy courts compiled lists of heretical books. When Pope Paul IV was still a cardinal, he published the first Index of Prohibited Books, which included anticlerical tracts and books on magic.

The Index established three basic categories of books that should be prohibited. First, books by certain authors should be prohibited, even if those books were not about religion. These authors unsurprisingly included Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and other major Protestant authors. Paul’s list also included Erasmus; even though Erasmus argues the Catholic point of view in some of his writings, his Protestant-leaning writings tainted his other good writings in Paul’s opinion. The second category was individual books by authors who were otherwise acceptable. The third category was reserved for printers who printed too many heretical works, especially anonymous works. The Council of Trent discussed the Pauline Index and found it too harsh. The 1564 Tridentine Index was less harsh, and some of Erasmus’s books, for example, were removed from the list.

The Inquisition, as a heresy court, provided the muscle to make the Index effective. The court used the inquisitorial method, whereby the inquisitors laid a charge, usually based upon a denunciation from a witness, and then the inquisitors questioned the witnesses and the accused to determine guilt or innocence. There was no jury. This method had been used in fourteenth-century France to focus on heretics and in 16th century Spain to focus on Muslims and Jews who had converted to Christianity.

In many ways the Inquisitorial Court was not nearly as harsh as some secular courts elsewhere. Compared to some witch trials in Germany, for example, the Inquisitorial Court did not kill that many people. In particular, the court burned fewer witches than other courts; in the place of execution, inquisitorial judges often offered witches exorcism or confession.

The Council of Trent

The Council of Trent took place in three sessions – from 1545 to 1547, 1551 to 1552, and 1562 to 1563 – that stretched over eighteen years. In the end it had enormous significance for the Catholic Church.

The Council was only called after tremendous pressure from Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who believed that much-needed reforms of the church would help bring peace to his territories. The pope was not so enthusiastic. Paul III, who called the council, believed that the Protestants were merely repeating older heresies. Unlike Charles, Paul believed that reconciliation with the Lutherans (the conference took little note of the Anabaptists and only perceived the Calvinist threat in the third session) was unlikely. All that needed to be done was the clarification of a few doctrines.

The conference was also divided between the priorities of Charles V and Paul III. The pope’s representatives (none of the popes ever attended the conference) set the agenda, and the only doctrines that the council addressed were those that the Lutherans had challenged. The reforms that Charles hoped for, meanwhile, focused on the clergy and the papacy. The council eventually discussed ways to get the clergy to do its job – in particular, it sought to make sure that priests and bishops lived in their territories and took care of the people within them.

The council reaffirmed many of the core Catholic beliefs that were called into question by the Protestants – the seven sacraments, Purgatory, and even indulgences (with clarification on their purpose and how they should be properly used). It also condemned a number of Protestant teachings, though unlike other councils, it did not condemn the leading exponents of those teachings by name. The council emerged with a strengthened resolve that reform would begin by improving clerical discipline. The bishops gave most of the power and responsibility for maintaining discipline to themselves. Overall, however, the council did help to unite Catholicism under a new spirit of reform and adherence to doctrine.

Watch and Learn

Learn more about the Council of Trent as explained by John Green in an episode of Crash Course in European History.

New Religious Orders

The establishment of new religious orders was part of the Catholic effort to spread its new and reaffirmed theology. Thirty new religious orders were established in this period; they were a strong component of the church’s revived commitment to propagating the faith. The orders sometimes represented the long-term changes that had occurred in the church and were not merely part of an attack on Protestantism.


A painting of St. Theresa at the age of 61 by Juan de la Miseria. Source: Wikimedia

The orders emphasized an active spirituality in an attempt to show that the spirit of the Counter-Reformation was active, virile, and had an exacting religious outlook. This was a newly militant Catholic Church. The spirit of the times called for action, giving rise to new forms of piety such as missionary work, education, and social welfare. While religious orders had been involved in all three of these activities since before the 16th century, under the new orders this involvement became more organized and more successful.

The most successful male active order was the Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits. It was founded by Ignatius of Loyola (d. 1556) in the 1530s and confirmed in 1540. It was a strictly active, worldly order and did not have communal contemplative life. Along with the traditional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, there was an extra vow of absolute obedience to the pope. They focused on education and preaching; they formed missions in Protestant areas in order to win back converts to Catholicism.

Some female religious orders also flourished in early modern Catholicism.

  • Teresa of Avila, for instance, founded fifteen new convents in the reformed order of Carmelite nuns, and followed the decree of enclosure that the Council of Trent had stipulated for nuns. Other new orders and congregations for women followed a new model of active apostolic life that diverged greatly from the medieval model of passive contemplation for female religious.
  • The Ursulines, founded by Angela Merici in 1535, were quick to focus on education as their primary mission. Though in the seventeenth century they increasingly followed the dictates of enclosure, they nevertheless embodied this new active role for religious women in the Catholic and Counter Reformation.
  • Similarly, Mary Ward attempted to found an order for women based on the Jesuit model of spirituality and religious life. For a time, her English ladies lived outside the bounds of enclosure, but eventually they were suppressed.

Along with active spirituality, the Catholic Church still endorsed the traditional expression of mysticism. Ignatius and Teresa were both mystics, and both wrote guidebooks to mysticism. The church, however, was also suspicious of mystics, and in general it wanted to control them. They operated outside of the hierarchy of the church, so direct control was difficult, but nonetheless both Teresa and Ignatius were called before the Inquisition to defend themselves. They, like other mystics, had to show that they were legitimate and orthodox; for women, this usually meant having a male confessor as an intermediary.


Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit Order, set out rules for living a pious Christian life in his Spiritual Exercises. Note, as you read the following excerpts, what issues brought up by the Protestant Reformation he is protesting or countering.:

First Rule. The first: All judgment laid aside, we ought to have our mind ready and prompt to obey, in all, the true Spouse of Christ our Lord, which is our holy Mother the Church Hierarchical.

Second Rule. The second: To praise confession to a Priest, and the reception of the most Holy Sacrament of the Altar once in the year, and much more each month, and much better from week to week, with the conditions required and due.

Third Rule. The third: To praise the hearing of Mass often, likewise hymns, psalms, and long prayers, in the church and out of it; likewise the hours set at the time fixed for each Divine Office and for all prayer and all Canonical Hours.

Fourth Rule. The fourth: To praise much Religious Orders, virginity and continence, and not so much marriage as any of these.

Fifth Rule. The fifth: To praise vows of Religion, of obedience, of poverty, of chastity and of other perfections of supererogation. And it is to be noted that as the vow is about the things which approach to Evangelical perfection, a vow ought not to be made in the things which withdraw from it, such as to be a merchant, or to be married, etc.

Sixth Rule. To praise relics of the Saints, giving veneration to them and praying to the Saints; and to praise Stations, pilgrimages, Indulgences, pardons, Cruzadas, and candles lighted in the churches.

Seventh Rule. To praise Constitutions about fasts and abstinence, as of Lent, Ember Days, Vigils, Friday and Saturday; likewise penances, not only interior, but also exterior.

Eighth Rule. To praise the ornaments and the buildings of churches; likewise images, and to venerate them according to what they represent.

Ninth Rule. Finally, to praise all precepts of the Church, keeping the mind prompt to find reasons in their defense and in no manner against them.

Read a longer Excerpt of Ignatius’ Exercises (from which these rules were taken).

Women in Counter-Reformation Europe

Historians are divided on how the Reformation and Counter-Reformation affected women. Some women, like Teresa of Avila and the Ursulines, were very important in the Counter-Reformation. For many others, though, there was an increased emphasis on the patriarchal household. Some historians argue that this limited a woman’s ability to form her own religious viewpoints and identity separate from her husband. At other times, however, women were able to adapt family life to their desires or abandon it entirely. Moreover, since mothers were usually in charge of the religious education of their children, they had an important role to play in both the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Outside of the female religious orders, laywomen could often work within the confines of the domestic sphere to shape the religious practice and opinions of their family, and perhaps even their community.

It is also worth mentioning some points of comparison between women in Protestant and Catholic Europe. Women in Protestant Europe who married clergymen often had the opportunity to exert influence through their husbands in the newly created role of the pastor’s wife; this option was still not available to Catholic women. Martin Luther, for instance, mentioned his wife many times in his writings and she influenced him greatly. In the early Reformation, women also had the opportunity to become outspoken advocates of the new teachings (though this participation was curtailed as the new churches became more established). In the Catholic Church, women had no such freedom. However, women could seek a vocation in the Catholic Church as nuns, particularly in the new religious orders mentioned above, while most Protestant denominations did not have an equivalent vocation.


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