Editor's note: This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and this is one in a series of columns to describe the origins, nature and impact of the events and personalities of the Reformation. Previous articles are online at deseretnews.com/faith.
When Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation in 1517, many throughout western Europe — all Catholic, then — agreed that the church seriously needed reform. But a wide range of opinions existed as to what, precisely, needed reform, who should guide those reforms and what form reformed Christianity should take. Hence, the Protestant Reformation wasn’t one reformation but many, which rapidly splintered into numerous different Protestantisms, which have never ceased to grow in number.
The most serious question facing reform-minded Christians in 1517 was: Should (and can) the Catholic Church be reformed from within, or were the problems so ingrained that creating an entirely new church would remedy them? Christian reformers who believed that the Catholic Church must be preserved, but transformed and purified from within, laid the foundation for what is known as the Counter (or Catholic) Reformation.
One of the most important inner “reforms” in Catholicism was a personal, inner spiritual renewal through mysticism. Various forms of mysticism — a complex mixture of study, meditation, speculation, contemplation, visions and ecstasy — had long been part of Christianity. But the 16th century witnessed a golden age of mysticism in Spain, with three great Spanish mystics: Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582) and John of the Cross (1542-1591), each of whom was eventually canonized by the Catholic Church.
These mystics believed that inner mystical spiritual renewal and reform of the individual must precede the outward reform of the church. The visions and miracles of these and other Catholic saints were viewed by many as the surest sign of God’s validation of Catholicism.
Protestants could debate the intricacies of biblical theology all they wanted; Catholic theology was validated because Christ himself had appeared to Teresa of Avila and other saints and mystics, and had performed miracles on their behalf.
Catholic mysticism influenced many forms of culture in Spain and Italy. In many ways, baroque art is a visualization of Catholic mysticism, and hence a response to Protestant claims. Music was likewise enlisted in the cause of Counter-Reformation. Another Catholic saint, Philip Neri (1515-1595), formed the “Congregation of the Oratory,” organizing spiritual meetings for prayer and music, and for prayer as music. The “oratorio” hence became a major and glorious form of Western music — most famously in Handel’s “Messiah.” All of these things, mysticism, art, theology and music merged and culminated in the eucharistic mass as the supreme moment of Catholic worship.
Unfortunately, there were darker sides to the Counter-Reformation, as there were to the Protestant Reformation. If the church needed purification from within, this included elimination of false doctrine and secret, hidden heresy. In a world that assumed that correct belief was a necessary precursor for salvation, preachers of heresy were bringers of eternal damnation, and hence were worse than political traitors or mere murderers of the mortal body. Heretics were murderers of the soul. Excising heretics was an act of salvation. Hence the horrors of the Inquisition and its Protestant parallels.
Of course, Catholics didn’t ignore the practical side of reformation. Many believed that the success of Protestantism was largely based on ignorance among ordinary Catholics of true Christian doctrine. Public, church-sponsored education of commoners thus became a crucial element in both the Protestant and Catholic reformations, leading to the creation of catechisms, lists of simple theological principles that could be memorized — much like the Articles of Faith among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The leaders of Catholic educational reform were the Jesuits (the Society of Jesus), a monastic order founded by the mystic Ignatius of Loyola, mentioned above.
Led by the Jesuits, the Catholic Reformation also sponsored extensive apologetic debate with Protestant Reformers. The back and forth of theological debate in the Reformation was facilitated by the printing press, which allowed open letters and tracts (Latin “tractatus,” a treatise) to be published and widely distributed. Printed responses by other theologians created vigorous continent-wide disputations that might go on for years.
In a de-theologized age such as ours — where the supreme and often only theological principle can be summarized as “be nice” — the theological debates between Protestants, and between Protestants and Catholics, can often seem like the picking of the world’s smallest nits.
But to the faithful of the 16th century, correct theological belief was the foundation of the true church. False doctrine corrupted everything else. Theologically, this culminated in the Council of Trent (1545–1563), that defined Catholic doctrine and practice for the next 400 years, until the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.