Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter Reformation
The people of medieval Europe were mainly Christians who believed in the power of god. God-fearing Catholics accepted the role of the Church that acted as the medium between them and god. The church became the focal point for all the activities of common people from birth to death. In due course of time, the power wielded by the church authorities increased beyond measure. The kings and people of Europe were, however, beginning to feel the heavy hand of the Church. There were occasional instances of defiance and disobedience of Papal authority. The Church created the Inquisition to treat this new heresy with violence. The Inquisition dubbed the people who questioned the activities of the Church as heretics and women as witches.
The revolt against the absolute power of the church was called Protestant because it protested against the dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church. The movement is called the Reformation. It was a popular revolt against corruption as well as the authoritarianism of the Church. In response the loyal Roman Church men made some attempts to reform the Church of its abuses from within. This phase of reform movement came to be known as Counter-Reformation which once again acted against the protest sternly.
The practice of sale of indulgence (absolving one’s sin by getting papal pardon through payment of money), nepotism, and simony (sale of church posts for money) came under attack. The indulgence emptied the pockets of poor as they had to spend money to get papal pardon for their sins. Some Popes such as Alexander VI, Julius II and Leo X quarrelled with the rulers on the above practices. There was an instance of Albert of Mainz becoming the archbishop by paying money to Pope Leo X. The Pope was said to have collected it saying that half of the money would be used for St. Peter’s Basilica.
Members of the great merchant families such as the Medicis became Popes in order to increase their own wealth and expected to pass the wealth on to illegitimate sons. Inexperienced youths were appointed to lucrative bishoprics. Clergymen received incomes from several churches but never appeared in any of them. The peasantry saw the Church as an oppressive landowner. Many of the princes were casting their covetous eyes on the vast properties of the Church.
The reformation movement had a few pioneers. Erasmus was a protester of many Church practices and teachings. His well known work, The Praise of Folly (1511), made fun of theologians and monks. Others like him who worked towards reform two centuries before him were John Wycliffe and John Hus. They preached the gospel in the language of the people, and not in Latin. John Wycliffe, an English clergyman, was famous as the first translator of the Bible into English. He managed to escape the anger of Rome during his life time, but in 1415, after thirty-one years of his death, a Church Council ordered that his bones should be dug up and burnt. And this was faithfully carried out.
Though the bones of Wycliffe could be burnt, his views could not easily be suppressed. The event reached Bohemia, and influenced John Huss. Huss, the head of the Prague University, was excommunicated by the Pope for his views. As he was popular in his town he escaped harm. Promising a safe conduct by the Emperor, he was invited to Constance (Konstanz) in Switzerland, where a Church Council was in session. He was pressurised to confess his error. When he refused, in spite of their promise for his safety, he was burnt alive.
The reformation movement was popularised by three reformers at three different places. Martin Luther at Wittenberg, Huldrych Zwingli at Zurich, and John Calvin at Geneva.
Martin Luther, a Christian priest, rose in revolt in Germany against Rome. After a visit to Rome he became disgusted with the corruption and luxury of the Church. He wrote ninety-five complaints against the Roman Church known as ‘95 Theses’ and nailed it on the door of the church at Wittenberg. He made a few moderate suggestions to reform the church. The role of printing press was a key factor in making his ideas widespread. He argued that Bible alone is supreme and not the Pope and Bishops. He believed that only two main rituals, namely, baptism and Holy Communion are accepted by the Bible. Salvation, he said, could be attained by one’s belief in Lord only. In this way the Protestant revolt began. Luther translated the Bible into German and Lutheran Protestants laid down certain rules and regulations. They did not accept the authority of Pope. They had their own churches, administrative set-up and they believed in the supremacy of Bible alone. The rules for priests were relaxed by which they were permitted to lead a married life.
The pope tried to hold peace talks with Luther by calling him for Diet of Worms. It failed. The Diet of Worms disavowed his books and burnt them. He was outlawed from the Holy Roman Empire by the emperor. Martin Luther’s radical views influenced many and one such was Thomas Muntzer who fought for a classless society. This started the Peasant’s Rebellion in parts of Germany. However, Luther supported the feudal lords in this fight and denounced the peasant movement. As the Protestants became popular there was a civil war in Germany. In the end the northern Germany became Protestant, while the southern state remained catholic.
Huldrych Zwingli started a similar movement in Switzerland. He was influenced by the Dutch humanist Erasmus. He did not agree with some of Luther’s viewpoints. Zwingli believed that Christ lives in the heart of the believer and not in the bread and wine. He had written sixty-seven articles outlining the reformist views against the Catholic Church. Zwingli opposed the celibacy of the monks and construction of monasteries, indulgence, fasting and pilgrimage. Efforts made to bring Luther and Zwingli together for a stronger Protestant movement failed.
Holy Communion (also known as the Eucharist) is a religious ceremony performed in church by Catholics. Catholic Christians partake of Holy Communion in remembrance of the sacrifices made by Jesus. They accept bread and wine which are believed to symbolise (transubstantiation) the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
Calvin was one of the later leaders of the Protestant movement. As a French Protestant he opposed the activities of the Church. He was excommunicated for fighting the Pope. After his excommunication, he settled In Geneva, Switzerland. His book titled 'Institutes of the Christian Religion' in Latin contains his core ideas. Calvin was a great organiser and for a while he controlled the city of Geneva. He strived hard to establish an organised society based on biblical teachings. Calvinism became popular even during his lifetime. It became widespread in other parts of Europe as Huguenots in France, Puritans in England and Presbyterians in Scotland.
The Reformation in England was started not by theologians but by the king. It was Henry VIII who separated the state from the Church. Though he was a devout catholic in the initial years, due to his personal needs (a divorce from his wife Queen Catherine of Aragon for a remarriage to another woman, Ann Boleyn), he favoured the Protestants. He passed the Act of Supremacy, 1534, and severed England’s connection with Rome. He established the Anglican Church and ordered the confiscation of Church property, including all the lands of abbeys and monasteries. This Protestant movement led to the Puritan movement in various parts of England and her colonies.
(a) Divisions in the European nations: The schism in the church led to the division of religious practices in the same country. North Germany became Lutheran while South Germany remained Catholic. England became Protestant while Scotland and the people of Ireland became devout Catholics.
(b) Literacy: The printing press encouraged the printing of various religious teachings of reformation movement and also reading of the same by common people. People were encouraged to read and understand the Bible. The use of vernacular language in preaching and the translation of Bible in regional languages opened a new avenue to reach ordinary people.
(c) Status of Women: Due to the opposition of celibacy in churches, the pastors of the Protestant churches became married men. This strengthened the role of women in household and in churches. Women were encouraged to read the Bible and bring up the children in Protestant methods. This led to the increase in literacy level of women.
(d) Power of Kings: The reformation movement gave more power to some rulers such as Henry VIII, who became the head of both the state and the Church.
(e) Race for colonies: Both the Protestants and the Catholics wanted to convert people from other parts of the world to their own religious beliefs. The Spanish conquest in South America was followed by Jesuit priests (a new sect of Roman Catholics created to spread Catholicism). The Puritans, Catholics and Anglicans set up their churches in the thirteen British colonies of North America.
(f) Spread of Christianity: The availability of gold and silver from the colonies made the European nations to send explorers in the guise of missionaries to various parts of the world. “First the missionary, then the gun boat, then the land grabbing” _ that was the sequence of events people of the succeeding generation had to contend with.
The Catholic religion watched the rise of the Protestant movement with caution and concern. Just about the time Martin Luther was gaining in popularity, a new Church order was started by a Spaniard, Ignatius of Loyola in Paris, France, on 15 August 1534, when he and six university students pledged to keep vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience and to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. One of the students was Francis Xavier, who later became a missionary to India and Japan. This society aimed at training people for efficient and dedicated service of the Roman Church and the Pope. It used education as a tool to teach the Catholic religion to the masses. They set up various educational institutions to promote the Catholic religion. Society of Jesus succeeded in producing efficient and faithful followers of the Church. These priests, known as the Jesuits, helped in raising the standard of the Church in Europe.
The measures adopted by the Roman Church, largely on account of the threat posed by the Protestant revolt, included the removal of abuses from the church, reiteration of the power of Pope, and rebuilding the faith in seven sacraments (Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist or Holy Communion, Reconciliation or Confession, Anointing of the Sick, Ordination or Holy Orders, and Marriage).This movement is known as Counter Reformation. Three major events that mark the Counter Reformation are: Council of Trent, the Inquisition, and the founding of new religious schools to popularise Catholic religion.
Pope Paul III appointed the cardinals to reform the Catholic Church. The Council of Trent met three times in eighteen years and emphasised faith in the Bible and the teachings at Church along with adherence to the seven sacraments for salvation. The celibacy of the priests and the supremacy of the Pope were upheld. The council also removed the abuses in the Church such as sale of indulgence, nepotism and absenteeism of the Bishops (who did not visit their dioceses). It insisted on the study of catechism, an instruction on the sacraments. It supported the image worship of Jesus and Mary in all churches. Due to the Council of Trent, the Catholic religion became better organised.
Special Church courts were established to give punishment to the heretics. They used many methods to make the heretics confess, which ranged from recantation, flogging to burning at the stake. Roman Inquisition was set up to deal with the Protestants. Witch-hunt became a common practice. Women, usually widowed or single, were called witches and blamed for crop failures, diseases etc. They were captured and put to death. It has been estimated that about 110,000 people in Europe were put on trial and 60,000 put to death in the Inquisition.
Due to the Counter Reformation, Europe was divided along religious lines. Wars broke out within the countries and with the countries professing faith in different denomination. The Thirty-Years’War fought between 1618 and 1648 at various provinces of Holy Roman Empire was an example of this division. Protestant churches were austere, while the Catholic churches became more ornamental. Both the religious communities used education as a tool to spread their religious and spiritual ideas.