We often hear and read that Martin Luther ignited the Protestant Reformation in 1517 because the Church was in a state of severe moral and institutional decay and there was no hope of real reform. In truth, the authentic renewal of the Church started long before Luther was even born.

Fronts of Reform

The “Catholic Reform” took two primary themes: the thorough reform of the institutional, spiritual and ecclesiastical life of the Church and a decisive restatement of the fundamental doctrines of the faith as expressed in Scripture and Tradition.

Through these two themes, the reform ultimately touched upon every facet of Catholic life and reached its strongest expression in the Council of Trent. Nevertheless, it took from 1517 to 1545 for the Tridentine Council to be convoked, a period of time that witnessed the steady progress of both the Protestant Reformation and the early reform of the Church to gain momentum. It would then be an error to say that the Catholic Reform began with the Council of Trent or that little reform of consequence had preceded it.

Certainly, earlier grassroots efforts were scattered across Christendom, but they lacked a single driving force. Still, there was widespread awareness of the need for reform in the Church before Luther and a definite series of movements — or fronts of reform — that tried to bring it about.

Four of these fronts of reform were: Christian humanism, spiritual renewal, the revitalization of the religious orders, and, finally, a determined group of Church leaders who wanted to bring all of the goals together under the rightful leadership of the pope.

All of this was happening at the very time when most modern people assume that the Church was at her lowest ebb.

Most important, the reformers in the Church took as their objective reform and renewal rather than abandoning the teachings of the Church or shattering the unity of the Christian faith. As Cardinal Giles of Viterbo, also a poet, wisely declared at the Fifth Lateran Council in 1512, “Man must be changed by religion, not religion by man.”

Christian humanism was a movement of rebirth that tried to be faithful both to the classical and the Christian traditions. The Christian humanists not only believed that the studia humanitatis (the study of humanity) was the foundation of education, but that Christian humanism offered a genuine means to revive Christian culture and life.

St. Thomas More is among the most famous Christian humanists, but there was also Cardinal Francisco Ximénes de Cisneros (1436-1517), the archbishop of Toledo starting in 1495 and a figure of immense influence at the court of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. Cardinal Ximénes entered into his archdiocese determined to restore the discipline of the diocesan clergy and regenerate the Church’s pastoral mission. In his pastoral and intellectual labors, the cardinal became the nexus of Renaissance humanism and ecclesiastical revitalization, and Spain established itself at the forefront of the “Catholic Reformation.”

Meanwhile, in 1501, the humanist Desiderius Erasmus expressed the principles of a personal and deeply Christocentric piety, manifested not in ceremonial or legalistic observances, but in acts of charity and a moral life.

This represented a much broader movement toward renewed spirituality, the spiritual movement of the devotio moderna (modern devotion) that stressed personal prayer and meditation centered on Christ and the Gospels, as well as the practice of the virtues.

The earnest reformers also all returned to the sacramental system that Luther’s doctrine of sola fide (faith alone) sought to undermine. They prescribed confession more than once a year, heightened Eucharistic devotion and advocated more frequent celebration of Mass among priests and bishops as ways of reinvigorating the sacramental life. The laity’s response was visible also in the confraternities that flourished in Italy in the late 15th and early 16th centuries.

There was also the flourishing of the new religious orders, including the Theatines, the Somaschi, the Barnabites, the Capuchins (a branch of the Franciscan Order) and the Oratorians begun by St. Philip Neri.

Above the other orders of the Catholic Reformation, of course, was the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, founded by St. Ignatius Loyola and approved by Pope Paul III in 1540, which became the spearhead of the renewed Church.

The correction of the abuses and failings of the papacy, however, was perhaps the most crucial event in the whole of the reform process, for it made change possible on a universal scale.

The pontificates of Leo X and Clement VII — interrupted only briefly by the ardent but short-lived reformer Adrian VI — were continuations of the often deplorable Renaissance papacy, and so the papacy of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese as Pope Paul III (1534-1549) was greeted with genuine enthusiasm by the growing reform party in the Church.

Known previously neither for his saintliness nor his conspicuous austerity, Paul arrived on the throne of Peter a changed man. With the failures of his immediate predecessors uppermost in his mind, he gave up all thought of worldly amusements and instead dedicated himself foremost to bringing reform to the entire Church.

He elevated only truly deserving and morally irreproachable men to the cardinalate, including the Englishman and noble Reginald Pole (who, in 1550, fell short of election as pope by one vote), Marcello Cervini (the future Pope Marcellus II) and Gian Pietro Carafa (the future Paul IV). All were avowed reformers and committed, like their pontiff, to the convening of a general council — what became the Council of Trent.

Council of Trent

Paul spent nine years preparing for the Council, and Dec. 13, 1545, the first session of the Council of Trent was convened. It took another 18 years of intermittent work, but finally, after 25 sessions, Pope Pius IV closed the council Dec. 4, 1563.

In its decrees, spirit and long-term influence, the Council was the most decisive event of the Catholic Reformation and was so comprehensive and effective in its implementation that another general council was not needed until the late 19th century and Vatican Council I (1869-1870).

Trent reaffirmed all of the doctrines brought into question by Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and others, but it also reformed the institutional life of the Church and called for the creation of the modern seminary system, the preparation of a universal catechism and a thorough reform of the rites of the Mass.

There had been other councils (such as the Fifth Lateran) issuing high-minded and well-meaning pronouncements that were promptly ignored and all but forgotten. The circumstances were now different.

There was the enthusiasm for reform by the pope, cardinals, bishops, religious orders and theologians who returned to Rome or their respective dioceses eager to put the alterations into practice.

Above all, there were the popes who came after Paul III. Among the most memorable pontiffs of the later 16th century were Pius IV (1559-1565), St. Pius V (1566-1572), Gregory XIII (1572-1585) and Sixtus V (1585-1590).

An Authentic Reformation

Concurrent with the new theological surge was the intense renascence in Catholic spirituality and culture. Two of the cornerstones of this process were found in Spain: Sts. Teresa of Ávila (d. 1582; canonized in 1622) and John of the Cross (d. 1591; canonized in 1726).

Both were profound mystical theologians, both brought reform to their respective branches of the Carmelite Order, and both were declared doctors of the Church.

The post-Catholic Reformation Church boasted a confident clergy, a renewed theology and spiritual vigor, a brilliant future in the missions, and a vibrant papacy. The depth of renewal in the Church was visible not only in the institutions and clergy — it was seen in the art of the times, particularly by the hands of those sculptors, painters and composers who labored through the patronage of the popes to give artistic expression to the Catholic Reformation’s highest ideals.

Just two of the masters were the artist and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini (d. 1680) and the composer Giovanni Palestrina (d. 1594). Bernini’s brilliant colonnade in St. Peter’s Square embodied the Catholic Reformation’s outward embrace of the whole world, while Palestrina’s rich, resonant sacred music was inspired by his own abiding faith and the finest elements of the robust religious and spiritual reawakening that surrounded him in Rome.

The Protestant Reformation period had brought the Catholic faith to one of its darkest moments, a time of doubt and shadows, from which it emerged strengthened and renewed.

The Council of Trent reaffirmed the teachings of the Catholic faith, but post-Tridentine Catholicism did not look backward to a vanished time when it was the bulwark of civilization.

Rather, it used its energized members — both the clergy and laity — to go out and to bring Christ to the entire world in a breathtaking era of missionary zeal whose achievements are felt even today.

Matthew E. Bunson is a Register senior editor.