The Literature of the Counter-Reformation Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

The Literature of the Counter-Reformation

The Counter-Reformation refers to a movement dominated by Catholic reaction to the challenge of Protestantism for a period from the mid-sixteenth to mid-seventeenth century, from approximately the reign of Pope Pius IV to the end of the Thirty Years' War in 1648. Literature of this period includes some of the most highly acclaimed works in theology. The term “Counter-Reformation” traditionally has been rejected by Catholics because it implies that the Church was motivated to fight internal corruption only because Protestant actions demanded it. Catholics note that reform had a long history in the Church before Protestantism and continues to the present day; to Catholics, their view is better rendered by the term “Catholic Reformation.” Hubert Jedin has examined the complex history of the words and concepts involved, particularly the differences between “reformation,” “reform,” and the Latin “reformatio,” and whether “internal renewal” or “radical reconstruction” is the more appropriate descriptor for the changes that occurred in the Church. Ultimately Jedin has found the use of both terms essential: “Catholic Reformation” to emphasize continuity, “Counter-Reformation” to emphasize reaction.

When discussing the Counter-Reformation, scholars generally find it useful to give background on the Reformation to which the movement was a reaction, and on the state of Church practices that preceded the Reformation. John C. Olin has traced the history of Christian reform in his study of the background to the Catholic Reformation, including Church abuses and Martin Luther's demands for the end of the sale of indulgences. Olin notes that the concept of reform developed over time, from signifying personal change on an individual basis to eventually encompassing the restoration of the Church at large; but he adds that institutional and personal reforms are closely related. He cites The Imitation of Christ, a 1411 work by Thomas à Kempis, as one of the most influential books of spiritual ideals. A. G. Dickens has also credited The Imitation of Christ for inspiring numerous religious writers who followed. Dickens's survey of some of the more influential literature leading up to the Counter-Reformation explores the conflicts between traditional ways of undertaking spiritual studies and newer, more intellectual approaches, and further discusses how meditative and mystical methods fused into devotio moderna (“Modern Devotion”). H. Outram Evennett has explored the genesis of the most important work in the Catholic Reformation, the Spiritual Exercises (c. 1522-23) by Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus. Evennett discusses how the society's members, referred to as Jesuits, empowered by the Spiritual Exercises, promoted active, good works. He credits them for “transforming and enormously quickening the spiritual life-blood of Catholicism.” Church leaders throughout Europe had met in council for many years but had always failed to reach an accord. Finally, in 1561, at the Council of Trent, a breakthrough came and pronouncements and decrees were agreed upon. With its new unity, the Council of Trent greatly strengthened the orthodox faith at the same time that internal disputes among Protestants led them to split into numerous sects, thereby decreasing their power.

Significant scholarly interest is directed to the responses elicited by the Counter-Reformation. Phebe Jensen has discussed how the Elizabethan government dealt with Catholic challenges to its authority, censoring Catholic writings at a time when much of the public supported the expression of religious speech and conscience. Michael A. Mullett has examined how religious leaders sought acceptance of their message by employing a new style of art; he describes how the concept of the baroque dominated all art forms in seventeenth-century Europe, and explains that the Jesuits favored the utilitarian and that “instruction through delight” was one of the chief aims of Catholic baroque art and literature.