The Catholic Reformation
or Counter-Reformation
in 16th century

An unavoidable reform to fight against the development of Protestantism

The council of Trent (1545-1563) was a turning point in the history of Catholicism when dogma and disciplinary reforms were passed.

In Trent, the council discontinuously met over 18 years

  • The Trente Council
    The Trente Council © S.H.P.F.

A reform of the Church and of the clergy was called for by humanists and some members of the clergy for years, because churches were getting empty, behaviours of the regular and secular clergy were criticised, priests often were ignorant. The 5th council of Latran ended in 1517 but had come to nothing.

The development of the Reformation urged Charles V to call for another council meeting. Pope Paul III sent the first notice in 1536, but the council finally met in Trent, on Empire ground, in 1545.

The council of Trent, through five popes’ reigns, held 25 sessions over 18 years, with long interruptions. Around 1550, during the second session, Charles V asked a Lutheran Protestant delegation to attend, but no dialogue ensued.

The council enabled the Church to define its dogma and discipline:

  • faith has two origins -i.e. the Bible and the tradition,
  • man’s salvation rests on God, but also on the believer’s participation,
  • seven sacraments still exist,
  • Christ’s presence in the bread and the wine of the communion is real and substantial,
  • the canon of the Scriptures, namely the list of the books in the Bible considered as God given, is determined,
  • indulgences are kept, but not to be marketed,
  • rules concerning ecclesiastic discipline are established,
  • inquisition is maintained,
  • the purgatory is asserted and prayers for the deceased still required,
  • the legitimacy of saints’ worship is asserted.

An application of the catholic Reformation in Milan

  • Bible in latin, Vulgate 1495
    Bible in latin, Vulgate 1495 © Fonds Société Biblique / Marc Gantier

The Reformation of the Catholic Church was implemented thanks to the personal involvement of a few bishops. Charles Borromeo, bishop of Milan, set the example by living on his diocese and incessantly travelling around. He founded a seminar for priests, re-instituted the discipline – e.g. nuns were no longer allowed out of their convents. He also founded hospitals and schools.

In the wake of the council of Trent

  • Postage stamp: Paul III's approval of the founding of the
    Postage stamp: Paul III's approval of the founding of the "Compagnie de Jésus" © Collection privée

The results of the council were many and the consequences as follows :

  • promulgation of the roman catechism,
  • publication of the Vulgate (the Bible in Latin),
  • reform of the breviary and the missal,
  • the council of Trent mainly defined the Catholic dogma.

Throughout Europe religious orders publicised the Counter-Reformation, especially the Jesuits, founded in 1540, who created universities and colleges. Catholicism had found the means to stop the expansion of Protestantism and to drive it out of part of the German Empire.

The Catholic Reformation
or Counter-Reformation
in 16th century

Via Felice e Gregorio Fontana, 38121 Trente, Italie

Itinerary to this location


  • Books
    • CHAUNU Pierre, Église, culture et société. Essais sur la Réforme et la Contre-Réforme, (1517-1620), Société d'édition de l'enseignement supérieur, Paris, 1981
    • DELUMEAU Jean, Le Catholicisme entre Luther et Voltaire, PUF, Paris, 1971
    • JEDIN Hubert, Histoire du concile de Trente, Paris, 1965
    • TALLON Alain, La France et le Concile de Trente 1518-1563, École française de Rome, Rome, 1997

Associated notes

  • The radical Reformation in 16th century

    The expression “radical Reformation” was given to a complex and multifarious movement that found the lutherans and the swiss Reformers not daring enough, and considered that the Reformation had only...
  • The Anglican Reformation in 16th century

    The secession of the Church of England in 1534 opens the gates to the Protestant influence.
  • Several models of Reformation

    In itself, the Reformation appeared everywhere. Everywhere, in France, in Switzerland, it was indigenous, a fruit of the land and of various circumstances that, nevertheless,  produced similar fruit.
  • Jean Calvin (1509-1564)

    A generation after Luther, the Frenchman Jean Calvin became the organiser of the Reformation : he organised the Church, shaped the doctrine and defined the role of the Church in state government.
  • The Calvinist Reformation in 16th century

    The Reformation later known as Calvinist movement was launched by several reformers and spread to many parts of Europe, from Zurich and Geneva.