From the Renaissance to the French Revolution

Rev. James MacCaffrey, S.J., 1914



(g) Progress of Theological Studies.

In the latter half of the fifteenth and the first quarter of the sixteenth centuries theological studies had reached a very low ebb. The great philosophico-theological movement of the thirteenth century had spent its force, and it seemed highly probable that in the struggle with Humanism theology would be obliged to abandon its position of pre-eminence in favour of the classics. Yet as events showed the results of Humanism were far from being so harmful to theology as seemed likely at first. Zeal for the pagan authors of antiquity helped to stir up zeal for the writings of the Fathers, new editions of which were published in various centres; while at the same time the value of the spirit of historical and literary criticism, so highly prized by the devotees of Humanism, was recognised by theologians, and availed of largely in defending the authority of the documents that they cited. In the controversies with the Reformers, who rejected entirely the authority and the methods of the Scholastics, Catholic authors and controversialists were obliged to fix their attention upon the Scriptures and on the historical side of theology as evidenced in the doctrines and usages of the early centuries. The revival, too, at this period of the older religious orders, particularly the Benedictines and the Dominicans, and the establishment of new bodies such as the Jesuits and the Oratorians were in the highest degree providential. It gave to the Church the services of trained and devoted scholars, who were free to devote all their energies to the defence of Catholic interests. In the remarkable theological movement of the sixteenth century Spain and Italy held the leading place. The University of Salamanca contended with the Collegium Romanum for the supremacy once yielded freely to the theological faculty of Paris. The founder of the new school of theology, which had its seat in Salamanca but which exercised a very considerable influence on the Jesuit teachers in Rome, Ingolstadt, and Prague, was the Dominican, Francis of Vittoria (1480-1546). Realising the necessities of the age better than most of his contemporaries he put to an end the useless discussions and degenerate style of his immediate predecessors, re-introduced the Summa of St. Thomas, insisted on supplementing it by a close study of the Scriptures and the writings of the Fathers, and inaugurated a new style of theological Latinity freed both from the barbarisms of the later Scholastics and the pedantry of the classical enthusiasts.

Amongst the Catholic theologians of Germany who defended the Church against the attacks of the Reformers may be mentioned John Eck (1486-1543) connected for the greater part of his life with the University of Ingolstadt, who in his publications proved himself the leading champion on the Catholic side against Luther; John Faber (1478-1541) the friend of Erasmus and the staunch though moderate opponent of Luther and Zwingli, whose work, Malleus Haereticorum (1524), secured for him the title of “the hammer of heretics”; John Cochlaeus (1479-1552) who published more than two hundred treatises against the Reformers, nearly all of which suffered from the haste and temper in which they were prepared; John Gropper (1503-59) whose early training as a lawyer led him at first to favour proposed compromises hardly compatible with Catholic doctrine, but who laboured earnestly to save Cologne for the Catholic Church; John Nas (1534-90) the Franciscan Bishop of Brixen, and the Blessed Peter Canisius, S.J. (1521-97) who did more than any other man to save the entire German nation from falling under the sway of Lutheranism, thereby meriting the title of the second apostle of Germany.

Tommaso de Vio (1469-1534), surnamed Cajetan1 from his place of birth, Gaeta, joined the Dominicans at an early age, taught at Padua and Pavia, and was elected general of his order (1508). Seven years later he was created cardinal and was entrusted with a mission to Germany (1518), in the course of which he sought vainly to procure the submission of Luther. During the closing years of his life he acted as one of the principal advisers of Clement VII. By his example and his advice he did much to revive theological studies amongst the Dominicans and to recall them to the study of St. Thomas. As a theologian and an exegetist he showed himself to be a man of great ability and judgment sometimes slightly erratic and novel in his theories, while from the point of view of style he was vastly superior to most of his predecessors. His principal works are the Commentary on St. Thomas (1507-22) and his explanations of nearly all the books of the Old and New Testament. Ambrosius Catharinus2 (1487-1553) was born at Siena, graduated a doctor of canon and civil law at the age of sixteen, pleaded as a lawyer in the consistorial court of Leo X., joined the Dominicans at an advanced age, took a prominent part in the discussions at the earlier sessions of the Council of Trent, was appointed bishop in 1546, and died in 1553 when, as it is said, he was on the point of receiving the cardinal’s hat. Catharinus was a keen controversialist, but as a theologian he was brilliant rather than solid. His strong leaning towards novelties brought him into conflict with Cajetan and in fact with the whole Dominican Order, the most cherished opinions of which he loved to attack. Dominic Soto (1494-1560) was a student of Alcala and Paris, joined the Dominicans in 1524, taught theology at Salamanca from 1532 till 1545, when he went to the Council of Trent, where his services were invaluable especially on the question of Grace and Justification, acted for a time as confessor to Charles V., and returned finally to his chair at Salamanca. He was the last of the great commentators on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. His principal works were De Natura et Gratia, written for the information of the Fathers of Trent and De Justitia et Jure (1556). Another of the distinguished Spanish Dominicans of this period was Melchior Cano (1509-60), who had as his professor at Salamanca Francis of Vittoria. He taught at Alcala and Salamanca, accompanied Soto to the Council of Trent, was appointed bishop but resigned almost immediately, and served for some time as provincial of the Dominicans. His greatest work was the De Locis Theologicis (1563), in which as a kind of introduction to theology he endeavoured to establish scientifically the foundations of theological science. He discusses the ten loci or sources which he enumerates, namely, Scripture, Tradition, the Catholic Church, the Councils, the Fathers, the Roman Church, the Scholastics, Reason, the authority of philosophers, and the authority of historians. His style is simple, concise, and elegant.

Robert Bellarmine3 (1542-1621) was born in Tuscany, joined the Society of Jesus (1560), studied at the Collegium Romanum and at Louvain, where he taught for some time, was recalled to Rome to assume charge of the new chair of controversy in the Collegium Romanum, took a prominent part in the preparation of the Clementine edition of the Vulgate, in the Congregatio de Auxiliis, and in the trial of Galileo, engaged in controversy with James I. of England in regard to the Catholic Oath, was created cardinal (1599), and appointed Archbishop of Capua (1602). Cardinal Bellarmine was a deeply religious man, severe only with himself, an indefatigable student always anxious to be just to his opponents, and specially gifted as a lecturer and writer. His greatest work was undoubtedly the Disputationes de controversis Christianae fidei articulis, in which he displayed a most minute and accurate knowledge of the religious tenets of all the sects of the Reformers. The book created such an enormous sensation in Europe at the time that special lecturers were employed at some of the Protestant universities to undertake its refutation. His commentary on the Psalms, and the Catechism prepared by him at the request of Clement VIII. also deserve special notice. The last complete edition of his writings was published at Paris in 1870. Francis Suarez4 (1548-1617) was born at Granada, joined the Society of Jesus in Salamanca (1564) and taught at Valladolid, Rome, Alcala, Salamanca, and Coimbra. Like Bellarmine Suarez was a man of great personal piety, well versed in the writings of the Fathers and in the literature of the Reformers. His works are clear and well arranged but somewhat too diffuse. The last edition (Vives) of his works was published at Paris (1856-61). John de Lugo (1583-1660) was born at Madrid, went to Salamanca to study law, and there joined the Jesuits. He lectured first at Valladolid, and later on at Rome where he attracted crowds of students, and he was created cardinal in 1643. In his works he has covered practically the entire field of dogmatic and moral theology. The best known are perhaps De Justitia et Jure and his treatises on the Incarnation, the Sacraments, the Eucharist, and the Sacrifice of the Mass. The last edition of his published works was issued at Paris (1868-9). Dionysius Petavius5 (Petau, 1583-1652) was born at Orleans, studied arts and theology at Paris, entered the Society of Jesus (1605), and taught theology at Paris for twenty-two years. He was one of the best known and most respected scholars of his age. Quite apart from his merits as a theologian, his works on chronology, notably the De doctrina temporum and the Tabulae Chronologicae would have been sufficient to place him in the first rank of the scholars of his period. In theology he is chiefly remarkable for the introduction and application of the historical method in his discussion of dogma, and hence he is referred to rightly as the “Father of the History of Dogma.” His principal theological work is the Dogmata Theologica (1644-50).

The splendid example of a scientific treatment of moral theology set by St. Thomas produced very little effect during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, for the simple reason that the Sentences, and not the Summa, was the text-book used generally in the schools. Following along the lines marked out by Raymond of Penafort in his Summa de poenitentia et matrimonio (1235) a large number of Summae or manuals for the use of confessors were published during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the last of them being that of Silvester Prierias, one of the earliest opponents of Luther. One of the few writers of this period who undertook to give a scientific explanation of moral principles is St. Antoninus (1389-1459), the Dominican Archbishop of Florence, in his Summa Theologica Moralis.

The rejection of the Sentences in favour of the Summa, and the reform decrees of the Council of Trent gave a new impetus to the study of moral theology during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Most of the great writers of this period, Gregory of Valencia (1550-1603), Vasquez (1549-1604), Lessius (1554-1623), Banez (1528-1604), Medina (1527-81), Sanchez (1550-1610), Saurez, and De Logo devoted special attention to the underlying principles of moral theology, and in some cases to their practical application. The De Poenitentia and the Responsa Moralia of De Lugo served as models of what might be called mixed treatment, partly scientific and partly casuistical. The Theologia Moralis of the Jesuit writer, Paul Laymann (1574-1635), the Instructio Sacerdotum of Cardinal Toledo and the Medulla Theologiae Moralis of Hermann Busenbaum (1600-68), which went through forty editions in his own lifetime, may be cited as examples of this method.

The controversy regarding Probabilism did not assume a serious aspect till the rise and condemnation of Jansenism. During this period the enemies of the Jesuits pointed to the approval given to Probabilism by the Fathers of the Society as a proof of the laxity of view introduced by Jesuit theologians. Whatever may be said of the system, one thing is certain, namely, that the Jesuit theologians were not the first to put it forward. It was followed in practice long before the institution of the Society of Jesus, was enunciated clearly enough as a theory by the Spanish Dominican Bartholomew Medina (1527-81) and was adopted, at least in their solutions of particular cases, by most of the great writers during the latter half of the sixteenth and the first half of the seventeenth centuries.

Amongst the most notable writers on ascetical theology of this period were St. Ignatius of Loyola, the author of the Spiritual Exercises, St. Teresa (1515-82) the zealous reformer of the Carmelites, St. John of God (1495-1550) the founder of the Brothers of St. John of God, the Dominican Louis of Granada (1504-88), St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622), the two Jesuit writers Alphonsus Rodriguez (1526-1616) and Louis de Ponte (1554-1624), and Jean Jacques Olier (1608-57) the founder of the Sulpicians.

Many causes combined to bring about a great revival in Scriptural studies. The Humanist movement ensured that commentators would bring to their task a ready knowledge of Greek and a critical appreciation of the age and value of manuscripts. The study of Hebrew was taken up enthusiastically by scholars like Reuchlin, and was rendered comparatively easy by the grammars and dictionaries published by Reuchlin, Santez, Pagnino, Pelikan, and Cardinal Bellarmine. The contention of the early Reformers that the Bible was the sole source of divine revelation, though never accepted by Catholic scholars, necessitated a close study of the words and literal meaning of the sacred text. In opposition to the private interpretation of the Reformers Catholics contended that the teaching authority of the Church and the interpretation of the Fathers were the only sure guides. The distinction between deutero-canonical and proto-canonical books was ended for Catholics by the decision of the Council of Trent attributing to both equal authority. The question of the extent of inspiration was left by the Council of Trent practically in the position in which it stood when the Council of Florence defined that God was the author of the sacred books. Many writers were inclined to hold the view that the divine assistance extended to the style and the words, while others rejected verbal inspiration. A few Catholic scholars, for example Lessius and Hamel, seemed to maintain that a book composed by human industry and without the assistance of the Holy Ghost might be regarded as inspired if afterwards the Holy Ghost testified that it contained no error. Since the Vatican Council such a view is no longer tenable.

The activity in the field of Scriptural studies is witnessed to by the edition of the Greek and Latin text of the New Testament prepared by Erasmus, by the Complutensian Polyglot published under the direction of Cardinal Ximenes (1514-17) to be followed by similar publications at Antwerp (1569-72) and at Paris (1628-45), by the edition of the Septuagint at the command of Sixtus V. and the edition of the Vulgate under Clement VIII. Amongst the great Catholic commentators of the age may be mentioned Cardinal Cajetan (+1534), the Dominican Santez Pagnino (+1541), Cornelius Jansen (1576), the Jesuit, John Maldonatus (+1583), whose commentary on the four Gospels is still unrivalled, William Estius (+1613), professor at Douay, whose views on Grace were not unaffected by the controversies then raging at Louvain, and Cornelius a Lapide, S.J. (+1673), professor at Louvain and Rome, who published an excellent commentary on the entire Scriptures.

Ecclesiastical History profited largely from the Humanist movement which brought to light many new documents, and tended to awaken a spirit of scholarly criticism. The contention put forward by the Reformers, that primitive Christianity had been completely corrupted by semi-Pagan novelties during the Middle Ages, made it imperative on Catholic scholars to direct their attention to the practices and teaching of the early centuries. New editions of the writings of the Fathers were prepared by the Dominicans, Jesuits, and by the Benedictines of St. Maur. The attempt made by the Magdeburg Centuriators to justify Lutheranism at the bar of history called forth the Annales Ecclesiastici of Cardinal Baronius (1538-1607). These Annals dealt with the history of the Church from the beginning till the year 1198. The work was continued by the Oratorians Raynaldus and Laderchi, by de Sponde, Bzovius and Augustine Theiner. The History of the Popes was written by the Augustinian Panvinio (+1568) and by the Dominican, Ciacconius (+1599). Hagiographical studies were pursued by Surius (+1578) and by the Jesuit Heribert Rosweyde (1569-1629). It was the latter who first conceived the plan of publishing the Lives of the Saints in one series. He died without having done much except to collect an immense mass of materials. The scheme was, however, taken up by other members of the society, notably, John Van Bolland (Bollandus, 1596-1665), Godfrey Henschen (1601-81) and Daniel von Papenbroeck (Papebroch, 1628-1714). These were the first of the Bollandists, and the first volume of the Acta Sanctorum appeared in 1643.

Chapter VI Section (g) Footnotes

1 Quetif-Echard, Scriptores Ordinis Praedicatorum, ii. 14.

2 Id., ii. 144-51.

3 Couderc, Robert Bellarmin, 2 vols., 1893.

4 Werner, Franz Suarez und die Scholastik der letzten jahrhunderte, 1861.

5 Chatellain, Viz du Pere D. Petavius, 1884.

Chapter VI Section (g) Bibliography

Hurter, Nomenclator Literarius Theologiae Catholicae, 3 auf., 1903. Werner, Geschichte der apologetischen und polemischen Literatur der Christlichen Theologie, 1865. Turmel, Histoire de la theologie positive, etc., 1906. Slater, A Short History of Moral Theology, 1909. Gigot, General Introduction to the Sacred Scriptures, 1900. De Smedt, Introductio Generalis ad Historiam Ecclesiasticam, 1876. Benigni, Historiae Ecclesiasticae Repertorium, 1902. Collins, The Study of Ecclesiastical History, 1903.

Webpage © 2000 ELC
Lane Core Jr. (lane@elcore.net)
Created November 20, 2000; not revised.