Sunday, August 9, 2015

Early-Modern Catholicism's Adaptations in the 16th Century

What were the changes that constituted the transition from late-medieval to early-modern European history? I would identify five: the emergence of the modern state; demographic and economic expansion along with social dislocation; the European reach across the seas to Asia and America; the intellectual and cultural tendencies of the Renaissance and the dissemination of information brought about by the invention of the printing press, and, of course, the Protestant Reformation. Two general features of Catholicism's response were the attempt to provide the faithful, especially in the growing cities, with a more relevant form of Christianity and then to establish order within the Church and beyond after the upheavals of the early part of the century. Often the two were difficult to reconcile. They also characterized developments within the Protestant confessions. This should not surprise us if we conceive of the major confessions or churches that emerged in the wake of the Protestant Reformation as competing responses to the challenges presented by a changing world. [...]

Paul III reinstituted the Roman Inquisition in 1542. Although its effective jurisdiction did not reach beyond Italy, as the Holy Office it gradually came to set the standard for orthodoxy for the universal Church. The Council of Trent avoided taking a position on the delicate issue of the relationship between pope and bishops, and on its last day in its request to the pope to confirm its decrees it acknowledged his authority. Subsequently, Pius IV in the bull Benedictus Deus confirmed the council's decrees while at the same time assuring the pope the right to interpret the council and to establish a congregation for this task. Gregory XIII enhanced the role of papal nuncios. Sixtus V restructured papal government into fifteen congregations--six for the Papal States and nine for the universal Church--and he also further developed the requirement for bishops to make regular ad limina visits to Rome. [...]

After the Reformation the papacy deferred, or was compelled to defer even more, to the secular power. When the saintly archbishop of Milan, Charles Borromeo, became embroiled with Philip II of Spain over ecclesiastical rights, Gregory XIII inclined to the side of the king. Later in the Concordat of Munich of 1583 the same pope conceded to Duke William V of Bavaria rights to tax church property, to appoint to many ecclesiastical positions, and to oversee the administration of extensive church property. [...]

Meanwhile, starting in the early-sixteenth century, Catholic thinkers drew upon the intellectual arsenal of Scholasticism to propose a philosophy of the emerging state. The Dominican Francisco Vittoria and the Jesuits Francisco Suarez and St. Robert Bellarmine, building on the basis of St. Thomas Aquinas, laid down the foundation for an international society of sovereign states that included the territories across the seas that had newly been brought into the European orbit. Their thought was to have a decided impact on developments in the evolution of international law.

The long sixteenth century generally witnessed demographic growth, and economic expansion usually followed. Growth was most prominent in the cities where both the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation first took root; the population of Antwerp, for example, jumped from 40,000 in 1500 to 100,000 in the 1560s. Europe grew in the direction of a capitalist and of a world economy. Catholic mercantilist writers such as Giovanni Botero (1589) and Adam Contzen (1620) emphasized the importance of the production of wealth for a healthy state. Yet growth did not benefit everyone, and the numbers of the poor escalated in the cities. Starting with the growth of a commercial economy in the Italian city-states of the thirteenth century, some theologians had begun to take a more benign view of usury, which it will be recalled meant any interest on a loan not just excessive interest as it does today. [...]

Confraternities have been called "the primary organized expression of Catholic lay religious life from the thirteenth to the eighteenth centuries." As they continued to grow in number and in membership in the sixteenth century, they expanded their works of charity, partly in response to the increasing number of poor and unfortunate. Often they cooperated with municipal authorities; sometimes they competed with them as both sought to meet new challenges. In Italy, at the end of the fifteenth century, perhaps due to the wars there, confraternities manifested a growing activist spirit as they reached out to the sick and orphaned. It has been estimated that in the cities of Italy, between one-third and one-fourth of all males by 1600 attached themselves to a confraternity at some point in their lives. Of a population of 19,000 in the city of Perugia in 1600, roughly 2000 belonged to a confraternity. The Jesuit Marian congregations, which originated in Rome in 1563 and spread through much of Catholic Europe, often required their members to assist the poor, the sick, and those in prison. [...]

In the widespread belief that the Great Commission at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, "Go into the whole world and preach the Gospel to every creature, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit," applied only to the apostolic generation, Protestants did not mount serious missionary efforts across the seas until the late-eighteenth century.

The arrival of a group of Franciscans in the Antilles in 1500 inaugurated the first proper missionary effort in the Americas. Santo Domingo and Concepción de la Vega on Hispaniola and San Juan in Puerto Rico were established as the first dioceses in the Americas, in 1508 and 1511 respectively. After the conquest of the Aztecs by Cortes, twelve Franciscans arrived in Mexico, their number suggesting the twelve apostles, and they initiated the systematic evangelization of the conquered. The Dominicans followed in 1528 and the Augustinians three years later. Complaints arose about the treatment of the Indians by Spanish colonists, and frequently missionaries served as advocates for the former. In 1537 Pope Paul III published the bull Sublimis Deus condemning the view that the Indians were to be treated as dumb brutes for the service of the Spaniards and asserting that they were truly human beings and competent of receiving the Catholic faith. They were not to be deprived of either liberty or property even though they were not Christians. Whether Indians should be ordained to the ministry became a controversial issue, and after some experimentation, the first provincial council of Mexico City in 1555 prohibited their ordination as well as that of blacks and mestizos, a fateful decision for the Church in the Americas. To what extent did the Indians truly assimilate Christianity? This question remains debatable to the present day. One reason for the prohibition of ordination was doubt about the depth of Indians' conversion. Yet Indians sometimes demonstrated heroism in their new faith, and it is hard to believe that they were any less Christian than many people in remote areas of Europe. [...]

The Italian Jesuit Alessandro Valignano, who arrived in Goa in 1574 as the representative of the Jesuit superior general, forcefully advocated accommodation to the Asian cultures, and he exercised a profound influence on the Jesuit missions over the next thirty-two years. [...]

The papal Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith came into existence in 1622, with the goal of oversight of the Church's far-flung missionary activity. It was a product of a new Roman universalism. Yet it never functioned significantly in either the Spanish or Portuguese colonies due to the opposition of the monarchs. The congregation did, however, among other things, push for better preparation of missionaries, work to lessen the rivalries among religious orders, and advocate for the creation of native clergy. The Church's missionary activity in the early-modern period testified to its vitality. A global Church was aborning. Yet despite creative initiatives, it remained overwhelmingly European in character. [...]

Lay elites in the cities sought a form of Christianity that spoke more directly to them; both the Reformation and Catholic reform grew out of the cities. This changing religious mentality can be associated with the cultural and intellectual movement that we call the Renaissance, the fourth change that ushered in early-modern times. Originating in Italy in the fourteenth century, it did not reach over the Alps in a significant fashion until about 1490. Jacob Burckhardt summarized the spirit of the Renaissance in the well-known phrase "the discovery of man and the world," words still valid today if we do not understand them in the pagan sense of Burckhardt or as a totally new development, and if we expand their meaning. "Discovery of man" pointed to a new individualism, to a new self-consciousness and recognition of the unique human personality and to its potential for achievement. The portrait, for example, and the self-portrait became popular forms of artistic expression, bringing out the individuality of the person portrayed. "Discovery of the world" expressed an appreciation of nature, to be sure, but also of the many varieties of the secular or lay world--of the man of politics, for example, or of the merchant. Catholics also incorporated many features of humanism, the principal cultural current of the Renaissance, into education, and they learned to exploit the prototypical invention of the Renaissance, the printing press. To the Renaissance also belongs the start of the Scientific Revolution with the publication of Copernicus's On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres in 1543. Notoriously, the outcome of the Galileo Affair represented a major failure for the Church.

Corresponding to Renaissance individualism there developed, starting with the Devotio Moderna in the late-fourteenth century and the Franciscan and Carthusian traditions, new, systematic forms of mental prayer and meditation for the individual. Here the Ejercitatorio de la vida espiritual of the Benedictine abbot of Montserrat, Garcia Cisneros, can stand for many works; it seems to have exercised an influence on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, which aimed as a principal goal at the discovery of God's will for the individual. Eventually, through the Spiritual Exercises and through spiritual writers such as Lorenzo Scupoli and St. Francis de Sales, this form of private prayer spread to the lay elite. As another expression of this individualism came the more regular use of the sacrament of confession. By the early-seventeenth century the devout were approaching it once a month or at least four times a year, and it was administered in the privacy of the confessional, a boxlike structure introduced by Archbishop Borromeo in Milan. The confessional facilitated a private conversation between priest and penitent and encouraged the use of the sacrament for individual spiritual direction and the application of moral norms to individual cases--that is, casuistry. In addition, coming into use at this time was the general confession, apparently stemming also from Garcia Cisneros. In this form of confession the penitent looked back over his or her whole life to determine his or her sinful patterns and tendencies, and once again confessed sins that had already been forgiven. This practice aimed to evoke a deeper contrition, and for our purposes, to arrive at a more profound, individual self-knowledge. Loyola incorporated the general confession into the Spiritual Exercises and required it from all new entrants into the Society of Jesus. Eventually, through the Jesuits' Marian congregations and through their preaching, the practice spread widely throughout the Catholic world. In both the regular and the general confession the examination of conscience promoted the individual's knowledge of his or her own self. De Sales in his widely circulated Introduction to the Devout Life first published in 1609 also recommended the general confession.

Machiavelli boldly asserted in the Prince in 1513 that the serious Christian could not succeed in politics--that is, create and, above all, maintain a powerful state. The fictional Raphael Hythloday in Thomas More's Utopia vigorously defended the same position when he contended that were he to take a position as a royal councillor, he would either compromise himself or be pushed to the margins by the other council members. But mainstream Catholic thought during this period, influenced by the fundamentally optimistic theology of Aquinas, rejected this view vigorously and reaffirmed the position of pre-Machiavellian Renaissance humanism, which maintained that the active life, and especially the political life, represented a noble Christian vocation. Most Christians could not accept practical exclusion from political life. Eventually an extensive anti-Machiavellian literature began to come off the press that aimed to show, in detail and in practice, that the Christian man of politics, whether ruler or councillor, could indeed achieve political success. Indeed, following Cicero in his De Officiis, they generally argued optimistically that the moral and religious man of politics would usually win out over the devious and vicious one. Botero's Ragione di stato (1589) argued this case most convincingly, showing, for example, that the prince who fostered economic development advanced both his own interest and that of his people, and had no need of recourse to the underhanded methods deemed necessary by Machiavelli. The good and the useful went hand in hand. But the anti-Machiavellians often had to resort to a sophisticated casuistry so as to remain consistent in their treatment of delicate issues such as the use of deceit in diplomatic affairs. The Jesuit theater as it later developed also illustrated the Christian value of the civic life.

Many other books aimed to illustrate more generally how one could lead a full Christian life in the world. Catholics learned quickly to put Gutenberg's invention to good use, although at first the Protestants outdid them. The Introduction to the Devout Life by the saintly bishop of Geneva, Francis de Sales, probably exercised the most influence, and it has endured as a Christian classic to the present day. De Sales addressed the Introduction to a fictional "Philothea"--that is, a soul loving or in love with God, male or female, or as he put it, to those aspiring to devotion. He remarked, "For my part, I would have devout people, whether men or women, always the best dressed in a group but the least pompous and affected." By his death in 1622, more than forty editions of the Introduction had appeared, and it had been translated into the major European languages. Other authors wrote in the same vein if not so elegantly. The Jesuit Joannes Busaeus's De statibus hominis, which appeared at Mainz in 1613, treated the life of the soldier, the physician, and the peasant among others, and another Jesuit, Nicholas Caussin, in his widely circulated La cour sainte, first published at Paris in 1624, pointed out how even in the ambience of the court one could attain to holiness. [...]

Above all, the new orders and congregations turned to education, especially at the elementary and secondary levels. This followed from the widespread conviction that preaching, no matter how effective, was not adequate to the formation of Christians. Systematic religious education was necessary, and this meant schools. Thus the Church shared the Renaissance confidence in education. [...]

These [Jesuit] schools took over and propagated many features of Renaissance humanism, in particular a focus on the ancient classics of Greece but especially Rome and attention to the development of students articulate in writing and in speech. The ancient classics, according to the Jesuits, contributed to the students' growth in virtue and in devotion to the public good. Latin schools of other religious orders often adopted the same system. Here we see a prominent example of adaptation to contemporary culture. [...]

The Protestant Reformation ushered in the most profound change and challenge to the Catholic Church in the long sixteenth century. Itself a response at least in part to the longing for a more relevant form of Christianity, it intensified and gave new urgency to movements of reform already at work within the Catholic Church, and it induced a spirit of defensiveness. It generated effects often associated with confessionalism and confessionalization in a narrower sense, such as the clear elaboration of doctrine as formulated by the Council of Trent, and it elicited a militance that contributed substantially to the religious wars of the early-modern period. [...]

In the Decree on Justification [the Council of Trent] rejected Protestant positions when it asserted the role of free will in the process of salvation while avoiding forms of Pelagianism. In doing so, it also aligned itself with a vigorous current of Renaissance humanism that extolled man's freedom. The council's emphasis on works both stimulated and confirmed the new activism.

Many reform measures were taken by the council, with a view to strengthening the position of the bishop within his diocese and to eliminating abuses in Catholic practices. The council prescribed regular diocesan and metropolitan synods to inculcate its teaching and to oversee its measures of reform as well as regular visitation of parishes by bishops. The pastoral role of both bishops and pastors was accentuated; they were not chiefly benefice-holders but shepherds who resided with their flocks and preached to them regularly. [...] The council virtually ignored two developments of early-modern Catholicism: the rise of the new orders and congregations and the vast missionary enterprise across the seas.

After the close of the council, there appeared the Catechism of the Council of Trent that was intended to incorporate Tridentine theology principally for the benefit of parish priests, and accompanying it came other catechisms for various groups, pastors, students, and children, such as those of St. Peter Canisius, all in response to the recognized need for catechetical instruction. Further normative texts were issued by Rome in the following decades: the new breviary for priests in 1568, the missal of Pius V two years later, a revised version of canon law in 1582, and finally the Sixto-Clementine Vulgate edition of the Scriptures in 1592. These joined the catechisms to give the Tridentine Church a broadly drawn normative basis for its instruction, worship, legal practice, and Scripture study. [1]

The Reformation generated among Catholics a spirit of militance that is expressed in the term Counter-Reformation and that helped incite the religious wars of the period: War of the League of Schmalkeld, the French Religious Wars, the War of Dutch Independence, the Spanish Armada, and the Thirty Years War. [...]

Let me close with the words of the French historian Marc Lienhard: "The practice of history, which implies an opening to the long range [of history], permits the historian at the same time to maintain a certain distance from the crises of today and a certain confidence in the future of the Christian faith." [2]


1. [...] As Simon Ditchfield has pointed out, we must not exaggerate the centralizing effect of the liturgical changes. Many local customs were allowed to continue. See Ditchfield, "Innovation and Its Limits: The Case of Italy ca. 1512-ca. 1572," in La Reforme en France et en Italie: contacts, comparaisons et contrastes, ed. Philip Benedict, Silvana Seidel Menchi, and Alain Tallon, [Collection de L'École Française de Rome, 384], (Rome, 2007), pp. 157-59, and his Liturgy, Sanctity, and History in Tridentine Italy (Cambridge, UK, 1995).

2. Marc Leinhard, "Du chantier historique à l'engagement aujourd'hui," in L'historien et la foi, ed. Jean Delumeau (Paris, 1996), p. 184.


Source: Robert Bireley, "Early-Modern Catholicism as a Response to the Changing World of the Long Sixteenth Century," Catholic Historical Review 95, no. 2 (April 2009): 218-239.

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