Counter Reformation Research Paper

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from Defenders of the Faith in Word and Deed (Ignatius Press) by Fr. Charles P. Connor.

On October 31, 1517, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther, long fearful for his own salvation, seemed to unleash tremendous personal hostility when he nailed his famous Ninety-five Theses to the door of the cathedral in Wittenburg, Germany. This single action has traditionally been viewed as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Before it ended, several new theologies were formulated by at least two generations of reformers, causing Christianity to fall into centuries of division.

The term sola fide (“faith alone”) is often associated with Luther. It was a belief that provided him a great deal of inner tranquility. Once, while meditating on Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Luther came to the verse that states that “man is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” [1] Luther took this to mean that a person does not have the capability to work out his own salvation because of his sinful human nature. Instead, God gives his free gift of grace, which stimulates faith and leads to salvation. Luther rejected, it appears, the admonition of the Apostle James that faith without good works is dead, [2] preferring to concentrate only on that which gave him inner peace.

Luther also opposed the buying and selling of indulgences, a practice quite rampant in the western Europe of his day. The Church has always taught that an indulgence is a remission of the temporal punishment due to sin, and Luther correctly pointed out that such forgiveness cannot be purchased. The abuse of selling indulgences and the erroneous attitudes it created are well illustrated by the slogan of a preacher in Luther’s time: “Another soul to heaven springs when in the box a shilling rings.” [3]

While justification and indulgences are the issues for which Luther is best remembered, many more grievances comprised his Wittenburg list. Some two years after he had posted them, he confided in writing to a friend that the idea of the Pope as the anti-Christ, once repellent to him, now seemed to have more plausibility. Luther at first had no intention of beginning a new ecclesial body. As he meditated on Scripture, however, he began to think that the Church should return to the gospel in its purest form as he envisioned it, eliminating what he regarded as unnecessary liturgical ceremony, hierarchical structure, and the like:

In 1520, the papal bull Exsurge formally condemned forty-one of Luther’s propositions, and he was given two months to submit to the authority of the Church. In December 1520, he publicly burned his copy of Exsurge, and excommunication followed one month later.

Closely akin to Luther was Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland. A former priest and student of the Renaissance scholar Erasmus, Zwingli was based in the city of Zurich, having moved from Glavis, the scene of his former priestly labors. He was, from all accounts, a more inwardly secure man than Luther. His preoccupation was not so much his own eternal destiny as it was freeing his disciples from the shackles of Rome’s domination. Following this view and a Lutheran disposition toward “gospel purity”, reformed churches were established in Switzerland. These congregations established vernacular liturgies, in contrast to the Latin liturgy of the Catholic Church. They also removed statues of the saints, secularized convents, and followed other practices emerging in neighboring Germany.

The French layman John Calvin brought a nonclerical background to Reformation theology and represented a younger generation of reformers. Calvin was also based in Switzerland, though in the city of Geneva. In fact, his grave can be seen there to this day. It consists of a single pole, atop of which are the initials “J. C.” This protrudes through some greenery and is surrounded by a small iron fence. The grave is reminiscent of the stark nature of ecclesial architecture in Calvinistic churches, if not the severity of Calvin’s thought.

Calvin was obsessed with the sovereign nature of God. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, he develops the theory for which he is best remembered: predestination. All creatures merited damnation, but God in his mercy chose some for salvation. These, in turn, needed the vehicle of a church in which to express their faith. Calvin’s emphasis was very much on the church as a local community of believers in whom power rested. His unique brand of theology was gradually adopted by religious groups identified as Presbyterians, Huguenots, Puritans, and Congregationalists. His ideas spread quickly to England and to its colonies in North America. Also, they found their way to Scotland in the person of John Knox, as well as the Low Countries of Europe, Holland in particular.

In England, despite the fact that Henry VIII was given the title Defender of the Faith by the Holy See for a book published under his name, the monarch was anything but a theologian, and the Reformation in England was not theological in origin. Henry’s wife Catherine of Aragon gave him no male heirs. Wishing to have his marriage annulled, but refused by the Church, he turned to the English clergy with the same request and subsequently declared himself head of the church in England. Henry’s Six Articles, promulgated in 1539, kept the essentials of the Catholic faith (even though failure to take the Act of Supremacy recognizing Henry’s headship of the church led most often to execution). it was not until his death that Calvinistic theology began to find its way into the Book of Common Prayer. When Henry’s daughter Mary Tudor became monarch in 1553, she briefly restored Catholicism and carried out over two hundred executions of Protestant heretics. Upon the accession of her half-sister Elizabeth (the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn), Anglicanism was officially established as the state religion and the Thirty-nine Articles spelled out the particulars of belief. They did not rid the Church of England of as many vestiges of Romanism as some would have liked. It seemed to be

The Reformation was, to be sure, no isolated event, but a series of movements in several European countries that in varying ways departed from Catholicism. In response to Protestantism and to the problems it sought to address, the Catholic renewal or Counter-Reformation became a reality. One of the magnificent fruits of that renewal was the establishment of the Society of Jesus, founded by the Spanish Basque lgnatius of Loyola.

Loyola is a castle at Azpeltia, located in the Pyrenees Mountains. It was there that Iñigo, as he was then called, was born, in 1491. His background was military, and he fought briefly against the French in Pamplona. A serious battle injury brought him back to his native castle and confined him for weeks. He was a worldly sort and would love to have occupied his hours reading romantic novels. Instead, only two books, on the lives of the saints and the life of Christ, were available. The biographies of the saints began to fascinate him, make him think of the uselessness of his own life up to that point, and provoked the interior question: If such acts of spiritual heroism were possible in the lives of others, why would they not be possible in his?

A hunger for God began to overtake him by degrees, and after a time he resolved to go on pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Montserrat. Sometime during the course of that visit he determined that thenceforth he would lead a penitential life and his stay in the nearby small town of Manresal where he experienced solitude and prayer, confirmed his desire all the more. He made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and then studied in Barcelona, Alcala, and, finally, at the University of Paris, where he received the Master of Arts in 1534. Still his fervor did not slacken. At Paris he was to meet companions who were like-minded in spiritual outlook and whose names would become well known in Jesuit annals: Francis Xavier (a Spanish Basque like Ignatius), Favre, Laynez, Salmeron, Rodriguez, Bobadilla. Together they would become “the Company”, the first Jesuits, defenders of the faith in heretical times.

On the feast of Our Lady’s Assumption, August 15, 1534, these men professed their vows in the chapel of Saint Denis on the hill of Montmartre in Paris. They vowed to work for the glory of God. They agreed that when they finished their studies and became priests, they would go to Jerusalem together, but if they could not go there in a year, they would go to Rome and offer to go anywhere the Pope deemed necessary. Their hopes of going to Palestine would not be realized, but other needs quickly became apparent.

Eventually they became a religious order and took formal vows. The members of the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, truly were men of the Church. The papal bull of institution, promulgated in 1540 during the pontificate of Pope Paul III, stated the Society’s purposes. The document “Rules for Thinking with the Church” is also illustrative. It was composed by Ignatius himself as an addition to his Spiritual Exercises. It represents a reply to the Protestant challenge, affirming many long-established practices that were under severe criticism and attack. It is a document “characterized more perhaps by its balance and moderation than one may at first think”. [7] Rule Thirteen initially appears anything but moderate:

In addition to absolute loyalty, Ignatius in the Constitutions leaves no doubt that it is to be interpreted as willingness to carry out the wishes of the Holy See:

The work of the Jesuits in defending the faith must be looked at in the context of the Counter-Reformation. The times called for a spirited defense of faith; it was the time for Catholic renewal; the Church had been weakened from within by the laxity of her own; she had been weakened from without by the strong theological dissent of the various reformers. The Church had to respond adequately, and the Jesuits found themselves part of this response. In all manner of response, however, Ignatius was quite insistent that charity prevail and that the integrity of the Church not suffer because of the misdeeds or poorly contrived statements of those attempting to defend it:

A man can be charitable as he clearly, unambiguously teaches Catholic truth. This was Ignatius’ aim, and education was to play a key role. If men were adequately trained, the Church would be better served; such motivated the opening of the Roman and German colleges in the Eternal City. The former was established primarily though the largesse of the family of Saint Francis Borgia, the man who would become Ignatius’ successor as third General of the Society; the latter was an educational bastion for students from all countries affected by the Reformation.

Although an educated Jesuit was always to exercise charity, his response to heresy must be firm and decisive. One of the truly great Jesuits to receive instruction from Ignatius before undertaking his mission was Saint Peter Canisius:

Canisius’ record of educational beginnings is impressive: Ingolstadt, Vienna, Prague, Strasbourg in Alsace (where he was involved in the opening negotiations), Innsbruck (where he introduced the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary to collegians), Dillingen, and Fribourg. In addition, he managed time at the Council of Trent, where his very practical advice to the Council Fathers about the Reformation in Germany was highly regarded. Strong as his defense of Catholicism was in day-to-day relations with German Protestants, he favored the approach of peaceful coexistence. Some saw this as betrayal, but Canisius felt (and later convinced Rome) that a calm, firm, and educated approach would help Catholics win an intellectual battle they had previously been losing. All of this is not to suggest that his career was solely academically oriented. His sojourn in Vienna proves the contrary:

Such accomplishments could, no doubt, have been recounted in any of the cities where Canisius spent any length of time. Christopher Hollis, in his study of the Jesuits, sums up the work of this saint, now venerated as a Doctor of the Church:

Germany was, of course, not the only scene of the Reformation. Jesuits labored in many countries on the Continent, and also in England. Even before the English mission was a reality, Ignatius ordered prayers for the conversion of England and for the English and Welsh martyrs of penal times, twenty-six of whom had been Jesuits. Centuries later Henry Edward Manning, Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, himself a convert to Catholicism (and from his tone no particular friend of the Reformation), wrote about the work of the English Jesuits:

Jesuit missionary activity was strongly influenced by two sources: Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises and the Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis. The Society’s founder tried to induce in the life of each Jesuit a peaceful state of mind without inordinate attachments. Such inner tranquility would help one in moments of crisis and in the major decisions of life. With a peaceful mind, each of life’s situations could be assessed in the light of God’s glory and the salvation of one’s immortal soul. The Imitation spoke to the heart of the disciple and always tried to elicit a generous response. It is in this context that all Jesuit renewal should be judged. British historian Thomas Macaulay, writing in grand style, captures these grand men:

It was to be the lot of Ignatius to spend most of his Jesuit life in Rome, so vast an undertaking was it to direct the Society’s business. He saw the Society of Jesus grow from the original company to one thousand members in nine countries and provinces in Europe, India, and Brazil. His death came suddenly on July 31, 1556, in Rome. One may still see the room, along with the adjoining quarters, where he wrote his Society’s Constitutions. His tomb is venerated in the magnificent church of the Gesù on Rome’s famous Corso Vittorio Emmanuele. His was a life lived for Christ and in defense of his Church, or as one commentator has put it, “To gain others to Christ he made himself all things to all men, going in at their door and coming out at his own.” [16]


[1] Rom 3:28.
[2] James 2:17.
[3] Jean Comby with Diarmaid MacCulloch, How to Read Church History (New York: Crossroad, 1991), 2:11.
[4] Ibid., 13.
[5] Ibid., 21.
[6] Herbert Thurston, S.J., and Donald Attwater, eds., Butler’s Lives of the Saints (Westminster, Md.: Christian Classics, 1988), 3:224.
[7] John C. Olin, The Catholic Reformation: Savonarola to Ignatius Loyola (New York: Harper and Row, 1969), 202.
[8] The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans. Louis J. Puhl, S.J. (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1951), 160.
[9] Jean Lacouture, Jesuits: A Multibiography (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1995), 76.
[10] Thurston and Attwater, Butler’s Lives of the Saints, 3:225-26.
[11] Ignatius of Loyola to Peter Canisius, August 13, 1554, cited in Comby and MacCulloch, How to Read Church History, 2:30.
[12] Thurston and Attwater, Butler’s Lives of the Saints, 2:168-69.
[13] Christopher Hollis, The Jesuits: A History (New York: Macmillan Company, 1968), 25.
[14] Thurston and Attwater, Butler’s Lives of the Saints, 3:225.
[15] Thomas Macaulay, Essay on Von Rank’s History of the Papacy, cited in Hollis, Jesuits, 27.
[16] Thurston and Attwater, Butler’s Lives of the Saints, 3:227.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

See works of art

  • 1975.1.138

  • 55.220.2

  • 1975.1.1915

  • 1987.290.3a-p

  • 19.73.120

  • 41.190.14

  • 46.179.1

  • 20.64.21

  • 46.179.2

  • 40.174.1

  • 12.194

  • 29.100.197

  • 14.40.633

  • 1982.60.35

  • 71.155

  • 1982.60.36

  • 53.677.5

  • 17.190.13-15


Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History


Erasmus of Rotterdam


Martin Luther (1483-1546)


The Last Supper


The Fifteen Mysteries and the Virgin of the Rosary


Erasmus of Rotterdam


Four Scenes from the Passion


Frederick III (1463-1525), the Wise, Elector of Saxony


Martin Luther as a Monk


John I (1468-1552), the Steadfast, Elector of Saxony


The Last Judgment


Chancellor Leonhard von Eck (1480-1550)


Anne de Pisseleu (1508-1576), Duchesse d'Etampes


Virgin and Child with Saint Anne


Christ and the Adulteress


The Calling of Matthew


Christ Blessing the Children


Satire on the Papacy


Christ Blessing, Surrounded by a Donor Family


© 2000–2018 The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Categories: 1

0 Replies to “Counter Reformation Research Paper”

Leave a comment

L'indirizzo email non verrà pubblicato. I campi obbligatori sono contrassegnati *