Compendium of Church History - Notre Dame

Sixteenth Century
The Century of Protestant Revolt

The opening decades of the sixteenth century witnessed a revolt which, ere the century was little more than half over, had torn all the Teutonic nations from the unity of the Church, and had spread a spirit of rebellion against all authority. This movement, erroneously styled the Reformation, had its origin in Germany.



  1. The weakening of the bonds of Catholic union and Faith during the two preceding centuries.
  2. Opposition to the Holy See emphasized by the deplorable Western Schism.
  3. The spread of Gallican principles.
  4. The rebellion of the German Princes against the emperor.
  5. The relaxation of morals, brought about by the Fraticelli, Flagellantes, and other fanatics.
  6. Simony, nepotism, worldliness, and unscrupulous state policy of the clergy.—Guggenberger.

Leader of the Revolt.
Martin Luther was born at Eisleben, Saxony, in 1483. The friendship of a liberal lady furnished him with the means of his education. He took his degree in philosophy at Erfurt. On one occasion, during a violent thunderstorm, a companion was struck by lightning while riding at his side. Terrified by the incident, Luther entered the Augustinian Convent, and received Holy Orders in 1507. Three years Iater he was called to the chair of philosophy in the University of Wittenberg. His nature was passionate and led him into errors. In his lectures he began to develop the doctrine that "faith alone will save us."

In 1517 Pope Leo X granted an indulgence obtainable on certain conditions, one of which was the giving of an alms toward the building of St. Peter's Church, Rome. The preaching of the indulgence was entrusted to John Tetzel, a Dominican. When the preacher arrived at Wittenberg, Luther challenged him to a debate. In the controversy which followed Luther denied the authority of the Church Councils and the Holy See, for which he was excommunicated. Then Luther publicly declared his heresy, broke his vows, and married.

False Doctrines of Luther.

  1. He denied free-will in man.
  2. He taught that man is saved by Faith alone; that the Bible is the sole rule of Faith; that man is totally depraved; that in consequence of original sin, all man's works are sinful.
  3. He rejected the authority of the Church; the doctrine of Purgatory; Indulgences; the Evangelican Counsels; and the Sacraments, except Baptism and Holy Eucharist.

Disciples of Luther:

  • Calvin, who added to Luther's doctrines that of predestination, carried Protestantism into Switzerland and France.
  • Zwinglius adopted many of the errors of Luther and denied the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.
  • John Knox propagated Calvinism in Scotland.
  • Melancthon wrote out a declaration of Protestant views to be presented at the Diet of Spires. It was at this Diet that the followers of Luther received the name Protestants.
  • Anabaptists taught that the baptism of infants is invalid.

Spread of Protestantism.
In a few years this blighting heresy infected Sweden, Norway and Denmark, and a part of Germany and Switzerland.

Its rapid spread was due to:

  1. Doctrine of a "depraved nature," and of salvation by "faith alone," gave full reign to human passions.
  2. Deception of the people by the misrepresentation of Catholic doctrine.
  3. Private interpretation of Sacred Scripture.
  4. Apostasy of kings and princes.
  5. Rulers saw great advantages for themselves from confiscation of Church property.
  6. Indifference, lukewarmness, and apostasy of some of the clergy.

Political Effects of Protestantism.
The family unity of Catholic Europe was destroyed. While the world was Catholic the law of Christ had regulated the dealings of the nations with one another; the pope had been the arbitrator in political disputes; but this revolution destroyed all discipline and law, and substituted anarchy, treason, and rebellion for patriotism, leading the way finally to social revolution.

Protestantism in England.
In Germany and Switzerland, Protestantism was a secession from the Church; in France and Scotland it was a rebellion against the State as well; but in England it was brought about by the king, who forced the nation into a schism which gradually developed into a heresy.

King Henry VIII demanded a divorce from his lawful wife, Catherine of Aragon, with whom he had lived happily for seventeen years. He wished to marry Anne Boleyn, a maid of honor to the Queen. When Pope Clement refused the plea for divorce, Henry fell away, contracted this unlawful marriage, and proclaimed that the Pope had no longer any jurisdiction in England. The King became the head of the English Church, and exacted from all, under penalty of death, an oath in recognition of his supremacy. In consequence, Cardinal Fisher, Sir Thomas More, and seventy-two thousand Catholics were put to death.

The schism continued to widen during Henry's reign and that of his son, Edward VI. Queen Mary's reign brought promise and hope, but Elizabeth, by unheard-of cruelties, inaugurated a bloody persecution which fell heavily on the Church in Ireland. Under James I, Cromwell, and William of Orange, the condition of the Catholics in England and Ireland was deplorable.

Until the beginning of the nineteenth century England treated Ireland tyrannically; notwithstanding, Ireland has always remained faithful to the Church. In 1829 Daniel O'Connell forced England to grant religious liberty to Ireland.

Calvinism in France.
The Calvinists or Huguenots were French Protestants. They were persecuted by the Catholic rulers Francis I, Henry II, Francis II, and Charles IX. These persecutions were the cause of the civil wars

France, which began in 1562 and continued for more than half a century, until La Rochelle, the stronghold of the Huguenots was taken by Richelieu in 1628. This put an end to the Protestant party in France.

The principal events connected with the Huguenots are:

  1. The Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day, August 24, 1572.
  2. The Conversion of Henry IV, 1593.
  3. The Edict of Nantes, 1598.

The Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day.
Charles IX succeeded his brother Francis, with his mother, Catherine de Medici, as regent. Coligny, the leader of the Huguenots, won the confidence of the king, and Catherine, seeing her power waning, resolved to assassinate Coligny. She failed in this and the Huguenots swore revenge. Catherine decided to crush the Huguenot party with one blow, and prevailed on her son to consent to the Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day.

The Huguenots had assembled in Paris for the marriage of the young leader, Henry of Navarre. Before daybreak, at a given signal from Catherine, lights gleamed from the windows and bands of murderers thronged the streets. Coligny fell among the first victims.

One incident of this massacre has been misrepresented by some historians. The Te Delon sung at Rome was ordered by Pope Gregory XIII, who was under the false impression that the massacre was commenced by the Calvinists, and that it grew out of a foiled conspiracy against the French State and the Catholic Church.

Henry IV and the Edict of Nantes.
On the death of Henry III the crown of France came by right to Henry of Navarre. Being a Huguenot, he had to fight for his throne; but three years later he removed all grounds of opposition by becoming a Catholic.

In 1598 Henry IV granted civil and political rights to the Huguenots by the Edict of Nantes, thus putting an end to the civil and religious wars of France.

Councils of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries

The four councils held in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries have been termed Reformation Councils because in them regulations were laid down with a view of putting 4n end to abuses.

Sixteenth General Council.
The Council of Constance, in the year 1414, healed the divisions caused by schismatical anti-popes and condemned the errors of Huss and Wickliffe.

Seventeenth General Council.
The Council of Florence, in the year 1438, effected a short-lived reunion between the churches of the East and the West.

Eighteenth General Council.
The Fifth Council of Lateran, in the year 1512, decided that the authority of the Holy See is above that of a general council.

Nineteenth General Council.
The Council of Trent, in the year 1545, rejected and condemned the errors of the so-called reformers.

This council brought forth a new life of sanctity, learning, and zeal in the Church, resulting in the establishment of religious orders for the promotion of Christian education and charity.

Religious Orders.

The Society of Jesus, founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola in 1540, gave the Church a number of men illustrious for their sanctity, zeal, and learning. This order delivered Europe from the errors and miseries of Protestantism, and sent missionaries to evangelize pagan lands.

The Capuchins, founded by Matthew Bassi in 1528, effected great good by their austere, holy lives.

The Oratorians, founded by Philip Neri, lent effective aid to the popes and bishops in carrying out the decrees of the Council of Trent by training good priests.

The Discalced Carmelites, reformed and regenerated by St. Teresa in 1562, have been the means of drawing down God's blessing on the Church by their cloistered lives of prayer and penance.