During the 16th century in Europe, Christianity was splitting into various denominations because of the Reformation begun by Martin Luther in 1517. Catholicism was under attack because of its corruption and unethical practices. The Papacy under reforms implemented by Paul III and Paul IV, the Jesuits through their missionary and educational work, and the Council of Trent which reaffirmed traditional Catholic doctrine, all helped the Catholic counterreformation revive Catholicism and fight the spread of Protestantism.
Emerging from the Renaissance, the Papacy was in desperate need of reform. Corrupt Popes such as Julius II, Leo X and Alexander VI had drifted from their spiritual leadership and had become caught up in secular issues which besmirched the Papacy’s reputation. In 1535 Pope Paul III called upon a reform commission to study the condition of the church and in 1537 concluded that Popes and Cardinals were a primary cause of corruption within it. Additionally Paul III established the Roman Inquisition which was responsible for prosecuting individuals accused of a wide array of crimes relating to religious doctrine or alternate religious beliefs. Paul III also officially recognized the Jesuits in 1540 and in 1542 called for the Council of Trent to review Church practices and policies. Pope Paul IV increased the power of the Roman inquisition and created the Index of Forbidden Books, which was a list of books, primarily Protestant in nature, which Roman Catholics were strictly forbidden to read.
In addition to the Papacy, the Jesuits also helped with the revival of Catholicism in the 1500’s. The Jesuits (Society of Jesus), a new order established by Ignatius of Loyola, were officially recognized by Pope Paul III in 1540 and quickly became an important instrument of Papal policy. The Jesuits had three goals: to establish highly disciplined schools, to propagate Catholic beliefs through missionary work, and to combat Protestantism. The Jesuits quickly became the militant arm of the Papacy and the Catholic Church. Francis Xavier (1506-1552) was a famous Jesuit missionary who traveled to Asia (India and Japan) to actively convert native people to Catholicism.
The Catholic Reformation additionally needed a general meeting to help ensure reform and a clear direction for the church during the 16th century. The Council of Trent (called for in 1542 by Pope Paul III) convened in 1545 and was a general council of Christendom which gathered to resolve the religious differences created by the Protestant revolt. They met three times between 1545 and 1563 due to a variety of problems including an outbreak of the plague and war between France and Spain. The final decisions of the council reaffirmed traditional Catholic teachings in opposition to Protestant beliefs. Scripture and tradition were affirmed as equal authorities in religious matters, and only the church could interpret scripture. Faith and good works were deemed necessary for salvation. All seven sacraments and clerical celibacy were upheld. However, the sale of indulgences was kept, as long as they weren’t hawked. Additionally, it was agreed that the conservative view of not compromising with the Protestants, would be followed. After the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church possessed a clear body of doctrine and a unified church.
Although Catholicism was under attack and Christianity was splintering into numerous of Protestant divisions, the Catholic Church attempted a revival during the 16th century. The Papacy, the Jesuits and the Council of Trent all contributed to this revival. However, in the end, this “rebirth” of the Catholic Church was nothing more than an attempt to maintain its historical doctrine of the church while simultaneously battling the Protestants who were now winning over the spiritual minds and hearts of people across Europe.