The Spiritual History of the Catholic Church

History involves change. Change can be sudden, it can be slow, but like taxes and death, change is guaranteed. Working out how and why it happens, as well as what exactly did happen, is the job of the historian. Often there is a lot of change. Sometimes it can be difficult to work out which changes were the most important, or how the changes were interlinked. Sometimes the causes of changes can be overlooked, and it is not unknown for change itself to go completely unrecognised by contemporaries or scholars from a later era.

Many of my columns so far have focused on events near or during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. In the public mind, this usually conjures up images of theological battles, persecutions, the reform of corrupt practices, the development of new church structures, and a king with a penchant for beheading his wives. But there is another strand which is studied by historians, that of the development of spirituality. The organic development of doctrine and of the liturgy is a concept many of us are familiar with.

Development of the Liturgy

If we look at the organic development of the liturgy, the idea is that the liturgy should grow and change incrementally, guided by time and wisdom, without random changes imposed upon it, nor with sudden innovations tearing away at its living branches. Having considered this, I think there is also a case to be made for the organic development of spirituality. Because, whilst prayer is always about raising the heart to God, there has been a continuous, organic development of the understanding of what this means in practice.

When I was an undergraduate twenty years ago, I read a little book of lectures called The Spirit of the Counter-Reformation by H. Outram Evennett. Evennett was a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and lectured in history. The lectures themselves are now seventy years old, delivered as they were in 1951. Yet this little collection of distilled learning was to have an immense impact on me, not only in my understanding of history but also in my understanding of faith. In the lectures Evennett focused on the spiritual history of the Counter-Reformation, seeing it as a key which unlocks a door to truly understanding the events of the period. It is a door many seem completely unaware even exists.

The Spiritual Life

When we think about the history of the Church, it is the spiritual life that can be buried behind studies of power plays, theological controversies, economic forces and family rivalries. These are all important, and are all connected, but modern man seems scared to consider the fact that our ancestors also believed in the spiritual world. It’s as though his imagination won’t let the modern man go there, to try and understand a worldview so different from many in the west today.

Evennett was not keen on the interpretation of the Council of Trent as the single main engine of the Counter-Reformation. There are plenty of well-intentioned councils in the history of the Church that have little or no impact on clearing up abuses and reforming the life of the Church. From the 21st century, some of us would not only agree with that but also wonder if some councils have the opposite effect to that intended. So what, to Evennett, was the key to true reform? His view has been described as the belief that “spiritual rebirth and enlightenment… are not achieved at ecumenical councils; they occur in solitude, or by contact with individuals who have themselves been spiritually reborn and enlightened.” This then was at the heart of the ‘spirit’ of the counter-reformation.

The ‘Spirit’ of the Counter-Reformation

The spiritual renewal that powered the Counter-Reformation had its roots in the medieval period. For example, monastic reform was a ongoing struggle for hundreds of years, often leading to the birth of new orders and the renewal of old ones. One strand of reform originating in the fourteenth century was personified by the Brethren of the Common Life: the Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis will always be associated with them. When the Reformation burst upon the scene, many of the spiritual movements were questioned, where they orthodox or were they heretical? The Reformation not only provided a spur to spiritual evolution, but also channeled it, as it became important to avoid being spiritually suspect, especially when it came to the greatest theological debate of the day: Justification.


The Protestant theology of justification, at its most distilled level, is the belief that all you need is faith. It arose partly as a reaction to the abuses of the selling of indulgences, and the concept that you could ‘buy yourself’ out of Purgatory. Against the Protestant theology of salvation by faith alone, Trent responded by pointing to the importance of both faith and works. This channeled Catholic spirituality not only by causing an explosion of active apostolates that were to dominate much of western education, social care and medicine until the wake of the Second Vatican Council, but also the way in which catholics were taught to pray. The concept and importance of mental prayer which had been gestating from way before the Council of Trent now came to birth.

Mental Prayer

Why mental prayer? It requires effort. Works, as it were. Theology developed to explain purgative and illuminative paths of prayer. This was a development on some of the more contemplative monastic traditions. Mental prayer as practiced and taught by the Jesuits became a powerful spiritual tool for those engaged in spiritual warfare. Meditating on images from the Gospel became a staple of spiritual direction throughout the Catholic world. Indeed the idea of spiritual direction for laity as well as clergy now took hold. Confession, once seen as a once yearly duty was now encouraged as a regular medicine for the soul.

The celebration of Mass, often said irregularly by clergy before the Reformation, was now said by priests several times a week, even daily (a practice which went out of fashion with many priests after our most recent Council, but now seems to be firmly re-embedded). The reception of Holy Communion was encouraged more regularly, and the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament outside of Mass became a major part of Counter Reformation spirituality. The forty hours devotions, Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and tabernacles as we would recongise them all stem from this period in the history of the Church.

However, it was the organised, almost scientific, approach to mental prayer which was the most invisible yet most significant development. Benediction, tabernacles, frequent confession, frequent Mass, and reception of Holy Communion were part of the principles and rules of this development. The field of moral theology grew out of the need to guide individuals through the thorny questions faced in real life. There is a sense that the individual became more central to the spiritual life of the Church. The Reformation had put the individual interpretation of scripture central to its theology, and the Catholic Church responded by emphasising individual effort in the spiritual life, both in works and in the effort of mental prayer. The more community-centered spirituality of the contemplative monastic traditions was still there, but the Jesuits (the order which has always exemplified the Counter-Reformation) led the new push.

What does this tell us today? The spiritual life will continue to evolve, and it will be important as it always has been to make sure theology matches with spirituality but there are a lot of spiritual traditions in the Church, and we don’t all fit into the same one. Diversity has been one of the brilliant geniuses of the Church, by having so many different forms of liturgy, religious orders, apostolates, and spiritual approaches available.

When discussing the failure of pre-Reformation reform, Evennet observes:

The essential sterility and ephemerality – in the long view – of all reform movements between the Council of Constance and the pontificate of Paul III proceeded in the last analysis from the tiredness of generations which seemed to have lost the art of creation, or re-creation, in so many spheres of human activity….

Whilst it’s not really true that history repeats itself, it is certainly the case that we can learn from both the mistakes and successes of the past. So it may be that lying in the pages of a slim volume of lectures there is a lesson or two for modern Catholics, distilled from the mind of a 1950s English academic.

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The Spiritual History of the Catholic Church