A Counter Reformation

Rome responds to the Protestant Reformation.

Episode 5

Hello, I'm Wilson Pruitt, and you are listening to the History of Methodism Podcast. Today’s episode, A Counter Reformation.

A short time after leaving office, the Former Prime Minister of the UK, Tony Blair, was received into full communion by the Roman Catholic Church. This would have been an unimaginable act for Sir Robert Walpole, the first modern Prime Minister, in power from 1721 - 1742. Catholics could not own property in Great Britain at that time, so they could not vote. After the Acts of Settlement in 1701 and 1705, royals even could lose their rights if they marry a Catholic or convert.

As we move closer to the years of the Wesley brothers, the reign of James II and the Glorious Revolution are going to have a large deal of impact upon how people in England and Wales view Catholicism, but as we stand in the 16th century, the Reform movement in northern Europe and Great Britain demanded a response from Rome.

The phrase Counter-Reformation was coined by German Protestant historians years after the fact. Catholics do not use that phrase and would rather say the Catholic Reformation or Catholic Revival. John Wesley was a man of his times and, in large part, spoke disparagingly of Romish or Papist theologians or writers. Throughout many sermons, the Inquisition is used as an analogy for hell. For instance, in his sermon, 'On Temptation,' he says

In that inexecrable slaughter-house, the Romish Inquisition, it is the custom of those holy butchers, while they are tearing a man’s sinews upon the rack, to have a physician of the house standing by. (3:163, On Temptation).

And yet he commends Francis de Sales and Juan de Castaniza, in his sermon, On God’s Vineyard, for their work on Sanctification in a backhanded compliment sort of way. This technique is also used in Wesley’s Sermon, 'On the Trinity,' where he writes:

Persons may be quite right in their opinions, and yet have no religion at all; and, on the other hand, persons may be truly religious, who hold many wrong opinions. Can any one possibly doubt of this, while there are Romanists in the world. For who can deny, not only that many of them formerly have been truly religious, as Thomas a Kempis, Gregory Lopez, and the Marquis de Renty; but that many of them, even at this day, are real inward Christians. And yet what a heap of erroneous opinions do they hold, delivered by tradition from their fathers!

What this quote especially points to is how Wesley views the institution of the Roman Church as quite separate from the individuals. The institution is suspect all the way down, but some individuals can almost accidentally be Christian nonetheless.

The institution of the Roman Catholic Church that lasted until the first Vatican Council in the 19th, century was formed in the heart of the Catholic Reformation at the Council of Trent. Many other events and movements can be categorized into this period, from the founding of the jesuits, to the mysticism of Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, as well to the baroque in art and architecture in the work of Carravagio, Bernini and others, yet Trent and the consequences of Trent guide all that follows.

Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, understood quite while that only an ecumenical council could address the concerns that Luther and others had raised in the Reformation without the total dissolution of the Catholic faith. However, councils do not happen over night. In November of 1529, after he had sacked Rome and taken the Pope, Clement VII, hostage, Charles thought that a council would be imminent. Yet it was not to be. Disagreements with Francis I of France almost led to war and arguments with Henry VIII about the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Charles’ aunt, Catherine, led to England leaving the Church and England and Francis allying with the Smalcaldic League, an alliance of German prince's and city-states against the Emperor.

The animosity among the rulers and bishops of Europe did not lesson with the election of Clement's successor, Paul III. Yet it is during the 15 year papacy of Paul III that we see the first great fruit of Reform within the Catholic faith: the approval of the Jesuits and the Ursuline nuns, the naming of 70 new cardinals, and the creation of a commission tasked with preparing for a council. However, Paul did nothing about the financial corruption at the heart of the Datary (a papal office that granted graces through a fee structure) because it supplied half of the papal budget of some 100,000 ducats a year. This led to continuing furor among the followers of Luther and Calvin and lessoned the chances for reconciliation among the churches, which were, at this time, still possible.

In May of 1542, Paul officially called for a church-wide council to be convened at the end of the year, but a few weeks later, Francis declared war on Charles and delay had come again. It was only after victory on the battlefield by Charles that, through the Peace of Crépy, a council was agreed upon and begun in 1545 in the Alpine hamlet of Trent, in modern Italy, but at that point on what was imperial land.

The council faced tremendous challenge on all sides, from war to plague to strong disagreements between the Emperor and the Pope. Convened in 1545, it was not until 1563 that anything close to a conclusion could be reached. Over the 18 years, 3 Popes, 25 sessions of documents, the church was re-formed. Continually, bishops and priests were called to be holy and above reproach.

An ecclesiastical rank should be free of every hint of greed, bishops and others who ordain and their officials may not on any grounds accept anything, even when it is freely offered, for the conferring of any orders" (21, decree on reform, canon 1).

As well, the Catholic doctrine of Eucharist (including transubstantiation), confession, and last rites was formalized even further against the challenge of the Protestants. The Doctrine of Justification, the center-point of Luther's defiance, was restated in the council in a way that proclaimed salvation by grace through faith. Canon 3 on Justification also comes close to Wesley's view of prevenient grace:

If anyone says that, without preceding inspiration of the Holy Spirit and without his help, a person can believe, hope, love and repent, as he ought, so that the grace of justification may be granted to him: let him be anathema.

Compare this to how Wesley begins his sermon "Salvation by Faith":

All the blessings which God hath bestowed upon man are of his mere grace, bounty, or favour: his free, undeserved favour, favour altogether undeserved, man having no claim to the least of his mercies.

Even the Tridentine language of co-operation would not be foreign to the later Wesley.

Even with these commonalities, Wesley was a man of his times, as can be seen in his journal entre about Catholicism from 1739.

Yet I can by no means approve the scurrility and contempt with which the Romanists have often been treated. I dare not rail at or despise any man, much less those who profess to believe in the same Master. But I pity them much; having the same assurance that Jesus is the Christ, and that no Romanist can expect to be saved according to the terms of His covenant. For thus saith our Lord, ‘Whosoever shall break one of the least of these commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven.’ And, ‘If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book.’ But all Romanists as such do both. Ergo.

Wesley goes on,

The minor I prove, not from Protestant authors, nor even from particular writers of their own communion, but from the public, authentic records of the Church of Rome. Such are the Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent. And the edition I use was printed at Cologne, and approved by authority.

Ten years later, Wesley comes to Catholicism with a different perspective. In 1749, he writes to another Roman Catholic, after making a list of many commonalities.

But if God still loveth us, we ought also to love one another. We ought, without this endless jangling about opinions, to provoke one another to love and to good works. Let the points wherein we differ stand aside: here are enough wherein we agree enough to be the ground of every Christian temper and of every Christian action.

The complexities continue. Wesley writes an annotation on a Roman Catechism of his day explaining all the various ways that he found it wrong, he also utilized and affirmed Catholic writers and saints on their works and lives with regards to sanctification and Christian perfection.

What we see, though, with the Counter Reformation in particular and the Catholic church in general, is a foil for Wesley. As an Anglican priest, he was not Roman Catholic and it was important for him to be able to state this. As he wrote in 1745:

Do not you call yourself a Protestant? Why so? Do you know what the word means? What is a Protestant? I suppose you mean one that is not a Papist. But what is a Papist? If you do not know, say so; acknowledge you cannot tell. Is not this the case? You call yourself a Protestant; but you do not know what a Protestant is. You talk against Papists; and yet neither do you know what a Papist is. Why do you pretend, then, to the knowledge which you have not? Why do you use words which you do not understand?

John and Charles Wesley were writers who strove to give authentic witness to a deep and spiritual faith and this meant a willingness to find resources outside of the bounds of British public opinion. Catholics were a large part of Ireland but a persecuted minority in England itself. The later Wesley found some concord with Catholics on various points but on the whole, he was little opposed by them. Deep opposition to Methodism came not from Catholics or even the higher ups within the Church of England, but from the intellectual descendants of John Calvin, from those called themselves not just protestant, but Reformed. Next time on the History of Methodism.


The Council of Trent (1549)

John Wesley, Sermons, Wesley Works 1-4.

John Wesley, Letter to a Roman Catholic (1749).

John Wesley, "Journal August 1739", Wesley Works 19.

Mark Massa, "The Catholic Wesley: A Revisionist Prolegomenon", Methodist History22 (1988).