Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The triumph of Catholicism   posted by Razib @ 8/13/2008 03:24:00 PM

Most of you have heard about the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation (which, more accurately should probably be termed the Catholic Reformation). But after posting earlier on the parameters which affect the shape and constraints of religious change, I thought it was important to mention something: in the second half the 16th century Catholicism was very close to becoming purely a Mediterranean sect of Christianity. In other words, Catholicism seemed on the verge of disappearing from Germany to the same extent that it did from England by and large. In East Central Europe, the precursors to the modern states of the Czech and Slovak Republics, Poland and Hungary, it was also being marginalized by Lutheranism, the Reformed Churches as well as even more extreme groups such as Unitarians. France had a large Huguenot minority which was represented disproportionately among the gentry and nobility. If you want to read about the extent of the rollback in the face of Protestantism check out The Thirty Years' War, The Reformation and Divided by Faith. All of them explore the massive penetration and domination of Protestantism among the Polish and Austrian nobility and the near collapse of Catholic parishes in regions which we today view as staunchly Roman Catholic.

But a Catholic world dominated by the peninsular Mediterranean never became. Today we have a German Pope, and the previous Pontif was Polish. Vast swaths of southern and western Germany remain Catholic, while the Protestant minority in France was expelled in the later 17th century (aside from mountainous redoubts such as Cevannes). What happened? The short answer is that the Hapsburgs happened. The Church operated in concert with the Holy Roman Emperor and other monarchs to reinvigorate the institutional framework of Roman Catholicism. The Jesuits were famously instrumental in this process of reform. But this was not a pure program of persuasion; Protestants who were not noble were often given the choice of emigration or conversion to the Catholic faith. Whole districts in Austria where Catholic parishes were no longer a feature of the landscape were re-Catholicized in a few years simply through imperial fiat. The mostly Protestant nobility could not be forced to convert, but they were blocked from patronage and access to the offices which brought glory upon their houses and maintained their fortunes. Additionally, though their private worship was given some latitude on their estates initially a step-by-step process of removal of these privileges also occurred over several generations. The result was that noble lineages who remained in the re-Catholicized regions of the Hapsburg Empire converted to the established religion, while those who would not give up their Protestant faith emigrated to regions where they could practice freely.

There are two domains of the former Hapsburg Empire which retain a large Protestant population; Hungary and Transylvania. And they illustrate the power of imperial fiat in driving religious change, because for much of the early modern period Transylvania was under the suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire. Hungary was divided by a western Hapsburg domain and an eastern Ottoman portion. Not surprisingly, it is in the east that Protestant populations are most numerous because it is in the east that the re-Catholicization program was operative for the shortest period since these regions were under Turkish rule for most of the 17th century. The moral of the story here is that the diplomatic history of Europe between 1600 and 1800 can very accurately predict the religious configuration that we see today. Mass social movements simply could not succeed without the support of the elite, and the potentate had wide powers with which he or she could reshape that elite.

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