A Reader Wonders if We are at the End of the Counter-Reformation

He writes:

I have a thought I’d like to share with you. It seems to me that Pope Francis represents a break – a change – in the direction of the church. Not in doctrine or dogma (that’s guaranteed by the Holy Spirit), but rather in focus. Is it possible that in Francis we have seen the definitive end of the counter-reformation and the beginning of a new evangelical era?

I have the sense that Vatican II was the other bookend to the council of Trent and that JPII and BXVI were great gifts to the church who shored up the teaching from Vatican II and set the foundation for the next era. But, there is something new about Pope Francis – a boldness, a perhaps conviction that the secular ideologies and anti-clericalism of the 20th century and the Protestant antipathy towards the Church are spent forces, allowing him to focus (as JPII would say) on the anthropological crisis that these historical threads have brought through the vigorous proclamation of the Gospel.

I’m struggling a bit here, as you can see. I sense something new, but I can’t put my finger on it. Care to comment?

I think there’s something to this, though I would add that this seem to be a function of his personal charisms rather than a shift that begins with him. Vatican II is the real turning point in the ending the Counter-Reformation, I reckon. Since then we’ve seen popes and the Magisterium (and lots of the rest of the Church) grappling with how to bring the Church out of defense mode and into playing offense and resuming the task of evangelization rather than hunkering down in the bunker. JPII was an intensely evangelical pope too. But it is clear that Francis, as you observe, seem to be bringing something different somehow. The Church is, I think definitively, find her feet as a missionary enterprise again with this guy. I have great hopes for what the future will bring in the global mission field.

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  • thomasc

    I am not sure about the “Trent – Vatican II” view of the counter-reformation, at least in the sense of the Church being defensive. This is because the eighteenth (and late seventeenth century) church, while clearly the Church of the Counter-Reformation, doesn’t seem to me to have been the least defensive: it was confident, interested in new ideas (until they were suppressed, the Jesuits were enormously significant in the development of chemistry, and enormous leaps in historical scholarship were taken by the French Benedictines, for example), and generally flourishing. The religious orders of France and the Holy Roman Empire (particularly the Benedictines) were an enormous part of the Enlightenment in a wide sense, and also seem to have been better disciplined, more pastorally inclined and more obviously devout than during the Middle Ages. The defensive Church that ended (sort of) with Vatican II was a beast of the nineteenth century and a reaction to the rise of anticlericalism with the French Revolution (and some of the “enlightened autocrats” of the late eighteenth century), not a reaction to Luther and Calvin. It looks like that to me, anyway. And as to missionary endeavour – that was going apace throughout the Counter-Reformation *and* the nineteenth century, and in terms of revitalising Catholics as well as spreading the Faith overseas.

    • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

      The defensive Church that ended (sort of) with Vatican II was a beast of the nineteenth century and a reaction to the rise of anticlericalism with the French Revolution (and some of the “enlightened autocrats” of the late eighteenth century), not a reaction to Luther and Calvin.

      Man, I so, so, so want this to be true. It makes so much sense.

      • http://robertfking.wordpress.com/ Roki

        I guess I see the French Revolution (and the whole “Enlightenment” thang) as one of the fruits of the same tree that bore Luther and Calvin. The first visible sprout (at least, the first visible to my eyes,) came in the speculations of Duns Scotus, and the poisonous fruit ripened in William of Ockham. Certainly, the roots are deeper, and the seed is probably nothing other than Original Sin, probably the deadly sin of Pride.

        The main problem the Church really needs to address is, how to break the world free from its bondage to illusory notions such as individualism, voluntarism, and dualism. This was the project that Thomas Aquinas was working on, and he made as much headway as anyone. But this world still belongs to the father of lies, and I doubt the truth will ever fully win out till The Truth comes again to judge the living and the dead.

        • Alma Peregrina

          Duns Scotus?!

          • http://robertfking.wordpress.com/ Roki

            My admittedly shallow understanding of the Subtle Doctor is that, while he intended orthodoxy in all his work, and there are orthodox readings of his work, his followers took his ideas of individuality and will to extremes that developed right quick into individualist and arbitrary-will and will-to-power notions. These became the foundation stones of the Protestant Reformation, the so-called Renaissance, the so-called Enlightenment, and the aptly named Modern movement.

  • Faramir

    I recommend the OP read George Weigel’s latest book Evangelical Catholicism. This is more or less Weigel’s thesis: that the Church is transitioning from the Counter-Reformation into a new evangelical era, although he goes all the way back to Leo XIII for the beginnings of the shift.

    I like the idea of Trent and Vatican II as book-ends on the Counter-Reformation. Also, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Church has had a string of strong, holy popes for the last 100+ years. I suspect it means that the Church is in for a bumpy ride in the years ahead, and the Holy Spirit is making sure that we are well prepared.

  • capaxdei

    Early days, isn’t it, to be talking about a papacy marking the definitive end of a 450 year old era?

    • Tom

      In school we had to learn a chart of the stages of evangelism or something, and it went like this:

      Evangelizing the Jews (30-50 A.D)
      Evangelizing the West (50-1965 A.D.)
      Evangelizing the World (1965-today)

      • http://robertfking.wordpress.com/ Roki

        Hm, I would put it more like:

        Evangelizing the Jews: ca. 30-ca. 50
        Evangelizing the World: ca, 50-313 (edict of Milan)
        Evangelizing the Empire: 313-622 (establishment of Islam)
        Retrenching: 622-ca. 1250
        Evangelizing the West: ca. 1250-1869 (Vatican I)
        Evangelizing the World: 1869-present

        But that’s just one idiosyncratic take on history. YMMD.

        Vatican I is, I think, underappreciated because it was interrupted by war and left unfinished. But its agenda was essentially the same as Vatican II: to address the faith to the questions and problems of the modern world.

        • Tom

          They did try to evangelize in Asia and the Middle East, too. It just wasn’t nearly as successful as it was elsewhere.

      • capaxdei

        C’mon, gang! Let’s not give up on evangelizing the Jews and the West so soon!

  • Jared B.

    I 2nd what thomasc said: during its time, the Counter-Reformation following the Council of Trent was “a new evangelical era”. St. Francis de Sales, for example, waltzing into the Calvinist neighborhoods and converting / re-verting them back into the Church could be called part of a New Evangelization of the 16th century, to use today’s parlance.

  • Brennan

    “Since then we’ve seen popes and the Magisterium (and lots of the rest of the Church) grappling with how to bring the Church out of defense mode and into playing offense and resuming the task of evangelization rather than hunkering down in the bunker.”

    Right. So when we were evangelizing the entire world we were “playing defense” and “hunkering down” in a bunker. But now in the past 50 years that we’ve been hemorrhaging members and losing 2 generations of Catholics to the Faith we are finally getting out of “defense mode” and into playing offense.

    My guess is we still have a lot to learn from the moribund Counter-Reformation Church about being on offense.


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