The Catholic Reformation

Author: Henri Daniel-Rops


By Henri Daniel-Rops


The series of events which form the history of Catholicism in the mid sixteenth century are most often depicted as follows. A violent shock causes the very foundations of Christendom to tremble, and whole sections of the Church's ancient edifice are swallowed up in heresy. Her rulers then drag themselves from their lethal indifference; they determine to oppose the Protestant menace, and at last take steps that should have been taken long ago.

Such is the pattern implied by the word `counter-reformation.' The term, however, though common, is misleading: it cannot rightly be applied, logically or chronologically, to that sudden awakening as of a startled giant, that wonderful effort of rejuvenation and reorganization, which in a space of thirty years gave to the Church an altogether new appearance. What happened was a true renascence in the fullest etymological sense, more impressive from a Christian point of view than the Renaissance of art and letters upon which contemporary Europe was priding itself. The so-called `counter-reformation' did not begin with the Council of Trent, long after Luther; its origins and initial achievements were much anterior to the fame of Wittenberg. It was undertaken, not by way of answering the `reformers,' but in obedience to demands and principles that are part of the unalterable tradition of the Church and proceed from her most fundamental loyalties...

Protestantism played a part, dialectically, in the Catholic renascence. "Oportet haereses esse," as St. Paul says; and heresy obliged the Church to devise an exact statement of her doctrine upon certain points, to establish her position more securely than she would, in all probability, have been led to do, had she not been confronted with the challenge of error. But the impetus which enabled herto join battle with her enemies was generated long before the Lutheran assault, and can in no way be considered a result of the upheaval caused by that event.

A general view of the history of the Church makes it clear that the sixteenth-century Catholic reform is not essentially different from other reforms, which have applied an irresistible law and thus serve as mile-stones on the road of time. The work of Cluny in the eleventh century, the achievements of St. Norbert, St. Bernard and others in the twelfth, the heroic undertakings of St. Francis and St. Dominic in the thirteenth -- all these monumental and unending labours are of the same spirit and the same significance as those accomplished by the Popes and the Fathers of Trent, and by the religious founders of that period. Here indeed we have one of the most permanent features of Christianity, one of the most certain evidences of its divine origin and of the reality of those promises which it claims to have received. For ever dragged downward by the weight of original sin, the baptized soul repeatedly falls back into darkness. Nevertheless, with equal regularity, there springs from her very depths, where primeval defilement cannot altogether mask, much less destroy, the supernatural resemblance, a force that impels her once more upward to light and life: a force whose name is Grace...

Whereas Protestantism marks a complete break in the history of Christendom, the most grievous and most tragic there has ever been, the Catholic reform stands in the direct line of ancient tradition. It is itself, in fact, the rediscovery of the living Tradition. From whatever point of view it is considered, the same permanency is observed. The reforming decrees of Trent are in perfect harmony with the Gregorian Bulls, while those concerning faith look back constantly to the ancient conciliar decisions, to the decretals of the popes, to the Fathers andDoctors of the Church. Likewise in the moral sphere: Tauler, Suso and the great medieval mystics form an obvious link between St. Ignatious of Loyola and the "Imitation," as do the Fraternities and Oratories of Divine Love between St. Philip Neri and St. Catherine of Genoa.

The Catholic reform, then, was in no respect a `counter-reformation' in the chronological order; nor was it any more so as regards the process of its development. Those who promoted it had no intention of combating Protestantism and halting its progress...

The true reform was not directed an enemy; it was undertaken God, Jesus Christ, as a protestation of unwavering loyalty. Before emerging as a body of doctrine, a disciplinary canon, an ecclesiastical code, it was an immense and prodigious movement of fervour, which uplifted the Christian soul almost everywhere (more especially perhaps in Italy and Spain), a kind of spiritual sublevation operated by the saints...


At the critical moment when the Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church was about to recover possession of herself and regain her rightful aspect, it was as it had always been; her authentic history is written by the saints. The reform was brought about by means of a spiritual rebirth, that is to say, by a deepening of faith, a return to vital sources. The practice of prayer put an end to doubt and laxity, to the divorce between faith and life. It is characteristic that the really decisive personalities of the Catholic reform were all mystics, whose primary and indeed sole purpose was to know God, to love Him and to serve Him. Captain Inigo, wounded at Pampeluna, wrote no treatise on anti-heretical strategy, but "Spiritual Exercises;" nor was it rage against the Lutheran thesis, but love of God, that lit up the face of St. Cajetan before the crib in Santa Maria Maggiore on Christmas night 1517.

That the Catholic renascence originated in prayer is of profound significance. The whole difference between Catholic reform and Protestant `reformation' is summed up in these words uttered by a monk of shining faith, Giles of Viterbo, in 1512: `Man must be changed by religion, not religion by men.' `Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His justice,' said the Mater, `and all these things shall be added unto you.'

The most surprising feature of this interior movement, of this effort to obey the Gospel precepts of repentance and self-renewal, is the fact that it was not limited to the domain of conscience, where every man can, of he so wills, be sovereign. In the troubled years of the fifteenth century, mysticism retired within itself, isolating itself from the world of men; the "Imitation," for example, proposed the monastic enclosure or the more secret region of the heart as the proper field of spiritual endeavor. But the mystical leaders of the sixteenth century practiced afrom of spirituality directed to the science of God and to the demands of charity -- a momentous change of outlook , the causes of which defy analysis. While fashioning a body of religious men dedicated to prayer and renunciation, they were almost unconsciously training an army of seasoned troops for the greater battles in which the Church would find herself engaged. They became the most successful opponents of those heretics whom they had at first ignored; and the reform which they began by accomplishing within themselves overflowed and radiated its vigour in the larger realm of institutions.

It is this movement of renascent fervour, this tremor of awakening faith, that allows us to consider the sixteenth century, for all its blasphemy and bloodshed, as one of the fairest in Christian history. At a moment when the mind of man was everywhere scintillating with high intelligence and even genius, the human soul burgeoned also with sublime exaltation, in acts of faith, hope and charity. It was indeed the pressure exerted by this distinctively religious phenomenon upon the Church's rulers that determined the reform of morals, institutions and theological education, just as, by altering the climate of the period, it enabled the greatest of all councils to assemble and the Tridentine canons to become the lifeblood of a reborn Catholicism.

"The Catholic Reformation," pp. 1-4.


The concept of the Counter-Reformation as essentially `reactionary' and backward-looking has tended to obscure, and certainly to obstruct, any attempt to synthesise the many ways in which it was, in effect, the evolutionary adaptation of the Catholic religion and of the Catholic Church to new forces both in the spiritual and in the material order. The concept of `baroque' has only partial application here and does not cover enough ground to serve as a complete expression of the new correlation between Catholicism and the post-medieval world. On the other hand, there has been an insufficient liaison between the historians of the Chruch and the historians of religion -- between the ecclesiastical historians proper and all those authors who in the last fifty years or so have done so much to explore, map nd illuminate something that for a Christian believer, is basic to the inner life of the Church, and should surely therefore be basic to Church history, namely the history of spirituality -- devotion, prayer, mysticism.

In this there may lie the way to a new and perhaps more fruitful mode of ecclesiastical history -- the two aspects representing a kind of mysterious body-soul relationship within the Church.

H.O. Evennett, "The Spirit of the Counter Reformation," p. 3.

Taken from the Fall 1993 issue of "The Dawson Newsletter." For subscriptions send $8.00 to "The Dawson Newsletter", P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702. John J. Mulloy, Editor