The Counter Reformation and the Jesuits

The Counter Reformation and the Jesuits

John Morrissey

This year marks the Jubilee of three famous Jesuits, St Ignatius Loyola (died 1556), St Francis Xavier (born 1506) and Blessed Peter Faber (born 1506, canonisation pending). The Jesuit order was a major player during the post-Reformation period that saw significant reforms introduced in the Catholic Church.

John Morrissey, who has taught history, English and religious education at Melbourne Catholic, Independent and State secondary schools, provides an outline of the volatile post-Reformation period in Europe and the important role played by the newly formed Jesuit order.

When the Peace of Augsburg was concluded in 1555 between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Protestant cities and principalities, it recognised the spread of the Protestant Reformation in Germany and adjoining lands.

Meanwhile, a Catholic Reformation which had begun in Spain and Italy had barely touched Germany. The Church there was demoralised and seemed helpless before the Protestant assault, while the clerical and monastic abuses which had fuelled the fires of reform persisted.

Protestant reformers flourished in Catholic principalities as well as imperial cities, and the principle of cuius regio, eius religio (whoever ruled the region would decide the religion) merely kept the peace. It did not guarantee the dominance of the Catholic religion in Austria and Southern Germany. Nevertheless, the Catholic religion was preserved there and in Poland by the use of the lay power, the doctrinal definitions of Trent, some reform of the clergy, and more effective preaching, teaching and apologetics.

At a more intangible level, the Church's recovery in Germany was aided by a reservoir of prayer and spirituality, and a number of popular factors which could be said to have favoured the "old religion", especially in rural areas.

From 1517 until the Council of Trent in 1546, the Catholic Church was on the defensive. Its controversialists, pamphlet-writers and disputants failed to match the reformers in debate, print or invective.

They were as scathing as Luther about Church abuses, but were slow to see that opposing each new doctrine counted for little alongside the novelty of the new teaching among the common people.

Preparing the way for the Jesuits and Trent were the Carthusians of Cologne. They emphasised prayer and piety, the way of the German mystics, their own Rule and reform of self rather than others. To them in 1537 came Peter Canis, (Canisius), destined to become the great Jesuit saint of the Counter Reformation. Jesuit Peter Faber also arrived at Cologne in 1543, forming a partnership instead of rivalry with the Carthusians.

A reservoir of prayer and piety in the Catholic world, represented by the Oratory of the Divine Love in Italy and St Teresa and Carmelite reform in Spain, was a force behind the Catholic or Counter Reformation. Self- martyrdom and service to the poor characterised a Catholic renewal which the Council of Trent merely formalised.

Religious orders

Alongside this spirit were the reforms to religious orders, conducted from the 1530s by Gianpietro Carafa and Cardinal Contarini, the formation of the Capuchins and under Paul III the Consilium on the state of the Church and means of regeneration. It is significant that the agenda of reform was not set and dictated by the Reformation. In fact, it was focused on Italy.

Even Rome, which had been a source of scandal rather than inspiration, was becoming transformed. By 1572, the Englishman Gregory Martin, the originator of the Douay Bible, could only marvel at the piety, devotion and charity there. He described the Pope among his cardinals as Michael among the angels. A similar impression had been made on the more worldly Venetian ambassador in 1565.

After Trent's first session in 1546, Emperor Charles V and Cardinal Contarini, who had hoped for a compromise with the Lutherans, were disappointed. Yet this would be a source of strength for the Catholic Church, as the reformers became more divided and confused in their teachings after the death of Luther in 1546.

A formula for Justification or salvation, which asserted the primacy of faith and God's grace, but included the role of good works, was decreed in 1547, followed by an uncompromising assertion on the Eucharist in 1551, of transubstantiation and the sufficiency of one species. The third session, 1561-63, reaffirmed Church teaching on Purgatory, indulgences and other disputed matters, and laid down guidelines for reform of the clergy. In 1564 the Bull, Injunctum nobis, confirmed these decrees and asserted the teaching primacy of the Pope.

Meanwhile, in Germany, it appeared that, in spite of the Peace of Augsburg, even Austria and Bavaria might fall to the reformers. Corrupt monasteries, a shortage of priests, pastors and people already with Protestant sympathies (viz modified liturgies, compromises in clerical marriage and use of the vernacular) underlined the crisis for the Church.

Graz in Austria was almost entirely Protestant by 1570 and prince- bishoprics such as Magdeburg - and even Cologne - were vulnerable should the incumbent turn Protestant. In the free cities, toleration reigned in theory, but councillors, such as those at Augsburg, had been forced by Imperial troops to reinstate the "old religion" in 1548.

Just as Protestant princes enforced Protestantism in the north, Catholic princes did the same in the south. In 1578 officials in Innsbruck investigated groups "suspect in their religion," and in Rottenberg were instructed to uphold the Catholic faith "diligently and not sleepily" and to ensure that "sectarian religion should not move in there." Imprisonment was also implied.

More important were the ongoing inducements of patronage and employment in elite careers in the Habsburg administration, now denied to Protestants. Thus, in Graz the Archduke from 1581 preferred Catholics for employment, expelled evangelical pastors, forbade attendance at the Protestant school and finally allowed citizenship only to Catholics.

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