The Counter-Reformation's success, or otherwise, depended on a number of factors but pro-reform popes was certainly a highly important one. A pope who wanted reform could push the Counter-Reformation forward. A pope against any form of real reform could do the Counter-Reformation much harm.
Paul III (pope from 1534 to 1549) was born Alexander Farnese and sympathised with the reform movement mainly because he feared that the spread of Protestantism would greatly weaken Papal authority. At the age of 25 he became a cardinal before becoming a priest! In 1536, he appointed nine cardinals to investigate the state of the church. Their report was open and frank. It condemned the most obvious abuses and "the reckless exaggeration of Papal authority". The report clearly stated that the quality of the clergy had to be improved. It wanted priests and bishops to be resident; benefices to be awarded on merit alone; and greater care in the selection of candidates. The report also called for enclosed contemplative orders to be abolished and it wanted all publishing to be under the control of ecclesiastical censors. Paul III approved the report but he did little about it. He did, however, encourage new orders such as the Jesuits, Barnabites and Ursulines. In July 1542, he established the Roman Inquisition ("The Holy Office") led by Cardinal Caraffa, which was to herald an offensive against heresy. Paul III did favour liberals and he sent Contarini to Regensburg. However, the Papacy rejected Contarini’s proposals.
Paul IV (pope from 1555 to 1559) was "the first of the true Counter-Reformation popes" (Cowie). He had previously been Caraffa who ran the Inquisition. He became pope aged 79. He was an extreme conservative but very energetic for his age. He cut Papal expenditure; ordered bishops back to their sees, put all of Erasmus’s books on to the Index; expelled travelling entertainers from Rome and forbade hunting and dancing. Paul IV hated Spain because of Spain’s Habsburgs links and he felt that the pope could never fully be free until the power of the emperor was checked. In 1555 he re-started the Italian Wars in an effort to broaden his powers but this was to be in vain. His death in 1559 was greeted with jubilation in Rome.
Pius IV (pope from 1559 to 1565) reversed Paul IV’s anti—Spanish policy. He had executed four of Caraffa’s relatives for advancing their power using Papal influence. In 1563 the Council of Trent ended. Pius published a new Index and prepared for the issue of a new catechism for 1566. He opened a new seminary for priests in Rome to encourage others to do so. He issued regulations for the College of Cardinals and insisted on their right to elect a pope against the claims of a Church Council. He was a Medici and he appointed some of his own family as cardinals before they were old enough.
Pius V (pope from 1566 to 1572) was a strict and severe man but with no political ambitions. He enforced clerical discipline and residence; he forbade the sale of Indulgences; he reduced Papal spending and he abolished annates. But he did fail to stop the sale of offices in the Catholic Church. A new catechism was introduced (1566), as was a new Breviary (1568) and a new Missal (1570). In 1570, an order was issued that a new edition of the works of St. Thomas Aquinas was to be produced to emphasis their importance to Catholic ideology. He encouraged both Roman and Spanish Inquisitions and in doing so he put the Counter-Reformation on the offensive. He formed the Holy League with Spain and Venice which defeated the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto - a defeat the Turks would never fully recover from.
Gregory III (pope from 1572 to 1585) was "a gentle reformer" – R Lockyer. He concentrated on two things. 1) The relationship of the Papacy with those countries which recognised its authority and 2) the place of education in the Church. He developed the idea of Papal nuncios to represent the Church abroad. He established many seminaries and colleges which he put under the control of the Jesuits. He approved two new orders; the Congregation of the Oratory and the Barefooted Carmelites (both in 1580). By the end of his rule, the Papacy was in financial chaos due to his building of colleges etc. Papal finances were very inadequate. In 1 580 he ordered a printing press for Rome to give the Church more power in controlling what people in the city read.
Sixtus V (pope from 1585 to 1590) established some form of financial order by selling disputations and privileges. He also introduced new taxes and modernised Papal administration. He limited the number of cardinals to 70 and in 1587 he divided them into 15 congregations (departments) each of which dealt with different things such as the government of Rome, the appointment of bishops, the supervision of religious orders etc. He created an effective central government which was essentially a form of civil service. "They provided the direction and co-ordination that had so often been lacking" (Lockyer). Sixtus also modernised Rome by building new roads, water supplies, the Lateran Palace and the Vatican Library. "Under Sixtus V the reformed Papacy was at the height of its prestige." R Lockyer
"Popes and the Counter-Reformation". HistoryLearningSite.co.uk. 2014. Web.