What Was the Counter-Reformation?

The word “Reformation” is such a misleading label for the immeasurable damage to Christendom wrought by Luther, Calvin and their cohorts.

Attributed to Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515–1586), “Double Portrait of Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon”
Attributed to Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515–1586), “Double Portrait of Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon” (photo: Public Domain)

O, be some other name! What’s in a name? That which we call a rose By any other word would smell as sweet …

Although Juliet had other things on her mind than philosophy when she uttered these impassioned lines, she is nonetheless asking a profound philosophical question. It is a question so profound that it touches not merely the heart of her Romeo, but the heart of philosophy itself. What is in a name? Is a name, or a word, merely a conventional sign that serves as a label for the thing it signifies, as St. Augustine and others have asserted? Or is a name, or a word, something that expresses abstract concepts which have no real existence beyond the name itself, as the more radical nominalists and relativists maintain?

Clearly Juliet, irrespective of her other sins, is on the side of the saint, and the saints, in her understanding that “a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.” She knows that the rose, as a thing, is real and that the word is merely a label that we have tagged on to the thing, so that we can talk about it, and think about it. Romeo, in spite of his own sins, is also on the side of the saints when he responds to her that he, like the rose, by any other word would smell as sweet:

I take thee at thy word. Call me but love and I’ll be new baptized. Henceforth I never will be Romeo.

Why this long philosophical perambulation in an essay on the Counter-Reformation? The answer is in the Counter-Reformation itself, which, by any other name, would still smell as sweet as incense. The name itself is perhaps an ugly label for such a beautiful thing. Although it describes a period in history in which the Church was countering the Protestant Reformation, it is so much more than the mere reaction that the name signifies. It was magnificent, majestic, magisterial, and so much more glorious than the thing it was “countering.” It was also, in a very real sense, a Catholic Reformation and was not, therefore, in this sense, a “counter-reformation” at all. From the reforms of the Council of Trent to the fruits of a new generation of saints, such as St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Philip Neri, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and a heavenly host of others, the Catholic Reformation of this period was filled with the Spirit that had animated earlier Catholic Reformations, such as those heralded by St. Francis and St. Dominic 300 years earlier.

In contrast to this true Reformation, the so-called Protestant “Reformation” was more of an anti-Catholic Reaction, a Protestant Counter-Reformation! Indeed, the word “Reformation” is such a misleading label for the immeasurable damage to Christendom wrought by Luther, Calvin and their cohorts that it should be exposed as an utter misnomer. Judging the thing for what it is, the works of Luther et al should be called the Deformation or even the Defamation, since their results have been to deform Christian Europe and to defame the heritage of Christian unity which had been guarded by the Church for more than a thousand years.

Another truer word for the Reformation would be the Rupture, since it has led not merely to religious division but to the fragmentation of the Protestant denominations into a plethora of sub-dividing particles. Looking at the history of the past 500 years, it can be seen that Protestantism is an explosion of faith, not in the positive sense of the fruits of “reform” but in the negative sense of a violent disintegration of one body of Reformers under Luther into thousands of individual denominations. And, as with any explosion, the individual pieces do not simply fragment, they move further and further away from the Center. And so it is that the new (de)formed “churches” are becoming more eccentric, or, as our ancestors in the Counter-Reformation would have named them, more heretical. Only the Rupture could have spawned the Rapture!

As we witness the disintegration of the misnamed Reformation, dare we see some mystical significance in the past 500 years of religious conflict? Might we not see the Reformation as a catastrophe through which God has worked his mystical will? Tolkien invented a word, eucatastrophe, to describe the good that God brings out of evil; it is the good which could not have happened without the evil that preceded it. A eucatastrophe is the felix culpa, the blessed fault or fortunate fall, from which God brings forth unexpected blessings. Thus, the catastrophe of the Fall brought forth the eucatastrophe of the Redemption, and the catastrophe of the Crucifixion brought forth the eucatastrophe of the Resurrection. Might it not be equally true that the catastrophe of the Reformation brought forth the eucatastrophe of the Counter-Reformation?

If, as Christians, we believe that Christ calls us to be One, in his Name, it is hard to see how the accelerating fragmentation of Protestantism can be an authentic work of his Holy Spirit. The Counter-Reformation, on the other hand, reverberates down the ages as a living testimony of the promise of Christ that he will never abandon his Church. As the Reformation dissolves into numerous fragmented particles, the Counter-Reformation remains as living proof that the Gates of Hell will not prevail against Christ’s Mystical Body.

This article first appeared in the St. Austin Review and is published here with permission.

Palma il Giovane (1550-1628), “Portrait of Pope Pius V”

God Raised Up Pope St. Pius V to Safeguard the Faith

“O God, who in your Providence raised up Pope Saint Pius V in your Church that the faith might be safeguarded and more fitting worship be offered to you, grant, through his intercession, that we may participate in your mysteries with lively faith and fruitful charity…” (Collect for the Memorial of Saint Pius V)