Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Counter-Reformation: Lecture VI study questions

One last set of study questions before the final and the last paper. I don't think any Christian can study the Protestant reformation and Catholic counter-reformation without feeling the need for a good shower afterward. Fortunately, we have the likes of Sts. Philip Neri, Ignatius Loyola. Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Francis de Sales, and Vincent de Paul to remind us of the fruits of the reformative work.

How did the Catholic Church reform itself?

Even before Luther rejected the authority of the Pope, a reformative spirit had been strengthening in the Church. Many good men and women of religious orders had begun to try to regain the glory for which their orders were formerly known. While some orders reformed from within, spurred on by the efforts of heroic individuals, other religious split off from their orders to form independent orders, such as the Capuchins and the Discalced Carmelites. Still others began completely new orders, such as the Society of Jesus, founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola, or the Oratory of St. Philip, founded by St. Philip Neri (albeit formally not until after his death). This new religious movement brought renewal in spirit. The Church, though, had other work that needed to be done.

Following the publication of the 95 Theses, the Holy See responded a year later by issuing a bull clarifying the teaching on indulgences. By this time, Luther had come out with many more of his doctrinal disputes, which were eventually condemned in Exsurge Domine in 1520. The increasing debate on the continent demonstrated two indisputable points: first, even those charged with the teaching of theology did not fully understand the Church's teaching, whether it was because the Church had left many doctrinal questions unaddressed or because the teaching of theology was so unsystematic that so-called theologians had little exposure to the arguments and opinions of the early Church fathers and the history of the early Church. In any case, doctrinal matters had to be clarified.

More serious, though, was the matter of the rampant ecclesial abuses. Some abuses were age-old problems: priests, bishops, or religious living in concubinage; bishops holding multiple benefices and living remotely from their diocese. Others were perhaps more a matter of the fashion of the times: nepotism in the promotion of clergy to the episcopacy; outright sale of clerical positions to raise funds. Both Luther and Henry VIII used abuses (or alleged abuses) as a starting point to gain credibility or to win popular support: the former on the point of the sale of indulgences, the latter on the licitness of the Pope to dispense with matters of canon law. Using abuses as a platform, dissenting theologians could launch a war against the doctrine, which is what happened in both cases.

Just as those low in the Church hierarchy had begun to seek renewal, those more creditable individuals in the College of Cardinals and other auspicious positions began to seek reform. The Council of Trent was the vehicle to that reform.

The council took place over eighteen years and three sessions. While most in attendance understood the need to reform abuses and to clarify doctrine, the representatives had a difficult time deciding which to do first. They settled on a wise agenda. They would begin on one day with a point of doctrine. On the next day, they would address a point of abuse. They then alternated between the two points day by day throughout the course of the council.

The Pope insisted that all decisions upon which decrees would be formed would be decided unanimously. This created some difficulty, particularly when matters of ecclesial reform were on the agenda. The Catholic rulers in attendence sought to maintain their prerogatives while depriving those of the Holy See. The Papal legates, though, insisted that some reform must be handled internally and not as business of the council, and they did their utmost to protect the rights of the Papacy in regards to dominion over ecclesial affairs.

In addition to the council, some Popes made efforts to reform the Roman Curia from within. Many made considerable headway, and several of the popes of the period are recalled for the tenaciousness of their reform efforts.

What was gained and what was lost?

First and foremost, the Papacy regained some of its moral authority. The worldly Rennaissance mindset of many preconcilliar popes and other curial staff had created a general distrust of Rome. The counter-reformation underscored the moral duty of the pope and councils to settle matters of doctrine and to be guided by the Holy Spirit while doing so. While some of the concilliar popes may have been hypocritical or sinful, the results of their efforts in the concilliar decrees could not be dismissed are counter to the doctrine of the faith prior to Trent.

The Church also gained a waypoint for future growth, or perhaps, it established a last line of defense. By its decrees, the Church itself knew where it stood and how it would respond the the Protestant threat.

Materially, the Church also suffered. In acceding to the demands of some secular rulers, the Church gave up or simply lost through impoundment much of its property in Germany. While the wisdom of the times might render these losses to be grave, with hindsight we could see them as a blessing. The admixture of material wealth and secular power with Church authority had done much spiritual damage

The Church also lost considerable clout in dealing with sectarian disputes and with the menace of the Turks. While these concerns were also the concerns of the secular rulers, many of the Protestant rulers saw the invading Turks solely as a boon to their own efforts. The loss of Church authority and cohesive Catholic rulership left the entire empire open to exploitation by foreign interests and invaders.

On a side note, this same scenario seems to be playing out in Europe, where secular liberals see diversity as the means to rid themselves of "repressive Christianity" once and for all, while all along ignoring the threat to their own freedom.

What the Church lost in terms of human souls is inestimable. We're still living with the consequences. However, what we do see in the evangelical and pentacostal communities is a tremendous ability to spread the word. While some animosities still exist, their does seem to be a trend in these circles recommending orthodoxy, even Catholic orthodoxy. When people from these communities do "cross the Tiber," they bring with them a fervor similar to that of the early Jesuits or Oratorians. They may very well be infusing our Church with that same reforming spirit. In addition, many of the African and South American populations to whom the Jesuits ministered during those periods are also returning now to shore up the barricades.

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