Hsia’s The World of Catholic Renewal 1540-1770 is a comprehensive social history of the efforts of the Roman Catholic Church to reform itself and to withstand the challenges of Protestant reformers. It is comprehensive in geographical and ethnographic reach; it does not, however address, even minimally, the theological issues that often provide the meat of other histories of the Catholic renewal. The book cannot, therefore, carry the weight of a thorough understanding of early modern Catholicism. For example, the lead chapter on the Council of Trent is replete with names, dates, and subjects without even a minimum elaboration of what divided Protestants and Catholics theologically. Hsia does, however, address Tridentine reforms of bishops and clergy and the success or lack of success of the implementation of these reforms.
That said, I found the book to be a good backgrounder that provides the data one needs to answer the most basic who, what, where, why, and when questions of the more than two centuries of increasingly successful reform that nevertheless preceded the growing political and intellectual confrontations of modernity. Hsia is particularly strong with regard to politics whether of state or ecclesiastical governments and their interactions. Besides the relation of bishops to kings, the new religious orders and their missionary zeal were both helped and hindered by the jockeying of states to become world powers. Of the religious orders, the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) receives the most attention, providing a sub-theme for many of the chapters. Indeed, the dates that define the period, 1540-1570, are also the dates that define the founding (1540) and flourishing of the Society of Jesus until its suppression in 1773 everywhere but in Russia.
The structure of the book and of each of the chapters allows for clarity and some flexibility. The author works hard to avoid the simplifications to which historical overviews are all too prone. Thus the progress of Tridentine reforms is painted in quite different colors in the various parts of Europe according to the degree of resistance from clergy and rulers. A too brief chapter on “Holy women, beatas, demoniacs” strikes an understanding note, but by isolating women in this way deepens the impression that women were not significantly involved in social and cultural reforms. Treatment of new orders is also in terms of who, when, and where, with only sketchy attention to the purpose and spirit that animated these orders.
I was surprised and annoyed by frequent grammatical errors and uncorrected confused language. I spent several moments trying to rearrange the following sentence: “ . . . a nine-year marriage that bore her four grown children” (p. 150). Other obvious bloopers: “Rule of St. Benedictine” referring to the Rule of St. Benedict, a quotation from St. Teresa of Avila that mentioned “flagrant flowers,” and the repeated use of “venging violence.” Given the supposition that English is a second language for the author, editors at the Cambridge University Press should have caught these and the many other editing problems before issuing this second edition.
Last word: as one too often absorbed primarily by theological concerns, it is good to have available a well-organized study of so many other aspects and developments of early modern Catholicism.