Christianity in the Reformation Era Class 6 - Catholic Response

Class 6

Defending the Traditional Order

The Catholic Response


Scope:   Both ecclesiastical and secular authorities defended Catholicism, attacking the Reformation as another in a long line of medieval heresies. Working (at least in theory) together, they opposed heresy both intellectually and institutionally. Those defending the Church’s authority and tradition marshaled a variety of arguments against Reformation views, including the primacy of consensus and custom, the primacy of ecclesiastical over scriptural authority, the manifest contradictions of reformers among themselves, and the denunciation of heresy as the root of political subversion and moral decay. The relative lack of published Catholic counter- propaganda in the early years of the Reformation derived both from reasons internal to the logic of Catholic writers and from a relative lack of material support for their endeavors.


Understood historically, the early Catholic response to the Reformation continued the traditional intellectual and institutional response to heresy from the later Middle Ages.

From the early centuries of Christianity, heresy was conceptually related to orthodoxy as truth to error.

Heresy was different than unbelief; only someone who had been baptized a Christian could possibly be a heretic.

Heresy was different than mere superstition, ignorance, or unintentional error; it was the deliberate holding of beliefs that contradicted Christian truth as defined by the Church.

The basic assumption about the inseparable relationship between religious truth and error was shared among Catholics, Protestants, and Anabaptists in the sixteenth century.

Both ecclesiastical and secular authorities had a part to play in the defense of truth implied in the suppression of heresy.

Ecclesiastical authorities were to instruct heresy suspects in the truth, correcting their errors. If heretics proved obstinate, they were excommunicated and delivered to secular authorities.

Secular authorities punished unrepentant heretics with death in a judicial context in which many crimes were severely punished, lest heretics spread their errors and endanger more souls.

The Theological Response

Between 1518 and 1525, at least fifty-seven different Catholic authors wrote against Luther, using four major types of arguments.

The Church’s longstanding tradition of consensus and custom were arguments consistent with its truth and the promises of scripture.

Countless theologians and saints had upheld the Church’s teachings and practices for so many centuries that the idea of Luther or others being right, and these authorities being wrong, was preposterous.

Customs in canon law were like precedents in civil law, which fit with Christ’s promise to send the Holy Spirit to guide his followers.

On both biblical and historical grounds, the authority of the Church was greater than the authority of scripture.

Based on the Bible itself, ecclesiastical customs without explicit scriptural sanctions were to be expected.

Because it was only by the Church’s authority that the canon of scripture was defined, scripture’s authority was secondary to ecclesiastical authority and could not be used against the Church.

The many contradictions and disagreements of Protestant and radical reformers among themselves pointed to the vacuity of “scripture alone” as a foundational principle.

Heresy led to political subversion and to moral decay.

The rebelliousness of heresy in religion would lead to general social and political rebellion, the ultimate example of which was the Peasants’ War.

This argument was particularly powerful for a world that had no police forces or standing armies, a world in which the deference of the lower classes to the upper was essential to keep order.

On the individual level, the doctrine of justification by faith alone would be used as a pretext for license, immorality, and the neglect of good works.

Catholic controversialists were both reluctant to publish counter- propaganda and relatively unsupported financially and institutionally in their efforts.

For reasons that derived from the threat of heresy, Catholic controversialists were not eager to publish works against the Reformation for public consumption.

Letting theologically unsophisticated laity make decisions affecting their eternal salvation based on popular pamphlets and woodcuts was a big part of the problem to begin with.

Once Luther and others had been formally condemned as heretics, further disputations would imply that the condemnations had not been authoritative.

Popes, German princes, and German bishops failed significantly to support Catholic efforts to publish against heresy in the early Reformation.

Except for the brief pontificate of Adrian VI (1522–1523), Rome offered little institutional support for counter- propaganda against the Reformation, which was viewed as a German political problem.

With few exceptions, such as Georg of Saxony, the lack of Catholic princely and episcopal response to the Reformation seemed to confirm evangelical accusations of self-interested laxity and greed. 

The Council of Trent

Scope:   What emerged from the calls and plans for a church council was the Council of Trent, the most important ecumenical council between the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 and the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. Largely due to political disruptions, the Council’s work proceeded in three interrupted stages spread over eighteen years (1545–1547, 1551–1552, and 1562–1563). In combining doctrinal definitions and clarifications with internal disciplinary and organizational reforms, the Council’s work coupled Counter-Reformation with Catholic Reform. Against the doctrinal assertions of the Protestant and radical reformers, Trent defined Catholic orthodoxy on justification, the authority of scripture and tradition, the sacraments, and many other doctrines. In response to problems and abuses in the Church, Trent reformed existing institutions and practices, targeting the clergy more than the laity. The Council of Trent is important both as a point of arrival for Catholicism in its response to the Reformation and as a point of departure for a new style of Roman Catholicism in the early modern period and beyond. 


After protracted delays and disputes, the Council of Trent finally opened in late 1545 to seek “the extirpation of heresies and the reform of morals.” Its work was interrupted for long periods and was not concluded until 1563.

Pope Paul III and Emperor Charles V finally agreed on the town of Trent in northern Italy as the site for the long-awaited church council.

The papal bull convoking the council was issued in May 1542, but further delays pushed it back to late 1545.

Trent was culturally Italian but located just over the border on imperial soil.

The emperor wanted practical reforms to precede considerations of doctrine; the pope wanted just the reverse.

The council was attended by bishops and archbishops, the heads of religious orders, theologians, and papal representatives.

The first phase of the Council lasted from late 1545 to early 1547 and focused on several fundamental doctrinal issues.

The second phase of the Council lasted from March 1551 until April 1552 and concentrated on the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist.

The third and final phase of the Council lasted from January 1562 until December 1563 and was concerned especially with disciplinary and organizational matters.

The Council of Trent clarified and defined disputed doctrines regarding justification, the authority of scripture and tradition, the sacraments, and much else.

Because the Council sought “the extirpation of heresies,” it focused on doctrinal issues considered particularly urgent in light of the Reformation.

On justification, the Council declared that faith is absolutely necessary for salvation and requires the grace that only God can give, but that human beings can and must cooperate with God in receiving the grace that he offers.

Justification is a process of cooperation between God and the sinner, not a one-way imputation of righteousness by God to totally corrupt human beings.

The cornerstone Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone was condemned as heretical.

On the authority of scripture and tradition, the Council declared that both were authoritative parts of God’s revelation.

The Council rejected the Protestant idea that scripture alone could be used as an independent criterion to criticize the Church and its tradition; the Church’s interpretation of scripture was alone authoritative.

The Council affirmed the canonicity of the biblical books, including the non-Hebrew books of the Hebrew Bible, now commonly known as the Apocrypha.

The Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible was affirmed as “authentic” for “public lectures, disputations, sermons, and expositions.”

The Council affirmed the scriptural basis for all seven of the traditional sacraments, which were instituted by Christ himself.

The Council rejected the Protestant diminution in the number of the sacraments.

The Council affirmed the nature of the sacraments as objective channels of God’s grace.

Certain doctrinal issues were avoided by the Council because they might have proven too divisive, such as the precise nature of papal authority or definition of the Church.

In addressing abuses and problems in the Catholic Church, the Council sought generally to reform existing institutions and practices rather than to eliminate them altogether.

In dealing with “the reform of morals,” the Council sought greater organizational efficiency to better address problems at the local level.

Bishops would oversee this process through diocesan synods and episcopal visitations.

In striving to create more streamlined institutions, the Church participated in a wider early modern process of bureaucratization.

The disciplinary reforms were aimed overwhelmingly at members of the clergy and religious orders.

The Council’s answer to anticlericalism was to establish guidelines for a reformed and educated clergy, including resident bishops and provisions for diocesan seminaries.

The superiors of monasteries, both male and female, were required to see that members observed their specific vows of religious life.

The Council reasoned that upright clergy would inspire the laity to be upright as well.

The Council’s answer to the chaotic splintering in Christianity was a reaffirmation of the hierarchical nature of the Church.

Behind the Council’s disciplinary and moral reforms was an implicit concession that the Church’s shortcomings went a long way toward explaining the success of Protestantism and radical Protestantism.

The Council of Trent was important both as a point of arrival and as a point of departure for a new style of Roman Catholicism.

With the solemnity and gravity of a church council, Trent sealed and solidified the doctrinal divisions that had opened in Western Christianity during the sixteenth century.

Trent provided an institutional platform for the continuation of both Catholic Reform and Counter-Reformation by approving the most extensive body of legislation in conciliar history. 

Christianity in the Reformation Era Class 6 - Catholic Response

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