Schilling, Heinz: Confessional Europe



2. Confessionalization of the Churches

CONFESSIONALIZATION modernized, above all, the churches themselves. Where the Reformation succeeded, the period after 1550 witnessed institutional reconstruction of doctrine and liturgy in a great burst of church ordinances, confessional statements, and confessional alliances. This happened above all in central Europe, where each of the dozens of Protestant territorial states and each of the free cities issued a more or less independent church ordinance, and where the boundaries between Lutheranism and Calvinism remained to be staked out.(16) In the Netherlands, France, and Scotland, by contrast, reformation and confessionalization largely coincided. The new Protestant gains,whether in western or in east central and southeastern Europe (Poland, Bohemia, Transylvania, Hungary, and Austria) mostly benefited Calvinism.

The movement did not achieve total reform of state and society, not even in the northern Netherlands, where Calvinism acquired the status of a “public Church” (publieken kerke), to which all magistrates had to belong, although it remained a minority in a multi-confessional and relatively tolerant society. (17) In England, although Queen Elisabeth I tried to forestall confessionalization, both because it contradicted her temperament and because she wished to avoid giving greater influence to the clergy, Puritan confessionalism developed as an oppositional movement within the state church. (18) This outcome proved all the more disruptive, because it developed uninterruptedly for several generations and reached a resolution only in the 1640s –fifty-to-a-hundred years later than in Germany, France, and the Netherlands.

In the Catholic lands, confessionalization of the church involved both a reaction to the Protestant advance (the Counterreformation) and a development of pre-Reformation tendencies (the Catholic reformation). Although the former should not be underestimated, it is true that early modern bureaucratization and rationalization (which in Protestant lands ran parallel to doctrinal and ritual reforms) and the renewal of monastic and lay piety had already begun in the late medieval era.

In some respects the European Reformation can be understood as a “modernization crisis”, a response to the rapid fifteenth-century transformation of the Roman Curia, which was met north of the Alps by misunderstanding and mistrust. The late medieval beginnings of modernization, however, had failed to develop within the intact church, because the interests of the clerical hierarchy had opposed them, and because Renaissance popes had posed more pressing agendas. Luther and the Reformation thus to some degree rescued the late medieval reforms in the old church and enabled the Catholic confessionalization of the late sixteenth century to employ them. (19) The Protestants took the lead in modernizing the church and held it for three or four generations, while with the Council of Trent the Catholics began to follow, though with painful slowness, (20) The true Counterreformation, recovery of lands lost to Protestantism, was successful only in part. Certain parts of Germany were recovered, above all the ecclesiastical territories and much of the Habsburg dynastic lands. Poland, too, which had in many regions developed a multi-confessional and tolerant political order under Protestant influence, began at the end of the sixteenth century to be returned to Catholicism. And although the Jesuits also attempted the same in Sweden, there and in the other Scandinavian lands they made no headway against Lutheranism’s deep rootedness in the elites and the people. Similar conditions obtained in England, Scotland, the Dutch Republic, and the Protestant parts of Germany and Switzerland. In these lands Catholicism could at best maintain Jesuit missions or underground congregations, which in the post-confessional age would provide a basis for a new Catholic ecclesiastical organization. (21)

As different as the experiences of confessionalization were, they reveal common tendencies, of which four seem especially important: 1) alliance of church and state; 2) focus on the “middle zone” between church and state; 3) means to realize Christian norms in the belief, thinking, and behavior of people; and 4) formation of a typically early modern church personnel, which included varying degrees of lay participation.

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