James Felak on the Counter-Reformation
Date: October 22nd, 2017

As we wind down our seven-episode series on the Protestant Reformation, we give the “other side” a chance to make their historical case.  Prof. James Felak, a professor of history at the University of Washington (and frequent RoR guest), sits down with Tony to discuss the Catholic response to Luther’s protest.  Known popularly as the “Counter-Reformation,” Dr. Felak notes that it really should be termed the Catholic Reformation as we note how Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and others broke with the Church in a schismatic movement.  We start the discussion with a look at the religious and political landscape leading up to Luther’s challenge.  Fifteenth century Europe was characterized by three key factors that conditioned the Reformation, Felak argues. First was the increasing strength of secular kingdoms relative to the Roman Catholic Church, which prompts a variety of power and financial struggles between the crown(s) and the popes.  Growing corruption within the Church presented the second challenge to Christianity during this century, which leads to the third factor — indulgences.  Out of curiosity, Tony asks when the Catholic Church began to be called the “Catholic Church,” rather than just the Church given that Catholicism is now used as a term of contradistinction to Protestantism.  James mentions that he wonders the same thing too when teaching courses on Christian history, and we more or less agree that the term Catholic Church is put into greater usage in the 16th century.  (Listeners are encouraged to weigh in on this question.)

We then move to the early 1500s and the “immediate” (by late medieval standards) reaction of the Vatican to Luther.  Tony poses a counterfactual to his historian guest, asking what would the Christian timeline looked like had the Holy See just ignored Martin Luther.  There were two popes involved in pushing back against Luther, and times of leadership transition can be difficult.  Prof. Felak responds that the Protestant Reformation was a “slow train moving” and it was likely to happen at some point.  We talk about how Johann Eck became involved in debates with Luther and how Luther’s pamphleteering left the Vatican no choice but to respond.  The printing press made ignoring the issue very difficult.  We review the events of the Diet of Worms and then springboard forward to the Council of Trent that sets the “Counter-Reformation” in motion.  James points out that Rome was really responding to at least five “reformations” over the first half of the sixteenth century, only one of which was Luther.  This included movements spurred on by Zwingli, Calvin, Arminians, other radical reformers, and the breakaway English Church.  The Council of Trent — which occurred over several decades (and James explains why) — initiated a two-prong response which was to, first, reform the institutional Church, and second, to answer a variety of doctrinal challenges to the faith.  As for the first, there was greater emphasis placed on educating the clergy via rigorous seminary training, incentivize bishops to preach in their own dioceses, and ensure subsequent popes chosen had a strong moral character.  There was also a movement to promoting religious orders, which we talk about later.  As for the doctrinal pushback, the Catholic Church reaffirmed the seven sacraments, the doctrine of purgatory, and intellectual reasoning regarding the issue of “faith alone or good works.”  James spends time to explain the Catholic view of faith and works.

The conversation veers towards a discussion of the religious orders that were promoted to respond to these new institutional and theological challenges.  The Jesuits were the most famous of he orders to arise at this time, but Prof. Felak documents a number of other ones, including the shoeless (discalced) Carmelites.  He puts this in context of the older orders that emerged centuries before (e.g., Franciscans) and notes the new orders were much more engaged in the world and proselytizing than the earlier ones, including a renewed dedication to education of the clergy and laity.  James brings up folks such as Charles Borromeo and Teresa of Avila.  Tony asks about the Inquisition, and James responds by pointing out there were four distinct inquisitions including one prior to the Reformation (the Medieval Reformation), the Roman, Spanish, and Portuguese.  The latter two had a more political flavor as the Iberian peninsula was not dramatically touched by Protestant reformers and these campaigns were run by kings, not clergy.  We finish with some of James’s personal thoughts on how the Reformation affected Christianity and the Catholic Church, as well as how the Reformation has been viewed over the past five centuries.  He shares an interesting tale of being in a Seattle bookstore and his thoughts on Lutherans as compared to other Protestant denominations.  Recorded: October 6, 2017.



Prof. James Felak’s bio at the Department of History (University of Washington)

At the Price of the Republic: Hlinka’s Slovak People’s Party, 1929-38, by James Felak.

After Hitler, Before Stalin: Catholics, Communists, and Democrats in Slovakia, 1945-48, by James Felak.

The Blessed Evangelical Mary: Why We Shouldn’t Ignore Her Anymore,” by Timothy George (Christianity Today).

The Reformation at Five Hundred: An Outline of the Changing Ways We Remember the Reformation,” by Thomas Howard and Mark Knoll (First Things).


The Protestant Reformation Series (including podcasts from Goldman, Pfaff, Stark, Gray, Sorenson, and Nelson).

James Felak on Picking Pontiffs and Pope Francis I.

James Felak on Vatican Council II.

James Felak on Pope Pius XII, the Wartime Pontiff.

James Felak on John Paul II and Communism.

Ken Kollman on Church Centralization.

Jon Sweeney on the Pope Who Quit.

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