The Roman Catholic Church Response to the Protestant Demand for Reformation of the Church (1545-1563)

By Dr. Herbert Samworth

The Council 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.

In this article, we will give the background to the council, note its most important decisions, and then review some of the results that followed.


As early 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 the Church?

This appeal 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.

Following 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 attending.

The two 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.

However, 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.

Yet 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.

However, 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.

Although 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.

Thus, after 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.

From the 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.


Although 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.

Catholic doctrine was defined clearly to highlight the differences with the Protestants. Among the decisions given by the Council, the following were the most important.

The first 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.

The Council 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.

Trent upheld 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.

However, 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 respecting justification

The nature 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.

The Reformers 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.

The Council 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.

None of 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.


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.

However, 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.”

These actions 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.


Eleven years 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.

Many of 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.

The Council 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.

With the 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.


What evaluation can be given to the Council of Trent after eighteen years of meeting?

First, and 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 scripturasola fidesolus Christussola 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.

When it 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.

The Council 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.