History of the Catholic Church - J. MacCaffrey

The Catholic Reaction

Protestantism had reached the zenith of its power on the Continent in 1555. At that time everything seemed to indicate its permanent success, but soon the tide began to turn, and instead of being able to make further conquests, it found it impossible to retain those that had been made. The few traces of heresy that might have been discovered in Italy, Spain and Portugal disappeared. France, thanks largely to the energy of the League and to the political schemes of Cardinal Richelieu, put an end to the Calvinist domination. Hungary and Poland, owing mainly to the labours of the Jesuits, shook off the influence of the Protestant preachers. Belgium was secured for Spain and the Catholic Church by the prudence and diplomacy of Farnese, and in the German Empire the courageous lead given by Maximilian of Bavaria delivered Austria, Bohemia, Bavaria and most of southern Germany from Protestantism. Many causes helped to bring about this great Catholic reaction, the most important of which were the reforms initiated by the Council of Trent, the rise of zealous churchmen, the establishment of new religious bodies, notably the Jesuits, and finally the determination of some of the Catholic princes of the empire to meet force by force.

The Council of Trent

From the beginning of Luther's revolt both friends and foes of the Papacy demanded the convocation of a general council. Many difficulties, however, prevented the Pope from giving immediate effect to this demand. Pope Paul III. convoked a council to meet at Mantua in 1537, and at Vicenza in 1538, but hardly any bishops attended either place, and it was only in 1545 that the council met at last in Trent, a city of the Tyrol. It sat from 1545 till 1547 at Trent and was prorogued. It met again in 1551 and continued till 1552, when owing to the successful rebellion of Maurice of Saxony it was again prorogued, and finally, it sat from 1562 till 1563.

Never before, and never since, was the Catholic Church called upon to meet a graver crisis than that which confronted it at the time when the Council of Trent was convoked. Other heresies had been content to attack particular doctrines, but Protestantism aimed at nothing more or less than the complete overthrow of ecclesiastical authority and the substitution in its place of individual judgment. Besides, the question of reform, with all its difficulties, could be postponed no longer. This was a gigantic task to set before the council at a time of such general unrest, and the fact that the Fathers of Trent succeeded so completely, both in their exposition of the Catholic doctrines that had been denied, and in their well considered, moderate scheme of reform, is in itself a proof that they were guided in their deliberation by the Holy Spirit.

Against the reformers the Council defined that Scripture and Tradition are the two sources of divine revelation; that all the books of the Old as well as the New Testament are equally inspired because they have God for their author, and that the Scriptures cannot be interpreted against the authoritative interpretation of the Church or against the unanimous consent of the Fathers. It set forth, also, the Catholic teaching on Original Sin, Justification, the Sacraments, the Eucharist, the Mass, Holy Orders, Purgatory and Indulgences. In regard to reform the council decreed that the college of cardinals should be representative of the entire Church, that bishops should be obliged to live in their own dioceses, to preach to their flocks and to make periodical visitations of their parishes, that diocesan and provincial synods should be held at regular intervals, that priests in charge of parishes should instruct their people in Christian doctrine, that seminaries should be established in each diocese for the education of the clergy, and that clerics should not be allowed to hold more than one benefice. The results of these reforms were soon visible in the altered lives of priests and people, and in the great spiritual revival which made itself felt throughout the entire Church.

The New Religious Orders

The second cause of the Catholic reaction was the reformation of the older religious orders, such as the Benedictines, the Franciscans, the Dominicans and the Augustinians, as well as the rise of new religious bodies, notably the Jesuits, the Vincentians and the Oratorians. If the danger was great, the help given from on high was greater still; and never has the promise of Christ to be with His Church till the end of time been more clearly fulfilled than when He raised up a host of saintly champions, such as St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Philip Neri, St. Vincent, St. Charles Borromeo, and St. Francis of Sales to defend the Church, to stem the tide of heresy and to win back to God much of what seemed to have been lost for ever.

St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, was sprung from one of the noblest families of Spain, and in his youth he served as a soldier in the Spanish army. But, having been wounded at the siege of Pampeluna (1521), he began to read the Lives of Christ and of His saints, and attracted by their contents he determined to give up the army of Spain in order to enrol himself in the army of Christ. Retiring to a lonely grotto at Manresa he devoted himself to prayer and penance, and in this retreat he drew up his celebrated Spiritual Exercises  which did so much, and are still doing so much, for the progress of religion. With his keen perception of the crisis that then confronted the Church he realised that new dangers demanded new means of defence, and that the best defence of Catholicity at that period would, be a zealous body of learned ecclesiastics, devoted to the education of Catholic youth, brave to withstand the onslaughts of the heretics and completely at the service of the Holy See, then so bitterly assailed.

To qualify himself for a position in such an army he set himself to study, and passed some time at the universities of Alcala, Salamanca and Paris. In the latter city he gathered around him a body of young men, St. Francis Xavier, Rodriguez, Lainez, Salmeron, &c., who were to form the nucleus of the Society of Jesus, and on the Feast of the Assumption they wended their way to the summit of Montmartre, overlooking the city of Paris, where, on bended knees, they pledged themselves to preach to the unbelievers, or, if that were impossible, to place themselves at the disposal of the Pope. Paul III. recognised the value of such devotion, and in 1540 the new society received papal approbation.

The society spread rapidly. St. Ignatius despatched his soldiers to the posts of danger in the countries in which heresy was most threatening, and wherever they appeared their labours were attended with success. Realising the importance of education, and especially of the education of the clergy, St. Ignatius founded the Roman College for the training of priests from all parts of the world, and the German College for students from Germany. Wherever his disciples went they followed the example of their master, and set up schools and universities for the education of Catholic youths. Working, too, among the pagans they spread a knowledge of the Christian religion, and succeeded in winning many to take the place of those who had left the Church during the Reformation. In America, both North and South, in Africa, in India and Japan, members of the society laboured hard and poured out their blood for the faith. Nor were the penances and prayers of such well known servants of God as St. Ignatius, St. Francis Xavier, St. Stanislaus Kostka, and St. John Berchmans, to mention only a few, without great results. Wherever a hard blow was to be struck against Protestantism, Jansenism, Gallicanism, Rationalism or Paganism, the Jesuits were there to strike it, and their labours were as a rule crowned with success.

St. Philip Neri did much in Rome and Italy by his own example and labours, and by the foundation of the Oratorians (1574) who helped greatly to raise the standard of education in the Church. St. Charles Borromeo was the friend of St. Philip Neri. He set up a body of secular priests to take charge of his seminary (1578) and to preach, and by his own exertions and their help he did much to hold a large number of the cantons of Switzerland Catholic. St. Francis de Sales (1622) won back the Chablais, a district south of Geneva, in which he converted over 500,000 people in his own life time.

St. Vincent de Paul (1576–1660) was, in a special manner, the saviour of France. Ordained priest, after a course of study at the University of Toulouse, he was taken prisoner by Barbary pirates, and on his return he held a position at the court of Queen Margaret of Valois. But here he did not find sufficient scope for his restless zeal. Realising the importance of good confessions he organized a course of missions throughout France, and surrounded himself with a body of disciples who assisted him in this work. From village to village he went preaching, and it is largely due to the efforts of St. Vincent that France remained so loyal to the Catholic Church. But he soon realised that the results of these missions would be lost unless a new spirit were infused into the French clergy, and for this reason he organized retreats for the priests, and arranged that his disciples should take charge of the seminaries that were being established in accordance with the decrees of Trent. His love for the poor was unbounded, and in order that their wants might be attended to, and that they might have devoted nurses in time of sickness, he founded the Sisters of Charity who won for themselves such a place in the hearts of the French people, that even to-day Frenchmen who profess to have abandoned Christianity always speak with the greatest reverence of the daughters of St. Vincent.

At the same time one of the disciples of St. Vincent Jean Jacques Olier (1608–57), brought together a body of secular priests, known as Sulpicians, from the first house founded at St. Sulpice in Paris, which devoted itself especially to the training of the clergy. It is impossible to speak too highly of the work and zeal of this devoted congregation, or of the benefits which it has conferred on the Church, especially in France, Canada and the United States.

The Thirty Years' War

After the peace of 1555 the Protestants of Germany seemed determined to bear down all opposition and to force their religion on the empire, but fortunately, Maximilian of Bavaria raised the drooping spirits of the Catholic princes and barred the progress of the Reformation. Feeling was running high in Germany, especially on account of the fact that the Protestants claimed, that if any bishop should come over to them from the Catholic Church he should be allowed to bring with him the possessions of his see. The Protestants united under the leadership of Frederick IV. of the Palatinate and formed the Evangelical League, while the Catholic princes, with Maximilian at their head, imitated this example. Very little was now wanting to bring about civil war.

Some disputes having broken out in Bohemia, the heretics elected Frederick V. of the Palatinate as their king, and war was declared. General Tilly advanced to meet the Protestant forces with an army of 42,000 men. The decisive battle was fought at the White Mountain (1620), where the Protestants, having left 8,000 of their men dead on the field, fled in disorder. Frederick was deprived of his territories, which were handed over to Maximilian of Bavaria, and the Catholic religion was secured in Bohemia, Austria, Bavaria and Hungary.

The king of Denmark, Christian IV., strengthened by the promise of aid from France, hastened to the assistance of the Protestants of Germany, but he was confronted by two armies, one the imperial army led by General Wallenstein, the other the army of the League led by General Tilly. Having been defeated at the battle of Lutter (1626) he was glad to make peace and to return to his dominions, bringing with him the remnants of his troops. Ferdinand II. now felt himself strong enough to issue the Edict of Restitution (1629), commanding that all the property that had been seized by the Protestants contrary to the terms of the peace of Augsburg should be restored. Such a decree, however just it might have been, was not politic in the circumstances, and afforded France and Sweden an opportunity of interfering in the affairs of the empire.

Gustavus Adolphus, king of Sweden, at the head of his well trained troops marched into Germany, and though many of the Protestant princes felt some scruples in allying themselves with a foreign invader against their own countrymen and their own emperor, yet most of them overcame these scruples and joined the army of Sweden. The army of the League was defeated near Leipzig and General Tilly received his death wound (1631). The Swedish troops and their allies marched southward, and it looked for a while as if Gustavus Adolphus were about to make himself emperor, but at this critical moment General Wallenstein was recalled, and by extraordinary efforts he brought together an immense army with which he met the Swedes at Lutzen (1632). In this battle Gustavus Adolphus was killed.

The French, fearing that the success of the emperor would mean the establishment of a really united kingdom, determined to send their armies across the frontiers, and from 1635 till 1648 Germany was the battleground of Europe. The original causes of the war were forgotten and France and Sweden fought merely for their own political purposes. Finally, the peace of Westphalia (1648) put an end to the struggle. France and Sweden repaid themselves by insisting on large concessions of German territory; complete equality was established between the Catholics and the Protestants, and the goods of the Church that had been seized before 1624 were to remain in the hands of the despoilers. For this treaty, which in many respects was so unfavourable to Catholics and which put an end to the old ideal of the empire, France was mainly responsible. At home the French government put down heresy with a heavy hand, but it had no difficulty in aiding and abetting the Protestant princes of Germany in order to prevent the establishment of a strong kingdom on the other side of the Rhine.

Catholic Missions

At a time when so many of the nations of Europa were threatening to fall away from the Church, new races and peoples were being brought into her fold in the west and the east. The discovery of America by Columbus (1492), and the settlements effected in south and central America by Spain and Portugal, opened a new field for missionary enterprise. Franciscans, Dominicans and Carmelites followed in the wake of the conquerors, and to these were soon added the sons of St. Ignatius. Great progress was made in Brazil and Mexico, but it was in Paraguay that the results of the labours of the Jesuit Fathers were to be seen at their best. The natives of Paraguay submitted readily to the instruction of the missionaries and soon became an intelligent, hard-working and happy community. When, however, war was declared on the Jesuits in Europe by the Bourbon rulers the missionaries were expelled and most of their work was undone.

Canada was taken possession of by France, and priests went from France to evangelize the natives. Franciscans, Jesuits and Sulpicians settled in Canada, and soon a flourishing Catholic community was established which continued to grow in strength till the English captured the country in 1760. From Canada many of the missionaries penetrated into the territories now occupied by the United States, and carried the light of the gospel amongst the Indians who inhabited them.

While these events were taking place in the west, St. Francis Xavier set out with a few companions from Rome to evangelize India and Japan (1542). He landed at Goa, which was then a Portuguese settlement, and having done excellent work there both among the Portuguese and the natives, he went to preach in the neighbouring islands and coast towns. Having succeeded in winning over thousands to the faith he left his work there to be continued by other members of the Society of Jesus, and set sail for Japan where his labours were attended with wonderful success. From Japan he determined to make his way into China, but on the journey he took fever and died (1552). During the ten years of his preaching he had succeeded in bringing more than half a million into the Church. The work that he had begun was continued in India, China and Japan by the Jesuits and other religious orders, and everything seemed to indicate that all these countries were about to give up their old religions and to accept Christianity; but the fears entertained by the rulers of these countries that the acceptance of the Christian religion would mean the domination of the Westerns, the influence of the native priests, and the differences amongst the Christians themselves prevented these hopes from being fully realised.