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Introduction to the Protestant Reformation: The Counter-Reformation

Learn about the Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation.  Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: In the previous three videos, we looked briefly at what it was like to be a Christian before the Reformation, before 1517. Then we looked at Martin Luther. We looked at his ideas, and the spread of his ideas. As well as the violence that resulted. DR. BETH HARRIS: And for our final video, we want to look at the response by the Catholic Church. And so, whereas we call what Luther and his followers did the Protestant Reformation, the Church's response is referred to as the Counter-Reformation. The word "counter," here, meaning against. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Well the Church had lost a lot. The church had lost lands. It had lost-- DR. BETH HARRIS: Faithful. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: That's right. It lost souls. DR. BETH HARRIS: And in the last video, we ended talking about violence. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: But the violence wasn't always against people. Sometimes it was also against things, and churches. That is, the architecture of the Roman Catholics, which existed throughout Western Europe, was an important focus of the violence of the Protestants against the Catholic church. DR. BETH HARRIS: The practice of Catholicism was incredibly visual. And there was a real concern among the Protestants, not so much by Luther, but mostly by his followers, that images were being abused. That they were being prayed to as if the images had power themselves, instead of just a way of reaching the divine-- of passing through the images to the divine. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: That's right. Calvin, specifically, had a problem with this, and believed that the images in churches were actually creating a kind of idolatry. This goes back to the second commandment, "Thou shall not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in the heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth." So this notion that to create is, in a sense, usurping a little bit of God's responsibility. That is, God creates. When an artist creates it is a kind of falsehood-- it is creating an idol. DR. BETH HARRIS: So Protestants began waves iconoclasm. That is, the destruction of images. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Let's take apart that work for a moment, iconoclasm. It's a compound. It's made of two words, "icon," which is Greek for image, and "clasm," which means of violence. So it is literally violence against images. DR. BETH HARRIS: And there were iconoclastic riots within five years or so after Luther's 95 Theses. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: This is one of the great tragedies in the history of art, actually, where an untold number of paintings, of sculptures, were destroyed. DR. BETH HARRIS: And this happened, especially, in northern Europe, in the Netherlands. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So in essence, what the Protestants often did is they took over a Catholic church, and they stripped it of all of those central forms, all of that sculpture, those tapestries, and left it a kind of pristine space. DR. BETH HARRIS: So we know that Luther is going against Church teaching in all these different ways. Faith is the path to salvation, not good works. Scripture is the way to understand God, not listening to the teachings of the church. Now, the Catholic church didn't take all of this lying down, right? We know that there were efforts to make Luther bend to their will, right? At the Diet of Worms, for example. Luther was excommunicated after that. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And by excommunicated, we mean, basically, is no longer a member of the Church. DR. BETH HARRIS: In 1545. the Church holds something called the Council of Trent. Essentially, a kind of meeting of all of the highest levels of the Church in Europe. At first, the idea was really to reconcile with the Protestants. The Protestants were invited. They didn't show up, however, and in the end, reconciliation was clearly impossible. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: One of the most important outcomes of the Council of Trent, was that the Catholic Church reaffirmed its doctrines. That is, it doubled down. It said the very things that Luther had taken issue with were reaffirmed. DR. BETH HARRIS: So regarding the issue of whether good works have a role in salvation, the Church said, indeed they do. Regarding Purgatory and the efficacy of indulgences-- do indulgences do anything? Does purgatory exist? The Church affirmed all of that. The Church affirmed transubstantiation, the changing of the bread and wine during the Eucharist to the body and blood of Christ. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And by doing so, it affirmed the power and importance of the priesthood, and of the hierarchy of the church. DR. BETH HARRIS: And lastly, the Church affirmed that scripture alone wasn't enough. That one really also needed the teachings, the traditions of the Church. So they gave very little ground. All they did was agree that in some areas there was room for reform. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: They did try to stamp out the kind of corruption that had, in part, led to the Reformation. But let's get back to the images for a moment. Because that was also important in the Council of Trent. DR. BETH HARRIS: The council said this-- "Images of Christ, of the Virgin Mother of God, and of the other saints are to be placed and retained especially in the churches, and due honor and veneration is to be given to them." So they're reaffirming, immediately, images belong in the church. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: But what's important is why. DR. BETH HARRIS: They say, quote, "Because the honor which is shown them is referred to the prototypes which they represent." DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So if somebody is honoring a statue of the Virgin Mary, they are actually affirming the honor to the Virgin Mary herself. But the Church said there was even more benefit. DR. BETH HARRIS: Yes. "Let the bishops diligently teach that by means of the stories of the mysteries of our redemption portrayed in paintings and other representations the people are instructed and confirmed in their articles of faith." DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So art was a way of actually didactically getting the ideas of the Church across to the lay people, many of whom were still illiterate. DR. BETH HARRIS: And deepening their faith, that's right. "Also that great profit is derived from all holy images because through the saints the miracles of God and salutary examples are set before the eyes of the faithful so that they may fashion their own life and conduct in imitation of the saints and be moved to adore and love God and cultivate piety." DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So the way in which art functions as an example that we can follow in our daily lives. DR. BETH HARRIS: So the Church's response is threefold. One, they reaffirm all the basic doctrines of the church that had been attacked by the Protestants. They begin a major campaign to spread the teachings of the Catholic faith all around the world. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Remember, this is the Age of Discovery. The New World has been discovered. There is increasing trade with Asia, and with Africa. And so, the Catholics are really evangelizing in all these places. DR. BETH HARRIS: The last in this threefold response of the Church is an effort to stamp out heresy. So the Church establishes the Inquisition, the Roman Inquisition. The Church also creates the Index of Forbidden Books. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And it's just at this time, that Ignatius Loyola founds the Jesuit Order. The Jesuits are all about faithfulness. They have an absolute faith in the pope, and they are at the pope's disposal. DR. BETH HARRIS: The Jesuits establish schools, they spread the Christian faith throughout the world, and they fought Protestantism. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: There's a fabulous, and very literal, example of all of these ideas of the Counter-Reformation in a sculpture by an artist whose name is Le Gros, in the mother church of the Jesuits in Rome. DR. BETH HARRIS: The title of this sculpture is Religion Overthrowing Heresy and Hatred. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: OK. Now, first of all, it's important to know that the sculpture is just to the right and below a very large alter to Saint Ignatius Loyola. DR. BETH HARRIS: At the top left, we see the figure of religion wielding a thunderbolt and a cross. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Now, by religion Le Gros means Roman Catholicism. DR. BETH HARRIS: And religion is looking down at, and about to attack, two figures. One is an older female figure who represents hatred, and the other figure, falling towards us, wrestling with sneaks, is the allegorical figure that represents heresy. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: He's falling over a series of books. And one of those books has on its spine Luther's name. So heresy here couldn't be any more explicit. Heresy is Luther. It is Protestantism. And as if that isn't making the point sharply enough, on the left, we see a little angelic figure who's ripping pages out of the book by Luther's follower Zwingli. DR. BETH HARRIS: It's important to remember that each side saw the other as the devil. Luther called the pope the Antichrist. The pope called Luther the Antichrist. It was a time of black and white. There was no middle ground. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And these divisions, literally, reshaped the countries of Europe. Even now, the countries in southern Europe are predominantly Catholic. The countries in northern Europe are predominately Protestant. And even as late as the 20th century, there is violence that erupts between these fractions. We saw that through most of the 20th century in Ireland, for example. DR. BETH HARRIS: It's also interesting to think about the ways that the Protestant Reformation set the stage for the modern world. This idea of not listening to a single authority, but listening to your own conscience. I think this is a key feature of the modern world. [MUSIC PLAYING]