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Catholic Reform before Luther

Reform of the Church in Spain

Many of the problems within the Catholic Church were recognized by concerned Christians long before Martin Luther instigated the Protestant Revolt. The most concerted effort to reform the Church before the Reformation period was started in Spain during the reign of Isabel and Ferdinand. Some of their measures were controversial, but as a result of their efforts, there was little popular support of Protestant movements in their realm, and Spain provided many of the greatest saints of the Reformation era. Some of the things Isabella and Ferdinand did to strengthen the Church in Spain included:

  • Instituted the Spanish Inquisition to root out heresy and false conversions.
  • Made numerous ecclesiastical reforms that were later adopted by Council of Trent. For example, bishops were required to live in their diocese rather than in Rome, and all priests had to say mass regularly.
  • Initiated religious reforms in convents and monasteries that weeded out lax and corrupt members so that the contemplative orders could grow. A generation later Spanish reformers Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross completed the reforms.
  • Appointed Ximenes Cisneros archbishop of Toledo and Chancellor of Spain. Ximenes was a tireless and incorruptible reformer who impacted every area of the Church in Spain from rooting out corruption and heresy to founding universities and hospitals, to publishing a polyglot Bible and reforming the Mozarabic liturgy.
  • By the Alhambra Decree of 1492, Isabel and Ferdinand expelled Jews who refused to convert to Christianity from Spanish dominions. This was done on the advice of several ministers with knowledge of the situation due to the activities of a minority of seditious Jews. The innocent were expelled with the guilty, however, and the expulsion created long term difficulties for Spain and all of Europe.
  • Discrimination against 'New Christians' (referring to Jews or Moors who had converted to Christianity) continued in Spain for at least a century after the Jews were expelled. 'Purity of Blood' laws prevented Jewish converts and their descendants from holding important positions in the Church and Spanish government. This was unfair to genuine converts, but helped prevent Spanish institutions from being infiltrated with insincere converts.

The Inquisition was extremely important in reforming the Church within Spain and fending off rebellions. When evaluating the impact of lives lost due to the inquisition, it is important to remember that the reforms of Isabel and Ferdinand spared Spain from the religious wars, political upheavals, and witch burning episodes that plagued much of Protestant Europe. The Spanish Inquisition and Isabel's policies undoubtedly saved thousands of lives and helped reform the Church throughout Europe by its example.

Other Attempts at Reform

There were several other notable spokesmen for reform of the Church outside of Spain. For example, the Dominican monk Savonarola spoke out against corruption and laxity of clerical morals in Rome and Florence, and was executed for heresy as a result. Thomas More and many other sincere Catholic intellectuals spoke against Church abuses and many questions the role of the Pope. In some cases their ideas were controversial but most sought to reform the Church from the inside rather than disrupting Christian unity.

Some orders, such as the Carthusians, stayed relatively faithful, and certain monasteries, such as the St. Justina Abbey in Padua, began a movement for reform and set a good example within the Italian Benedictine order. Similar reform movements within the Benedictines followed in Spain and Germany.

The effort to apply these local reforms to the universal Church, however, were rather ineffective. When he became pope, Julius II promised to call a council and in 1512 he convened the Fifth Lateran Council. It completed its work in May of 1517, just a few months before Luther instigated the Protestant Reformation, but failed to produce significant reforms because of ongoing conflicts between the Papacy and Emperor.

Obstacles to Addressing the Problems in the Church

There were several obstacles to reform of the Church in many parts of Europe, and in Italy in particular. These difficulties made it difficult for Church leaders to root out corruption and caused the Council of Trent to be delayed for almost 30 years. Obviously, in all reform movements, those in the Church who are responsible for the problems of laxity and corruption are resistant to reform. The problems listed below however, tended to complicate the situation even beyond typical reluctance and foot-dragging.

  • The Italian Wars, fought between allies of France and Spain, embroiled the Papal states in Civil wars for seventy years beginning twenty years before the Protestant Revolt. This conflict greatly undermined Catholic unity and politicized the Papacy.
  • Charles V, came to power just before the Protestant revolt, and ruled as the most powerful monarch for forty years following. His expansive empire, including both the Spanish and Austrian empires, caused jealousies among the other great powers, who formed alliances against him. His reign was therefore dominated by wars against his French, Turkish, and Protestant enemies.
  • At the time of the Protestant Revolt the Papacy had been under the control of Italian nobles and highly politicized for generations. The Pope, therefore, was not always deferred to and was seen by many faithful Catholics as a divisive, rather than a unifying character.
  • Critics of the Papacy (both Protestant and Catholic) had frequently proposed that the authority of 'Councils' was superior to that of the Pope. Because this proposition was being actively debated at the time of the Reformation, the Popes tended to fear and distrust councils.

The purpose of the leaders of the Protestant Revolt was not to reform the Roman Church or to resolve theological differences, but to destroy the unity and authority of the Church, and to confiscate its property. The Theological differences and debates were largely a ruse and a distraction to cover flagrantly political ambitions. Catholic opponents who saw through the charade were easy to demonize "intolerant" and "close-minded" tyrants, while those who honestly tried to address the theological concerns helped fuel the diversions and were rarely successful.

Reform of the Roman Church

In spite of these difficulties, the Protestant Revolt resulted in significant Reforms. These were due to the activities of several generations of Catholic Saints, political leaders, and religious orders who took up the cause of the Church in its critical hour. Notable reforms of the 16th century included:

  • Council of Trent and decrees and catechism that clarified Catholic teaching and worship.
  • Reform of existing Religious Orders such as Franciscans (Capuchins), Carmelites (Discalced), and Augustians (Recollects)
  • Creation of New Religious Orders exemplifying Christian piety and charity (Barnabites, Oratorians, Ursulines, etc.)
  • Educational and Missionary efforts of the Jesuits
  • Efforts and examples of Individual Saints (Francis de Sales, John of God, etc. . . )
  • Martyrs whose ultimate sacrifice gave greatest possible witness.



The following excerpt is from 'Leading Events of Church History: Early Modernd Period'. It provides an overview of the early movement for Catholic Reform




Movement Towards Reform in the Church

It is impossible to study at all closely the story of the sixteenth century without coming to the conclusion that, deep as was the corruption of these days, there are many redeeming features which chequer the darkness. All was not unmitigated evil, but hidden away in many a humble home there was a strong Christian spirit still to be found —there were being formed by the Holy Spirit of God saints whose noble aspirations were not unworthily seconded by pious parents, by simple priests and monks and nuns whose names have not reached us, but whom we meet casually in the stories of the great servants of God. This is specially remarkable in the lives of the Spanish saints, each of whom is represented as springing from a more than ordinarily holy family and being surrounded by fervent Christians. For instance, one has only to recall the names of St. Lewis Bertrand, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Francis Xavier, St. Francis Borgia, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa and her saintly companions, to be convinced of this fact.

Nor is this feature confined to Spain. The early days of blessed Canisius of Nimeguen; of blessed Peter Favre, a Savoyard—not to speak of others—bear the same testimony. In England similar examples may be found. Memory at once suggests the names of the holy Countess of Richmond and her chaplain, blessed John Fisher, and the centres which they influenced. Blessed Thomas More's household presents one of the loveliest pictures in our history. The Jesuits, Brouet and Salmeron, in the days of Henry VIII., are loud in the praise of the Irish people and of their fidelity to the Church and the Holy See, and Luther himself is our witness for Germany. He often draws the contrast between the behaviour of the people after the preaching of the New Gospel and that witnessed before. For instance, in speaking of the decay of almsgiving, he says: "In the days of papistry everyone was compassionate and benevolent, giving freely with both hands," and then goes on to reproach his disciples with their avarice. Anyone at all familiar with Luther's writings could multiply passages. The legate whom the Pope sent to the Worms Diet in 1521, Jerome Aleander, bears the same testimony when he compares what he witnessed then with what he had seen eleven years earlier, when but a celebrated exponent of Greek in the northern Universities; and the histories of all the northern nations—notably Norway, Sweden, and their dependencies—have a similar tale to tell. The fact is forced home that, whatever the faults were which marred the fair fame of the Church at this lamentable period, they were immensely and universally aggravated by the religious revolt.

But the violence of the evil proved its own remedy. There was a reaction as beneficial in its instincts of results as the excitant which occasioned it was disastrous, and this movement towards reform which was already at work in the Church produced a marvellous outburst of fervour, culminating in the heroism of a veritable multitude of saints. The annals of the seventeenth century are as glorious as those of the sixteenth century are deplorable.

Even before the rupture from the Church, which was instigated by Luther, there had been holy men at work sanctifying themselves, and striving to raise the moral tone of those around them. It was as though the great needs of the times called out the best efforts of saintly-minded men. Thus was inaugurated, in silence and unpretending humility, the great work of reform which followed the Protestant revolution. Among others may be mentioned the Dominicans, Blessed Matthias Carrieri of Mantua, who reformed several convents of his order in the middle of the fifteenth century, and Blessed James of Ulm, who died in 1491, a lay-brother of the same congregation, who had great influence in Bologna. Contemporary with both these was another saintly Dominican, Venerable Yves Mahyeuc, Bishop of Rennes, 1462-1541, who was confessor to both Anne of Brittany and her husband, Charles VIII., and whose diocese amply repaid his zeal. Blessed John Angelus Porro, a Servite, who died in 1506, caused piety to flourish in all the country between Siena and Florence. The Italian Camaldolese reformed themselves about 1522.

The reform of the Benedictines began in the fifteenth century. It was the work of St. Justina of Padua. To cut at the root of the evils which had brought about the degradation of monasticism, he introduced the custom of triennial appointments of abbots and other superiors, thus making the possession of a benefice for life an impossibility. All the Benedictine houses adopted St. Justina's reform, and when the patriarchal house of Monte Cassino joined the movement, Pope Julius II. called the whole Italian reformed body of Benedictines the Cassinese congregation. In Spain a reform on similar lines was inaugurated, and the famous Valladolid congregation was the result. German Benedictines ranged themselves under the Bursfeld Union, which in 1502 numbered ninety houses. The movement did not reach France till the seventeenth century.