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In what ways did the Roman Catholic Church confront the threat of Protestantism

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It was generally felt throughout the 1500’s that the Catholic Church was corrupt. The papacy were criticised for abusing their authority and setting a poor example to the laity and the clergy. Pluralism and absenteeism was rife among the secular clerics. The regular clergy, such as monks and nuns, were predominantly landowners and were more interested in managing their estates than serving their community. Teaching, pastoral care and standards of morality had been lost.

The laity also paid taxes to the church and the clergy enjoyed unfair privileges, such as the canon law, which allowed them to endure less severe sentences than in the common law courts. Their attitudes caused a lot of opposition to the Catholic Church, in particular Martin Luther, the leader of the protestant reformation. Luther began to become influential as Protestantism became more popular and some states began to adopt it as their primary religion. Luther was excommunicated in January 1521 after being condemned by the Pope and given sixty days to recant, which he did not.

To many popes reform of the Church was not seen as a priority until 1527. This was under Clement VII. The Sack of Rome brought to light the problems within the church and was believed to be a sign that God was displeased with the way in which His church was being run. This was meant to be a turning point and Clement VII accepted that reform was needed but was weak and ineffective at installing it. It was clear that the next Pope to be chosen would be inclined towards reform. This was Paul III.

As ‘the outward spread of Protestantism’ began in Germany and started in England and France, Paul realised that the council requested by Luther in his dispute Emperor Charles V, was vital for the survival of the unity of the church. Before summoning the council he sent a newly appointed Cardinal, Gasparo Contarini, to Regensburg to reach a compromise with the Protestants. This was a disaster as the Catholic Church was inflexible and unwilling to compromise. It was clear then that a council was absolutely necessary. The Council of Trent, summoned in 1545, was initiated as a general reform of the church.

However, it was clearly a response to the protestant threat. Paul III’s initial aims were to protect his own authority as head of the Catholic Church, to remove clerical abuses and to define Catholic doctrine and defend it from Protestants. Charles V aims differed; he wished to find a compromise that would prevent a permanent religious schism in Germany. He believed this would be achieved by agreeing on dogmas that were ‘sufficiently inexact and generalised for both Catholic and Lutherans to be able to accept them’.

Paul saw the purpose of the as not to accommodate the Protestants but to form a valid defence against the protestant attacks, and this would help to prevent a division of the church. When Charles realised that his method would not be agreed to, he neglected the Council and decided to try and defeat the Protestants in battle, this allowed the papacy to dominate the council and establish a doctrine. After Charles had defeated the Protestants he realised that this was only a temporary solution and rejoined the council. However, by this time the council had made definitions of faith, which would make any compromise with the Catholics impossible.

The dogma is a clear retaliation to the Protestants. Every decision reached appeared to have anti- protestant intentions. The issues that clearly counteracted with protestant ideas were approached almost immediately and changed so that they had a firm argument against the Protestants. The teachings of ‘scriptura sola’ (scripture alone) was rejected and the Catholics claimed that other sources had communicated God’s message. ‘This truth and way of living are contained in written books and unwritten traditions, which were received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself’.

Luther also encouraged Christians to form their own beliefs by studying the bible. This individualism would completely undermine the authority and control of the Catholic Church. This was quickly opposed by the church. ‘No one, relying on his own judgement…. should dare to interpret the sacred Scripture in a way contrary to the sense which holy Mother Church has held’ The teaching of salvation and attitudes towards it provided the Church with a major source of income through indulgences and donations to the church. Luther refuted this, as he believed in ‘sola fide’ or justification by faith alone.

The council’s retaliation solely counteracted the teachings of Luther, making it clear that they saw his threat as of great consequence. It was also decided that the seven sacraments would be treated equally. By clearly defining the Catholic faith, the council built a defence mechanism against the Protestants and united its followers. These did, however, destroy all prospects of religious peace. In the Tridentine decrees, the discipline of clerics was also addressed. It can be mistaken that these decrees concerning clerical abuses were in unison with the wants of the Protestants.

However, one must realise that prior to Luther’s threat, the church had already began to reform itself. This was due to humanist such as Erasmus, who encouraged the church to purify and reform itself from ‘within’ rather than splitting the church. New orders were created that encouraged missionary work and self-sacrifice to help others. The disciplinary decrees stated that the clergy should be educated, not allowed to marry. Absenteeism, pluralism and concubinage were condemned and indulgences abolished.

The Bishops were given greater authority to oversee pastoral and teaching duties. Their role was to preach, administer the sacraments, hold regular visitations, be resident and eliminate clerical abuses. After this the moral fashion if the clergy began to change. Courtesans left the city because of lack of want for them and church leaders began to work on their morality and became less concerned about their secular authority. The Jesuits, a new order that had been established prior to the reformation, are sometimes described as ‘the spearhead of the counter reformation’.

Ignatius Loyola, the leader of the Society of Jesus, gained an education for his personal betterment and because he believed it would help him to proceed with is missionary work. The initial aim of the Jesuits was to work within the world trying to convert Muslims in the holy land. It becomes clear here that they are a part of the Catholic Reformation. By 1615 the society had 13000 members. It was allowed to grow to this size because all of the Jesuits made a vow of obedience to Paul and his successors. The Jesuits soon realised that to gain authority and control they needed to gain support of the rich and powerful.

They achieved this using their spiritual exercises. These involved several weeks of retreat and religious revitalisation giving participants a feeling of inner well-being. Many people with social distinction throughout Europe became Jesuit sympathisers. They used their flexibility to ‘pass over things of a bad complexion, so as to win sympathy and further good purpose’. The same methods were used with the Protestants. ‘Whoever desires to become useful to the heretics of this age must be solicitous to bear them much charity and to love them truly’

They saw the only way forward, not as negotiation, but as for Lutherans to rejoin the Catholics or be destroyed. They were flexible about the means but not the ends. Their determination to reform discipline by insisting on the unity of the doctrine was a view, which allowed them to be seen as useful allies to the Pope. The Jesuits were so highly valued that the leaders, who were trained theologians, were trained and recruited and devoted time to education in order to meet the Protestants doctrinal challenge. Education was seen as an important factor to Jesuits and colleges were opened in order to train Jesuits.

However, as soon as they opened their demand was felt. Their popularity can be seen when Protestants began to join these colleges due to the high standard of education. The Jesuits raised the morale of the Catholic Church. Their importance is associated with Peter Canisius. He devoted time to ensuring that rulers did not waver in their faith. He ‘ ensures that Maximilian, Ferdinand’s son, reconverts back to Catholicism. It was claimed that due to his preaching, he converted hundred of people. He showed them that it was possible to be a Catholic and a person of true godliness. He provided inspiration to many people.

The Jesuits are often blamed for the failure of the Protestants by protestant historians, showing that they obviously had a substantial effect on controlling the spread of Protestantism. They were seen as ‘the people who turned the aspirations and the theories of the Catholic reformers into reality’, however, this may not necessarily be but it is valid to say that their effects were both widespread and significant. After the third meeting of the Council of Trent, in 1555, Carafa took over as Pope as Paul IV. He was obsessed with the purity of the doctrine and the undivided authority of the papacy.

He began to reform the church by himself, cleansing it of simony and remaining extravagant leaders. In 1559, he printed the Index of Prohibited Books, which banned any publication that was ‘remotely deviant from loyalty to Rome and its orthodoxy’ such as works by Erasmus, Machiavelli and 50 vernacular Bibles. This prevented the spread of opinions that contrasted his own and this form of censorship may have been effective in curbing the spread of ‘antipapal’ ideas. Paul was a fierce leader and encouraged the Roman inquisition to arrest and sentence any heretics at the same time as confining Jews to ghettos.

It is clear that the Council of Trent re enforced the authority of the Papacy and encouraged Popes to be stringent in their following of the Tridentine decrees. In order to reform the behaviour of the ordinary person many aspects of popular culture had to be abolished as they led to an irreverence of the official teachings of the church. This involved abandoning the idea of superstitions as the festivals and procession were to ward off evil spirit. To abolish the thoughts of with craft and superstitions, the lay people were encouraged to have commitment to Christianity and not tolerate folk magic.

For example, at the carnival before lent, people generally over indulged and acted in an unchristian manner because they had pagan elements. The carnival was a time of general excess and role reversals, women dressed up as men and took on the dominating role. The Catholics and Protestants agreed on this matter, but the Catholic Church gained popularity because it was more accommodating and tried to find substitutes for popular customs, for example the Veneration of Saints. They were popularised using art. Visual appeal was encouraged using baroque art.

Grand buildings and churches were built in this style in order to impress the people. This showed that the church was making efforts to cleanse themselves and further the knowledge of others by printing the ‘book of the unlearned’ and founding numerous colleges. It should not be thought that the Reformation was purely to counteract the Protestant threat. Evidence of resurgence in spiritual was apparent well before 1517, such as humanism, mysticism and personal piety. It is true that during the sixteenth century the Catholic Church focused on responding to the Protestant challenge.

The Jesuits and the Index were focused on combating heresy. However, overall it was more concerned with reforming its own spiritual and institutional condition. Generally, by 1600 the Church had made many achievements. The papacy, whose prestige was considerably enhanced by the Council of Trent, re established its reputation as the moral and spiritual leader of the Catholic Church. They became a reformed, respected and unchallenged institution. As a result of the Tridentine decrees the church became more assured and positive and no longer felt the need to react so firmly to the challenge of Protestantism.

Trent defined the Catholic doctrine clearly and unequivocably, and initiated important reforms for the future. The effective implementation of the decrees rested with future popes, churchmen and secular rulers and progress varied from country to country. For example, Philip of Spain endorsed decrees in 1564 and encouraged reform. France, on the contrary, was beset with the civil war and only in the late seventeenth century were the decrees registered and the reforms begun. At the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, the diet agreed on ‘Culus Regio, Eius Religio’. This meant that the princes could decide on the religion in their area.

Even though this is an official recognition of Protestantism, success can be seen through it. Some states converted back to Catholicism (e. g. Bohemia, Styria and Swabia). The traditional Catholic states, Bavaria, Spain and Italy, were strengthened. The states threatened by Calvinism remained Catholic (Poland, Hungary and Austria). Most of France and the Netherlands also stayed Catholic. Even though, the Catholic Church did not manage to reverse Protestantism the Reformation helped them to save themselves from destruction and achieve improvements that had been intended even before the threat of Luther.

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