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Catholicism and the Council of Trent

A/N: Part I, paper 16 essay from Lent term of the 2008/09 academic year. I was supervised by Dr. M. Laven at Jesus.

The Development of Catholic Devotional Practices After The Council of Trent Can Best Be Understood As A Reaction Against Protestantism. Discuss.

The Council of Trent, by confirming the doctrine of transubstantiation, brought an end to the hope of reconciliation between the Roman Church and the breakaway Protestant denominations. After it, so traditional historiography would tell us, the Catholic Church sought to rid itself of heterodoxy and superstition, and attempt to standardise its practises throughout Western Europe. This was long believed to be the result of Protestant success; in order to defend itself from Protestant criticisms change was necessary. However historians since the 1970s, such as Eamon Duffy, have argued that the pre-Tridentine Church was not falling apart and in desperate need of reform. This would suggest that the development of Catholic devotional practices after the Council of Trent were, in fact, more the culmination of ideas that had existed amongst the Church authorities for centuries; the unease over ‘superstitious’ worship of images for example. If this were the case then it would be wrong to suggest that the development of Catholic devotional practices were primarily a reaction against Protestantism. Yet, at grass roots level it becomes apparent that in areas where there was confessional conflict, far from bringing Catholic devotional practices more in line with Protestant practices, Catholics celebrated their devotional differences. Such evidence suggests that the development of Catholic devotional practices was not standard across Europe; in many areas it is possible to view developments as an almost direct reaction against Protestantism, whilst in others the situation was far more ambiguous.

The rulings of the sixteenth-century Council of Trent were, in many ways, the outcome of centuries of unease over ‘superstitious’ and heterodox practices by the Church authorities. Yet in the words of Hsia, the religious schism in Germany had ‘shocked’ the Church into action. If the Council itself was a reaction against Protestantism, it would stand to reason that the developments it inspired were also reactions against the new faith. Certainly, as Forster points out, many of its rulings were not welcomed by Catholic clergy, suggesting that the changes were not something the lower clergy had been trying to achieve from within. Gentilcore for example points out the way in which the clergy in Naples resisted the new powers of bishops; well into the eighteenth-century they were still contesting the rights of bishops to conduct visitations in their parishes.

Similarly in Southwest Germany it was an uphill struggle to enforce the new educational demands, such as catechism classes, and concubinage was a constant problem amongst the parish priests encountered in visitations. In the diocese of Speyer in the 1580s over half of all parish priests lived with a concubine, something which parishioners themselves seemed to view with indifference. One peasant told a visiting bishop that his priest, Michael Krailin, ‘leads a pious life’; this in spite of Krailin’s four children by his housekeeper. Concern only arose when priests broke social norms, such as in the case of Johann Fischer of Hambach whose constant womanising made people ‘hesitate to receive the sacraments from him.’ It would seem that central Church authorities perceived the need to control and regulate all aspects of religious life in reaction to the threat of Protestantism; the lower clergy and people themselves saw things differently however. Practical changes in devotional practices then were a reaction to Protestantism only in the way they were influenced by central Church authorities.

One way in which Catholic devotional practices developed along lines similar to Protestantism was the call for restraint in the worship of saints. This could be seen as a direct reaction against Protestant criticisms of Catholic ‘idolatry’. Across Protestant Europe images were being removed from churches and destroyed. But, the Catholic Church had been wary of the actual forms saint veneration was taking for a long time. Learned theology on the subject in England had sparked the Lollardy of the fourteenth-century; Lollard preacher William Whyte’s supporters had smashed up statues of saints because they believed their veneration to be idolatrous as demons resided in them. For the central Church authorities such confused beliefs were just as abhorrent when they swung the other way; many people in the early modern period ascribed saints’ images with divine power. The Council of Trent demanded that ‘in the invocation of saints, the veneration of relics, and the sacred use of images, every superstition shall be removed, all filthy lucre be abolished’.

Similarly the Church authorities were keen to remove superstitious uses of other sacramentals; the Eucharist was widely believed to have magical healing properties and was even used to cure livestock. The Church hoped that education would stop such practices. The continuing use of sacramentals for ‘magic’ and confusion over the powers of images suggests that this was a concern mostly limited to Church officials fearing such ‘superstitious’ practices made Catholicism an easy target for Protestant critics. What the Church wanted to happen was, then, a reaction to Protestantism. Actual developments were little affected however; early modern Catholics continued to make use of the power of objects, just as early modern Protestants ascribed miracles to images of Luther and the power of the written word.

However the position of the Catholic Church was not as straightforward as it first appears. Despite the rulings of the Council of Trent and the desire for uniformity at the centre, in many ways the Church continued to encourage what might be considered ‘heterodox’ beliefs. For example even though the Sacred Congregation of Rites established in 1588 canonized fewer than forty saints in the early modern period, many more were put forward, or at least were venerated in the hope they might one day be considered for canonization. This was inevitable as the impetus for creating a new Saint came from the people and local clergy. The nuns of Annecy for example spent over a third of a million livres trying to get Francois de Sales canonized. Church authorities might have been officially opposed to new, unofficial shrines; Episcopal officials commenting on one in the Black Forest in 1702 that it would ‘bring the danger of ridicule on the Catholic religion’. But, in practice the officials sent out to investigate miracles were often convinced of their validity, as they were at the shrine of the ‘schmerzhafte Mutter Maria’ in 1733.

A less ambiguous example comes from official encouragement to use sacramentals. The Brindisi synod of 1623 for example advised people to ‘keep holy water at home, where it can be used devoutly for chasing away demons.’ The Jesuits too encouraged the use of blessed Xavier and Ignatius-water. This was presented as a miracle cure for a range of illnesses and even as a way of exterminating agricultural pests; Ignatius-water was sprinkled on fields at Eifel in 1736 to kill a plague of caterpillars. On the one hand this could be seen as a reaction to Protestantism in that the Church is keen to stress confessional differences, to remind people of what they would be missing, such as the miraculous Xavier-water, should they become Protestant. Yet, I would propose that it is a reaction to Protestantism in a more subtle way. The Catholic Church, faced with competition, sought to standardize its devotional practices. The new roman breviary of 1568, the new Roman missal of 1569 and the new catechism of 1566 were distributed throughout Catholic Europe for example. Restricting sainthood to a clear set of characteristics, as described by Gentilcore, and having a standard sacramental like Xavier-water were just other ways of attempting to extend central Church control.

This desire for uniformity and standardization can perhaps be best seen in the growth of confraternities. The two main types were confraternities dedicated to the rosary, and to Marian devotion. In the 1770s for example over forty per cent of Austrian confraternities were dedicated to the rosary. They performed social functions in the same style as guilds, providing for widows for instance, but also sought to pray for the souls of deceased members. Every member of the Goerwihl Rosary confraternity for example was expected to pray three full rosaries whilst contemplating the life of Christ each week. Marian devotion was particularly encouraged by the Church and missionary groups such as the Jesuits. As Gentilcore pointed out, Mary was acceptable both to ordinary Catholics and to the Church at the center. Marian devotion, the Church hoped, could replace the veneration of less desirable saints and holy men and women. By pointedly encouraging specific cults throughout Catholic Europe the Catholic Church doubtless hoped to create a more coherent faith, one that would be less susceptible to Protestant criticisms.

The same pattern can be seen in the Church’s attempts to regulate and standardize the way in which early modern Catholics worshipped at church. For example the Church had long battled against indifferent and apathetic congregations. Pere Font, canon of Barcelona, complained of congregations that spent the sermons ‘talking and chatting… and wishing that mass would be as short as possible’. For many the only time they really engaged with formal Church devotion was during Carnival, a time when peasants dressed as fools might interrupt the service or, as in Spain, the ritual of the sermon was inversed with a boy bishop. After the Council of Trent the Catholic Church set about enforcing a uniform way of worshipping. Principally they sought to educate both clergy and parishioners to avoid mistakes and extremes.

Extensive efforts were made to get parishioners to attend church regularly and attend catechism classes. Yet, as with more popular aspects of religion, the reality at the grass roots level was usually very different to what the Church envisaged at the centre. At Joehlingen catechism classes were introduced in 1588 and the Church authorities struggled to enforce attendance; finally introducing a catechism exam for citizenship in 1612. In less than five years the idea had to be forgotten: the villagers were invariably unable to pass it but, as the parish priest told the Episcopal authorities, to hold up their citizenship would only lead to social disorder. The Church had been horrified at the common people’s ignorance of church teachings for centuries; in this the post-Tridentine efforts at educating the laity were just the latest in a long line of attempts. However it would be wrong to ignore the impact of Protestantism on the militant line the early modern Catholic Church took; the threat of the Protestant Churches certainly added extra impetus to the Church’s attempts, especially in the sixteenth-century.

An example of this militant approach to eradicating superstition and heterodoxy is the growth of the Jesuit movement. Founded in 1540 by 1556 it had swelled to around 1000 members and was expanding rapidly. The Jesuits are well known for their foreign missionary expeditions to places like India and East Asia. But the Jesuits were also called in to help closer to home. Frederick V sought their help to re-catholicize Rothenberg in Southwest Germany starting in 1716 for example. In some areas they attempted to convert Protestants from neighbouring towns and villages; at Schnaittach they reported that Lutherans who had come to ‘make fun and sport were actually the first to break into public weeping and lamentation’. Their principle aim was however simply to shock people into giving up superstitious and dubious practices. In this the Jesuits were helping to achieve something the Church had been aiming at for a long time, but in a way that really stressed the need the Church felt to gain control quickly. This period of uncertainty did not last however and in 1773 the Society of Jesus was dissolved, suggesting that the dramatic sixteenth-century attempts to standardize Catholic devotional practices truly was a reaction to Protestantism, albeit not the knee-jerk reaction it is often portrayed as.

The geographic diversity visible in the development of Catholic devotional practices ought also to be stressed. In Italy the Jesuit focus on penitence expressed itself in self flagellation and other forms of self-harm. In Germany however the Jesuits’ permission to be active in the area depended on their missions being conducted ‘gently and without a din’. This was at the request of Frederick V hinting at the far reaching influence of political rulers on devotional practices. The presence of a close Protestant threat could also determine how devotional practices developed; Forster describes how in some parts of Germany Catholic processions would pass by the boundaries of neighbouring Protestant villages primarily to promote antagonism. Similarly there were differences in how efficiently education of the clergy was achieved, and how long it took. In urban areas well-trained clergy were far quicker to emerge than in rural areas. The bishop of Avila for example complained in 1617 that ‘in many villages because of the difficult terrain there is no record of any bishop ever having been or visited.’ Because of this localized, traditional forms of devotion might continue for much longer in isolated areas like Mallorca than they were able to in the cities where the Church could closely supervise what was happening. The Church at the center wanted to see reform to overcome Protestant criticisms. Yet in practice how successful these attempts were had less to do with the strength of the Protestant threat than it did with the local political situation and economic resources, as well as the degree of supervision the Church authorities could exert over the area.

In conclusion the development of Catholic devotional practices after the Council of Trent that were approved by the Catholic Church were undoubtedly a reaction against Protestantism. They wanted to put Catholicism beyond reproach and stress its status as the true faith. Yet the Church also understood its strengths lay in its more popular aspects, such as saint veneration and the use of sacramentals. Church authorities sought, not to abolish these, but to regulate their use and encourage a more uniform set of practices. The aim was not only to weed out the suspect practices the Protestants had been able to criticise and gain support from, but also to increase central Church control over devotional practice. Actual developments inevitably strayed from the Church’s vision however. In areas of dual confessionalism this could sometimes be a reaction against Protestantism, for example the exaggerated showiness of processions in some areas of Southwest Germany. In general however developments in devotional practice had a lot more to do with local circumstances; economics, the will of the political powers, and the degree of local supervision the Episcopal authorities were able to exert.

Piety and Confessional Changes Bibliography

  • Hsia, R. Po., The World of Catholic Renewal, 1540-1770, (1998), chs 1-3, 5, 8. 
  • Forster, M.R; The Counter-Reformation in the Villages: Religion and Reform in the Bishopric of Speyer, (1992), intro, chs 1, 3.
  • Forster, M.R; Catholic Renewal in the Age of the Baroque: Religious Identity in Southwest Germany, 1550-1750, (2000), chs. 1-3.
  • Gentilcore, D; From Bishop to Witch: The System of the Sacred in Early-Modern Terra d’Otranto, (1992), intro, chs 2, 4, 6. 
  • Johnson, T; ‘Blood, Tears, and Xavier-Water’, in Scribner, B. & Johnson, T., eds., Popular Religion in Germany and Central Europe, 1400-1800, (1996). 
  • Kamen, H; The Phoenix and the Flame: Catalonia and the Counter-Reformation, (1993), chs. 3, 6. 
  • Strasser, U; State of Virginity. Gender, Religion, and Politics in an Early Modern Catholic State, (2004), 1-26, 89-118, 173-178


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