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3. The Reformation
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1. Witnesses and Families   |   2. Governance   |   3. The Reformation   |   4. Confessions

D. Catholic Responses.

At the heart of the Protestant projects for reforming social life lay their desire to uproot the religious orders’ ascetic, celibate way of life. They focused not on abuses but on the institution itself. As the movement grew in the cities, it targeted for suppression the communities of the mendicant orders, chiefly Franciscans and Dominicans. The outcomes of these struggles depended on local conditions. At patrician-ruled Nuremberg in 1524-25, the Franciscan nuns resisted the demands of patrician parents and magistrates for the repatriation of their daughters. At Strasbourg at about the same time, three Dominican convents resisted the magistrates’ demand for religious (and social) conformity and survived, two of them until the French Revolution. The triumph of this campaign against the religious orders meant essentially the absorption of the clergy into the laity. This is the message of Katharina Schütz Zell, daughter of an artisan master and Strasbourg magistrate, who married a priest. The root cause of the attack on women’s convents was not abuses – alleged or real, financial or sexual –but the Protestants’ idea of the patriarchal household as the only Christian way of life. Only marriage could restrain concupiscence.

Some Catholic rulers believed that simple repression would suffice to eradicate the movements for religious reform. Others saw quite clearly that in their own church’s condition lay the deepest causes of the outcries against it. In the summer of 1524, a high-level consultation on the problem was held at Regensburg among Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, who was Charles’s brother and vicar, the dukes of Bavaria, and twelve southern prince-bishops. They agreed to form an association to defend the old faith against heresy and to prosecute and punish errant priests and clandestine preachers. They recognized, however, that repression alone would not succeed, because the heretics were exploiting a truth – a corrupt Church – to gain adherents for their falsehoods. The assembly therefore went on to condemn many of the abuses and evils that reformists had been condemning for the past century.

The Regensburg conference acknowledged that Catholic reform depended – as Protestant reformation did – on the attitude of the secular authorities. In the Swiss Confederation, where there were no princes and few nobles, the larger city-states (Zurich, Bern, and Basel) adopted the new faith, but the old rural members of central Switzerland opposed it early and strongly. At the end of January 1525, envoys of nine “places” [Orte] met at Lucerne to discuss the Protestants’ errors and the possibilities for defending the old faith. This split presaged the definitive confessional division of the Confederation around 1530. Across the broad central and northern zones of the Empire, by contrast, the Protestant advance seemed irresistible. Except in the far northwest (Cologne, Münster, Paderborn, and Osnabrück), the prince-bishoprics fell one-by-one to Protestant dynasties, a dozen of them by the 1570s. Meanwhile, in 1563, the duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel took the last remaining Catholic territory in the north over to the Lutheran faith. In 1574, Lazarus von Schwendi had good reason to predict to the emperor that, within a generation, the old Church would be no more.

For the leaders of the Imperial Church the central issue was not what should be done but who should and could do it. The answer: not the emperor and the Diet, a body divided by religion, but the pope and a general council. Pope Paul III (r. 1534-49) called the Catholic bishops to assemble in December 1545 at Trent, where, in twenty-five sessions over the next eighteen years, they debated and defined both doctrinal canons on justification, the Eucharist, Penance, biblical authority, and the role of tradition, as well as disciplinary decrees concerning episcopal residence, seminaries, and matrimony. In the form of what is sometimes called “Tridentine Catholicism,” the council’s work spread in fits and starts through the entire Catholic Church. At this time, it worked to greatest effect in the Holy Roman Empire, where by 1600 or so the Catholic reform had begun to be well established.

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