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It is best to describe this period in Church History in Three Parts:

Part I – The Protestant Reformation

Part II – The Counter-Reformation

Part III – The Enlightenment


Martin Luther (1483–1546)

Martin Luther was the chief of the Protestant Reformers. Born in Eisleben, Saxony (Germany), he became an Augustinian monk in 1505, and in 1512, a professor of philosophy and Sacred Scripture at the University of Wittenberg.

When Pope Julius II decided to rebuild the Cathedral of St. Peter in Rome, he announced a jubilee, saying that anyone who went to confession and communion and gave a monetary contribution toward the construction of the basilica would receive a plenary indulgence, which is a remission of all the temporary punishments due to sin. After his death, Pope Leo X continued the jubilee and appointed the Dominican friar, John Tetzel, to preach and promote it in Germany. However, John employed some exaggerated and high-pressure salesmanship that repelled Martin Luther. Martin felt that the selling of indulgences was sinful and a corruption in the Church that must be corrected. But, instead of simply criticizing the practice of selling indulgences, Luther attacked the doctrine of indulgences itself and then asserted that salvation can be attained by grace through faith alone (sola fide), thus rendering indulgences and “good works” unnecessary.

Luther wrote a list of 95 theses, which are propositions detailing his position on the question of the efficacy of indulgences. According to an unconfirmed but popular belief, Luther nailed his theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, to challenge John Tetzel to a debate. News of his controversy with John Tetzel soon reached the pope, who then summoned him to Rome. King Frederick, who supported Martin Luther, asked the pope to send a representative to Germany instead. The pope, therefore, sent Cardinal Cajetan, a brilliant Dominican theologian, to discuss with Martin Luther the issues concerning faith, grace, and indulgences. Their discussions went beyond the issue of indulgences. They also talked about “justification” and “salvation.” For Luther, anyone who had true repentance was already justified, which means he had already received salvation and pardon from God apart from the sacraments. He asserted that baptism and communion were the only true sacraments and that all others were unnecessary. Martin Luther remained unconvinced by Cajetan’s arguments to the contrary. So, on January 3, 1521, Pope Leo X excommunicated him in a papal bull, Decet Romanum Pontificem.

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Luther Posting His 95 Theses at the Door

A painting by Ferdinand Pauwels (1830-1904)

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Luther was a scholar. In 1522, desiring to make the Bible accessible to everyone, he began translating the Bible from its original Hebrew and Greek texts into German. The project was completed in 1534. While he greatly encouraged the reading of the Holy Scripture by the faithful, he rejected the need for a Church magisterium to teach the meaning of the sacred texts and advocated instead the free and private interpretation of the Holy Scripture. He rejected the idea that the Church was the infallible interpreter of the sacred texts and maintained that every man was entitled to read and interpret the Scriptures for himself according to his understanding.

Martin Luther taught many other doctrines opposed to the teachings of the Catholic Church. For example, he denied the supremacy of the pope, the need to obey the commandments of the Church, the celibacy of the clergy, the Church’s teachings on Purgatory, and the practice of venerating the saints.

In 1525, Luther married Katharina von Bora, an ex-nun who fled from the Cistercian convent in Nimbsch (near Grimma). Luther married her against the advice of his friends, saying that "his marriage would please his father, rile the pope, cause the angels to laugh, and the devils to weep.” See the Wikipedia article, Katharina von Bora.

In 1546, Luther died, regretting the outcome of the Protestant Reformation. He saw Protestantism splintered into a variety of rival sects, but instead of acknowledging this tragedy as the result of his doctrine on the private interpretation of the Holy Scripture, he simply attributed it to the work of the devil. Thus, he writes, “The devil, seeing that this sort of disturbance could not last, has devised a new one; and begins to rage in his members, I mean in the ungodly, through whom he makes his way in all sorts of chimerical follies and extravagant doctrines. This won't have baptism, that denies the efficacy of the Lord's supper; a third, puts a world between this and the last judgment ; others teach that Jesus Christ is not God ; some say this, others that ; and there are almost as many sects and beliefs as there are heads.” Letter to the Christians of Antwerp (1525), pp. 91–92.


The Spread of Protestantism

The Roman emperor during the time of Luther was Charles V. In 1521, he summoned the princes and bishops in Germany for a meeting at Worms, Germany. Luther appeared at this meeting, popularly known as the Diet of Worms, but refused to retract his teachings. Therefore, the emperor condemned him and ordered his writings to be destroyed.


However, some of Luther’s converts were princes and kings who were greedy to seize the possessions of the Church, and who wanted a religion that justified breaking the authority of Rome. In 1529, another meeting, known as the Diet of Speyer, ordered the followers of Luther not to preach any new doctrines until a general church council could be held and that no one should be prevented from attending Mass. Six princes and the rulers of fourteen cities, all of whom were sympathetic to Luther, protested against this decree. On account of this, the followers of Luther were henceforth called Protestants. Then, in 1530, at the Diet of Augsburg, the Protestants drew up a Lutheran creed at the request of the emperor. This creed has since been called the Augsburg Confession.


Luther’s teachings spread quickly, first in Germany, then into the Baltic States—Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. See Map of Europe. In 1526, Frederick I of Denmark, although a Catholic, permitted Lutheran preachers to preach Luther’s doctrines in the country. In 1536, his successor, Christian III, made Lutheranism the state religion. Note that the country became Protestant, not because the people were convinced that Protestantism was right and that the Catholic Church was wrong, but because it was forced on them by the State. Of course, the process was not accomplished without bloodshed. Church property was confiscated, religious houses and monasteries were closed, bishops were imprisoned, and priests, monks, and nuns were forcibly driven away.


In Switzerland, Protestantism came largely through the work of Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531), an apostate chaplain in the Swiss Army. He worked in Zurich, Switzerland, and started teaching heretical doctrines in 1523, two years after Luther was excommunicated. Like Luther, he maintained the supremacy of the Bible and denied the Catholic teachings on Purgatory and the veneration of saints, pictures, and images. Contrary to Luther, however, he claimed that the Bible did not teach the actual presence of Christ in the bread and wine during communion and that the Mass was merely a memorial service of our Lord’s death. In Switzerland, some Western Swiss states (called “cantons”) accepted the teachings of the Anabaptists, which denied the validity of infant baptism. However, Zwingli and his followers, just like Martin Luther himself, defended the practice of infant baptism.


Ulrich Zwingli

A painting by Hans Asper (1499-1571)

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John Calvin

A painting by Titian (?-1576)

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In 1535, the French Lutheran theologian, John Calvin (1509–1564), broke off from Luther on the question of predestination. Because of his radical religious teachings, John Calvin was driven out of France, and he fled to Switzerland. In his book, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, he taught that all men were predestined for heaven or hell. The Council of Trent (1545–1563) condemned this teaching because it destroys free will and makes God the author of sin. Besides his erroneous doctrine on predestination, Calvin followed Zwingli in denying the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. He forbade all religious ceremonies, such as the Mass or ordinations to the priesthood. Although John Calvin worked in Geneva, Switzerland, his influence was felt in France and throughout Europe. The Calvinists in France were known as the Huguenots.


In England, Protestantism began with King Henry VIII (1491–1597). In the beginning, Henry VIII was opposed to the teachings of Martin Luther and even wrote a book against him, for which he was honored by Pope Leo X with the title “Defender of the Faith.” In 1509, he married Catherine of Aragon. Twenty-four years later, he fell in love with the queen’s attendant, Anne Boleyn. When Pope Clement VII refused to grant a divorce between him and his lawful wife, he denied papal authority and, with the help of Thomas Cromwell, confiscated all church properties in England and transferred them to the crown. Then he declared himself Head of the Church of England, forced the British Parliament to divorce him, and publicly married Anne Boleyn (whom he had privately married earlier). Three years later, he had Anne beheaded and married another woman. He had remarried several times and had already married six women when he died. It was a tragic story of passion and failed marriages, but that was how Anglicanism, or Protestantism in England, was born. The Church of England, now called the Anglican Church, was continued by Henry’s successors, who violently suppressed any opposition to their claim to supremacy in spiritual matters.


Although the so-called “Protestant Reformation” is usually stated as ending in 1550, Protestantism as a religion continued to gain followers and break up into various religious sects up to the present. In Scotland, the apostate Catholic priest, John Knox, led the Presbyterian movement in 1560, which aimed at the destruction of the Catholic Church, while in 1609, John Smyth led the General Baptist Church in Holland. In 1650, George Fox founded a new Religious Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers, in England. In 1739, John Wesley also broke off from Anglicanism and started the Methodist revival. The Episcopal Church in the United States is a member of the worldwide Anglican Communion. On account of these divisions, the current number of Protestant denominations today probably runs into the hundreds.


The often-quoted idea that the total number of Protestant denominations today is upward of 33,000 came from the two-volume World Christian Encyclopedia by Barrett, Kurian, and Johnson. However, the 33,000 figure is misleading because of its questionable use of the word “denomination,” which includes practically any non-Catholic group that calls itself Christian. Of course, if the word “denomination” includes not merely the Protestants but also all those who follow Christ or who call themselves Christians—even if they do not believe in the Divinity of Christ or the Blessed Trinity (such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons, etc.)—then the total number of Christian “denominations” could indeed run into the thousands. 



Violence During the Protestant Reformation


Catholics are often unfairly criticized, sometimes by Protestants, due to the excesses and cruelty observed during the time of the Papal Inquisition. However, if the Inquisition appears cruel to us today, it is not because its activities were Catholic but because they were medieval. It should be kept in mind that torture and the application of the death penalty for convicted heretics and terrorists were the custom of the time and not the result exclusively of Catholic policy. In fact, during the Protestant Reformation, Lutheran leaders inflicted excesses and punishments similar to those that were observed during the Spanish Inquisition on their dissident subjects. In addition to the example of Christian III of Denmark, who violently forced Lutheranism on his subjects, the Lutheran princes and nobles in Germany ruthlessly suppressed the Catholic peasants who, led by Anabaptist reformers, revolted against their feudal lords. This rebellion, now known as the German Peasant’s War (1524–1525), did not have a purely economic cause. Although the peasants were mostly Catholics who merely wanted freedom from serfdom, they were being led and inspired by the reformation ideas of the Anabaptist leader, Thomas Muntzer. The German princes and lords, against whom the peasants revolted, were friends and followers of Martin Luther. These Lutherans hated and condemned the Anabaptists (See the Augsburg Confessions, Art. 9, 12, 16, and 17), and Martin Luther himself despised the peasants. What is relevant to note here is that Martin Luther admitted that the violent suppression of the revolution, which resulted in the deaths of about 100,000 rebels, was done on account of his bidding: "I, Martin Luther, smote all the peasants in their rebellion. For I commanded them to be slain; all their blood is on my head. But I put the responsibility upon our Lord God, who ordered me to say what I did." See Conversations with Luther, p. 95. This example shows that Martin Luther himself, the founder of the Protestant Reformation in Germany, had no scruples about using violence and death, if necessary, to eliminate what he regarded as evil elements in society and enemies of his faith.


In addition to the Lutheran violence described above, the Zwinglians and Anabaptists also persecuted and killed each other for holding opposite views, especially on the issue of infant Baptism. In Switzerland, Calvinists regarded death as a penalty for heresy and blasphemy, and Calvin himself requested the burning of Michael Servetus, a Spanish doctor, for denying the Trinity. In Antwerp (Belgium), Calvinists destroyed the Cathedral of Antwerp and sacked thirty other Catholic churches for teaching “heretical” doctrines. In 1560, the Scottish Parliament, inspired by the reformation ideas of John Knox, imposed Protestantism as the state religion and threatened exile and death for those who attended Mass. In Ireland, hundreds of Catholic priests were martyred and thousands more were exiled when Queen Elizabeth I of England conquered the country and tried to impose Protestantism in the land. In England itself, the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Elizabeth I, James I, Charles I, Oliver Cromwell, and their successors were marked by a series of fines, confiscation, imprisonment, banishment, torture, and death for Catholics who refused to acknowledge the English monarch as head of the Church of England. Among those who were beheaded on account of their opposition was St. Thomas More (1478–1535), who served as Chancellor of England from October 1529 to May 1532. St. Thomas More is still remembered for his famous remark, “I am the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”


The above examples show that the excesses and hostilities committed against heretics and those who held positions opposed to the State were not exclusively a Catholic phenomenon.


The Council of Trent (1545 – 1563)

To counter the growing threat of Protestantism in the Church, Pope Paul III opened the important General Council of Trent in 1545. The council had a twofold purpose: (a) to state clearly the doctrines of the Church that the Protestants denied, and (b) to get rid of the abuses within the Church. For political reasons, unfortunately, the Council had been disrupted twice, thus wasting ten years without accomplishing its goals. But thanks to the efforts of St. Charles Borromeo (1538–1584), the council resumed its work for the third time with great success. The council clarified the Church’s teachings on divine revelation, original sin, grace, the sacraments, the indissolubility of marriage, the Mass, purgatory, and indulgences. It also defined for perpetuity the canon of Holy Scripture, and at the same time, it declared Sacred Tradition and Holy Scripture to be the two sources of divine revelation. A catechism, known as the Catechism of the Council of Trent, was prepared under the supervision of St. Charles Borromeo.

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St. Charles Borromeo

An engraving by Claude Mellan (1598-1688)

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The council passed many laws aimed at correcting the moral blemish caused by the worldly conduct of priests and bishops. It formulated regulations about the appointment of cardinals, stressed the strict obligations of bishops and priests, and mandated requirements for the education of both the clergy and the laity. Pope St. Pius V (1504–1572) was an outstanding example of a prelate who conformed to the instructions of the Council of Trent. He did not merely live an austere life personally but also mandated the clergy to do the same. In a Papal Bull, Horrendum illud scelus (1568), he imposed severe sanctions on any clergy who engaged in sodomy or other homosexual activity.

The Further Expansion of Christianity to Other Lands

Among the chief results of the Council of Trent, in addition to countering the spread of Protestantism in Europe, was the revival of spiritual life in the Church and the consequent expansion of Christianity to other lands.

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries produced many outstanding saints, which balanced the sufferings and loss of faith brought about by the Protestant Reformation. Among the saints who resisted Protestantism and spearheaded the revival in the Church were St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556), St. Francis Xavier (1506–1552), the Dominican Pope St. Pius V (1504–1572), St. Francis Borgia (1510–1572), St. Louis Bertrand (1526–1581), St. Teresa of Avila (1515–1582), St. John of the Cross (1542–1591), St. Aloysius Gonzaga (1568–1591), St. Philip Neri (1515–1595), St. Peter Canisius (1521–1597), St. Rose of Lima (1586–1617), St. John Berchmans (1599–1621), St. Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621), St. Francis de Sales (1567–1622), St. Jane Frances de Chantal (1572–1641), St. Isaac Jogues (1607–1646), St. Vincent de Paul (1581–1660), St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647–1690), St. Louis Marie Grignon de Montfort (1673–1716), St. Jean-Baptiste de La Salle (1651–1719), St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696–1787), and many more. They were witnesses to the flowering of sanctity in the Church in the centuries following the close of the Council of Trent. Some of them were also responsible for founding new religious orders and congregations in the Church, such as the Society of Jesus (founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Francis Xavier), the Order of the Visitation (by St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane Frances de Chantal), the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (by St. Alphonsus Liguori), etc. Missionaries from these religious orders, especially the Society of Jesus, along with the missionaries from the old mendicant religious orders, contributed to the expansion of Christianity to lands outside Europe.

The Church did not merely make significant gains in spirituality during this period but also made astounding success in military warfare against nations that were hostile to the Catholic religion. In 1571, for example, a Turkish armada threatened to capture Rome, but Pope St. Pius V called upon all Catholics to pray the Holy Rosary and beg the Mother of God to help their small Christian fleet defend them against the powerful Turkish navy. The Catholic forces won an astounding victory in the famous Battle of Lepanto, on account of which the Pope proclaimed a new feast in honor of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary. An army of 90,000 Christians (which included German and Polish relief forces) won a similar victory against a Turkish army of initially 170,000 Arabs in the Battle of Vienna in 1683. Pope Innocent XI called upon all Catholics to pray for Mary's intercession; the greatly outnumbered Christian armies made a stunning victory.

Sadly, it was during this time of the great Catholic revival that the well-publicized confrontation of Galileo with the Inquisition took place. For those interested in reading the details of the Galileo case, see The Condemnation of Galileo.

In America:

When Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492, other Spanish explorers, accompanied by Dominican, Franciscan, and Augustinian missionaries, followed. The Jesuits also came, some to Peru and others to Paraguay. The first canonized saint of the New World was St. Rose of Lima, who became a lay Dominican. Particular mention must be made of the work of the Spanish Dominican missionary, Bartolomé de las Casas (1484–1566), who defended American Indians against oppression by abusive European colonizers and who converted thousands to the Faith in Central America. Likewise, the Dominican St. Louis Bertrand was responsible for baptizing 25,000 pagan people in Colombia and Panama. After the conquest of Mexico by Hernando Cortez, the Franciscans also established missions in the land. The missionaries worked hard to bring not only the Catholic Faith but also education, the sciences, and the arts to Mexico. The apparition of the Blessed Virgin, Our Lady of Guadalupe, in 1531 to the Indian peasant, Juan Diego, had a profound influence that led to the conversion of many natives. From Mexico, the missionaries, led by Fr. Junípero Serra (1713–1784), founded missions in California. The French Jesuits first came to Canada in 1608. They converted the Indian tribes—the Hurons, the Algonquins, and the Montagnais—to the Faith, but the Iroquois, who were the enemies of the Hurons, would not be easily converted. The further expansion of Christianity to the United States was the work of the French missionaries from Canada. St. Isaac Jogues, S.J. (1607–1646) went to visit the region of the Great Lakes but was captured and martyred by the Iroquois.


Fray Bartolome de las Casas, O.P.

By an anonymous painter

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St. Isaac Jogues and Companions

From a Holy Card of North American Martyrs

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Fr. Jacques Marquette, S.J. (1637–1675) preached the gospel to the Indians as he explored the Mississippi River. The Belgian Franciscan, Fr. Louis Hennepin (1626–1704), discovered Niagara Falls while working among the hostile Mohawk tribe. The well-known St. Kateri Tekakwitha (1656–1680) was an Algonquin-Mohawk Indian laywoman.

During this time, in Quito, Ecuador, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to Ven. Mother Mariana de Jesús Torres (1563–1635), and, from 1594 to 1634, she made some remarkable predictions about the future of the Church. For example, she predicted that the dogmas of papal infallibility and the Immaculate Conception would be defined under the pontificate of the same pope. She further predicted that this pope would then be imprisoned in the Vatican by the usurpation of the Papal States by an earthly monarch. Papal infallibility was indeed defined by the First Vatican Council (1869–1870) under the pontificate of Pope Bl. Pius IX, the same pope who defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854. And, in 1870, the King of Italy, Victor Emmanuel, took possession of the Papal States and left nothing to Pope Pius IX but St. Peter’s Basilica and his residence, thus making him and his successors “prisoners” in the Vatican Palace. The remarkable thing is that the predictions were made in 1634, over 200 years before the predicted events actually happened! 

Even more remarkable are the predictions she made for the twentieth century and beyond. She predicted the turbulence that would rock the Church due to the reign of Satan through the rise of Freemasonry. She said that the world would be plagued by loose morals and the corruption of the clergy, but that she would also triumph over Satan in the end. She commanded that a statue of her holding the Child Jesus be made and given the name “Mary of Good Success and of Purification.” See Chiesa viva, pp. 14–16.

In Asia:

The first to do missionary work in Asia were the Jesuits, which included St. Francis Xavier (1506–1552). However, the Jesuit missionaries brought the Faith not only to India but also to Japan and China. In 1631, the Dominicans joined ranks, came to China, and converted many to the Faith. The Dominican Pope St. Pius V was especially supportive of the Church missions in Asia, although he is better known for his effort in defeating the Turks in the famous Battle of Lepanto in 1571. In the Philippines, Christianity was first introduced when the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan came to the country in 1521. Soon, the Augustinians, Dominicans, Franciscans, and Jesuits also came to make the Philippines the foremost Catholic country in Asia.

Protestantism in the Seventeenth Century

While Catholicism continued to expand in other lands, Protestantism also made some progress of its own. In 1611, King James I of England authorized the publication of the King James Version of the Bible, which became the most popular version among Protestants for three hundred years. The 30 Years War (1618–1648) also resulted in a series of peace treatises known as the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the religious wars that killed about eight million people in Europe and gave Catholics and Protestants equal rights in the Holy Roman Empire.

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While the Catholic Church continued to make progress outside Europe, a new heresy arose in France in the middle of the seventeenth century. This was Jansenism, whose doctrine of salvation closely parallels that of Calvinism. Its founder, Cornelius Jansen (1585–1638), claimed that grace was so efficacious that the will could not resist it. Hence, the cooperation of the will is not required for salvation. However, according to Jansen, grace is not for everyone but is given only to those who have been predestined to receive it. God bestows grace on some but denies it to others. Since each person is already predestined from birth either to go to heaven or hell, the Jansenists did not see the need for frequent confession and communion. The Jesuits, through their teachings, tried to combat the errors of Jansenism. But they found a powerful opponent in Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) who wrote a strong polemic against the Jesuits in his Provincial Letters. In 1653, Pope Innocent X condemned the heretical ideas of Jansen in the papal bull Cum occasione.

Absolutism: Gallicanism and Josephinism

Other errors compounded the problems in France and other countries in Europe. Gallicanism (in France, Portugal, Spain, and Italy) and Josephinism (in Germany) promoted the idea that the state has absolute powers over the Church. State rulers used this principle to employ religion and the Church as tools for enriching themselves and eliminating political rivals. In 1673, for example, King Louis XIV (1643–1715) of France assumed for himself the power to appoint bishops and confiscate church revenues. Both Protestants (the Huguenots) and Catholics suffered from the absolutism of King Louis XIV, who forced them to accept the religion of the state, which aimed to dissociate itself from church authority and the pope. A similar error also plagued the German states, but there it was called Josephinism, after Emperor Joseph II (1741–1790) of Austria. Joseph II thought that the church was only a branch of the government, and he would not allow any interference by bishops and the church in the affairs of the state.  


In Europe, in addition to the theological errors of Jansenism, there also arose philosophical errors that derived from the writings of rationalists and freethinkers who affirmed the sufficiency of human reason and who refused to acknowledge a higher authority on intellectual and religious matters. They insisted that neither the Bible nor the Church was a better guide than human reason. Francois-Marie Arouet (1694–1778), more popularly known as Voltaire, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) were the prophets of rationalism in France. These two philosophers ushered in the so-called “Age of Enlightenment” because of their insistence that human reason was supreme and did not need divine revelation or a higher authority to attain truth. Needless to say, rationalism gave support to the movement to disregard religion, the church, and the papacy.



A painting by Nicolas de Largillière (1656-1746)

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau

A painting by Maurice Quentin de la Tour (1704-1788)

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Outside of France, of course, there had also been other influential philosophers who supported rationalism and empiricism. One of them was the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), who wrote a famous book, Critique of Pure Reason, in 1781. Another champion of the "enlightenment" in Germany was Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781), who questioned the credibility of miracles and other Christian claims.


Freemasonry started in London on July 24, 1717, when a group of freethinkers banded together into a society called the Order of the Freemasons. This society, whose members were bound by oaths of secrecy, wanted to establish an international organization not affiliated with any church or religion. Supported by rationalist ideology, it advocated the complete separation of church and State and quickly gained political power, especially in France. Because of its insistence that the church should have no voice in the affairs of the state, Pope Clement XII, in a papal bull, In eminenti (1738), condemned freemasonry and threatened to excommunicate Catholics who joined the secret society.

The Suppression of the Jesuits

Among the various religious orders, the Jesuits were among those who fought hard against the prevailing errors of the day. Naturally, they made many political enemies. Since they refused to be used as tools of the State, they were falsely accused of teaching doctrines that were dangerous to the State. In 1762, the Parliament of Paris suppressed the Society of Jesus in France. Their property was confiscated, some Jesuits were imprisoned, and others were exiled out of France. Other countries in Europe soon followed suit. In Portugal, the prime minister, Pombal, arrested the Jesuits and sent them to the Papal States. The Kingdoms of Spain and Naples joined ranks, and, together with France and Portugal, they petitioned Pope Clement XIV to suppress the Jesuits worldwide. Some of the possessions of the pope in France and Naples were seized, and the pope was told that he could no longer enjoy the cooperation of European nations if the Jesuits were allowed to operate. Seeking peace for the Church, the pope suppressed the Society of Jesus in 1773. However, some non-Catholic royalties, such as Frederick II (aka Frederick the Great) of Prussia and Catherine II of Russia, supported the society. Thus, after the death of Pope Clement XIV, Pope Pius VI allowed the Jesuits to have a novitiate again in Lithuania. His successor, Pope Pius VII, permitted the order to exist in Russia, and in 1814, he re-established the order for the whole world.

The French Revolution

Due to the absolutism and false ideologies that prevailed in France during the Enlightenment, the French nobility pursued an abusive policy of enriching themselves at the expense of the common people. The ambitious King Louis XIV, who made himself the absolute power in both politics and religion, initiated a series of expensive wars aimed at extending his realm outside of France. This forced the state to incur huge debts that led to over-taxation and the unjust confiscation of church revenues. The next king, Louis XV (1715–1774), was even worse, for his reign combined absolutism with wastefulness and corruption. Even during his time, King Louis XV knew that, due to the extravagance and excesses of the royal court, a revolution was inevitable. His successor, King Louis XVI (1774–1792), was not personally extravagant, but he was a weak leader and was unable to reduce government debts and prevent France from going into national bankruptcy. In 1789, the French Revolution finally broke out. The common people wanted to overthrow the monarchy. The revolutionists stormed the Bastille (a royal prison in Paris), destroyed properties, and looted monasteries. The leaders of the revolutionists were members of an anti-Catholic group known as the Jacobins. Among its members were Robespierre, Danton, and Marat. They executed many of the aristocrats, including innocent women and children, by beheading them. The king and later his wife, Marie Antoinette, were also both sent to the guillotine.


The Execution of King Louis XVI of France

A painting by Maurice Quentin de la Tour (1704-1788)

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The revolutionists drafted the so-called “Civil Constitution of the Clergy,” which stated that priests and bishops were to be elected by the people—a matter that was contrary to canon law. The revolutionists required priests and bishops to take an oath to this constitution. Those who refused to take the oath were not allowed to hold their priestly offices and were banished to penal colonies in South America or other countries. On the other hand, Pope Pius VI suspended those who took the oath.

After the revolution, the revolutionists tried to suppress Catholic worship in France. They destroyed images of saints and, instead, placed the image of the “Goddess of Reason” at the altar of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Worried about their safety, the kings of other countries in Europe declared war on the French Republic. The French Republic therefore sent General Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) into the Papal States to lead the French army in this warfare. Rome, the Eternal City, fell, and Napoleon brought Pope Pius VI to France as a prisoner.


Napoleon Bonaparte

A painting by Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825)

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Napoleon Crossing the Alps

A painting by Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825)

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The pope died in 1799, but the cardinals elected a new pope—Pope Pius VII—in a conclave near Venice in 1800. Because of his success, Napoleon obtained control of the affairs of France, replacing the leaders of the revolution. Napoleon knew that the French people were still Catholic at heart and that the way to restore public order was to make peace with the pope. In 1801, he signed a Concordat with the Holy See, and peace was restored in the country.

The American Revolution

While the world's focus during the Enlightenment was in France, religious development was also happening in Colonial America. One significant development came about as a result of the American Revolution (1775–1783), when 13 colonies under British rule struggled for their independence. The Declaration of Independence, made on July 4, 1776, basically created a new country: the United States of America. However, the colonies did not merely gain political independence from Great Britain but also religious freedom. The principle of "freedom of religion" became a part of the amended Federal Constitution of 1791. In particular, Amendment 1 of the Constitution states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." This amendment guarantees religious freedom for all. Waves of immigrants came from France and Ireland, increasing the number of Catholics in the United States.

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