Lessons from the Reform Papacy of St. Pius V

This month marks the 450th anniversary of the accession to the throne of Peter of Michael Ghislieri, the great Dominican of peasant birth known forevermore as Pope St. Pius V. Cardinal Borromeo brought Ghislieri the news of his election on January 7, 1566; he was crowned Pius V ten days later on his sixty-second birthday.

Few figures loom larger in the history of the post-Reformation Church than this canonized pontiff. The Council of Trent had concluded just three years before his elevation. It thus fell to the zealous and holy son of St. Dominic to interpret and implement the conciliar decrees. In large measure, it was Pius’s approach to the Council that has defined the so-called “Tridentine Church” down to the present time.

Pius was, perhaps, the first thorough-going reformer to reign as pope since Martin Luther nailed his complaints to the church door at Wittenberg. The popes of the early period of the Reformation (Leo X, Clement VII) were slow to understand the earthquake Luther unleashed, and were mired in complex and disastrous political crises involving endless intrigues and shifting allegiances between Great Powers—especially between the French and the Empire—that resulted in the horrific sack of Rome in 1527. At the same time, England was lost to the machinations of Henry VIII. Through it all, the Church hardly addressed the internal spiritual and structural maladies that had spurred the Reformation, and the religious and political power of Protestantism advanced.

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The great hope for reform—a “free council”—did not open at Trent until 1545, nearly thirty years after the 95 Theses. The Council persisted, amidst much controversy and difficulty, through three distinct periods before it finally ended its work in December 1563. Following the formal close of the Council, Pope Pius IV approved its canons and decrees, and, a year later, he promulgated the Professio Fidei Tridentinae, essentially appending to the Nicene Creed 12 concise articles of faith concerning the principal theological teachings of Trent (e.g. the teaching authority of the Church, the number of sacraments, the nature of the Mass).

St. Pius V built upon, and took further, the implementing work of his predecessor. In 1566, he promulgated the Catechism of the Council of Trent, the forerunner of the present Catechism, as the first systemic compilation of the beliefs and teachings of the Roman Church. Its purpose was to instruct broadly, and it was designed as a comprehensive but understandable, digest of Christian doctrine and as guidebook for Christian living.

The Catechism was followed by Pius’s reform of the breviary in 1568, and his insistence that all clergy faithfully observe the requirements of the Divine Office. Most famously, in 1570, Pius issued the bull Quo Primum, by which he enacted the Roman Missal, codifying for all time the ancient order of the Roman Rite of the Mass. The Missal was never to be abrogated (and never has been, not even at the hand of Paul VI).

Pius was also a giant in the secular political world, though he was not always successful in his efforts. In April 1570, he excommunicated Elizabeth I of England and declared her subjects free to disregard her right to rule. In so doing, Pius manifested his refusal to surrender the traditional political prerogatives of the papacy and the Church to the growing power of the secular state. Although the medieval temporal powers of the Church had already been destroyed decades earlier, Pius’s attempt to reassert papal influence was of a piece with his wholesale rejection of the Reformation and its spiritual and political companions. His excommunication of Elizabeth, of course, was without effect, except to heighten the Crown’s persecution of Catholics.

Pius was, however, the driving force behind the Holy League coalition that decisively defeated the Turks and saved Europe from the westward advance of the Ottoman Empire. This was no easy task; as a result of the vastly weakened political power of the papacy, all the great Catholic powers of Europe—save for Spain and Venice, rebuffed Pius’s call to join the Holy League in order to halt the Turkish advances in the Mediterranean. Nonetheless, against the odds, and with the aid of Our Lady of the Rosary, the forces of the Holy League defeated the Turks at Lepanto on October 7, 1571. By the work of Pius V, and his prayers, the western progress of the Ottomans was stopped.

As we approach the 500th anniversary of the commencement of the Reformation, the reign of Pius V, and the incredibly momentous events that led to it, merit careful examination by the Church of our time. The Church today continues to struggle with the meaning and aftermath of the Second Vatican Council. The Vatican Council, in turn, cannot be analyzed without understanding the Counter Reformation, for Vatican II was, in part, an attempt to “deal with” the legacy of the Tridentine era.

By the mid-twentieth century, the Church of St. Pius was seen as overly reactionary, with its absolutist decrees and complete rejection of all things Protestant. Such a view provided the justification for many changes that followed the Council, as practices that seemed rooted mainly in late sixteenth-century anti-Protestant defiance (e.g. Eucharistic adoration) were discarded or diminished. Ecumenism became a sort of mania in the Vatican II era, and it is important that the Church now examine how much the desire for some kind of reconciliation with the Protestant world influenced the implementation of the Council, and especially how it shaped Bugnini’s dismantling of Pius V’s great Missal.

It is, of course, true that Pius V was a “reactionary” in the sense that he, and the Church of his day, were reacting to the massive challenges posed, not only by Protestantism, but also by the spiritual decay in the Church that had given rise to Luther’s movement in the first place. But it is important to bear in mind that Pius and his contemporaries at Trent did not invent a new religion in response to the Protestants. Rather, the Tridentine Church affirmed and presented again, with vigor and clarity, the traditional theology and practices of the Church as they had developed organically through the ages.

Thus, if the Tridentine Catholicism of Pius was reactionary, it was a reaction to the acts of one of the most reactionary movements in history. After all, Luther was reacting to the troubles in the Church of his time, and did so, not by seeking spiritual renewal within the Church, but by creating de novo his own personal theology. Others even more radical followed suit. It is worth noting that one of the principal original purposes of Trent was reconciliation with the Protestants, who were invited to the Council and who did, in fact, attend during its second phase.

Some Council Fathers were sympathetic to aspects of Protestant theology, particularly regarding the means of salvation, but the overall gulf dug by the discarding of the Mass, the sacraments, and the general authority of the Church was far too wide to bridge. Regardless, even as late as 1564, Pius IV granted permission for the laity in certain parts of the Empire to receive the Precious Blood and he seriously considered the further concession of married clergy in Germany (an act directly opposed by St. Pius when a Curial Cardinal).

The point now is not to assign blame, but to encourage a clear-eyed look at this critical era that had so much influence on the Church in the succeeding 400 years. In addition to helping shape our understanding of Vatican II, the proper role of ecumenism and the propriety of the modern changes to the Liturgy, St. Pius V and his collaborators, such as Borromeo, offer important lessons for handling difficult circumstances. We tend to forget that determined opposition to the Church did not emerge for the first time circa 1968; as briefly outlined above, the Church of Pius’s time was in a generations-long crisis, beset by hostile political and religious forces that had dethroned the Church from its place of temporal and spiritual dominance.

In response, Pius demonstrated absolute confidence in the truth of the Faith. Trent, and his papacy, ensured that the Catholic Church would remain the Catholic Church, regardless of the seductive innovations preached by Luther or Calvin.

Yet, far from mouthing “all is well” delusions, Pius aggressively pursued the spiritual renewal necessary to safeguard and re-present the Faith with zeal and understanding. The Catechism, the Missal, the Tridentine emphasis on learning and preaching, the erection of the seminary system, the enforcement of the residency requirement upon bishops, and the reform of women’s religious life all formed the foundation of a renewed Church, ever ancient and ever new. Such a combination of zealous fidelity to the Church with commitment to its ad infra reform is sorely needed today.

Four hundred fifty years after his election, St. Pius V offers many lessons applicable to our present circumstances. May the Church examine him, and his complex times, carefully in the new millennium. Pope St. Pius V, Ora pro nobis!

Editor’s note: In the painting above, Pope Pius V receives a vision of the Turkish defeat at Lepanto. (Artist unknown.)


  • Christian Browne

    Christian Browne is a practicing attorney in New York state. A board member of the Nassau County Catholic Lawyers Guild, he earned his J.D. from Fordham University in 2004.

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