The Protestant Reformation was a crucial event in the history of Christianity. It weakened the power of the Roman Catholic Church, which was the most powerful institution during the medieval period, and caused division within it. This is the reason why there are different denominations in Christianity. Now, with such a big impact, how did the Catholic Church respond to it?
The Catholic Church launched a “Counter-Reformation” in response to the Protestant Reformation. It was a movement of reform that addressed and eliminated the issues that initially started the Reformation. It also helped define and solidify Catholic doctrine that many Protestants were opposed to.
So what is the Protestant Reformation and how did it start? What does the Church’s response to the Reformation entail and was it successful? Continue reading to find out all the answers to these questions.
How Did the Protestant Reformation Begin?
The Protestant Reformation was a reform movement that started when Martin Luther published the “Disputation on the Power of Indulgences”, more popularly known as the Ninety-Five Theses. This document contained a list of 95 ideas Luther proposed for scholarly debate. It was very controversial since such ideas directly went against the teachings of the Church, which was the most powerful institution at that time.
In this document, Martin Luther mainly focused on three main ideas:
- Selling indulgences for the construction of the St. Peter’s Basilica is wrong. This is found in the 86th proposition, where he strongly criticized the Pope, saying: “Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build this one basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?”
- Selling indulgences endangers one’s salvation because it gives a false sense of security. His idea is that God intended his believers to seek repentance and not pay for it.
- Faith alone, and not deeds, can lead to salvation.
Many of the Germans could relate to Luther’s sentiments since they were already forced to give money to Rome during that time. It was also welcomed by many people all across Western Europe, from scholars to laymen, clergymen, and even knights. The 95 Theses was then no longer a simple document inviting debate. It became a manifesto of reform that laid the foundation for the Protestant Reformation.
What Is the Protestant Reformation?
The Protestant Reformation was a religious revolution that took place in Europe in the 1500s to 1600s. Led by Martin Luther, it had a huge influence on the political, social, and economic scene. It also heavily affected religion, causing a division within the Roman Catholic Church. It led to the founding of Protestantism, one of the 3 major branches of Christianity and a term that refers to the religious groups that separated from the Catholic Church.
During the medieval period, the Roman Catholic Church emerged as the most powerful institution in the world, particularly the office of the papacy, which has become deeply involved in politics. But aside from that, it was said to have been involved in corruption and abuses as well. This then inspired Martin Luther to write the 95 Theses, paving the way for others to challenge the Catholic doctrine. For instance, after Martin Luther, John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli proposed new ideas and practices on the sacraments, particularly on Baptism and Holy Communion.
As mentioned, the Protestant Reformation caused a split in the Catholic Church and brought about many Protestant Churches. Now, the question is, what did the Catholic Church do to stop it and how did it respond to such a movement? Continue reading to know more.
What Did the Catholic Church Do In Response to the Protestant Reformation?
In response to the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church launched its own “Counter-Reformation”. One of the most significant events during this movement was the Council of Trent, which enacted the Church’s formal response to the challenges the Protestant Reformation brought about the Catholic doctrine. Thus, it represented the official position of the Church on the issues contested by the Protestants.
The Council of Trent was the first significant response of the Catholic Church to the growing Reformation. It was convened to refute the Protestants’ beliefs and to make the Catholic set of beliefs even clearer. Through it, the bishops and cardinals, at the request of Pope Paul III, were able to agree and issue many of the doctrines we follow today, including:
- Protestants believe that the Holy Scripture should be the only source for the Christian faith, also known as the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. The Council of Trent rejected this and affirmed that there are two equal sources for leading a Christian life: Scripture and Tradition.
- Protestants insist that faith alone (Sola Fide) can save a person. The Catholic Church sees this as heresy and issued a decree that says Christians are saved by both faith and good works.
- The Church’s and the Pope’s interpretation of the Bible is final. Those who substitute their own interpretations and claim it as the “truth” are heretics. The Church argues that if anyone can read the Bible and interpret it themselves, just as Protestants claim, then it’s not possible to have a “true” understanding of Scripture.
- The Catholic Church decreed that Jesus Christ is present in the Eucharist. This rejects the beliefs of some Protestants who claim that the celebration of Mass was simply to commemorate Christ’s sacrifice.
- In the Protestant belief, clergy can marry. However, the Church maintains that neither Jesus nor his apostles were married. Saint Paul even once said that it’s good for men to stay unmarried as he was (1 Corinthians 7:1-7). Thus, it was decided that the clergy follow these examples and Paul’s suggestion to remain unmarried.
- The issue of the sale of indulgences was also addressed in the Council of Trent. The Church decided that it would no longer be sold, but it could be given as a donation. It also assured the regulation of the process.
The Catholic Counter-Reformation, unfortunately, was not able to stop the Protestants from breaking away from the Church. It wasn’t successful in stopping the spread of Protestantism, too. However, this movement did serve as a way to change the problems and issues Martin Luther pointed out in his Ninety-Five Theses.
Furthermore, it is through the Counter-Reformation that many of the Catholic doctrine was redefined and clarified. Most of all, it initiated many missionary efforts, including the Jesuits. This gave the Church a better reach, which allowed Catholicism to grow and maintain its position as the dominant tradition in Christianity.