Rethinking “Catholic Reform” and “Counter-Reformation”: What Happened in Early Modern Catholicism—a View from Italy

in Journal of Early Modern History
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There are now a number of ways to describe the phenomena which come under the umbrella of innovations in Roman Catholicism in the early modern period including “Counter Reformation”; “Catholic Reformation” and “Early Modern Catholicism.” After a brief survey of the various labels used by scholars over the last half century or more, this article seeks to rehabilitate the use of the label “Counter Reformation” in the light, particularly, of the determining role played by the Holy Office (aka Roman Inquisition) in shaping the Catholic Church down to Vatican ii (1962-65). A key role in this was played by Gian Pietro Carafa, who was made head of the congregation of the Holy Office at its foundation in 1542 and who became pope as Paul iv in 1555. During the key decades from the 1540s to 1570s the Inquisition in Rome set the agenda and by means, not only, of a series of trials of prominent members of the clerical establishment whom they regarded as their enemies, succeeded in intimidating their opponents. In doing so they also subverted episcopal authority, whose strengthening had been a watchword at the Council of Trent.

Journal of Early Modern History

Contacts, Comparisons, Contrasts. Early Modernity Viewed from a World-Historical Perspective




Kathleen M. Comerford, “The Future of Sixteenth Century Studies, or, Nostradamus Speaks in Many Voices,” Sixteenth Century Journal, 40 (2009): 177.


Gigliola Fragnito, “Aspetti della censura ecclesiastica nell’Europa della Controriforma. L’edizione parigina delle opere di Gasparo Contarini,” Rivista di storia e letteratura religiosa, 21 (1985): 3-48.


Claudio Donati, “Vescovi e diocesi d’Italia dall’età post-tridentina alla caduta dell’Antico Regime,” in Clero e società nell’Italia moderna, ed. Mario Rosa (Rome-Bari, 1992), 320-89, in particular 349; and also by Donati: “Chiesa italiana e vescovi d’Italia dal XVI al XVIII secolo. Tra interpretazioni storiografiche e prospettive di ricerca,” Annali dell’Istituto storico italo-germanico di Trento, 30 (2004): 375-89, in which episcopal initiatives are characterised “more by their absence than their presence” (385). Numerous further examples of this state of affairs can be found in the several essays of Mario Rosa collected in: La Curia romana nell’età moderna. Istituzioni, cultura, carriere (Rome, 2013).


Firpo, Vittore Soranzo vescovo ed eretico, 167-68, 477.


Peter J. Laven, “The «Causa» Grimani and its Political Overtones,” The Journal of Religious History, 4 (1967): 184-205, in particular 204.


Prosperi, Tribunali della coscienza, 134.


Firpo, La presa di potere, 118.


Paolo Simoncelli, “Inquisizione romana e Riforma in Italia,” Rivista storica italiana, 100 (1988): 5-125.


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