The Catholic Counter-Reformation

Council of Trent - 3/2/17

General Congregation of the Council of Trent in Santa Maria Maggiore by Elia Naurizio, 1633.  The council was called by Pope Paul III in 1545-63 at Santa Maria Maggiore Church, Trent, to effect the Catholic Counter-Reformation.

You may have heard of the Protestant Reformation. But did you know there was also a Catholic Counter-Reformation? The Catholic church and many of its adherents were affected by the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s but responded to it in a different way.

In response to the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic “Counter-Reformation” arose during the 1540s to 1650s.  The Counter-Reformation was a Catholic revival that rejected the Protestant view but promoted institutional reform of the central Catholic church.  It was a return to the basic tenets of the early Roman Catholic faith.  It prompted the founding of seminaries for proper education and training of priests, a return to the spiritual life of faith and a personal relationship with Christ, and a re-adherence to the Roman Catechism or Catholic Christian teaching and the 300s Latin Vulgate or “commonly used” Bible.  The Counter-Reformation upheld the leadership of the pope but acknowledged that the pope is not infallible.  The pope could err in some cases or fall into heresy.  A heretical pope could be deposed.  

Like Protestants, Catholics also believed that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God and their source of authority in religious matters.  However, Catholics believed the Bible has authority because the church has said so.  It is the church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, that declares the Bible to be authoritative.  In other words, the Bible is authoritative because the church is authoritative and filled with the Holy Spirit.  Thus Catholics believed the Bible as well as church tradition are authoritative in religious and church matters.  Further, the Bible needs to be interpreted correctly by the pope, deemed the highest person in the church.  Catholics, like Protestants, believed in salvation by grace.  However, when it came to justification by faith, Catholics believed there is no such thing as faith without works.  Also, Catholics kept the Old Testament-resembling practice of designated priests who mediate/intercede on behalf of God’s people.  The priests in the Old Testament were a class of men who studied God’s laws, devoted their lives to serving God, and interceded and prayed for God’s people.  Catholics read the Vulgate Bible that contained in its Old Testament the Hebrew-originated books.  Yet this Bible also included some non-Hebrew books of the intertestamental period, the period between the Old and New Testaments, which Protestants did not recognize as part of the sacred text.

The Protestant Reformation was the impetus for the Counter-Reformation and, as mentioned previously, had notable political implications for church and state in Europe.

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

Source:  Kamrath, Angela E.  The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.

Related Blogs/Videos:
1.  The Context of the Protestant Reformation
2.  The Igniting of the Protestant Reformation – Martin Luther’s 95 Theses
3.  The Key Tenets of the Protestant Reformation
4.  The Key Political Thinkers & Writings of the Reformation Era
5.  The Reformation Led to the Translation and Printing of the Bible Into People’s Common Languages
6.  Three P’s That Led to Freedom in the West:  Printing Press, Protestant Reformation, & Pilgrims
7.  How Catholic Churchmen Supported Popular Sovereignty from the Bible



Activity:  Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 1, Part 1, Activity 3:  Causes and Effects of the Reformation, pp. 56.  HS.

To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on  To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.

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