Consequently the Italian argument was all for reform within the Church. And indeed, loyal churchmen had for centuries admitted—proclaimed—the need for ecclesiastical reform. The outbreak and progress of the Reformation gave new urgency to the need and the demand. “A vast torrent of abuse in hundreds and thousands of pamphlets and caricatures poured down upon the clergy.” 6 The Sack of Rome touched the conscience and income of terrified cardinals and populace; a hundred priests pronounced the calamity a warning from God. Bishop Stafileo, preaching before the Rota (a judiciary branch of the Curia) in 1528, explained, almost in Protestant terms, why God had struck the capital of Christendom: “Because all flesh has become corrupt; we are citizens not of the holy city of Rome, but of Babylon, the city of corruption.”7 As Luther had said.
At an uncertain date shortly before 1517 Giovanni Pietro Caraffa and Count Gaetano da Thiene founded at Rome the Oratory of the Divine Love—Oratorio del Divino Amore—for prayer and self-reform. Half a hundred prominent men joined it, including Iacopo Sadoleto, Gainmatteo Giberti, Giuliano Dati. In 1524 Gaetano organized an order of clerks regular—i.e., secular priests subjecting themselves to monastic vows. After the Sack of Rome the Oratory was disbanded, and Caraffa and others entered the new order, which took the name of Theatines from Caraffa’s episcopal see of Theate or Chieti. Men of high distinction were admitted—Pietro Bembo, Marcantonio Flaminio, Luigi Priuli, Gasparo Contarini, Reginald Pole.... . All pledged themselves to poverty, care of the sick, and a strict moral life, “to make up,” said their first historian, “what is wanting in the clergy, who are corrupted by vice and ignorance to the ruin of the people.”8 The members spread through Italy, and their example shared with papal and conciliar reforms, with Capuchin and Jesuit example, in restoring the moral fiber of the Catholic clergy and the popes. Caraffa led the way by resigning all his benefices, and distributing his substantial wealth among the poor.
Giberti was in his person and career an image of the Catholic reform. At the court of Leo X he was a leading humanist; under Clement VII he was datary or chief secretary to the Curia. Shaken by the catastrophe of 1527, he retired to his bishopric at Verona, and lived like an ascetic monk while administering his diocese. He was alarmed by the decay of religion there—the churches dilapidated, preaching rare, priests ignorant of the Latin in which they said Mass, and the people rarely using the confessional. By example, precept, and firm discipline, he reformed his clergy; soon, says a Catholic historian, “the dungeons were full of concubinary priests.”9 Giberti reestablished (1531) the Confraternità della Carità that had been founded by Cardinal Giuliano de’ Medici in 1519; he built orphanages, and opened people’s banks to rescue borrowers from usurers. Similar reforms were carried out by Cardinal Ercole Gonzaga (son of Isabella d’Este) at Mantua, by Marco Vida at Alba, by Fabio Vigili at Spoleto, and many other bishops who knew that the Church must reform or die.
Several of the heroes of the orthodox reform were later canonized by the Church they had helped to save. St. Philip Neri, a young Florentine noble, founded at Rome (c. 1540) a peculiar Trinità de’ Pellegrini: twelve laymen who, after attending Mass on Sundays, would make a pilgrimage to one of the basilicas, or to some rural green, and there give or hear pious talks, and sing religious music. Many of the members became priests, and took the name of Fathers of the Oratory; from their musical propensities the wordoratorio added to its old meaning—place of prayer—the new meaning of choral song. St. Charles Borromeo, nephew to Pope Pius IV, resigned his high place as a cardinal in Rome to cleanse the religious life of Milan. As archbishop there he maintained discipline among the clergy, and showed the way by his own austerities and devotion. There was some resistance. The Umiliati, a religious order once proud of its humility, had degenerated into a comfortable, even a licentious, life; the Cardinal ordered them to obey their rule; one of them fired a shot at him as he prayed in chapel; the result was to raise to veneration the popular awe for a man who thought that reform was the best answer to the Reformation. Within his lifetime and his archdiocese, decency was made fashionable among clergy and laity alike. His influence was felt throughout Italy, and shared in transforming the cardinals from worldly aristocrats into devoted priests.
Stimulated by such men, the popes began to give determined attention to ecclesiastical reform. Early in the pontificate of Paul III the renowned jurist Giovan Battista Caccia presented to him a treatise on the reformation of the Church. “I see,” said the preamble, “that our Holy Mother the Church .... has been so changed that she seems to have no tokens of her evangelical character; and no trace can be found in her of humility, temperance, continence, and Apostolic strength.”10 Paul showed his own mood by accepting the dedication of this work. On November 20, 1534, he appointed Cardinals Piccolomini, Sanseverino, and Cesi to draw up a program of moral renovation for the Church; and on January 15,1535, he ordered strict enforcement of Leo X’s reform bulls of 1513. Enmeshed in papal and Imperial politics, endangered by the advance of the Turks, and unwilling, in these crises, to disturb the structure or functioning of the Curia by radical changes, Paul deferred active reform; but the men whom he raised to the cardinalate were almost all known for integrity and devotion. In July 1536, he invited to a reform conference at Rome Contarini, Caraffa, Sadoleto, Cortese, Aleander, Pole, Tommaso Badia, and Bishop Federigo Fregose of Gubbio, all committed to reform, and bade them put into writing the abuses in the Church, and the means they would recommend to mitigate them. Sadoleto opened the conference by boldly stating that the popes themselves, by their sins, crimes, and financial greed, had been the prime source of ecclesiastical deterioration.11 The conference met almost daily for three months. Its leading spirit, Gasparo Contarini, was the finest figure in the Counter Reformation. Born in Venice (1483) of aristocratic lineage, and educated in liberal Padua, he soon rose to high position in the Venetian government. He was sent as ambassador to Charles V in Germany, accompanied him to England and Spain, and then served the Senate as its representative at the papal court (1527-30). Retiring from politics, he devoted himself to study, and made his home a meeting place of the best statesmen, churchmen, philosophers, and humanists in Venice. Though a layman, he pondered ecclesiastical reform, and collaborated actively with Caraffa, Giberti, Cortese, and Pole. All Italy recognized him as a rare combination of intellect and character. In 1535, without any solicitation on his part, he was made a cardinal by Paul III, whom he had never met.12
In March 1537, the commission presented to the Pope its unanimous Consilium dilectorum cardinalrum de emendanda Ecclesia. This “Counsel of the Appointed Cardinals on Reforming the Church” exposed with astonishing freedom the abuses in the papal government, and boldly ascribed them chiefly to “reckless exaggeration of the papal authority by unscrupulous canonists.” Some popes, the report held, “had assumed the right to sell ecclesiastical offices, and this simony had spread venality and corruption so widely through the Church that now the great organization was on the verge of destruction through men’s lack of trust in its integrity. The report urged strict supervision of all Curial activities, a check on dispensations, an end to money payments for them, a higher standard in all appointments and in eligibility to the cardinalate and the priesthood, and a prohibition of plural or absentee holding of benefices. “Throughout the whole world,” the report added, “almost all the shepherds have deserted their flocks and entrusted them to hirelings.” Monastic orders must be regenerated, and nunneries should be subject to episcopal supervision, for their visitaton by monks had led to scandal and sacrilege. Indulgences should be proclaimed only once a year. The report concluded with a solemn exhortation to the Pope:
We have satisfied our consciences, not without the greatest hope of seeing, under your pontificate, the Church of God restored.... . You have taken the name of Paul. We hope that you will imitate his charity. He was chosen as an instrument to carry Christ’s name to the heathen; you, we hope, have been chosen to revive in our hearts and deeds that name long since forgotten among the heathen and by us the clergy; to heal our sickness, to unite Christ’s sheep again in one fold, and to avert from our heads the wrath and already threatening vengeance of God.13
Paul took in good spirit this aureum consilium, this “golden counsel,” as many called it, and sent a copy to every cardinal. Luther translated it into German, and published it as a full justification of his break with Rome; however, he judged the authors of the document to be “liars .... desperate rascals reforming the Church with cajolery.” 14 On April 20, 1537, Paul appointed four cardinals—Contarini, Caraffa, Simonetta, and Ghinucci—to reform the Dataria, that department of the Curia which had become especially venal in granting those dispensations, graces, privileges, indults, and benefices which were reserved to the papal power. The undertaking required courage, for the Dataria yielded 50,000 ducats ($1,250,000?) yearly to the Pope—nearly half his income.15 At once a cry of anguish rose from the officials and their dependents; they complained of the high cost of living in Rome, and alleged that if they were made to keep to the letter of the law their families would soon be destitute. Paul proceeded cautiously; nevertheless, wrote Aleander to Morone (April 27, 1540), “the work of reform goes on busily.” On December 13 Paul summoned eighty archbishops and bishops residing in Rome, and ordered them to return to their sees. Again a thousand objections were raised. Morone warned the Pope that haste in executing this order might drive some of the bishops, returning to now predominantly Protestant areas, to join the Lutherans. This actually occurred in several cases. Soon Paul lost himself in Imperial politics, and left reform to his successors.
The movement for internal reform triumphed when its leader, Caraffa, became Paul IV (1555). Monks absent from their monasteries without official sanction and clear necessity were commanded to return at once. On the night of August 22,1558, the Pope ordered all the gates of Rome closed, and all vagrant monks arrested; similar procedures were followed throughout the Papal States, and some offenders were sent to the galleys. Monasteries were no longer to be assigned in commendam to support absentee officials with their revenues. Bishops and abbots not actually serving the Curia in a fixed office were required to return to their posts or forfeit their income. The holding of plural benefices was prohibited. All departments of the Curia were bidden to reduce their fees, and to eliminate any suspicion of simony in appointments to clerical positions. Having so diminished his own income, Paul made a further sacrifice by ending the payment of a fee for confirmation to archiepiscopal dignity. Severe papal edicts were issued against usurers, actors, and prostitutes; procurers were to be put to death. Daniele da Volterra was instructed to cover sartorially the more glaring anatomical features of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment; and it must be admitted that that gloomy shambles of flesh damned or saved had hardly found a fitting place over the altar of the popes. Rome now assumed an uncongenial air of external piety and morality. In Italy—less visibly beyond it—the Church had reformed her clergy and her morals, while leaving her doctrines proudly intact. The reform had been long delayed, but when it came it was sincere and magnificent.