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The Catholic

Keith Tankard
15 January 2014


The Catholic Church was very slow to reform itself. It presumed that the Reformation was merely a small hiccup in the greater tapestry of life and that it would soon go away. It was only when a series of reforming popes took the papal throne that the great religious galleon began to change direction. On the other hand, the Church continued to take a jaundiced view of its own members in Spain who were suspected of heresy.


Catholics became concerned with the state of their Church long before the Reformation, and were especially worried about such things as clerical greed, immorality and ignorance, the hawking of indulgences, superstition, simony and pluralism. Various Church Councils had been convened to try to usher in reforms, and bishops of many dioceses had made strides to purify the Church within their districts.


Luther's call for reform was initially seen simply as part of an overall appeal and no-one imagined the idea of starting a new Church. The concept of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church was rooted in the minds of most Catholics, even if it had not yet officially been proclaimed as the hallmark of the "true" Christian Church.

It was only as late as the 1540s, when Calvin was in the process of establishing his radical reformed churches, that attitudes began to harden. Catholic leaders became convinced that the Protestants were inflicting irreparable damage on the Church. Debates and discussions appeared to have done nothing to aid the situation.

It had become clear to many that the Protestants were heretics since they were not prepared to soften their doctrines. Nevertheless, a major problem existed, namely that the average Catholic found it difficult to see exactly what actually constituted a heresy. No Church Council had been called to settle the issue and no Pope had explicitly condemned any of the Protestant doctrines.

Many Catholic writers themselves were using various Protestant phrases, such as "justification by faith" and "predestination". Where then was the line between orthodoxy and heresy? Of importance, however, was the fact that in 1534 the line of dissipated Renaissance Popes at last gave way to a long line of reformist ones, starting with Pope Paul III.

The new breed of Popes saw their function at the head of the Catholic Church primarily in moral and religious terms, which made reform of the Catholic Church a distinct possibility. At the same time, reforming bishops were putting order into their dioceses and Catholics generally seem to have become more mystical, in opposition to the general pragmatic attitude of the Protestants.


Many new reforming orders were springing up, such as the Jesuits which were taking the lead in missionary zeal. Their aim was not only to reconvert Protestants but they were also concerned with moving out into the new world which the voyages of discovery were opening up, and were becoming involved in the conversion of the pagans they found in the new colonies.

Indeed, they stood up against injustice and slavery, whereas their Protestant counterparts tended to side with the colonists' viewpoint. They also tended to work with the poor and the outcasts who were ignored by most of the Protestant groups. As a result, Catholicism became rooted in the poorer areas, the slums and among the country peasants.

The most important movement in the reform was the Society of Jesus. The Jesuits, as they came to be called, were a new form of religious order which was not tied down to a monastery but whose members were free to travel anywhere they were sent. It was founded by a Spanish nobleman, Ignatius of Loyola, originally a soldier whose leg was shattered by a cannon ball during a war against France.

This led to surgery and convalescence in the family home at Azpetzia, inland from San Sebastian. There he fought for his life and found his religious vocation as a result of the books he was given to read. So with his bent leg, he went on pilgrimage to Montserrat and thereupon began his religious life.

He started what to his mind was a spiritual army based on military discipline which would be placed at the services of the Papacy for the defence of the Catholic Church. The new order was officially sanctioned by the Pope in 1540. Its members took four vows, not the traditional three of the monastic orders: poverty, chastity, obedience, plus obedience to the Pope.

They also created a precedent in that their vows were "simple" and not the "solemn vows" of the monastic orders. They would go anywhere in the world to which they were sent, and would be dedicated to preaching, teaching and distributing the sacraments. The Jesuits insisted on intellectual expertise in the training of their members, thereby quickly becoming the intellectual backbone of orthodox Catholicism.

As a result, the Jesuits soon found themselves not only as defenders of the faith but also teachers in high places such as the courts of bishops, princes and popes. They also stressed blind obedience to the Papacy (called Ultramontanism) for which they became positively disliked by many of the less orthodox Catholics, such as those in France.


In 1542 the Pope was persuaded by his advisers to establish a Roman Inquisition which would examine various aspects of so-called suspect doctrines. The idea of an inquisition had had a long history in Europe, probably arising out of the Germanic trial by ordeal. The traditional inquisition presumed a person guilty until proved innocent.

If a person therefore confessed heresy immediately, punishment would be lighter. If not, then moral and physical pressure would be applied, and eventually torture. If a person confessed under torture, he/she would receive life-imprisonment. Should a person fail to confess even under torture, the punishment was usually death by burning.

The Inquisition was applied ruthlessly in Spain during the 16th century to root out the Moslems and Jews who had converted to Christianity but who nevertheless maintained some of their old traditions. It was never applied quite as severely outside of Spain, however, although the Church was known at times to use torture and to burn its victims.

It also did not go much beyond Italy and Spain because the various national states, such as France, objected to any form of Papal Court within their boundaries since they restricted the powers of the national courts. This was not the time for Church interference even in Catholic states such as France.


In 1559 Pope Paul IV established an Index of Forbidden Books which Catholics were not allowed to read, under pain of mortal sin. It was a natural outcome of the earlier form of censorship where undesirable books were burnt. As long as books were hand-written, such a method was logical but as soon as the printing press made mass production possible, burning was no longer an adequate solution.

Later a Congregation was established in Rome whose function it was to inspect all books to judge their orthodoxy. Catholic authors then had to submit all their writings to the Congregation and to rewrite parts if they were found to be unacceptable. Only by special permission were Catholics allowed to read books which were listed in the Index.

No book was to be printed or read unless it carried the mark of approval of the local bishop. It is interesting to note that the Index only went out of existence after Vatican II in the 1960s. It should be pointed out, however, that all countries and churches brought in some form of censorship. The Catholic Church differed simply in the degree to which the banning was effected.


Of major importance in the Catholic Church's reform movement was the Council of Trent, held sporadically over a period of 18 years from 1545 to 1563, and never well attended. It was an important Council because it not only defined disputed doctrines to Catholics who were in doubt but it also defined exactly what was to be regarded as a heresy to those judges who headed the Inquisition.

The conclusions arrived at by the Council of Trent may be divided into two classes: doctrinal definitions and administrative reform. Within the doctrinal category, the most important were:

  • Recognising the existence of seven sacraments;
  • Transubstantiation became the only acceptable description of the Holy Eucharist;
  • Tradition as well as the Bible were declared to form the basis of Catholic belief;
  • Both Faith and Good Works were accepted as necessary for salvation;
  • It was decided that Original Sin was removed through baptism (i.e. ALL who are baptised may enter heaven and not simply the few predestined ones) as in Calvinism;
  • It accepted the efficacy of praying to the saints and to Mary, and of going on pilgrimages;
  • It accepted the efficacy of indulgences;
  • It stated that communion by bread alone was sufficient and that wine was not necessary.

On the other hand, the Council of Trent made radical reforms in the administration of the Church. It demanded, amongst other things:

  • clerical celibacy;
  • there had to be a seminary for every diocese;
  • that all clerics were to preach;
  • that bishops had to reside within their diocese;
  • it banned pluralism;
  • it reformed the monasteries;
  • it cut out abuses pertaining to indulgences.

The Council's conclusions were far reaching and were to have a lasting significance on the Church. Although doctrinal differences would remain between Catholic and Protestant, there would never again be a time when the Catholic Church could justifiably be accused of total corruption.

There would also be no further Church Council until Vatican I in 1870, and the latter did little except attempt a definition of Papal Infallibility. Indeed, the Council of Trent entrenched Catholic doctrine until Vatican II re-defined some aspects of it in the 1960s.

Read the left column, then think about
the following questions:

  1. Why did the Catholic Church take so long to reform itself?
  2. [Need help?]

  3. Why would the Catholic Church be particularly harsh on its own people in Spain and Italy?
  4. [Need help?]

  5. What was the major importance of the Council of Trent?
  6. [Need help?]

Extract from Time Travellers:

"So the different Churches began a race to convert the people of the world?" Bronnie suggested.

"Perhaps. But that too would have serious consequences. The Calvinist belief in predestination would lead to genocide . . . the extermination of the sons of Satan' whom God had predestined for damnation. And the black races of the world were seen as the Sons of Ham who could be enslaved."

"The reformation ushered in a very sorry period indeed," said the priest, sadly. "Holy Mother Church had a great deal to expiate . . . to make atonement for."

"And in 1542 the Pope would be persuaded to establish a Roman Inquisition to examine aspects of suspect doctrines," Uncle Bertie added. "They resurrected the old Germanic concept of trial by ordeal, where a person was presumed guilty unless proved innocent."

"And thus there was ushered in the most dreadful period in the life of the Church," said the priest. "I speak of course about the Spanish Inquisition and the horrifying witch-craze, where people in their thousands would be burnt at the stake for heresy. A truly dreadful age."

From: Keith Tankard's Time Travellers
Book 5: Madness of Europe

Read the whole story!