Sixteenth Century Catholicism

Simon Lemieux provides an overview of 16th-century Catholicism, focusing on the key issues often selected by examiners.

A historical riddle might well begin thus, ‘When is a reformation not a reformation? When it’s the Catholic Reformation’. To study the reform, renewal and changes which the Catholic Church underwent in the sixteenth century is to embark on a journey into the complexities of definition, causation and legacy. This article will not attempt to give a potted history of the movement but instead will focus on a few key themes, not least those which examiners are often fond of asking. The areas to be covered are, firstly, that of terminology: what terms best describe this period in the Catholic Church’s history, a reaction to Protestantism or an ongoing reformation and renewal movement? Is it best understood as a Counter Reformation, a Catholic Reformation or perhaps a century of Catholic renewal, as some more recent historians have termed it? Secondly, the role and contribution of the religious orders will be surveyed: what precisely was their function in this reform process? The importance of the papacy will then be covered: did they initiate, shape or merely accept the changes that took place?

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