I had laid out the format for two remaining posts prior to addressing Luther and the Protestant Reformation directly. Next week will look at the last Councils of the Church prior to 1517 and how they failed to produce the reforms necessary to keep the Western Church together. Today’s post is one last look at the religious orders of Catholicism prior to the emergence of Luther.
In looking at my own growth curve regarding the Reformation, I was brought up in my Buffalo Catholic enclave to believe that Luther was an assault on the sinless Catholic Church. In my neighborhood no one was ever baptized with the names Luther or Calvin, and people named Cal were suspect. [Thankfully, Cal Ripken, Jr. came along much later in my life.] My youthful sense of history embraced a terrible upheaval with Luther, and the Church fought back, and was continuing to fight back even as I was growing up. Then I went to college and graduate school and discovered that some of the “Protestant ideas” weren’t so crazy after all, and the Church had not done such a good job in policing its excesses. I learned that I had been correct about the “fighting back” part and came to understand that I had been raised in the post-Tridentine era [i.e., after the Catholic reform Council of Trent, 1545-1563].
Today I am more attuned to the common problems of all the Christian Churches, including mine: the abandonment of all Churches which incorporate faith, tradition, and teaching authority. This trend away from “organized religion” is not new, though when the heat of the Reformation died down, there was greater freedom of expression for intellectuals to write and voice doubts about the churches. [I have not included Evangelicals in this post because I sense that at the present time Evangelicals in the U.S. are deeply divided among themselves as to whether they are a religious entity or a social/political one.]
At this juncture of our Reformation posts, I hope that we all have a better sense of the complexity of the Church in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance Era. The Church stood in grave need of reform in 1500, but the need was one of leadership. Last week we visited the many varied forms of grass-roots piety that demonstrate how the Church never lost its mission of holiness. Today I am looking back at a remarkable burst of Catholic energy before the Reformation which spilled into the Catholic Counter-Reformation after Trent, the religious orders. Beginning around 1450 the existing orders began wholesale renew of spirituality and apostolic energy. What is more surprising is the number of new religious communities which sprung forth during the Renaissance, nearly all of them created to serve in the marketplace of human service and education. Their appearance around the time of the Reformation upheaval put them at the vanguard of Church reform, eager to carry forth the renewal spirit of the Council of Trent.
Robert Bireley’s The Refashioning of Catholicism, 1450-1700: A Reassessment of the Counter Reformation  explores how the renewal and establishment of religious life developed before the Reformation and became a vital force in the centuries immediately following the rupture, putting forward the model of the Catholic Church as a servant Church in contrast to the monarchical papacies of the 1500’s. Bireley’s work was very helpful to me, and 15 years ago I wrote a review which sums up the life of the Renaissance Church as well as anything I can add today.
[The Refashioning of Catholicism] is an interesting introduction to an era that traditionally bears the name “Counter Reformation.” Bireley, a Jesuit Professor of History at Loyola University of Chicago, argues persuasively in his opening remarks that the term “Counter Reformation” has outlived its usefulness in the study of Catholic history. In fact, he observes, nearly all of what we would call today post-Tridentine reform not only has roots in the fifteenth century but in many cases was in full bloom and inspired the Council of Trent to do what it did. Trent, in his view of things, was the institutional crest of a wave that had been building for a century. Moreover, Bireley’s global view—geographic, political, scientific, theological—invites the reader to view the Church against the backdrop of forces it could not control and critique the many accommodations made by the Church to the world of the seventeenth century.
Why 1450? One reason was geographic exploration. The exploits of DeGama and Columbus reflected a growing sense of the cosmos, later amplified by Galileo and others; a new economic world order, so to speak; and the increasing sense of nationalism and centralization of governments, later abetted by formalized “confessions” of religious doctrine and worship after Luther. Another reason for this new delineation of Catholic epochs was the Renaissance and the humanistic philosophy it nurtured, which the author maintains had significant impact upon many major Catholic leaders of the time, including Ignatius Loyola and Francis de Sales. At the other end of the chronological spectrum, Bireley designates 1700 as a marker because of the impact of Cartesian rationalism upon official Catholic thought in the bigger context of the Enlightenment itself
Without ignoring the contemporary problems of the “Catholic confession”—papal excesses, poor training of priests, etc.—Bireley is remarkably upbeat about the condition of the Catholic Church at the time of the Reformation and the Council of Trent in the sense that the need for reform was widely recognized and in many places being addressed already. Popular piety throughout Europe was strong in pockets, and the printing press, so often termed a tool of Protestant reformers, was cranking out thousands of copies of “The Imitation of Christ.” The author notes that in the late fifteenth century the existing religious orders, or at least many of them, were distinguishing themselves by excellent preaching, pastoral practice, and adaptation.
After 1500, however, the combined challenges of Protestant confessions, humanist demands of higher education, and missionary work, not to mention ecclesiastical reform itself, led to a veritable explosion of new religious orders. Not surprisingly, the Jesuit phenomenon is extensively chronicled. But to his credit, Bireley gives significant attention to Francis de Sales and the Salesian efforts to address the spiritual needs of the new humanized Catholic. Joined with the efforts of the new Capuchins, Ursulines, Oratorians, Hospitalers, Theatines, Oratorians, Visitandines, Piarists, Barnabites, Sulpicians, and the Christian Brothers, to cite several, these movements addressed the above cited needs in ways that have sculpted the Catholic experience to the present day.
It is probably obvious that none of the above-named orders is, strictly speaking, contemplative. Bireley contends that the paradigmatic shift in Catholic thinking in this era was toward the world, not away from it. Educators, confessors, and spiritual directors and writers consciously or subconsciously picked up the gauntlet set down by Machiavelli, whose thesis broadly read argues that the marketplace is the arena of practicality, not faith. It is no accident that the curriculum of Catholic schools at every level broadened to include the best of classical thought, that Aquinas and the idea of synthesis came back into style, and the Jesuits added drama and the fine arts to their standard cursus studiorum. Theologically speaking, it was an age of “doing.” Loyola himself did not impose choir upon his men to free them for mission. The case study or manualist method of moral theology was born.
Certainly, no collective group was doing more than the missionaries. The work of the Church in the new worlds is complex and not without controversy on many levels. Bireley is somewhat limited by this complexity in his attempt to give an overview of the missionary situation, but in general no one can deny that it was not large scale and heroic. The argument is often made that Catholic missionary efforts were part of a larger colonization effort. Bireley implies in his overview that this accusation is probably more appropriate to those missionaries whose monarchs exercised state control of the Church in their kingdoms, such as Spain and Portugal. By contrast, missionaries working more directly with the papacy and the newly formed Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, such as the Jesuits in the East, worked with remarkably less baggage, the Malabar Rites Controversy notwithstanding.
Although only two hundred pages, this is a thought provoking work that overall depicts a Roman Catholicism of considerably more vigor and spirituality than is generally attributed to the Reformation era. The author’s thoughts on the importance of the new religious orders, humanism, and ecclesiastical globalization call for further reading and reflection. Curiously, this work, published by The Catholic University of America, was printed in China. One way or another, Francis Xavier was going to get there. It was only a matter of time.