The very words “Council of Trent” summon the beginning of a 400-year ice age for Catholic Christianity’s doctrine, worship and overall practice, until the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council. Many Catholics catechized shortly before Vatican II, especially those who soon after breathed in the council’s retrospectively mild winds of renewal, learned to apply the adjective Tridentine to any hidebound and legalistic idea.
Actually, the historical 1545-63 Tridentine council’s canons and decrees were neither as extreme as popularly viewed today nor did the modern Church rescind them four centuries later. When Pope John XXIII launched Vatican II, he expressly affirmed Trent, saying, “What was, still is.”
Nonetheless, the council is regarded as the linchpin of what Protestants call the Counter-Reformation—or what Catholic historians refer to as the Catholic Revival. In modern cinematic terms, it might be called “Rome Strikes Back.” Yet it was only about the hierarchy in charge of the Church in communion with the bishop of Rome declining to play dead when a furious horde of Renaissance humanists, Lutherans and Calvinists marched against them with torches and pitchforks.
Over 18 years, they picked at the bones of contention until they had a thorough and clear response thought to be so definitive that no other general council took place until the end of the 19th century.
Everything about Trent was painfully deliberate, in timing, place and attendance, not to mention its decisions.
The council’s 25 sessions, between December 1545 and December 1563, took place in Trento—except the 9th to 11th, held in Bologna, when there was an outbreak of the plague in 1547. Today, the city is in the Italian province of Trentino, bordering South Tyrol; at the time of the council, it was the capital of the bishopric-principality of Trent, part of the Holy Roman Empire, where many of the reformers lived.
The location was chosen to extend safe passage to “all and each one throughout the whole of Germany, whether ecclesiastics or Seculars, of whatsoever degree, estate, condition, quality they be,” a description later expanded to “all and singular the priests, electors-princes, dukes, marquises, counts, barons, nobles, soldiers, commonalty, and to all other persons whatsoever […] especially those of the Confession of Augsburg.” The latter was a reference to Lutherans. Such people were invited to “confer, make proposals, and treat on those things which are to be treated of … and propose therein, as well in writing as by word of mouth, as many articles as to them shall seem good, and to confer and dispute, without any abuse or contumely, with the Fathers.”
The Roman Curia bowed in these matters to Emperor Charles V, the Catholic, Flemish-born monarch who by lineage was a Spaniard ruling the theologically rebellious Germans. Charles had presided over the Imperial Diet that condemned Luther and was the nephew of Catherine of Aragon, the erstwhile queen of England; however, as an acute observer he saw the blemishes in the Church that inspired revolt and hoped for a council that would, in some respects, listen to his German subjects.
Legally, then, it was a public council of the Church, open to nonvoting attendees who by name requested to be there—including those whose “crimes should be ever so enormous and should savor of heresy.” The latter had the option, but not the requirement, of requesting to be judged by suitable individuals of their choosing in order to resolve pending matters.
Lutheran theologian Johannes Brenz wrote a document, known as the Württemberg Confession, a statement of belief containing 35 articles and reflecting the views of the Protestant church in Württemberg, which he presented to council members. Fellow Lutheran theologian Philip Melanchthon was headed to Trento but turned around at Nuremberg on hearing that Protestants would have no vote.
It was unrealistic to expect Reformers to participate as equals to bishops in a general council of the Church; that was something unheard of going back to the original bishops, the apostles. Some have speculated that insiders appalled at Charles V’s idea of negotiating with Reformers at a council fueled the Protestants’ early expectations, then purposely dashed such hopes in a carefully orchestrated move to keep folks such as Melanchton away. However, it might be noted as a postscript that the 1999 joint Catholic-Lutheran accord on justification cites Brenz’ Württemberg Confession as a precedent.
Pope Paul III called the council and was the first to preside over it. His successor, Julius III, led the 12th to 16th sessions (1551-52). The 17th to 25th (1562-63) were headed by Pius IV, whose successor, Pius V, implemented most of the council’s decisions.
Attendance varied from only about 30 bishops at the opening to some 255 members who signed the decrees in 1563, somewhat short of Nicaea’s 318. The signers included 4 papal legates, 2 cardinals, 3 patriarchs, 25 archbishops, and 168 bishops and other prelates. About two-thirds of the signers were Italian. Italian and Spanish attendees had the greatest bloc of votes and the largest numbers.
In broad strokes, the council accomplished three broad purposes.
First, it responded doctrinally, and in matters of worship and practice, to questions and debates of the time—these include, in more or less chronological order, the Bible, original sin, justification, sacraments, cults, saints, relics and images, and the original touchstone of the Reformation, indulgences. Some were, from the Catholic perspective, immutable doctrine traceable to the New Testament and apostolic teaching, even though the words used are not themselves fixed and unchangeable. Others were matters of practice (or “discipline” in Catholic terms) that could have been changed but were not, at least not then.
Second, they actually reformed a vast array of ecclesiastical procedures, mostly concerning the clergy and monastic orders, in ways that established exactly what kind of person should occupy certain positions, their responsibilities, their use of Church monies and resources and their behavior—in brief, many of the matters that gave scandal. Many of these were administrative measures that have since changed.
Third, they attended to several secular concerns in which the Church was involved, most notably approving a plan to correct mathematical errors in the Julian calendar that would, in 1582, result in the current Gregorian calendar, today the most widely used civil calendar worldwide. The Church interest in a common calendar stemmed from Nicaea’s aim to make Christians in the East and West celebrate the major feasts at the same time.
The council approved 62 decrees and 110 canons; the debates and decisions was collected in six large handwritten volumes. This blog cannot do justice to the complete material. The most comprehensive work on the council is The History of the Council of Trent (Geschichte des Konzils von Trient) by Hubert Jedin, published in four volumes, and 2,500 pages, between 1951 and 1976.
However, we will next attempt a brief overview of some of the principal Tridentine ideas, particularly since they define many aspects of the Catholic faith still controversial today.