How Did the Catholic Church Respond to the Challenges Posed by the Protestant Reformation?

Martin Luther started the Reformation with his
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The Protestant Reformation in Europe in the first half of the 16th century seriously challenged the Roman Catholic Church. Before Martin Luther publicized his “95 Theses” attacking church corruption in 1517, virtually all Europeans belonged to the Catholic Church, but just 20 years later much of the continent belonged to the Reformed, or Protestant, church. Luther’s critique of the existing church had become a new denomination in its own right. The Catholic Church was forced to respond, and did so in several different ways during a period known as the Counter-Reformation.

1 Reforming the Catholic Church

The Catholic Church recognized that some Protestant criticisms were valid, and successive sessions of the Council of Trent, held between 1545 and 1563, aimed to tackle these issues. No church council, as the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it, “has had so many questions of the greatest importance to decide.” The council looked at some of the corruption then plaguing the church, including issues such as the sale of indulgences, a system in which rich people could effectively buy forgiveness for their sins. Ultimately, the council defined many important aspects of church life, such as the nature of original sin, the number of sacraments and Christ’s presence in the Eucharist.

2 New Organizations

New organizations were founded as part of the reaction to the Reformation. Some, like the Italian-based Oratory of Divine Love, which focused on developing its members’ spirituality and encouraging good works, were open to both clerics and lay people. Other organizations were purely religious societies, only open to clerics. One important example is the Society of Jesuits, founded in 1540 to spread Catholic beliefs. It was responsible for creating Catholic schools and colleges across the world to bring young people into the faith.

3 Military Force

Military expeditions become part of the secular reaction to the Reformation, as Catholic kings and princes sought to capture the territory of Protestant monarchs and at the same time enlarge their own estates. King Phillip II of Spain, backed by the king of France and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, led a decades-long campaign against Protestants in the Low Countries (present-day Belgium and the Netherlands) and England, although he was ultimately unsuccessful in deposing England’s Protestant Queen Elizabeth. His huge armada of 122 ships, launched in 1588 to invade England, was defeated by a combination of the English navy and British weather.

4 Roman Inquisition

Pope Paul III founded the Roman Inquisition in 1542 to deal with academic issues relating to theological thought. In 1559 the Inquisition published its first Index of Forbidden Books, effectively an act of censorship attempting to prevent Catholics being exposed to what the church regarded as heretical writings. The Inquisition also tried people deemed to have broken the church’s rules and held the power to condemn those found guilty to death. Historian Francisco Bethencourt believes the Roman Inquisition achieved its aims; by 1580 Protestant resistance had been eradicated in Italy, and other groups operating on the edge of the church’s rules had been brought into line.

Rita Kennedy is a writer and researcher based in the United Kingdom. She began writing in 2002 and her work has appeared in several academic journals including "Memory Studies," the "Journal of Historical Geography" and the "Local Historian." She holds a Ph.D. in history and an honours degree in geography from the University of Ulster.