When Martin Luther wrote and supposedly nailed his 95 Theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg in 1517, he did not realize what he started. But only five years later, he was there to finish it. The German Reformation and, later on, the French Reformation split Christendom in two and later in three. Religious wars followed. They were partly about faith and dogma. However, politics, money, and lands were at stake.

A detailed painting depicting the historic moment when Martin Luther is nailing his 95 Theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg in 1517. The scene is bustling with various figures, including clergy, townsfolk, and soldiers, all reacting to Luther's actions with a mix of surprise, approval, and disdain.
Luther nailing 95 theses, 1878, Wikimedia Commons

In 1517, the Catholic church considered Luther and his followers, heretics. And planned to deal with them the same way it managed to deal with all the heresies throughout its 1,500 years of history. Yet, times had changed, people were different, and both the Pope and Catholic institutions were late to recognize that. They ignored the need of people in the 16th century to participate in religious matters, the desire of the now more often literate people to experience their faith more fully. They failed to see the changed political and economic situation, which asked for a different relationship between the state and the church.

Thus, in the 16th century, the Catholic church lost half of Germany (Holy Roman Empire), Scandinavia, the Czech Kingdom, Austrian lands, parts of Hungary, France, and finally, England. But it was unable to strike back at that moment. Because it needed to reform itself, as in Martin Luther’s times, the Catholic church had nothing to offer to the believers who wanted more and got more from the new religious movements. All it had to offer was stability and continuity, which was a good start but far from enough to smother the reformation initially.

The Catholic Reformation: The Reform Everyone Called For

When Martin Luther started his movement, he asked for a general council and a meeting of all important people in the universal church to discuss what he saw as significant faults of the church of his time. He was far from being the first to do so. The corruption of the Catholic church, the moral looseness of many priests and bishops, and the power hungriness of the institution meant to care for people’s souls did not escape notice. The first calls for reform came in the 14th century. But Rome had more pressing issues—the Papal Schism or the struggle between the popes and the cardinals in the 15th century—occupied papal diplomacy for over a hundred years.

But even within the church, even the mighty cardinals and some popes realized that reform was needed because history demanded it. Yet, no pope was strong enough to pull the reform through—it required the Catholic church to recognize that, in the 16th century, it could not wage wars on its own. From now on, the church will always cooperate with secular rulers. Because that was what Luther did, and it paid off. In the struggle for the souls of Europeans, political support, the strength of arms and money, was crucial. It was Pius IV who realized that only the help of the mighty Spanish king, Philip II, and his gold from the New World made any reform possible. Together, these two heads of Christendom managed to pull the reform through.

A vivid painting representing the Allegory of the Battle of Lepanto. The top half depicts celestial beings and saints, with a central figure of the Virgin Mary surrounded by angels, bestowing blessings upon Christian warriors below. St. Dominic, identifiable by his traditional habit, kneels in reverence, while other saintly figures are engaged in prayer or action. A looming, dark cloud separates the heavenly scene from the terrestrial below. The bottom half portrays a chaotic naval battle with numerous ships bearing flags, densely packed on a turbulent sea. Flames engulf some vessels, while plumes of smoke rise, indicating the intense warfare. The intricacies of the ships, from their masts to the combatants aboard, are intricately detailed, capturing the ferocity and significance of the Battle of Lepanto.
Allegory of the Battle of Lepanto by Paolo Veronese, 1571, Wikimedia Commons

The Council of Trent: When the Church Is Reborn

The Catholic Church that emerged after the end of the famous Council of Trent in 1563 was considerably different from the one that Martin Luther split from. The theologians on the council refused every dogmatic difference the Protestants invented. This disappointed those who hoped for the unification of Christendom. But unification was never the goal. Instead, it regained its position and reassured the confused yet loyal Catholics. The main idea of the reform was that nothing changes; we won’t deviate from the line that started with St. Peter because that is the only line possible. However, from now on, we will do it better. Because now we know who we are.

The first thing that changed after the Council of Trent was the morals of the clergy. From now on, the Catholic priest was to be morally intact, high above his parishioners, and every bishop was directly responsible for any transgression to this rule. The bishops and archbishops would occupy themselves more with the education and supervision of their clergy than the power games of the old. Gone was the time when the priest could hardly read; the new priest should be educated and sophisticated. The new church would use the persuasive power of the impressive baroque art and new monastic orders with an effective educational system, the Jesuits being the most effective.

Thus, the new Catholic aristocratic ideal was born. The generation of educated Catholic aristocrats that emerged from Jesuit schools in the late 16th century was well-educated, sophisticated, loved baroque art, and ready to fight for their church. This was the army the Catholic church would use to gain what it lost nearly a century ago.

A detailed painting representing the Council of Trent. The top left section portrays a structured assembly of clerics and theologians, dressed in dark robes, seated in tiered rows, attentively focusing on the proceedings. A group of high-ranking church officials, dressed in bright red, occupy a prominent section, overseeing the assembly. Below them, to the left, smaller groups of clerics engage in discussions, with books and scrolls evident. On the right, a contrasting scene unfolds: ethereal figures, possibly allegorical representations or saints, are depicted in vibrant colors and draped in classical attire. They hold religious symbols like crosses and staves. Among them, a central female figure, adorned in a flowing robe, holds a golden cross aloft. Surrounding her, other figures display various expressions of reverence, devotion, and inspiration. Objects like a globe and books are scattered in the foreground, symbolizing knowledge and the universality of the church.
Council of Trent by Pasquale Cati, 1588, photo by Nick Thompson

The Counter-Reformation in Europe: The Prince And the Bishop

In the 17th century, both the Catholic and Protestant churches depended on the support of the mighty princes. The clergy educated the people, Jesuits went on their mission to the lands that had fallen to Protestantism, and papal diplomacy worked hard to explain the advantages of belonging to the One True Church. But the force and the dirty work fell to the Catholic princes, their armies, and their legislation.

Bloody religious wars raged in France, and the Catholic side emerged victorious. The Huguenots (followers of John Calvin in French) suffered from the counter-reformation measures.

In German-speaking lands, the situation was different. In the Holy Roman Empire, seven electors elected their emperor, and he had to rely on their support; thus, he had to tolerate the Protestant ones. The Turks complicated things because the Habsburg emperor was also a Czech and Hungarian king. Habsburgs, as Hungarian kings, needed money to stop the Ottoman invasion, and moreover, they could not ask their Protestant subjects to convert to Catholicism just like that. Hungarian armies could easily let the Turks pass or agree on more favorable terms with the sultan if they felt insufferable pressure from their Catholic king. Then, there was the Czech kingdom, where the Catholic faith lost most of its positions in the 15th century with the Hussite revolution.

Thus, the Habsburgs performed the counter-reformation where and when they could. Styria and Tyrolia came first, the Czech kingdom rebelled, and the counter-reformation had to wait only after the rebellion was crushed in 1620.

A panoramic painting of the Battle of White Mountain, depicting expansive landscapes with undulating hills. Multiple formations of soldiers, distinguishable by their uniforms and standards, engage in combat across the field. Cavalry units are seen galloping, while infantry hold their ground in tight formations. On the left foreground, commanders on horseback appear to be strategizing. In the sky, a group of cherubic angels holds a white banner containing inscriptions, symbolizing divine intervention or endorsement.
Battle of White Mountain by Peter Snayers, 1620, Wikimedia Commons

The Counter-Reformation With Force

The measures were always the same. First came the Lutheran clergy. They were driven out of the land. Then came the legislation making the life of non-Catholic believers difficult. They did not have a priest to perform rites that were part of their everyday life, like christenings, weddings, or burials. The Catholic priests were forbidden to do the rituals for them unless the Protestants converted to Catholicism. Then, the Protestants were forbidden to run their businesses and own lands. After that, they were given the choice to leave the country or convert.

However, this choice was available only for the free, the aristocracy, and the inhabitants of regal towns. The subjects living in the country or liege towns were given a different offer. It was either conversion or imprisonment. When the subjects did not relent, the army came. The houses of the Protestant subjects were used as accommodation for the unruly soldiers, all the food supplies were eaten, and the inhabitants had to face the consequences of the army’s presence, including sexual and other violence. The military would leave only when the whole village converted to Catholicism.

After the burghers, the Protestant aristocrats were given the same choice. The aristocrats who acted as landlords had to perform the counter-reformation on their lands or face the consequences. The authorities supervised most carefully those aristocrats who converted recently. The counter-reformation measures they took concerning their Protestant subjects were their chance to prove their loyalty to their new faith and king.

A richly detailed painting commemorating the Catholic victory. The upper section showcases Our Lady of Victory, radiant amidst clouds, encircled by cherubs and saints. Below, scenes of celestial and earthly realms intertwine; on the left, Emperor Ferdinand II and his son Ferdinand III, both adorned in regal attire, are depicted near a prominent Bohemian lion. Surrounding figures include clerics, warriors, and saints, all set against a backdrop of a dramatic sky and a distant battlefield.
Painting commemorating the Catholic triumph. The top features Our Lady of Victory with saints, while the bottom left shows Emperor Ferdinand II, his son Ferdinand III, and the Bohemian lion, by Anton Stevens, Wikimedia Commons

The New Europe of the 17th Century

The Counter-Reformation was primarily performed in Europe before, during, and soon after the Thirty Years War. When the dust settled, a new religious reality emerged. When we began our story, at the beginning of the 16th century, there was a universal church and those who tried to reform it. At the end of the 17th century, there were three separate Christian churches on the continent (we are leaving England apart, as its development is particular), and each is aware of the other. Gone were the days of influential popes making their own independent politics. From then on, both Protestant and Catholic churches relied on kings, princes, and emperors. They have become rather subordinate to them, doing their job of educating the people on matters of faith and performing the rites.

This was the price that the Catholic church had to pay to gain back its position. That is the price of the Counter-Reformation.

A detailed painting depicting the Ratification of the Spanish-Dutch Treaty of Münster on 15 May 1648. A large assembly of dignitaries, diplomats, and officials gather in a grand room with intricate woodwork and chandeliers. Central to the scene is a table draped in green cloth, where documents await ratification. Several figures are engaged in discussion or reading, while others solemnly observe. Two prominently dressed figures, one in a vibrant red cloak and another in an ornate armor, stand out among the gathering. The atmosphere is one of solemnity and significance, capturing the historic moment of treaty ratification.
The Ratification of the Spanish-Dutch Treaty of Münster, 15 May 1648, Wikimedia Commons