Christian TraditionsChurch HistoryRoman CatholicTheology & Spirituality

Why the Reformation is About Much More than Religion

History is not an exact science. While people, places, dates, and events are factual, we receive history through first-hand accounts that may be biased, through second-hand accounts of history books that are influenced by years of interpretation, and finally through our own lens, shaded by how we understand the world around us. In church history, there is no better example of this inexactness and misinterpretation of history than the Reformation and what most call the “Counter-Reformation.” Basic history books and church classes break it down simply: the Catholic Church was corrupted, Martin Luther fixed it by breaking away, and the Catholics had a counter-Reformation to respond to Luther. Yet the Reformation is infinitely more complex than that: it was a world in which church and state were welded together, Martin Luther did not want to leave the Church at first, there were numerous more radical reformers than Luther who formed numerous divisive groups of Protestants, Protestants warred against other Protestants as much as they fought against Catholics, and the Counter-Reformation was arguably a separate movement that was not counter to anything. While volumes could be filled (and indeed have been filled) discussing the historical nuances of that violent, messy, and prolific era we anachronistically call the Reformation, for this little article I wish to focus on the argument that the “Counter-Reformation” should actually be termed to reflect Early Modern Catholicism as its own religious movement, as many of its events occurred due to factors both relating to and independent of the Reformation. How we understand Early Modern Catholicism paves the way for a more historically-nuanced and accurate understanding of the various groups of the Reformation, rather than a history that lumps together the diverse and sometimes clashing Anglicans, Lutherans, Anabaptists, Calvinists, and others.

This argument is best articulated in Robert Bireley’s The Refashioning of Catholicism. As Bireley points out, the term “Counter-Reformation” emerged into common discussion of 16th century religion in the 19th century, when a German Protestant historian named Leopold von Ranke wrote History of the Popes.[1] Ranke presented in this book what has become the common trope of late-medieval Catholicism: the Church slowly degrading into decadence, political corruption, and loss of the Gospel, until German Protestants fixed this problem. He proceeded to argue that the Counter-Reformation was a reaction to the Reformation and was a movement based on the Inquisition, banning of books, and political action.[2] There is truth to Ranke’s assessment; late-medieval Catholicism suffered greatly under the corruption of the Medicis, the political plays of the Avignon papacy, and the errant monk trying to sell indulgences. But this assessment neglects the mystics who produced great literature, the rise in lay literacy and new lay devotional practices, and the active work of reformers such as Saint Catherine of Siena. Ranke’s interpretation, however, was an interpretation of a German Protestant event for German Protestants. Just as an interpretation of Luther can and has been skewed by Catholic historians writing for Catholic audience, so did Ranke present a one-sided interpretation, but this interpretation became dominant over the next couple centuries.

Indeed, another one-sided interpretation emerged, this time argued by another German Protestant historian (as all great historians of the 19th century were German Protestants). Wilheml Maurenbecher proposed an antithesis to Ranke in 1880, with his History of the Catholic Reformation.[3] Maurenbecher argued that reform efforts predating 1517 indicate that the Catholic Church would have been reformed by inside efforts without the division of Western Chrisendom.[4]

Bireley proposes a middle ground between these two extremes that sheds light on 16th century Catholicism. Bireley indicates that there are two things to take into consideration when discussing Catholicism in the Reformation era: one, that it did not exist in a hermeneutical seal away from the social, religious, and political impact of the various movements of the Reformation, and also that Catholicism in 1700 is notably different than Catholicism in 1450.[5] Thus Bireley names this period “Early Modern Catholicism,” stepping away from the extremes of “Catholic Reformation” and “Counter-Reformation”.

Bireley speaks of Reformation-era Catholicism as Early Modern Catholicism because of the specific historical, political, economic, and social factors that influenced Catholic theology from 1450 to 1700. These factors are the same as those that influenced early Lutheranism, Calvinism, Anabaptism, early Anglicanism, and other religious movements that arose during this time period. Thus when we speak of the Reformation or even early Lutheranism/Calvinism/Anglicanism/etc, we must consider these factors as well.

First, the 16th century saw the nascence of the early nation state, as the feudal system and small towns of the Middle Ages were consolidated under central authorities.[6] German states were united under the Holy Roman Emperor, while France, England, and Spain grew under the long reigns of Francis I, Henry VIII, and Charles V, respectively. These rulers brought their people together under what Bireley calls the “principal functions of government”: “preservation of order and defence, the administration of justice, and the collection of taxes.”[7]

The growth of the monarchical state led to conflict between Church and state. France, England, the Holy Roman Empire, and Spain clashed with the Church over who held the right to appoint bishops, whose legal system prevailed, and who could tax whom.[8] This was only worsened by the sense that the papacy was becoming less of a religious position and more of a ruler of the Papal State. Most notably, this factor came into play in the split between the papacy and King Henry VIII, which lead to the creation of the Church of England.

Secondly, by the start of the 16th century, most of Europe had experienced intense social and economic changes. New trade routes, population growth after the Black Death, and increased literacy led to economic expansion and the growth of capitalism. With this came social mobility, the rise of an urban middle class, and a more knowledgeable (if not more formally educated) laity. These changes set the stage for the rise of Lutheranism in Germany, as increased literacy led to more people wanting to read the Bible.

Third, Bireley notes that the economic expansion led to early colonialism. England, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, and France all expanded their empires into continents beyond Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. Colonialism simultaneously renewed the missionary impulse of Christianity and fostered capitalist growth of mercantilism.[9] For the Catholic Church, this opened many possibilities for evangelism, and Early Modern Catholicism saw the creation of new and more unified religious orders (namely, the Jesuits) who ventured to Asia, Japan, India, and the Americas to spread the Gospel.

Fourth, the Renaissance played a significant role in the transition from the Middle Ages to the Early Modern period and thus influenced Christianity, particularly Early Modern Catholicism. The Renaissance, in addition to all its commonly-known achievements in art, architecture, and literature, produced a new sense of individualism that was not prevalent in the more corporate medieval communities. Bireley describes this new individualism as “a new self-consciousness and recognition of the unique character of the individual human personality and to its potential for achievement often in the pursuit of glory.”[10] Even in religious writings of this time, particularly mystical writings, there is a heightened understanding of the self in relation to God (see, for example, the self-consciousness of Saint Catherine of Siena’s Dialogue or the individual journey of the poet in Dante’s Divine Comedy). This new individualism influenced Early Modern Catholicism and the various early strands of Protestant. Early Modern Catholicism emphasized individual vocation, individual spiritual practices, and the rise of spiritual guides such as Saint Francis de Sales; meanwhile, early Protestantism clung to individual interpretation of Scripture.

Finally, Bireley points to the historical events of the Reformation as a factor on the development of Early Modern Catholicism. The Reformation shifted Europe from a unified Christendom in 1500 to a continent divided across religious lines. In addition to occupying the attention of Catholic leaders and theologians who scribbled out apologetic doctrine, the Reformation impacted the social lives of the ordinary people of Europe. Notably, the deunification of Christendom affected areas such as education; what was once under the province of the Church became in some areas a responsibility for the town. Different religious movements sought to educate people according to their beliefs. Literacy in the vernacular language steadily increased around Europe, as it was essential for Lutherans and others to teach their children how to read the Bible. Early Modern Catholicism saw the rise of religious orders devoted to education, such as the Ursuline order, and the creation of seminaries to better educate parish priests, who could go on to educate their parishioners.

Bireley articulates just five of the many factors that impacted Early Modern Catholicism and Reformation Christianity. What we can learn from this is that the Reformation was not just a religious event, but an event that was influenced by numerous outside factors. Furthermore, Bireley’s argument about Early Modern Catholicism indicates that we cannot adopt a single-sided interpretation of the Reformation, 16th century Catholicism, or even early Protestantism. Bireley’s discussion of Early Modern Catholicism implores us to explore the different Protestant groups of the Reformation more closely, for by no means was Lutheranism and Anabaptism nor Anglicanism and Calvinism a similar movement. Rather, Early Modern Catholicism, early Lutheranism, Anabaptism, Calvinism, and early Anglicanism were all different responses to the same political, economic, intellectual, social, and historical events.

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Laura Norris

Laura Norris

Laura Norris is a Catholic, freelance writer, running coach, and outdoor enthusiast. She holds a master's degree in Theological Studies and now works as a running blogger and coach as, in the words of St. Ignatius Loyola, "a woman for others" in helping others live a healthy life and achieve their goals. She and her husband live on the Eastside of Seattle and spend their time running their own businesses and hiking in the mountains.

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