Council of Trent
Roman Catholic Church Response to the Protestant Demand for Reformation
of the Church (1545-1563)
Dr. Herbert Samworth
of Trent, considered the nineteenth ecumenical council by the Roman
Catholic Church, was the most important of the Sixteenth Century.
Trent gave the definitive answer of the Roman Catholic Church to
the Protestant demand for a thorough reformation of the Church.
The knowledge of this council and its decisions will aid in understanding
the religious situation of the twenty-first century.
article, we will give the background to the council, note its most
important decisions, and then review some of the results that followed.
BACKGROUND TO THE COUNCIL
as November 1518, Martin Luther had appealed from the authority
of Pope Leo X to a general council to settle the Indulgence Controversy.
By so doing, Luther reopened a question that had not been definitively
settled as far as many people were concerned. That question was
this: Where does the highest authority in the Church reside? Was
it located in the Bishop of Rome (the Papacy) or in Church Councils
(Conciliarism) that were called to deal with critical issues in
of Luther raised again the specter of Conciliarism that apparently
had been defeated by the Popes in the 15th century. Conciliarism,
as a reforming movement, had reached its high water mark at the
Council of Constance, 1414-18, where the decrees of Sacrosancta
and Frequens had been enacted. Sacrosancta stated
that the supreme power of the Church did, indeed, reside in regularly
convened councils to settle matters of faith and practice. The decree
Frequens taught that such councils were to be convened
on a regular basis to insure that Church Councils remained a viable
force in the Church. Despite the passing of these decrees, the Popes
of the 15th century had managed to outmaneuver the Conciliar Movement
and, by the time of the beginning of the 16th century, it no longer
held a position of influence in the Church.
Luther's appeal, attempts were made to convene a council. However,
when it appeared that such a council might indeed be called, forces
arose to frustrate its meeting. Often, it was the Pope himself who
feared that a council would limit his power over the church. At
other times, it was the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, who would
prevent the council from meeting. Francis I of France remained a
consistent opponent of a council, even forbidding his bishops from
sides continued to drift apart. In 1541 an effort was made at the
Diet of Regensberg (or Ratisbon) to reconcile the differences. Heading
the Catholic delegation was Cardinal Gasparo Contarini who hoped
to reunite the Church. Representing the Protestants were Martin
Bucer, Philip Melanchton, and John Calvin who had been exiled from
Geneva three years previously. At first it appeared that the sides
had been reconciled, even to the point of publishing a joint decree
on the doctrine of justification, the main point of contention.
after the Diet, it became apparent that the agreement on justification
was a compromise and failed to deal with issues of substance. The
agreement rapidly fell apart and even Contarini was suspected of
heresy for his part in the Council. From this time both sides hardened
their respective positions. One year previous to the Council, Pope
Paul III had recognized a new order of monks known as the Jesuits.
This order, under the direction of Ignatius Loyola, was fanatically
devoted to the Pope and remained opposed to any concessions to the
Protestants. Their influence over the Papacy continued to increase.
In 1542 the Roman inquisition was inaugurated under the direction
of the future Paul IV, the austere Caffara. Any hopes of a reunited
church were totally extinguished.
the Protestants had brought forth issues that required answers.
First, they demanded a moral reform of the Church. Even those who
remained most loyal to the Papal See were convinced that the Church
was badly in need of a moral reform. From top to bottom there were
moral lapses that caused the people to lose confidence in the Church
and the clergy. A deep malaise of discontent and cynicism was rampant
throughout the Church.
these were just the surface issues, there were more important demands
that went to the heart of the differences. The Protestants also
charged the Church with false teaching. The most important was the
teaching on the doctrine of justification. We have noted that the
compromise agreement reached at Regensberg quickly collapsed.
a council that could reconcile Protestant and Catholic was impossible,
it was imperative that a council be held that would that would officially
answer the Protestants.
a period of maneuvering, Pope Paul III convened a council to meet
at Trent in Italy during the early days of 1545. The Council was
to be in existence for eighteen years although the actual time that
it met was closer to four years. It met on three separate occasions:
1545-1547; 1551-1552; and 1562-1563.
opening of the Council, the divisions between the members regarding
the manner of procedure became evident. Charles V desired the Council
to reform the moral abuses to placate the Protestants. He believed
that if the morals of the clergy would be reformed the Protestants
would return to the Church and then opportunity would be given to
examine the doctrinal differences. In contrast, Paul III insisted
on dealing with doctrinal matters first because he feared that a
moral reformation of the Church could damage him financially. A
compromise was reached in that discussions of both moral and doctrinal
reform were held simultaneously.
FIRST SESSION – 1545-1547
the compromise mentioned above had been agreed upon, in reality
the first session of the Council, 1545-1547, dealt almost exclusively
with doctrinal matters. These decisions were among the most important
ones of the entire Council and conceded nothing to the Protestants.
doctrine was defined clearly to highlight the differences with the
Protestants. Among the decisions given by the Council, the following
were the most important.
decision dealt with the matter of authority. The Council decreed
that both Scripture and tradition were to be of equal authority.
This was a denial of the position known as sola scriptura
or the Bible alone possessing the supreme authority in the Church.
In addition, the Latin Vulgate translation was declared the official
Bible of the Church. As a result, a translation of the Scriptures
was given more authority than the Scriptures in the source languages
of Hebrew and Greek. In addition, the canon of Scripture was enlarged
because the Vulgate contained additional books, called the Apocrypha,
that the Protestants rejected as canonical Scripture.
of Trent also reiterated the Church's sole authority to interpret
the Scriptures. This reinforced the position of the Magisterum
or the teaching office of the Church. The exclusive right of the
Church to interpret Scripture was one of the positions that Luther
had attacked in his tract An Address to the Christian Nobility
of the German Nation. Luther taught that the doctrine of the
priesthood of believer meant that the individual Christian possessed
the ability to interpret the Scriptures accurately. Although the
Church did not officially condemn vernacular translations of the
Bible, this canon effectively accomplished the same result.
the validity of the seven sacraments. Again, this was the subject
of another tract by Luther: The Babylonian Captivity of the
Church. Luther demonstrated that only Baptism and the Eucharist
were valid sacraments because the Lord Himself had ordained them.
Now the Church officially denied what Luther had written nearly
twenty-five years before. According to Trent, the Church was to
be a sacramental church. The grace of God was to be distributed
to its faithful members via the sacraments. This was a denial of
the ministry of the Holy Spirit Who distributed grace in His own
power. In addition, the doctors of Trent forbade "communion
in both kinds," meaning that they only allowed the laity to
partake of the bread, but not the cup. Luther had previously protested
against the practice of withholding the cup from the laity, citing
the words of the Lord Jesus in which he declared that believers
were to partake of both the bread and the cup.
the severest condemnation of Protestant doctrine was reserved for
the doctrine of justification by faith. If the doctrine of sola
scriptura had been rejected by assigning authority to both
the Scriptures and tradition, the doctrine of sola fide
or by faith alone was decisively spurned by the canons of Trent
of justification was broadened to include moral renovation as well
as the forgiveness of sins. The Reformers taught that justification
was God's act of declaring the sinner righteous upon the imputation
of Christ's righteousness. Justification was, therefore, a change
of one's legal status before God. They used the phrase alien
righteousness to stress that the righteousness that justifies
an individual originated totally outside of the person. In contrast,
Rome declared that justification, while including the forgiveness
of sins, also included a change of moral nature. As a result, justification
was defined as a process whereby a baptized individual co-operated
with the infused righteousness of Christ more and more until they
became morally renovated. The Church made justification dependent
upon the sacrament of baptism and the person's co-operation with
infused grace and not on faith alone.
also taught the doctrine of solus Christus whereby it was
Christ's righteousness alone that was imputed to the believer. The
position adopted at the Council of Trent impugned the sole sufficiency
of Christ to save a person from their sin and made salvation to
be a cooperative effort of Christ and the person.
Attached to its dogmatic teachings concerning the doctrine of justification
were a number of anathemas or damnations on those who held opposing
positions. Without question, the Council's pronouncements on this
vital doctrine (and whether it was an imputed or an infused righteousness
that justifies the person) remain the major impediments to any reunion
between the Protestants and Roman Catholics. While both parties
would agree that righteousness is required for justification, the
questions regarding its nature (Christ's righteousness alone or
a combination of Christ's righteousness and the individidual's)
and how one receives it (by faith alone or by the sacrament of baptism)
have never been agreed upon by the two sides.
also addressed some of the moral questions facing the Church by
requiring that all Bishops reside in their territories. This effectively
banned what were called pluralities whereby Church officials
held more than one position or office. By having the Bishop reside
in his own Bishopric, much of the resentment against absentee leaders
would be alleviated.
this affected in a meaningful way, however, the power of the Pope.
Charles V was greatly angered because Trent and its decrees accomplished
nothing more than highlighting the differences between the Church
and the Protestants. Fearing that Charles would use his military
power to influence the decisions of the Council and due to the outbreak
of the plague in Trent, the Council moved to Bologna in 1547. Paul
III suspended the Council in 1548. He died the following year and
Julius III ascended to the Papal Chair.
SECOND SESSION – 1551-1552
At the insistence
of Charles V, Julius reconvened the Council in 1551. Charles also
demanded that the Protestants be invited. They arrived at the Council
with two nonnegotiable demands. Their first demand was that all
Bishops must be relieved from an oath of obedience to the Papacy
and the second established the superiority of Church councils above
the Pope. Needless to say, Church officials rejected these demands.
the delegates did enact several decrees during this second session.
They affirmed the doctrine of transubstantiation where the elements
of the Eucharist become the very body and blood of the Lord Jesus,
the efficacy of pilgrimages and penances to gain the forgiveness
of sins, and the condemnation of "communion in both kinds."
were a direct rebuff of the Protestant position while they strengthened
the position of the Pope over the entire Church. Meanwhile, political
realities forced a quick ending to the session when the Protestants
under Prince Maurice threatened the forces of Charles V.
THIRD SESSION – 1562-1563
were to elapse before the Council was reconvened. Those eleven years
saw a host of changes in the Church. The new Pope was Pius IV. The
Jesuits, given recognition in 1540, now occupied a position of commanding
influence in the Church. Events in Europe had degenerated into near
chaos. Religious wars were taking place in France. Ferdinand, Charles
V's brother, still was attempting reconciliation with the Protestants.
Philip II, son of Charles V who retired in 1555, was now the King
of Spain. His bishops demanded that they be declared superior to
the Pope. The Italian bishops, who were the majority at the Council,
refused to go along with this.
the actions taken by the Council dealt with the reformation of the
moral condition of the Church. Clerical celibacy was upheld, veneration
of images was upheld, clerical residence was required, only qualified
persons were to be ordained to the priesthood, and every diocese
was to establish their own seminary for the training of the priest.
Thus the emphasis was placed on the quality of the clergy.
also granted to the Pope the power to revise the Index, the list
of prohibited books, and the Missal and Breviary. The Council also
formally recognized the Pope as the Vicar of Christ on Earth.
passing of these decrees, there was a great desire to close the
Council. The Council of Trent was officially closed in December,
1563. Thus the most important Council of the Reformation period
drew to an end.
EVALUATION OF THE COUNCIL
can be given to the Council of Trent after eighteen years of meeting?
foremost, it rejected the Protestant Reformation. While the initial
impetus for the Reformation was the Indulgence Controversy, it quickly
became apparent that the Reformers desired a thorough doctrinal
reformation of the Church. They put forth the five great themes
of sola scriptura, sola fide, solus Christus,
sola gratia, and soli Deo Gloria. These five phrases
encapsulate the Gospel: salvation is revealed in the Scriptures
alone, purchased by Christ alone, received by faith alone, offered
by grace alone, and is to the glory of God alone. This understanding
of the Gospel was rejected by Rome. In its place was substituted
a Gospel that was provided by the Church alone, mediated by the
sacraments alone, and based on the authority of an enlarged canon:
Scripture and tradition. What was lost at the Council of Trent was
the Gospel of grace itself. No matter how the canons were framed,
it made the individual dependent upon the Church for the knowledge
and receiving of the Gospel that he so desperately needed.
came to the practical matters of clerical and moral abuse, the Church
made an attempt to root out the most grievous breaches. However,
these were the surface manifestations of the much deeper theological
differences that needed to be resolved. The Reformers were convinced
that the moral problems of the Church were a result of false teaching.
Rome rejected that analysis by reaffirming their doctrinal stance.
also increased the power of the Papacy over the Church. While the
theory of Conciliarism failed in not giving the Scriptures the supreme
authority in the Church, the movement, nevertheless, sought to implement
the principle that there is wisdom in a number of counselors. Through
the various maneuverings, the Popes determined that such a situation
would never take place. Power was now officially concentrated in
a single person who alone had the authority to determine the answers.
In declaring the Pope of Rome to be the Vicar of Christ on earth,
the Council of Trent has officially given to the Bishop of Rome
authority that the Scriptures teach is to be held exclusively by
the Lord Jesus Christ.