The Catholic Reformation of the Individual

St. Peters Basilica
St. Peters Basilica

The sixteenth century was for Western Europe a time of much socio-theological consternation and change. Numerous theological reformations occurred (or sought to occur) in a variety of social contexts, for a plethora of reasons, and employing numerous methodologies. One such reformation was that of the institutional Catholic Church under the auspices of such leaders as Girolamo Savonarola and Ignatius of Loyola. These two theologians, whilst occasionally interacting with the theologies of other contemporary reformation attempts apart from the Catholic church, crafted reformation theologies within the institution of the Catholic Church. In this essay we examine some of the reforming perspectives of these men, noting that central to their conception of reformation within the Catholic Church was the reformation of the individual Christian.

In his sermon “On the Renovation of the Church,” Girolamo Savonarola called for the reformation of the Catholic Church in those areas where corruptions abounded. Savonarola believed that the church was on the verge of “flagellation” because of widespread corruption in the church. This corruption and the need for church renovation, he argued, stems from ten factors that Savonarola had observed in the church. These included: the pollution of the prelates through simony and evil (5), the deaths of the good and just that have removed them from coming judgment (5), the exclusion of the just from governments (5-6), the desire of the just for the renovation of the church (6), the stubbornness of sinners who fail to repent before God and are obstinate in their vices (6), the multitude of sinners that have come to Rome (6), because of the driving out of charity and faith in the church (6), because of the denial of certain articles of faith (6), because of the ruin of ancient worship and the cessation of ancient forms of devotional life (6), and because of what Savonarola calls “universal opinion,” the widespread preaching of those everywhere calling for judgment and flagellation (6-7). While Savonarola did not directly posit the means by judgment and flagellation would take place, based on his appeals to governmental authorities (5, 13-5) and uses of phrasing such as “the knife of God” (14) and “tribulation” (14), it appears that he expected some form of temporal judgment to visit the church in his near future. He writes that “great fortresses and great walls would be of no value” (11). And while language such as this may hint at a flagellation of non-physical armies and opponents, Savonarola’s language seems pointed towards a flagellation of primarily physical judgment for spiritual vices. Even language of “flagellation” suggests a physical remedy for a spiritual vice. Ultimately, Savonarola concludes that judgment and flagellation will come to the church in short time if the corruptions and concerns that he outlined were not addresses, though he seems to refrain from prophesying about how exactly such flagellation was to occur. Notably, Savonarola’s rhetoric in this sermon points to not only institutional concerns, but the need for individuals to reform their lives, flee from sin, repent before God, and return to the ancient modes of obedience and worship if the church was to be effectively reformed.

Ignatius of Loyola
Ignatius of Loyola

Turning from Savonarola to perhaps the most famous of the Catholic Reformers, we will now examine the writings of Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, found in his Spiritual Exercises and Letter on Obedience. The Spiritual Exercises, while having a number of applications and purposes, seem to be primarily oriented towards “preparing and disposing the soul to free itself of all inordinate attachments and after having accomplished this, of seeking and discovering the divine will regarding one’s life orientation for the health of one’s soul” (105). By this Ignatius seeks to provide a rigorous and formalized means by which Christians may better imitate Christ, free themselves from worldly attachments to better serve God, and enhance one’s spiritual relationship with God by focusing on the depths of sin and seeking to live a more holy and blameless life. Ignatius makes these goals more clear when he writes that the purposes of the Spiritual exercises are “to conquer oneself, and to organize one’s life without influence in one’s decisions by any inordinate attachment” (110). Here Ignatius notes the importance of the death of self and the balance required in seeking and making choices by way of excessive attachments. In these exercises Ignatius employs three powers of the soul, namely prayer, meditation, and confession.  By prayer one communicates with God and requests various guards or recollections for use against sin (111). By meditation one remembers sins, reflects on the goodness of God, the sinfulness of man, or the pain of hell (111, 116, 119). And by confession one seeks reconciliation with God for specific sins and to sin less in the future (118, 120-3).

Moving to the forms of penance advocated by Ignatius in the Spiritual Exercises, he argues that there are three effects resulting from participation in exterior penances. First noting that the efficacy of exterior penance may only result from true interior penance (121), Ignatius advocated three forms of exterior penance: food, sleeping, and chastisement. Concerning food, Ignatius writes that the denial of food to the body only involves denying that which is necessary, for denying oneself that which is superfluous does not truly engage a spirit of penance (121). Regarding sleep, Ignatius argues that to do penance with sleep is to deny oneself that which is suitable and not excessive (122). Here, as with his writing on food, he is concerned with not causing bodily harm by means of depravation. Finally, Ignatius notes that exterior penance may be effected by means of physical chastisement. This he writes should accomplish “sensible pain” by means of “wearing hairshirts, cords, or iron chains on the body, or by scouring or wounding oneself, or by other kids of austerities” (122). Here also Ignatius is careful to note that such activities should not cause severe injury or illness, but discomfort and “exterior pain” (122). Finally, in his Letter On Obedience Ignatius believes that obedience to one’s Superior (specifically here in the context of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits) accomplishes a number of things. Perhaps most important, Ignatius argues, along with St. Gregory, that “Obedience is a virtue that by itself imprints in the soul all other virtues, and once printed, it keeps them there” (303). Thus obedience acts an “arch-virtue,” maintaining and advocating for the employment of all other virtues by its very enacting. Ignatius also writes that obedience to one’s Superior pays honor and reverence to Christ by nature of the appointed office of superior (304). Finally, Ignatius argues that because God has instituted hierarchy for the order of the church and because Superiors are higher up the hierarchy of God, that they should therefore be honored and obeyed as if they were Christ, thereby rendering Christ obedience (308-9). This application of hierarchy Ignatius also applies to principles of government within the church (311), advocating obedience as a means to order.

As the whole format of the exercises demonstrates, key for Ignatius’ understanding of church reform was reform of the individual Christian. Notable within the specifics of his writings are his calls to refection on sin and obedience to existing church structures—nowhere in these writings does Ignatius call for reform of the doctrine or hierarchy of the church, instead advocating reform of the individuals within the church. Thus, we see that Catholic reformers such as Savonarola and Ignatius conceived of reformation within the church as primarily the need for the reform of the individual Christian.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

3 thoughts on “The Catholic Reformation of the Individual

  1. Very interesting read! Yesterday at my thesis defense, one of my readers talked about the hyper-subjectivity of the individual in Christianity starting in the fourteenth century – great to see it discussed here also! Your discussion of Savonarola points to the underlying concern about the approaching final judgment that characterized this era, which very much echoes Diarmaid MacCulloch’s interpretation of Luther and the general Reformation era’s conviction about the coming of judgment and end of time. Finally, do you have any suggestions for further reading on the Catholic Reformation? I have read Bireley’s Refashioning of Catholicism, thoroughly enjoyed it, and would love to read more on this subject.

    1. Laura,
      I’m glad you found something of value here. Conceptions of the individual within Christian theology are indeed a diverse and fascinating collection of ideas, concepts which are most helpful hermeneutic tools when reading theology (and philosophy). There was a piece on the Catholic Reformation which I found very useful, but alas, it has been boxed up in preparation for our move. I will do my best to dig it out once we’re in St. Louis and let you know.
      Thanks, JJP

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