The Council of Trent and the Catholic Reformation

1 January 2017

Thesis which within weeks will spread all across the Holy Roman Empire and beyond. Of all the trials that had faced the Catholic Church over the last two centuries, none was more damaging then the Reformation. Faced with the spreading support of Lutheranism by the people and princes of the Empire, the Church required an overhaul unheard of since the Council of Nicaea.

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After a long delay caused by the inaction of Pope Leo X and conflict with France and the Holy Roman Empire, Pope Paul III (1534-49) called for what becomes known as the Council of Trent. Meeting on and off between 1545-1563, the Council discussed the issues regarding corruption and immorality that had eroded much of its status as the leader of Christian Europe. This part was the Catholic Reformation, the attempt to restore the Church to the moral respectability and social power it had not wielded since the Crusades.

However, the Council also meets to re-affirm the Churches positions on doctoral questions posed by the Protestants, marking the first firm stand the Church makes against the tide of Protestantism. Before any talk of reform can be made, it is necessary to understand the reasons why people felt it was needed. It is also necessary to understand the position of the Church on the eve of the Reformation. The 16th century Church was still recovering from the Great Schism (1378-1413) between the papacy’s claimants in of Rome and Avignon.

At its height, the Schism had three pontiffs all claiming the papacy and a diplomatic crisis forming as nations lined up behind the different claimants. Although the Schism ended in 1413 with the election of Martin V (666), the dispute shocks the faith of much of Western Europe’s population, especially since this is when many of the worst Church problems emerge. At the lowest level, there were the parish priests and the monastic orders that people were exposed to every day. Before the rise of the Jesuit Order in the mid 16th century, the average parish priest was little better off than his parishioners.

Nearly all of them were illiterate in Latin, the language of Mass, a central part of Catholic life. Even if he was literate and spoken in Latin, it made no difference to the parishioners who attended Mass and listened to what sounded like (and oftentimes was) gibberish. Another complaint was the unusual number of priests who kept “housekeepers,” often women of marriageable age. Even the religious orders of monks and friars, normally the finest examples of Medieval Christianity, were suffering from worldliness, low numbers, and outright corruption.

The lack of clerical celibacy was common at all levels of the Catholic hierarchy, but for reformers, this was only the tip of the iceberg. When one looks up the Catholic hierarchy, the scale of the problem is greatly magnified. As a result of generations of land donations from wealthy laypeople, the Church came to possess a great deal of land, which generated lots of revenue for the bishops and archbishops. Indeed, many of these Churchmen lived like, and more often than not acted like princes, often neglecting their spiritual duties in the process.

At the highest levels there were three activities that set them apart from the lower clergy, and one which would have dire implications. One was simony, the purchase and sale of church offices. This was a problem throughout the clergy, and only became a serious problem when Leo X’s predecessors in the mid 15th century had conceded the power to make the appointments, the power of investiture, to the strengthening monarchs of Europe in exchange for their support. Simony would play a role in the rise of Protestantism along with two other issues plaguing the higher management; plurality and absenteeism.

A Catholic bishop is required by Church law to in the diocese he represents; as such he can only have one office at a time. As the 15th century closed and the 16th century went on, these restrictions were flouted regularly, especially by the wealthiest Church leaders. One of these was Albert of Mainz, who was cash poor after buying his new diocese in Magdeburg for his new position in the in the College of Cardinals. He later borrowed an equally massive amount ducts for the purchase of the office of bishop of Mainz, a debt that he arranged with Pope Leo X to pay back through the sale of Indulgences.

An Indulgence is a certificate that is given to a penitent in exchange for a “donation” to the Church that depended on the sin. Indulgences had been used before as a form of quick revenue, but the claims made by the bishop’s chief salesmen, a Dominican friar named Johann Tetzel, were beyond what doctrine claimed they were. Tetzel highlights this new claim in his most remembered slogan “Once the coin in coffer rings a soul from purgatory springs. ” These claims proved too much for Professor Martin Luther at the University of Wittenberg, who quickly made his concerns known.

The Protestant Reformation began n 1517; the Council of Trent did not meet until 1545. By this time, much of northern and central Europe was now protestant. In the years between the excommunication of Luther in 1521, there had calls for a meeting of high Churchmen to reform the Church, thus depriving Protestants of one of their main issues. Reformist clergy were very vocal in their desire for such a council, but they were not the only ones. Secular Catholics such as Holy Roman Emperor Charles V were also strong in their support for calling a council, although initially everyone saw something different in the Reformation.

Charles V especially wanted a peaceful solution, both as a very devout Catholic, and as King of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire because it was his territory which were being destabilized by Luther’s teachings, and flare-ups of violence were not uncommon within the Empire, as well as the Spanish Netherlands. Pope Leo X refused to call for a council however, due to his attention being diverted to politics in the Italian Peninsula and the designs of French King Francis I on northern Italy.

Pope Paul III (1534-1549), a reform-minded Pontiff, was willing to do what Leo X would not, and in 1542 he called for the assembly of a council in Mantua. By this time, not only had parts of Germany and the Spanish Netherlands fallen to the Protestants, but also England and the Scandinavian countries. Emperor Charles V resisted the idea however, because he wanted the Council to meet in Imperial territory. A compromise was struck, and the venue moved to the city of Trent, an Italian city controlled by the Empire. The Council met on and off for eighteen years, from 1545 to 1563.

However, the dates of the Council show they were not meeting for much of the time inactive for most of the time, which can be broken into three short periods: 1545-1547, 1551-1552, and 1562-1563. The Council met for only four of those eighteen years, and they spanned the lives of five popes: Paul III, Julius III, Marcellus II, Paul IV, and Pius IV.

The reason behind the frequent disruptions and postponements of the Council was most often disagreement between the pope and Charles V on what subjects would be discussed; doctrine first or reform first? the pope’s policies toward Charles’ war with France, and the fortunes of the ongoing conflict. Francis I, the Valois king of France, proved even less cooperative then Charles, first wholly refusing to attend the Council, going so far as to forbid the publishing of the bull of convocation in his Kingdom, and initially refusing to allow French bishops to attend the various sessions. Francis’ agenda was one of completely blocking the rise of Charles’ Hapsburg Empire in European politics.

Francis went so far as to ally himself with the Protestant Elector of Saxony, a sign to the pope that France would favor its own national interests over those of the Churches. For his part, Charles also wanted peace with the Protestants, although for reasons different than those of France. Whereas Francis was relying partially on Protestant support as a strategy in the ongoing conflicts between France and the Empire, Charles wanted peace because of how badly divided the Empire was and would continue to be so long as Catholics and Protestants continued to fight each other.

At the Council, he was pushing for less of an emphasis on doctrinal questions, which neither side would compromise one in favor of discussing reform, thinking that such a move could soften tensions with Protestants with signs of substantial Church reform, and that this would make it easier for the Protestants to negotiate doctrine more amiably. Ultimately, there were two issues the Council met to address: the avocation of reform and the condemnation of the Protestant heretics.

In the immediate background, though, were the issues of conciliation, as both sides wanted a compromise with the Protestants to further their own ends, and nationalism, which explains why the council took so long to assemble and took so long to reconvene. The Italians, who were the majority of attendees at the Council, were less interested in conciliation then France and the HRE, but only because they knew that the doctrinal breach of the Protestants was too large to bridge.

The Council of Trent would walk a tightrope between these competing issues from start to finish. Once the Council underway, there were questions about how they would continue to proceed and what direction they would take. Paul III wanted the Council to start with doctrinal questions first, than the Council could take up reform. Over the objections of Charles V, Paul III reached a Compromise under which both doctrine and reform were addressed simultaneously. Charles V wanted it the other way.

So what decisions did the Council come to and how effective were they in stemming the tide of Protestantism? The Council of Trent, despite occasional periods of long disbandment made many decisions for the church when it was in session in an effort to establish the traditions and doctrines of the church, as well as to correct the corruption within it. Because of politics, leadership changes in the Vatican, and a war between France and the HRE, the Council of Trent lasted for 18 years from (1545-63).

There were three periods when they convened for a total of 25 sessions between them. The first period of the Council of Trent (1545-1547) was convened by Pope Paul III and covers sessions 1-10. The decrees of this period of the Council of Trent deal primarily with the affirmation of doctrine concerning the proper use of scripture. Amongst the most important things to come from this period is the reaffirmation of the Latin bible and that only the clergy can truly understand its message. This is to strike at one of Martin Luther’s great achievements.

While in hiding in Castle Wartburg, Luther worked to translate the bible into vernacular German, on his belief that people do not a priest to understand god. Instead, they can read the Bible for themselves and come to their own conclusion. Also included is the reaffirmation of good works as necessary for absolution of sins. Amongst the decrees for reform, the councilmen call for the bishops to see that the priests are learned enough to use Latin, and if not to either hire someone to teach them, or get someone else to preach in his place.

Even if the people cannot understand Latin, a literate parish priest can speak loud and with authority rather than quietly mutter gibberish from the alter that feels close enough to Latin. The Church only was to have the right to interpret the Bible, good works were also needed to obtain salvation, and Bishops and priests were to preach regularly. This session also reaffirmed the seven sacraments. The second session (May 1, 1551-April 28, 1552), was convened by Pope Julius III and was not as successful as the other two.

It may have done more, but it was cut short by the defeat of Emperor Charles V by a Protestant force under Maurice, Elector of Saxony in the neighboring region of Tirol. It was further held up by the death of Marcellus II, and the election of the staunch arch-Catholic Paul IV, who does not re-convene the Council. As it only came up with few reaffirmations. They upheld the importance of the Eucharist as a sacrament, and in the same way, they would uphold the doctrine of transubstantiation.

This is another example of the Church clarifying its position in comparison to the Protestants, making reconciliation close to impossible. The third session of the Council of Trent (Jan, 1559-Dec, 1563) was convened by Pope Pius IV. This is the final period of the Council of Trent, and they shift their focus to the clergy and there competence. For a long time, many people in Europe probably thought clerical celibacy was a bad joke. From the parish priest and his housekeeper to Alexander VI, who is widely believed to have slept with his own daughter.

By taking carnal sins amongst the clergy more serious, it goes a long way towards rebuilding the confidence of your worshipers. Also, the veneration of images and relics was upheld, and the Pope was distinguished as the Vicar of Christ on earth, and The Council of Trent essentially put the Pope in a much stronger position than before. Astoundingly, the doctrine of indulgences, a major cause of the Lutheran revolt, was reaffirmed. Another reform not mentioned was adding the Index of Prohibited Books in 1559.

This was added with the intention of preventing heretical ideas from “corrupting” those who still remain in the Catholic Church. They also have a decree for the establishment of standardized selection processes for the bishops and Cardinals, making simony considerably less problematic. Just to make it better for the churchgoing laypeople, the priest should now explain why the sacraments are important and how they work. This also applies to the scripture, but the most important change is that these explanations are to be in vernacular.

While the mass is still in Latin, the themes and messages that the stories are trying to tell can be explained by the priest. Not only does this serve to reinforce in the minds of the parishioners the importance of the seven sacraments, but it removes a critical barrier to understanding, making you feel much more involved in the service then you otherwise would be. So how did the Council of Trent do for the Church? Most of the reforms of the Council of Trent benefited the Church, but there were corrupt holdouts such as Indulgences that were reaffirmed.

The Council of Trent reaffirmed the seven sacraments, and improved the mass with vernacular explanations, to bring the Church back to where it always had been, as well as create new enthusiasm in the Catholic populations. Many major elements of the Church, such as the position of the pope and the need to do good works were reaffirmed to, yet the Doctrine that started all of the Reformation, the Doctrine of Indulgences was also reaffirmed.

This time, the Council was careful to set what an Indulgence could forgive. Although this doctrine was not entirely corrupt in nature, it was just too profitable o throw away entirely. The Council of Trent was established by the Catholic Church a way to firmly establish what its doctrine is following the initial chaos of the Protestant Revolution. It was a way to clean out many entrenched systems of corruption. It was partially a reaction to issues raised by Protestant reformers. The reforms of the Council of Trent generally strengthened the Church hierarchy, empowered the pope, and re energized Catholic Europe now assured of their Church, old as it was, was not going anywhere.

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