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The Counter-Reformation: Ignatius and the Jesuits

A man can be charitable as he clearly, unambiguously teaches Catholic truth. This was St. Ignatius of Loyola’s aim, and education was to play a key role.

Portrait of St. Ignatius of Loyola by Francisco Zurbaran (1598-1664)

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from Defenders of the Faith in Word and Deed (Ignatius Press) by Fr. Charles P. Connor, and was originally posted at CWR on July 31, 2017.


On October 31, 1517, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther, long fearful for his own salvation, seemed to unleash tremendous personal hostility when he nailed his famous Ninety-five Theses to the door of the cathedral in Wittenburg, Germany. This single action has traditionally been viewed as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Before it ended, several new theologies were formulated by at least two generations of reformers, causing Christianity to fall into centuries of division.

The term sola fide (“faith alone”) is often associated with Luther. It was a belief that provided him a great deal of inner tranquility. Once, while meditating on Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Luther came to the verse that states that “man is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” [1] Luther took this to mean that a person does not have the capability to work out his own salvation because of his sinful human nature. Instead, God gives his free gift of grace, which stimulates faith and leads to salvation. Luther rejected, it appears, the admonition of the Apostle James that faith without good works is dead, [2] preferring to concentrate only on that which gave him inner peace.

Luther also opposed the buying and selling of indulgences, a practice quite rampant in the western Europe of his day. The Church has always taught that an indulgence is a remission of the temporal punishment due to sin, and Luther correctly pointed out that such forgiveness cannot be purchased. The abuse of selling indulgences and the erroneous attitudes it created are well illustrated by the slogan of a preacher in Luther’s time: “Another soul to heaven springs when in the box a shilling rings.” [3]

While justification and indulgences are the issues for which Luther is best remembered, many more grievances comprised his Wittenburg list. Some two years after he had posted them, he confided in writing to a friend that the idea of the Pope as the anti-Christ, once repellent to him, now seemed to have more plausibility. Luther at first had no intention of beginning a new ecclesial body. As he meditated on Scripture, however, he began to think that the Church should return to the gospel in its purest form as he envisioned it, eliminating what he regarded as unnecessary liturgical ceremony, hierarchical structure, and the like:

For Luther everything began from his fundamental experience … salvation comes [to human beings] from God through faith alone. God does everything and they do nothing. Good works do not make people good, but once people have been justified by God they do good works…. So Luther turned his back on everything in tradition which denied the preeminence of scripture and faith. He rejected what appeared to him as a means, a claim on the human side to deserve salvation: the cult of the saints, indulgences, religious vows, those sacraments which [he could not find] attested in the New Testament. Anything not explicitly set out in scripture was worthless. All that counted was the universal priesthood of the faithful. [4]In 1520, the papal bull Exsurge formally condemned forty-one of Luther’s propositions, and he was given two months to submit to the authority of the Church. In December 1520, he publicly burned his copy of Exsurge, and excommunication followed one month later.

Closely akin to Luther was Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland. A former priest and student of the Renaissance scholar Erasmus, Zwingli was based in the city of Zurich, having moved from Glavis, the scene of his former priestly labors. He was, from all accounts, a more inwardly secure man than Luther. His preoccupation was not so much his own eternal destiny as it was freeing his disciples from the shackles of Rome’s domination. Following this view and a Lutheran disposition toward “gospel purity”, reformed churches were established in Switzerland. These congregations established vernacular liturgies, in contrast to the Latin liturgy of the Catholic Church. They also removed statues of the saints, secularized convents, and followed other practices emerging in neighboring Germany.

The French layman John Calvin brought a nonclerical background to Reformation theology and represented a younger generation of reformers. Calvin was also based in Switzerland, though in the city of Geneva. In fact, his grave can be seen there to this day. It consists of a single pole, atop of which are the initials “J. C.” This protrudes through some greenery and is surrounded by a small iron fence. The grave is reminiscent of the stark nature of ecclesial architecture in Calvinistic churches, if not the severity of Calvin’s thought.

Calvin was obsessed with the sovereign nature of God. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, he develops the theory for which he is best remembered: predestination. All creatures merited damnation, but God in his mercy chose some for salvation. These, in turn, needed the vehicle of a church in which to express their faith. Calvin’s emphasis was very much on the church as a local community of believers in whom power rested. His unique brand of theology was gradually adopted by religious groups identified as Presbyterians, Huguenots, Puritans, and Congregationalists. His ideas spread quickly to England and to its colonies in North America. Also, they found their way to Scotland in the person of John Knox, as well as the Low Countries of Europe, Holland in particular.

In England, despite the fact that Henry VIII was given the title Defender of the Faith by the Holy See for a book published under his name, the monarch was anything but a theologian, and the Reformation in England was not theological in origin. Henry’s wife Catherine of Aragon gave him no male heirs. Wishing to have his marriage annulled, but refused by the Church, he turned to the English clergy with the same request and subsequently declared himself head of the church in England. Henry’s Six Articles, promulgated in 1539, kept the essentials of the Catholic faith (even though failure to take the Act of Supremacy recognizing Henry’s headship of the church led most often to execution). it was not until his death that Calvinistic theology began to find its way into the Book of Common Prayer. When Henry’s daughter Mary Tudor became monarch in 1553, she briefly restored Catholicism and carried out over two hundred executions of Protestant heretics. Upon the accession of her half-sister Elizabeth (the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn), Anglicanism was officially established as the state religion and the Thirty-nine Articles spelled out the particulars of belief. They did not rid the Church of England of as many vestiges of Romanism as some would have liked. It seemed to be

a theology very close to neighbouring Calvinism which maintained traditional forms like the episcopate and liturgical vestments. Both Catholic and Protestant dissidents were mercilessly persecuted. [5]The Reformation was, to be sure, no isolated event, but a series of movements in several European countries that in varying ways departed from Catholicism. In response to Protestantism and to the problems it sought to address, the Catholic renewal or Counter-Reformation became a reality. One of the magnificent fruits of that renewal was the establishment of the Society of Jesus, founded by the Spanish Basque lgnatius of Loyola.

Loyola is a castle at Azpeltia, located in the Pyrenees Mountains. It was there that Iñigo, as he was then called, was born, in 1491. His background was military, and he fought briefly against the French in Pamplona. A serious battle injury brought him back to his native castle and confined him for weeks. He was a worldly sort and would love to have occupied his hours reading romantic novels. Instead, only two books, on the lives of the saints and the life of Christ, were available. The biographies of the saints began to fascinate him, make him think of the uselessness of his own life up to that point, and provoked the interior question: If such acts of spiritual heroism were possible in the lives of others, why would they not be possible in his?

A hunger for God began to overtake him by degrees, and after a time he resolved to go on pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Montserrat. Sometime during the course of that visit he determined that thenceforth he would lead a penitential life and his stay in the nearby small town of Manresal where he experienced solitude and prayer, confirmed his desire all the more. He made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and then studied in Barcelona, Alcala, and, finally, at the University of Paris, where he received the Master of Arts in 1534. Still his fervor did not slacken. At Paris he was to meet companions who were like-minded in spiritual outlook and whose names would become well known in Jesuit annals: Francis Xavier (a Spanish Basque like Ignatius), Favre, Laynez, Salmeron, Rodriguez, Bobadilla. Together they would become “the Company”, the first Jesuits, defenders of the faith in heretical times.

On the feast of Our Lady’s Assumption, August 15, 1534, these men professed their vows in the chapel of Saint Denis on the hill of Montmartre in Paris. They vowed to work for the glory of God. They agreed that when they finished their studies and became priests, they would go to Jerusalem together, but if they could not go there in a year, they would go to Rome and offer to go anywhere the Pope deemed necessary. Their hopes of going to Palestine would not be realized, but other needs quickly became apparent.

There being no likelihood of their being able soon to go to the Holy Land, it was at length resolved that Ignatius, Favre, and Laynez should go to Rome and offer the services of all to the pope, and they agreed that if anyone asked what their association was they might answer “the Company of Jesus”, because they were united to fight against falsehood and vice under the standard of Christ. On his road to Rome, praying at a little chapel at La Storta, Ignatius saw our Lord, shining with an unspeakable light, but loaded with a heavy cross, and he heard the words, Ego vobis Romae propitius ero, “I win be favorable to you at Rome.” [6]Eventually they became a religious order and took formal vows. The members of the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, truly were men of the Church. The papal bull of institution, promulgated in 1540 during the pontificate of Pope Paul III, stated the Society’s purposes. The document “Rules for Thinking with the Church” is also illustrative. It was composed by Ignatius himself as an addition to his Spiritual Exercises. It represents a reply to the Protestant challenge, affirming many long-established practices that were under severe criticism and attack. It is a document “characterized more perhaps by its balance and moderation than one may at first think”. [7] Rule Thirteen initially appears anything but moderate:

If we wish to proceed securely in all things, we must hold fast to the following principle: What seems to me white, I will believe black if the hierarchical Church so defines. For I must be convinced that in Christ Our Lord, the bridegroom, and in His spouse the Church, only one Spirit holds sway, which governs and rules for the salvation of souls. For it is by the same Spirit and Lord who gave the Ten Commandments that our Holy Mother Church is ruled and governed. [8]In addition to absolute loyalty, Ignatius in the Constitutions leaves no doubt that it is to be interpreted as willingness to carry out the wishes of the Holy See:

All that His Holiness will command us for the good of souls, or the propagation of the faith, we are bound to carry out with neither procrastination nor excuse, at once and to the fullest extent of our power, whether he sends us among the Turks, to the New Worlds, to the Lutherans, or any other manner of believers or unbelievers…. This vow may scatter ‘us to the distant parts of the world. [9]The work of the Jesuits in defending the faith must be looked at in the context of the Counter-Reformation. The times called for a spirited defense of faith; it was the time for Catholic renewal; the Church had been weakened from within by the laxity of her own; she had been weakened from without by the strong theological dissent of the various reformers. The Church had to respond adequately, and the Jesuits found themselves part of this response. In all manner of response, however, Ignatius was quite insistent that charity prevail and that the integrity of the Church not suffer because of the misdeeds or poorly contrived statements of those attempting to defend it:

Great care must be taken to show forth orthodox truth in such a way that if any heretics happen to be present they may have an example of charity and Christian moderation. No hard words should be used nor any sort of contempt for their errors be shown. [10]A man can be charitable as he clearly, unambiguously teaches Catholic truth. This was Ignatius’ aim, and education was to play a key role. If men were adequately trained, the Church would be better served; such motivated the opening of the Roman and German colleges in the Eternal City. The former was established primarily though the largesse of the family of Saint Francis Borgia, the man who would become Ignatius’ successor as third General of the Society; the latter was an educational bastion for students from all countries affected by the Reformation.

Although an educated Jesuit was always to exercise charity, his response to heresy must be firm and decisive. One of the truly great Jesuits to receive instruction from Ignatius before undertaking his mission was Saint Peter Canisius:

Once a man has been convicted of heretical impiety or is strongly suspect of it, he has no right to any honour or riches: on the contrary, these must be stripped from him … If public professors or administrators at the University of Vienna or the other universities have a bad reputation in relation to the Catholic faith, they must be deprived of their degrees. All heretical books must be burned, or sent beyond all the provinces of the kingdom. [11]Canisius’ record of educational beginnings is impressive: Ingolstadt, Vienna, Prague, Strasbourg in Alsace (where he was involved in the opening negotiations), Innsbruck (where he introduced the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary to collegians), Dillingen, and Fribourg. In addition, he managed time at the Council of Trent, where his very practical advice to the Council Fathers about the Reformation in Germany was highly regarded. Strong as his defense of Catholicism was in day-to-day relations with German Protestants, he favored the approach of peaceful coexistence. Some saw this as betrayal, but Canisius felt (and later convinced Rome) that a calm, firm, and educated approach would help Catholics win an intellectual battle they had previously been losing. All of this is not to suggest that his career was solely academically oriented. His sojourn in Vienna proves the contrary:

Many parishes were without clergy, and the Jesuits had to supply the lack as well as to teach in their newly-founded college. Not a single priest had been ordained for twenty years; monasteries lay desolate; members of the religious orders were jeered at in the streets; nine-tenths of the inhabitants had abandoned the faith, while the few who still regarded themselves as Catholics had, for the most part, ceased to practice their religion. At first Peter Canisius preached to almost empty churches, partly because of the general disaffection and partly because his Rhineland German grated on the ears of the Viennese; but he found his way to the heart of the people by his indefatigable ministrations to the sick and dying during an outbreak of the plague. The energy and enterprise of the man was astounding; he was concerned about everything and everybody, from lecturing in the university to visiting the neglected criminals in the jails. [12]Such accomplishments could, no doubt, have been recounted in any of the cities where Canisius spent any length of time. Christopher Hollis, in his study of the Jesuits, sums up the work of this saint, now venerated as a Doctor of the Church:

The general effect of Canisius’ work was immense. He turned the course of history. In each of the great colleges he built there were up to a thousand students. He was the first Jesuit to enter Poland. By 1600, there were 466 Jesuits there. When he entered Germany in 1550, he entered with 2 Jesuits as his companions. When he left it over 30 years later there were 1,111 Jesuits at work in the country. [13]Germany was, of course, not the only scene of the Reformation. Jesuits labored in many countries on the Continent, and also in England. Even before the English mission was a reality, Ignatius ordered prayers for the conversion of England and for the English and Welsh martyrs of penal times, twenty-six of whom had been Jesuits. Centuries later Henry Edward Manning, Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, himself a convert to Catholicism (and from his tone no particular friend of the Reformation), wrote about the work of the English Jesuits:

It was exactly what was wanted at the time to counteract the revolt of the sixteenth century. The revolt was disobedience and disorder in the most aggressive form. The Society was obedience and order in the most solid compactness…. They also won back souls by their preaching and spiritual guidance. They preached ‘Jesus Christ and Him crucified’. This had been their central message, and by it they have deserved and won the confidence and obedience of Souls. [14]Jesuit missionary activity was strongly influenced by two sources: Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises and the Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis. The Society’s founder tried to induce in the life of each Jesuit a peaceful state of mind without inordinate attachments. Such inner tranquility would help one in moments of crisis and in the major decisions of life. With a peaceful mind, each of life’s situations could be assessed in the light of God’s glory and the salvation of one’s immortal soul. The Imitation spoke to the heart of the disciple and always tried to elicit a generous response. It is in this context that all Jesuit renewal should be judged. British historian Thomas Macaulay, writing in grand style, captures these grand men:

The order possessed itself once of all the strongholds which command the public mind, of the pulpit, of the press, of the confessional, of the academies. Wherever the Jesuit preached, the church was too small for the audience. The name of a Jesuit on a title-page secured the circulation of a book. It was in the ears of a Jesuit that the powerful, the noble, the beautiful, breathed the secret history of their lives. It was at the feet of the Jesuit that the youth of the higher and middle class were brought up from childhood to manhood. [15]It was to be the lot of Ignatius to spend most of his Jesuit life in Rome, so vast an undertaking was it to direct the Society’s business. He saw the Society of Jesus grow from the original company to one thousand members in nine countries and provinces in Europe, India, and Brazil. His death came suddenly on July 31, 1556, in Rome. One may still see the room, along with the adjoining quarters, where he wrote his Society’s Constitutions. His tomb is venerated in the magnificent church of the Gesù on Rome’s famous Corso Vittorio Emmanuele. His was a life lived for Christ and in defense of his Church, or as one commentator has put it, “To gain others to Christ he made himself all things to all men, going in at their door and coming out at his own.” [16]


[1] Rom 3:28.
[2] James 2:17.
[3] Jean Comby with Diarmaid MacCulloch, How to Read Church History (New York: Crossroad, 1991), 2:11.
[4] Ibid., 13.
[5] Ibid., 21.
[6] Herbert Thurston, S.J., and Donald Attwater, eds., Butler’s Lives of the Saints (Westminster, Md.: Christian Classics, 1988), 3:224.
[7] John C. Olin, The Catholic Reformation: Savonarola to Ignatius Loyola (New York: Harper and Row, 1969), 202.
[8] The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans. Louis J. Puhl, S.J. (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1951), 160.
[9] Jean Lacouture, Jesuits: A Multibiography (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1995), 76.
[10] Thurston and Attwater, Butler’s Lives of the Saints, 3:225-26.
[11] Ignatius of Loyola to Peter Canisius, August 13, 1554, cited in Comby and MacCulloch, How to Read Church History, 2:30.
[12] Thurston and Attwater, Butler’s Lives of the Saints, 2:168-69.
[13] Christopher Hollis, The Jesuits: A History (New York: Macmillan Company, 1968), 25.
[14] Thurston and Attwater, Butler’s Lives of the Saints, 3:225.
[15] Thomas Macaulay, Essay on Von Rank’s History of the Papacy, cited in Hollis, Jesuits, 27.
[16] Thurston and Attwater, Butler’s Lives of the Saints, 3:227.

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About Charles P. Connor 1 Article
Fr. Charles Connor, a pastor of a parish in the diocese of Scranton, PA, is an expert in Church history. He is the host of several television series on EWTN including Historic Catholic Converts.


  1. Any likeness between contemporary Jesuits, the pope included and St. Ignatius is purely coincidental and unintended.

    Let’s not do the “Luther was a great Theologian” or “misunderstood” thing again shall we. It’s really become sickening.

  2. Ignatius inspires the young and the young at heart. Happy feast to all. Saint Ignatius of Loyola – Pray for us.

  3. Amadis de gaula. Amadis of Gaul is a tale of fantasy heroic knighthood. This was one of Ignatius the Captain’s favorite readings. It was also a favorite of Cervantes. Don Quixote is based on the tales of knight errantry. I too perhaps like other young imaginative boys dreamt of being an heroic knight. The difference with Ignatius de Loyola and Miguel de Cervantes they were grown men. Actually pursuing the dream of the heroic knight. The uncanny similarity is both were wounded in combat Cervantes fighting Turks Battle of Lepanto and Captain Ignatius the invading Gascons. Both were wounded in the leg. Cervantes remained crippled. Lampooned the foolishness of knighthood for self glory and upheld Christian values. Ignatius was left with permanent impairment. Crippled. We know the rest of the story. Apparently a determined strong person the crippling made Ignatius even more determined to succeed as Our Lord’s Knight Errant.

  4. As a Lutheran, I’d point out a couple of things:
    1) The formal title of “The 95 Theses” is “A Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” and this “Wittenberg List” as you call it, is pretty narrowly focused on the issue of the sale of Plenary Indulgences. It does not venture into “The Pope is the anti-Christ” areas; that came much later in the conflict. It does, however, challenge the ability of the Pope to bind and lose sins over-and-above the ordinary power of the Priest, but that needs to be seen within the context of the Papal imposition of the Ban upon Bishops and civil authorities that attempted to prohibit the wandering Indulgence Preachers. But the main point here is that the “95 Theses” are not a scatter-gun list of arguments against the Church.
    2) I’d not say that Luther was “akin” to Zwingli…or even Calvin later. Zwingli and Luther disagreed on pretty much every major point: Luther held that the Sacraments conveyed prevenient Grace, Zwingli rejected that, Luther held that the Sacrament of Holy Communion is “the True Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ,” Zwingli claimed the Sacrament was purely symbolic; Luther sought reform of the Church, Zwingli worked for separation (sectarianism). Luther and Zwingli despised each other.
    3) “The Reformation” was too complex to easily define, hence “The Counter Reformation” is also too complex to easily define. The “Lutheran Reformation” was predominately a theological enterprise, the “English Reformation” was a political/civil revolt, the “Swiss Reformation” was iconoclastic, and in France “the Reformation” became embroiled with secularism. Was Saint Ignatius Loyola a “counter Reformer”? Yes…he spoke out against “Lutherans,” and yet almost 500 years later many Lutherans find great value in Ignatian Spiritual exercises. Perhaps the greatest example of this is Saint Thomas More, who was a contemporary of Luther and advocated for Luther’s death, and yet 500 years…and a lot of intervening history later… many of us can look back at and draw inspiration from.

    My point is that the term “protestant” must be weighed carefully. “Protestants” are not a monolithic group, and I would hope that the Church could begin to weigh us with discretion and care.
    Pax Christi;
    Rev. Jerry Kliner, Pastor, Saint Paul Lutheran Church, Morgantown, WV

    • Justification was the overreaching doctrine that Luther was most interested in my opinion gathered from the many extant documents compiled by Lutheran scholar Ian Kingston Siggins. Indulgences led to this issue and justification was reviewed by John Paul II in context of Luther’s thought. Similarity with Catholic justification theology is striking. Prevenient grace is referenced in your comment regarding the Eucharist. Thomas Aquinas understood prevenient grace as that first given to Man inspiring him to turn to the divinity. “To be moved toward God by free choice follows the infusion of grace in some sense by the order of nature, though not by that of time. Hence it does not follow from this, seeing that the infusion of grace is one of the requisites for justification, that the notion of free choice follows justification” (De Veritate 28, 4). Consequently, I question prevenient grace as Luther understood in the Eucharist. Although, as Aquinas diagrams, prevenient grace first infused by God followed by free choice this has affinity with justification as a gift, [Luther’s election by God] initially effected by grace. Free choice for Aquinas insofar as material causality precedes infusion of grace, but in the order of formal causality the gift of grace is first. This in regard to works as secondary to justification seems reconcilable with Luther’s premise of faith alone. Catholicism nevertheless must if true to revelation insist the evidence of justification is good works.

      • Additionally, if faith is primary to justification and works secondary, free will nevertheless is not the effect of grace, rather it’s inherent to human nature. And as such, as Aquinas says free will does not follow justification. Rather free will is the requisite to choosing those good works that participate in realizing justification. God saves but Man must do his part.

  5. No religious order (or individual) is exempt from temptation; corruption and a fall from grace follows if they try to overcome without Jesus Christ. Anything else is pride.

  6. I would note that one benefit of the counter-reformation was to bring a sense of organizational order to the Church which had gotten rather loose over the centuries, culminating with the Borgia Popes. Julius II can probably be justly described as the last of the Medievel popes and after him the necessity to have a well organized and learned clergy became apparent to everyone. While this was too late to roll back Protestantism it did strengthen the Church to move forward with an energy previously lacking.

  7. Thank you , for a charitable and quick run through a history that is very relevant for our times too . Good too have heard from EWTN that today is also Feast of Bl.Solanus Casey , another humble ‘door keeper ‘ – in line with Bro.Andre , St.Faustina we come to the Feast of St.Ignatius and those who have followed him , in efforts to close certain doors in order to direct persons and nations to The Door and the holders of The keys ..

    ‘Becoming all things to all..’ – even as The Mother who appears as the Aztec Princess as Our lady of Guadalupe , to meet the needs of a culture to be brought to
    The Door , away from the grip of the dragon tender words of hope and comfort .

    the first 2 lines in the above , used at the beginning in ( Old ) Liturgy – even though meant by The Spirit , for pleading against the enemy , ? danger of same being seen as threats esp. in places where faith is to be brought as occasion of blessing for generations even , not as weapon to destroy the ‘ weak ‘ / non believers , as outsiders ..

    ‘ Have mercy on us and the whole world ‘ – mercy to help us deal with the wounds in oneness , with trust and hope in Him , in the gentle style of Bl.Solanus – a saint in the Light of Divine Will , for a world where there is enough reign of the spirit of fear through the promotion of fear against life itself at massive levels , from the same govts now in efforts and confusions as to how to protect life ..

    May the discernment to guide our lives and responsibilities to be in line with His Holy Will be the mercy He pours into all our lives and times !

    Thank you and God bless and blessed Feasts !

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