The 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries saw a spiritual revival in Europe, in which the question of salvation became central. This became known as the Catholic Reformation. Several theologians
harkened back to the early days of Christianity and questioned their spirituality. Their debates expanded across most of the Western Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries, whilst secular critics also examined religious practice, clerical behavior and the church's doctrinal positions. Several varied currents of thought were active, but the ideas of reform and renewal were led by the clergy.
The reforms decreed at Fifth Council of the Lateran (1512–1517) had only a small effect. Some doctrinal positions got further from the church's official positions, leading to the break with Rome and the formation of Protestant denominations. Even so, conservative and reforming parties still survived within the Catholic Church even as the Protestant Reformation spread. Protestants decisively broke from the Catholic Church in the 1520s. The two distinct dogmatic positions within the Catholic Church solidified in the 1560s. The Catholic Reformation became known as the Counter-Reformation, defined as a reaction to Protestantism rather than as a reform movement. The historian Henri Daniel-Rops wrote:
The term, however, though common, is misleading: it cannot rightly be applied, logically or chronologically, to that sudden awakening as of a startled giant, that wonderful effort of rejuvenation and reorganization, which in a space of thirty years gave to the Church an altogether new appearance. ... The so-called 'counter-reformation' did not begin with the Council of Trent, long after Luther; its origins and initial achievements were much anterior to the fame of Wittenberg. It was undertaken, not by way of answering the 'reformers,' but in obedience to demands and principles that are part of the unalterable tradition of the Church and proceed from her most fundamental loyalties.
The regular orders made their first attempts at reform in the 14th century. The 'Benedictine Bull' of 1336 reformed the Benedictines and Cistercians. In 1523, the Camaldolese Hermits of Monte Corona were recognized as a separate congregation of monks. In 1435, Francis of Paola founded the Poor Hermits of Saint Francis of Assisi, who became the Minim Friars. In 1526, Matteo de Bascio suggested reforming the Franciscan rule of life to its original purity, giving birth to the Capuchins, recognized by the pope in 1619. This order was well-known to the laity and play an important role in public preaching. To respond to the new needs of evangelism, clergy formed into religious congregations, taking special vows but with no obligation to assist in a monastery's religious offices. These regular clergy taught, preached and took confession but were under a bishop's direct authority and not linked to a specific parish or area like a vicar or canon.
In Italy, the first congregation of regular clergy was the Theatines founded in 1524 by Gaetano and Cardinal Gian Caraffa. This was followed by the Somaschi Fathers in 1528, the Barnabites in 1530, the Ursulines in 1535, the Jesuits, canonically recognised in 1540, the Clerics Regular of the Mother of God of Lucca in 1583, the Camillians in 1584, the Adorno Fathers in 1588, and finally the Piarists in 1621. In 1524, a number of priests in Rome began to live in a community centred on Philip Neri. The Oratorians were given their institutions in 1564 and recognized as an order by the pope in 1575. They used music and singing to attract the faithful.