For a variety of reasons which are different depending on who is writing the history and what details are considered important, mounting tensions among Christians in various parts of western Europe exploded once a couple people very publicly challenged Church authority in what had become an incredibly charged environment in the early 16th century.
Martin Luther and John Calvin successfully echoed John Wycliff’s ideas of a century earlier (which were ignored by just about everyone at that time), and riding on the waves of discontent stirred up by a political enemy/propaganda campaign against the pope originating in Italy (from one angle, class warfare, actually), set off ax wielding mobs that made a horrid mess of Church property before states (kings) claimed it. Whether or not Luther and Calvin intended to recreate the chaos of the 1420’s in Bohemia where more or less the same thing happened, is a matter that never seems to surface.
This is a place where the details deemed important are either Martin Luther’s 95 theses tacked on the church door OR thousands people smashing stained glass windows and other works of art which depicted biblical scenes so that illiterate peasants could have access to the Bible and Church history, altar stones being broken, sacramental wine drunk for inebriation, hand-copied Bibles ripped to shreds, and Christian philosophical and devotional books burned in gigantic bonfires. Same thing with John Calvin’s Geneva. Was it important that people were having fun being Christians or that the neighbors were reporting that fun to church authorities?
Or was the important point that the popes should have paid more attention to their own flock’s infighting and less time trying to fend off the Turks (that would be Islam. Some popes were still anxious to finish the Crusades at that point despite not having the cash to do so). That one’s probably a draw, to be honest, since the pope at the time thought the protests would all just go away like they did in Bohemia.
The end result, though, is that Western Christian unity was destroyed and there was persecution against those who did not fall away from Catholicism in various locations, while prompting others to fight against the protests. Talk about a mess. (This is still happening.) Catholicism was forcibly pushed back to roughly the borders of the old Roman Empire. What was left on the other side of those lines truly depends on perspective.
For Catholicism, as happens every time there is a rebuilding century, more orders were founded in the 16th century (Jesuits, Visitation nuns, Ursuline sisters, among others) who concentrated on missionary work and teaching the Faith. The priests spread more widely than the sisters, but this was the period where sisters began to teach girls in the home which was a novelty at the time. At the same time, the Crown of England, and other official powers in other countries that shed Catholicism pretty quickly, each for their own reasons, confiscated Church property which had been accumulating for hundreds of years thanks to the largesse of Her faithful patrons (thus giving the impression that the Church is wealthy rather than just holding a lot of assets in trust for the inspiration of future generations. Cash was spent most often on financing the Crusades and holding Islam at bay).
About the 16th century is when huge advances in science started to accumulate building on not just St. Albert’s contributions, but the work of a number of other clergy members and a few Renaissance artist-engineers-doctors…they did it all. As all of this progressed for a bit, and a new philosophical school emerged based more on human “reason” than God, an alternative learning tradition was started for those who did not want to follow the previous tradition. A group of very educated and doctrinally eclectic Frenchmen started to put together what they called ‘L’Encyclopaedia which was a collection of all that had been learned to date, and turned out to be one of several efforts that tore at the fabric of not just the Church, but the French monarchy itself (which, as we all remember, was the first of the European monarchies to fall). Little did the writers, and their chief organizer, Voltaire, who would have been horrified at the bloody Reign of Terror, know that they were sowing the seeds of blood flowing in the streets. (There was also a suppression of the Jesuits in 1767, that lasted about 50 years and caused quite a bit of trouble. Jealous kings prompted it just like a French king pressed for suppression of the Knights Templar, and the Jesuits were restored after France had all but destroyed itself.)
When the first of the human-based, socialistic, people’s revolts happened (the US was a different kettle of fish) – the French “Revolution” – another chain reaction started with state suppression of the Church and confiscation of church property, this time in traditionally Catholic countries: off and on in France (the last time being after 1900), Austria, what we now know as Germany (1871), Mexico (1917), Spain (1930s under Franco), Poland off and on for quite a while, among other locations. Clergy were exiled and/or hunted down, just as what happened in England when Cromwell took control. In France, clergy members were forced to marry. Even in the United States where Catholicism had freedom to practice from 1776 on, just over 100 years after the Church emerged from missionary status in 1907, local governments have tried to take Church property by eminent domain and now those in other positions of governmental power are doing their darndest to get the Church to bend to the modernist, progressive will – with full support of modernist Catholics, too.
Little do the progressives understand that the rebuilding of the traditional Church has begun with about three generations now of people who are rediscovering Christianity as it was passed down, not what the modernists tried to make of it following the Second Vatican Council. There’s a resurgence of the cloistered orders, and as happens when rebuilding starts, those orders which are no longer effective are fading away, being replaced with new, more energized orders where the men and women are eager to teach tradition.
Of course, this is skipping over tomes of details and information, MANY characters in Church history, good and bad, and not dispelling a lot of myths that put the Church in a poor light (like the government of Spain twisting the arm of the pope at the time to allow the Inquisition and a subsequent pope telling them to knock it off), but when it comes to being persecuted for what a Church preaches, and living the life of a Christian as Sacred Tradition says it should be lived, we Catholics have had a lot of practice over the last 500 years. Some of it is over tradition, some the very human failings of the people who are members, and some plain and simple ignorance and misunderstandings about everything from theology to whether or not we worship Mary (we don’t), that excommunication is not simply a matter of revoking membership, but a disciplinary measure, and why our clergy wear cassocks, albs and robes (tradition, mourning, sacrifice). The persecution can be as mild as not employing members of the faith and as stark as the Irish potato famine, where the meat, dairy and grains the Irish produced were exported to England, and the people were left to starve to death when the potato crops failed.
This is nothing new. Over and over again it happens, just as it started in the beginning with the Church living in the catacombs. The Church is really not of this world. It is up to the people who actually believe and live as Christ asked of us to do so despite the ways of men that run counter to the Church. That we have enjoyed the law enshrining the major points of Christian tradition in the United States for so long has been a blessing. As the base side of human nature presses changes to this tradition, American Christians are not happy. Welcome to the club of the persecuted.
It’s been said that the Second Coming (end of the world) is near when Christianity returns to the catacombs. If that is so, we aren’t in any danger. Those who claim Christ as the Savior of the World live very much above ground. The influence of those who profess faith may have waned in recent decades, but this is a fight that is never going to end. It should not matter to a true Christian what the world or secular law says. So long as we live our own lives loving the Lord Our God with all our hearts and all our souls and loving our neighbors as ourselves, and not giving into the temptations of the world, Christianity remains.
P.s. Many of us who are Catholic and have done some family tree tracing have come across family members who were imprisoned and worse simply for not denouncing the faith. In my case, a direct ancestor was imprisoned by British occupiers in what is Nova Scotia today simply for being a French Catholic. And, of course, the Irish left Ireland in order to be able to eat.