With the observance of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation around the corner, we’re hearing a lot about the “Counter-Reformation.” 

This term is often used by historians and students of Church history to describe what happened in the Catholic Church in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, crucially in the Council of Trent.

Other historians, though, contend that this term is misleading, and it is better to speak of the “Catholic Reformation.”

Here’s why the latter are right.

“Counter-Reformation” is misleading on two counts: It implies that reform efforts came to the Catholic Church

  1. only after the Protestant Reformers went into schism, and
  2. only in response to, and thus against, the Protestant schism, as action and reaction.

Neither implication is true.

Efforts to implement reform in the Catholic Church preceded, accompanied and followed those reform efforts which led to what we now call the Protestant Reformation. What we now call the Protestant Reformation began with efforts to reform the Church from within — and these efforts were originally at least partly convergent with other ongoing reform efforts that did not end in schism.

Early figures in the Catholic Reformation included Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, who in 1478 supported efforts toward renewal of the priesthood and the episcopacy. (Clergy were often poorly educated and incompetent, priests and especially bishops lived far from their charges, with bishops often collecting income from multiple benefices and ignoring canonical rules about pastoral visits and preaching.)

Isabella’s confessor, Cardinal Francisco Jiménez (or Ximenes) de Cisneros — a Franciscan who anticipated the Council of Trent in many ways — championed reform efforts to combat these abuses, and Isabella supported Cisneros. 

A patron of Christian humanism, Cisneros founded Complutense University (now in Madrid), sponsored the first printed polyglot Bible (the Complutensian Polyglot, including Aramaic, Greek, Latin, and Hebrew), and sponsored Spanish translations of such spiritual works as the Imitation of Christ, which he promoted among the clergy.

The Fifth Lateran Council (1512–1517) was the last ecumenical council held before the Reformation. In 1503 on his election Julius II (1503–1513) had sworn under oath to convoke a general council, but delayed so long that Emperor Maximilian and Louis XII instigated a rival council in Pisa in 1511. This council had three goals: achieving peace between Christian rulers, church reform; and defense of the faith and the rooting out of heresy. However, the proposals were too timid, ignored by Julius II’s successor Leo X (1513–1521), and too late.

In 1497 the Oratory of Divine Love was founded in Genoa, Italy by Ettore Vernazza as a grassroots lay movement devoted to acts of charity including hospital and prison visitations, care for orphans, frequenting the sacraments and praying for the purification of the Church. It spread among the elites and nurtured many outstanding leaders and cardinals (including Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto, who debated John Calvin).

Though none of these efforts were sufficient to assuage the concerns, legitimate or otherwise, of the men who became the Protestant Reformers, they helped to lay the groundwork of the subsequent events often called in isolation the “Counter-Reformation.” While it is true that reforming efforts in the Church after the Protestant Reformation included reaction to, and partly against, the Protestant Reformation, those efforts were also in continuity with earlier reform efforts. 

The Protestant Reformation must thus be seen as a movement that begin within the Catholic Church, as a part of a larger effort to reform the Church, but which for various reasons wound up at odds with the Church’s leadership, including continuing reform efforts in the Church. (Mixed up in all this were a number of political, economic and cultural factors contributing to the gradual breakdown of Western Christendom.)

The term “Counter-Reformation” obscures all this. The Catholic Reformation was bigger than that.