Certain debate has stirred up around the name of the different Catholic movements that had the objective of defending or ‘reforming’ the Catholic church. Can we call it a ‘Counter-Reformation’? What about ‘A Catholic Reformation’? Or, is there a better label to name those important movements? Many scholars who have studied the issue have questioned the same thing. Italian historian Massimo Firpo, among of them.
Catholic historian H. Jedin, on the basis that the term Counter-Reformation to define the period between the 16th century and 17th century where the Catholic church responded/reacted to the Protestant Reformation, argues for a redefinition of the Catholic Reformation movement and the Counter-Reformation movement. For him, both movements are independent from each other, so one should not have link them together. Jedin claims that the Catholic Reformation was a movement that had the purpose to change or ‘reform’ the Catholic Church from within, while the Catholic Counter-Reformation was a movement focused exclusively on ‘fixing’ the damaged caused by the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation. Based on this, Jedin defends and proposes a keeping of both terms for historical purposes. Italian historian, M. Firpo, however, observes that one hand, those scholars who preferred the term ‘Catholic Reform,’ tend to use the phrase to talk about a clergy movement of renewal in Catholicism, focusing on the positive work done by the Catholic orders around the world. On the other hand, those scholars who preferred the phrase ‘Counter-Reformation’ have tended to focus on the repressive measures taken against those who have separated from the Catholic church such as the Protestants.
Alternatives to these two terms such as ‘early modern Catholicism’ have been offered, especially coming from theologians and historians in the United States. They look for neutrality. However, for Firpo, those alternatives do not carry the powerful connotation the topic deserves. He argues that despite the benefits that these new terms might offer, such options are problematic. In that regard, he offers several reasons. I will mention only a couple.
First, phrases such as ‘early modern Catholicism’ are neutral but empty phrases since terms like those do not inform readers about changes made by the Catholic Church at all. That is, readers might get lost when reading a phrase like this.
Second, the different responses the Catholic Church took in the past to defend the doctrines reacting against the newer Protestant faith are still relevant today. The Catholic church has revised and solidified their doctrines because of the Protestant Reformation, has punished misbehavior of the clergy, has improved church structure, for example.
Third, the Catholic church does not have “two sides of the same coin” kind of situation. The church has had serious issues with power abuse, moral misconducts, sexual issues among clergy, etc.
It is for these reasons, among many others, that it is important for Firpo to reject any neutral and empty term and focus on label the period in these two centuries as accurate as possible. He argues that such an accuracy will lead people to appreciate the changes done better and consider them significant. Based on this, Firpo thinks that ‘Counter-Reformation’ is the best label to name the period beginning in the 16th century and finishing in the 17th century, where the Catholic church reacted and responded to the challenges of the Protestant Reformation, including the positive changes the church made as well.