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Pippa Wentzel Paper 16: The Reformation Dr O’Reilly Did Protestantis­m replace the saints with Luther? Martin L­uther was the towering figure of the German Reformation. Yet considering the precise role of Luther within Protestantism raises a number of wider questions. Even

P. W.

Paper 16: Counter Reformation

For Dr O’Reilly


How, and to what extent, did post-Tridentine Catholicism become ‘global’?



Reflecting rising interest in ‘world history’ and exchanges between Europe and other continents1, the ‘global Counter Reformation’ has become a subject of increasing interest for historians.

Instead of focusing on religious developments of this period purely within Europe, a number of recent studies have examined the extent of Catholic missionary work and penetration overseas, in particular in the New World Iberian colonies and in Asia, but also with more limited success in Africa.2 Partly, this new interest has entailed a switch of perspective: rather as Walter D.

Mignolo attempted to provide a new way of understanding the Renaissance by considering its repercussions for South American colonialism in his work The Darker Side of the Renaissance3, so a consideration of the impact of the Catholic Reformation and missionary work on non-European peoples has provided fresh insights not only into the dynamics of European colonisation and interactions with native cultures, but also on something of the essence of the Catholic revival of this period in its zeal for conversion and schizophrenic oscillation between optimism at the virgin territories ripe for salvation, and trepidation at the scale of the scale of the project.

Clearly, an interest in the ‘global’ dimensions of post-Tridentine Catholicism can contribute much to our understanding. This essay will, however, sound a note of caution. To designate this as a period of ‘global’ Catholicism runs the risk of misleading, however, when taken to imply a monolithic Church: throughout this period, outside Europe and also within it, Catholicism remained closely grounded in its specific localities, resisting the type of consolidation and centralisation which caricatured descriptions of the Tridentine reforms suggest.

The Catholic Church certainly developed global aspirations in the post-Tridentine era.

This can be seen most clearly in the work of the Society of Jesus - the Jesuits - in their missionary activities in South America and Asia. As Luke Clossey emphasises, the Jesuits as an organisation can be seen to epitomise the global impulses of Catholicism in this period. Firstly, the dense networks of Jesuit missionaries made this, to a considerable extent, a single and united enterprise: Jesuit missionaries working in different countries certainly had a common sense of purpose, and Clossey’s concept of ‘global salvific Catholicism’4 is a useful one for understanding the motivations of the missionaries themselves.

It suggests both the age-old Christian desire to save as many souls as possible, and a new framing for this urge within an enlarged perception of the potential Christian community to embrace notions of global Christianity, and a far greater harvest of souls for conversion made possible to a large extent by the European conquest of the Americas, and by the opening of commercial routes and colonial ventures in Africa and Asia.

Interestingly, the Jesuits motivation appears to have stemmed as much -if not more so - from concerns for their own salvation as for that of the converts, yet this did not detract from their undeniable zeal and sense of global mission. Awareness of the soteriological heart of missionary work overseas (however apparently self-serving) equally provides a corrective to earlier accounts which subordinated religious motivation to social and political domination: the two, in this period, were intimately connected, and the genuine religious impulses and visions of a global Church cannot be reduced merely to a cover for European colonisation.

There were of course significant differences between the evangelisation in different areas: in China and Japan, the focus was more strongly on inner conversion, whereas in the Iberian colonies evangelisation was closely related to military conquest and compulsion, but in all cases a sense of religious duty and vision cannot be dismissed.5

Yet despite the development of a global vision of a worldwide Catholic Church, the success of these attempts at Christianisation outside Europe can be called into question.

While European sources frequently depicted the story of evangelization in heroic terms, a mode which traditional historiography frequently adopted, more recent, post-colonially inspired, studies have also pointed to the widespread resistance to Christianization and its shallow roots in indigenous communities. In the Iberian colonies, conversion was largely something enforced, rather than an inner experience.

Using the case study of early colonial Peru, Sabine MacCormack argues that initial attempts at persuasion and reasoning rapidly gave way to an almost exclusive on the imposition of outward conformity and regurgitation of the crudest tenements of the Christian faith, with little interest in depth of either understanding or conviction.6 In China, early missionaries did meet some degree of early success, converting around 200,000 Chinese by 1700, but cannot be said in any way to have Christianised the country.

When, in 1724, Emperor Yongzheng banned European missionaries from the empire, this did not signal the complete extinguishing of Christianity in that country, since certain Jesuit missionaries continued clandestine operations, and native clergy also continued to operate, but the repression which Christianity faced from henceforth, and the increasing perception of Christianity as something alien and foreign, effectively put an end to what had not been, on balance, a strikingly successful operation.

Where Catholic practices were adopted, they tended to be strongly influenced by local culture and traditions, which leads on the second major point of this essay, which is that - for all the utopian visions of a global Church - Catholicism in this period remained not only largely European but particularist and localist in its essence and appeal, which even the post-Tridentine move towards Church consolidation, and the (not wholly planned) increase in papal authority, counter-acted.

In the extra-European context we can see this most clearly. To succeed in China, the Jesuits built close linkages with the emperor's court and with elite literati in Peking. To ease integration they dressed in silk robes after the mandarin fashion and lived in well-appointed houses that contrasted sharply with their vows of poverty and egalitarian ideals.

To facilitate communication they delved into Confucianism and argued that it was not a religion but a secular system of politics and ethics; hence, its practices could be recast within a Christian mould. Critics pounced on their tolerance of ancestor tablets within the Chinese Rites, despite Jesuit protestations that these were no longer for ‘worship of ancestors’ but simply paid ‘gratitude’ to forebears.

A cynic could seize on the fact that when Ricci died in 1610 and was allowed to be buried near Peking, other Jesuits appealed to their Confucian duty to care for an ancestor's tomb to justify their continued presence. Illustrations from Chinese Jesuit publications show a mix of standard Christian and Chinese motifs: a seventeenth-century Madonna and Child image from Shaanxi province, for example, shows the Christ Child with a topknot, a class indicator marking the Ming scholar/official.7

A similar blending, or perhaps over-laying of imported Catholic ideas upon traditional culture, can be seen in Peru, where natives frequently conformed outwardly to the new Christian norms imposed upon them, but without internalising their meanings, or by grafting a learnt Catholic practice onto a traditional set of beliefs.

MacCormack notes, for instance, that while Indians would fast during Lent, as they were obliged to do, they generally integrated this practice into their own, decidedly non-Christian, definition of fasting. Where church attendance was compulsory, non-Christian holy objects were often surreptitiously integrated into the structure of the church.8 These are examples of deliberate avoidance of Christianity and its message, yet in other cases the intermeshing was more complex and ambiguous: Christianity was not always outright rejected, but nor was it practiced in forms approved by Rome.

The same could be said of Catholicism within Europe.

Although Trident did introduce some greater elements of ‘centralisation’, local studies also show the endurance of stubbornly local patterns of belief and worship and the high degree of regional variation throughout Europe. On the other hand, Catholicism in this period could also be closely linked to national identification and state-formation in a manner which was decidedly at odds with ultramontanism.

If by ‘global’ Church is to be understood one embodying a universal set of beliefs, practices and allegiances among its adherents, then Catholicism in this period bore little resemblance to such an image. The continuing strength of the ‘confessionalisation thesis’9 and the allied concept of ‘social disciplining’10 as major paradigms through which to view this period have tended to homogenise Catholic religious culture.

Something of the diversity, or more precisely the ongoing specificity and localism, of experiential Catholicism throughout this period is captured in William Christian’s study of local religion in sixteenth-century Spain.11 From his study of responses to a 1575 survey, it is apparent that most lay people - not limited only to peasants and rural communities, but also urban elites and other prominent figures - imagined and experienced Catholicism in terms closely bound up with their own localities and its specific landscapes.

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