The double movement of recomposing Western Christianity and its relationship with political power, which began in the early 16th century and marked the global order until the 19th century, is generally referred to as Reformation. At the beginning of the Renaissance, the European geography of the modern world began to take shape. France, England, Spain became states whose sovereigns asserted themselves as heads of their Churches.

The Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire no longer had much authority over a multitude of practically independent German principalities. The papacy was mainly noted for its debauchery and expenditures. Intellectually and artistically, there was a radical rupture with the Middle Ages, and there was a profusion of creativity in the fields of arts, sciences, and literature under the influence of the rediscovery of ancient culture. The reformers and a new European geography

Under these conditions, Christians suffered from a Church that did not meet their expectations and from submission to a clergy often mediocre. Despite the vitality of the debates, the various previous councils had not really addressed the important issues. This atmosphere explains the rapid success of the reformers, in a Europe thirsty to liberate itself as much from the tutelage of the Empire as from that of the papacy. It is in this context of deep desire, profound change, and the immobility of Roman officials that the Reformers find a favorable ground.

Luther, whose concern was primarily spiritual, found himself engaged in German domestic politics. Other reformers, especially Zwingli and Calvin, also organized evangelical Churches. The geography of Europe is transformed. One can no longer speak of Christendom but of Catholic or Reformed countries, according to the principle of cuius regio, eius religio: subjects must follow the religion of their prince or go into exile. Gradually, networks of scholars and intellectuals, statesmen, or churchmen are created in Europe, which gradually replace the hierarchical structures of the Catholic Church to lay the foundations of a secularized international order. This is the beginning of modern diplomacy.

The Council of Trent and the Catholic Reformation In this turbulent Europe, it was time for the Roman Church to react. The Councils of the late Middle Ages had not addressed the pending issues. The Council met in Trent in several sessions from 1545 to 1563. It was chaired by papal legates who could not make decisions without referring to Rome. Few bishops participated, even though in the last sessions a small half of European bishops were present. The Council dealt with many dogmatic definitions on issues that required clarification.

Other questions were only addressed from the perspective of anti-Protestantism. The work accomplished by this council is considerable: it deals in parallel with doctrinal and disciplinary problems. The Latin Bible is considered the essential source of faith; the translation by Saint Jerome, the Vulgate, is adopted as the unique and indisputable version of reference. In terms of worship and doctrine, the seven sacraments are maintained, transubstantiation (the transformation of the substance of bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ) becomes a dogma, as is the reaffirmation of the worship of images and, for priests, the obligation of celibacy. The Council recommends preaching the Gospel and the Catholic faith more effectively.

In terms of ecclesiastical discipline, significant abuses are denounced, such as absenteeism (bishops who do not occupy their episcopal see or priests their cure), simony, the incompetence of clerics, or ordinations before the age of 25, and solutions are gradually implemented. In particular, it is planned to open seminaries to provide future priests with better intellectual and religious training. A spiritual and ecclesial renewal The Council of Trent gave Catholicism the physiognomy it retained until the mid-20th century. The pastoral consequences of the Council were considerable. Successively published were the Roman Catechism, the Roman Breviary, and the Roman Missal, which imposed a uniform text (in Latin) for the Mass and abolished local liturgies. Many bishops undertook pastoral reform, founded seminaries, visited their dioceses, convened synods…

Seminaries were established to provide the Christian people with quality pastors. Spiritual masters, grouped in religious orders – Jesuits – or societies of priests – Oratory, Saint-Sulpice, Lazarists… – were born. The Church truly reformed itself. This was the starting point for a deep evangelization of the Christian people: better-trained clergy, catechism, but also lay congregations… There was a standardization of Christian practice, closely supervised, around the practice of the sacraments.

Here we see that the question of unity is addressed through the standardization of liturgy and pastoral practices. The question of all/few is addressed through the separation between clergy and laity. The great discoveries made the size of the world apparent, and missionaries set out to evangelize the newly discovered peoples. The time was one of intense apostolic action, and most monasteries were either closed or transformed to perform apostolic tasks. This period also saw the first difficulties with science (the Galileo affair, but also the first steps of critical exegesis).

Finally, a world of such vitality cannot escape crises: the Jansenist crisis raises the question of freedom and grace. Quietism questions mysticism in a modern world that seeks order…

This text is an excerpt from the book “CHRISTIANITY AND ITS CHALLENGES” written by Jérémie TCHINDEBE.

We invite you to read the following article “Globalization and Religion“.


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