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Trent’s Interpretation and Implementation: After the Council

What did Catholics do when Protestants objected about the churches corruption and doctrine?  Trent.  That’s what they did.  But did the Council of Trent actually do anything?  Did it change anything?  How was it implemented?    

We have already summarized O’Malley’s summary of the council of Trent, using quotations from his article.  Now we will look at a few things that took place after the council, and summarize O’Malley’s conclusion. 

All this comes from John W. O’Malley’s chapter, “The Council of Trent: Myths, Misunderstandings, and Misinformation,” in Spirit, Style, Story: Essays Honoring John W. Padburg, S.J.  Edited by Thomas Lucas. Jesuit Way Loyola Press: 2002, pp. 205-225.

Pius IV: Interpretive Precedent

 “Pius IV, pope when the council ended, refused to listen to those advisers who entreated him to delay approval of the decrees or to proceed selectively by omitting or correcting some of them.  He forthwith decided to approve and promulgate the decrees in their entirety.  … By this act Pius … implicitly put the papacy forward as the chief interpreter and implementer of the Trent decrees and initiated the battle over who should interpret and implement them.  Three rival claimants soon emerged” (221). 

Sixtus V: Subsequent Papal Interpretation

 The first of these rivals was the subsequent papacy itself.  “Pope Sixtus V gave institutional grounding in 1588 by creating the Congregation of the Council, a bureau of the Roman Curia empowered to issue authoritative interpretations of Trent” (221).  The Council enabled this sort of maneuvering “by commending to the papacy the publication of an Index, catechism, missal, and breviary”  (221).  Thus, while the pope approved of the council’s decrees, if there were any debates over what the decrees actually intended, the subsequent popes would set the standard for interpretation.    

Phillip II of Spain: Royal Implementation

The second of these rivals were the Catholic princes like Phillip II who promulgated the decrees of Trent in Spain, but “made it clear that no important measures would be enacted without his knowledge and approbation” (222).  Because of the religious wars in France, Trent was not officially embraced until 1615.  By that time “the crown was … strong enough to protect its traditional prerogatives in many ecclesiastical matters” (222).  In other words, it appears that O’Malley is saying that the royal implementations tended to be willing to allow for incomplete implementation in cases where the crown’s control would be limited by the decrees.    

St. Charles Borromeo: Episcopal Implementation

The third of these rivals were charismatic bishops.  This rival is best exemplified in St. Charles Borromeo, archbishop of Milan.  He placed emphasis on “the right and duty of bishops to adapt, regulate, and even expand upon what the council had decreed” (222).  After the council he held many synods with his clergy and with suffragan bishops also, and he eventually published the results of these meetings under the title “Decrees of the Church of Milan” (222).  “This volume, along with some of Borromeo’s treatises on subjects like confession and ecclesiastical furnishing, became best-sellers among high churchmen and to some extent replaced the reform decrees of the council itself.  But Borromeo often found himself at odds with a papal curia that viewed these developments with distrust and sometimes tried to obstruct them” (222).  “Bit by bit … the impact of ‘Trent,’ already at least a step removed from the actual decrees, became evident” (222).  In other words, certain bishops went beyond the council’s decrees in their interpretation and implementation.  O’Malley thinks this has caused later historians to mistake the reforms of bishops with the reforms of Trent.  They were not always the same.  Of course the popes did this sort of thing too, which leads us to O’Malley’s conclusion.  

Conclusion

“By the seventeenth century Rome had for the most part established itself as the effective interpreter of the council and, in responding to various pressures of the era, more and more presented the council as a systematic, complete, and exhaustive response to every problem.  From Rome itself, therefore, sprang the myth still prevalent today that ‘Trent’ was comprehensive in its scope and exhaustively detailed in all its provisions” (223).  Giuseppe Alberigo said: “Under the aegis of the council, Catholic theology in the post-Tridentine era closed a great number of open questions, which at Trent were indeed recognized as such.  The effect was to put a blight on theological pluralism and to promote a false identification of the certainties of faith with theological intransigence” (223).

Trent on Reform: The Catholic Counter-Reformation

So what did the Catholic Church do after Protestants had year after year pointed to obvious corruption in the church?  Trent.  That’s what they did.    

O’Malley teaches that although the Council of Trent published many decrees, the decrees can be boiled down to two areas: 1) denouncing Protestant doctrines (particularly Luther) and 2) reforming the “institutional” church.  In our last post we looked at Trent’s doctrinal reforms.  Now we look at the council’s ecclesiastical reforms.

All this comes from John W. O’Malley’s chapter, “The Council of Trent: Myths, Misunderstandings, and Misinformation,” in Spirit, Style, Story: Essays Honoring John W. Padburg, S.J.  Edited by Thomas Lucas. Jesuit Way Loyola Press: 2002, pp. 205-225.

The Goal of the Reform 

 “The reform of the bishops and pastors had as its goal a more effective ministry” (215).  “The most notable effect, perhaps, was that within a century bishops were, for the most part, resident in their dioceses and taking their pastoral responsibilities more seriously than before.  They established seminaries and insisted on a new standard of deportment for the parish clergy” (222).     

Papal Reform

 Only after a long “stand-still,” the suspension of all sessions, and the new appointment of Giovanni Morone as a papal legate (“who had recently been released from the papal prison”) was there significant progress made on reform (214).  This is because “of the three offices in the church that needed reform, the papacy was first on just about everybody’s list,” but the pope wanted to have control over the reform of the papacy (214).  Imagine that right?  

Finally, “except for a brief and perfunctory bit of sumptuary regulation for prelates that in passing mentioned the cardinals, it was agreed that the papacy would have complete control of its own reform” (214).  “Trent did not define the prerogatives of the papacy because, had it been able to do so, it would have in some measure tried to restrict them.  This is another aspect of the Council of Trent that is little known or appreciated” (216).  “The bishops at Trent realized that all their work would go for naught if it failed to receive papal approval” (221).  It is important to remember that “none of the three popes under whom the council met during its eighteen-year history had ever set foot as pope in the council chambers” (221).   

Pastoral Reform: Bishops and Pastors

“By the third period, under Morone’s leadership, it courageously passed a series of measures that aimed, as Jedin puts it, at transforming bishops from collectors of benefices into pastors of souls” (214).  Trent forbade absenteeism (bishops or priests who were absent from their dioceses or parish) and pluralism (the practice of collecting revenues from more than one bishopric at a time and the practice of being pastor of more than one parish).  These were the practices that enabled bishops and priests to collect lots of money while not doing any pastoral ministry.  These were the practices that caused greedy people to aspire to ecclesiastical offices just for the sake of money.  Therefore, this part of the council of Trent O’Malley calls a “moral miracle,” since “this meant reforming themselves where it hurt most—in their bank accounts” (214).  These were the two “foundation stones” of the Tridentine Reform. 

Furthermore, it required each bishop to 1) “hold regular synods with their clergy,” 2) “visit and oversee” more closely “their parishes and other institutions of the diocese,” 3) “show greater stringency in admitting candidates to priestly ordination,” 4) “to assure that confessors be properly qualified,” 5) to establish a seminary for the training of poor boys for the priesthood, 6) “to promote teaching on Sundays and feast days, setting the example themselves” (215). 

The council understood the pastor’s function as consisting in residing in his parish, administering the rites and sacraments of the church, and preaching on Sundays and holy days.  While the council dealt extensively with the reform of both the bishops and pastors, it did so largely through the bishops.  “These are the ‘pastoral’ decrees of a council often not conceived of as pastoral.  In time they had great impact on the way bishops and pastors functioned.  … They illustrated beyond a doubt how episcopal the reforms of the Council of Trent were” (216).

Mendicant Orders

“This purview excluded (except almost as a bothersome intrusion) the ministry of the members of mendicant orders like the Franciscans and the Dominicans. … At Trent the bishops passed measures that limited the pastoral prerogatives of the mendicants and that also tried to regulate various aspects of the life of members of all religious orders” (216).

Nuns

There was a “decree insisting on the strict cloister of nuns, so that ‘no nun shall after her profession be permitted to go out of the monastery’ except with Episcopal approval” (217).  It is extremely important, however, to remember that “this decree applied only to the nuns in the strict sense of the word (monialies—in today’s popular parlance, ‘contemplatives’), and did not apply to members of the Third Orders like Saint Catherine of Siena who, always depicted as wearing the Dominican habit, looks to us for all the world like a ‘nun’” (217).  

Disciplinary Measures

“In its decrees and canons on reform the council set forth briefly its pastoral goals; it put teeth into them by the sanctions it threatened for noncompliance. … The council could hardly have proceeded otherwise.  No realistic person thought exhortations would do the job, but in the long run such procedures reinforced ‘social disciplining’ as an ecclesiastical style” (217).  Although articulated in juridical and disciplinary terms, “the council established a closer relationship between bishops and the parish clergy than was common earlier” (215).  

:::: In our next post we will look at what happened after the council and draw some summarize O’Malley’s conclusions.

Trent on Doctrine: Justification and the Sacraments

In our last post, we looked at the obstacles that prevented a Catholic council for so many years before Trent, the cooperation between Pope Paul III and Emperor Charles V that eventually made a council possible and the double agenda of the council that resulted from their agreement: denouncing Protestant teaching (Doctrine) and addressing corruption within the Catholic Church (Reform).  In this post, we will look at the highlights of the doctrinal decrees of the council as summarized in John W. O’Malley’s article “The Council of Trent: Myths, Misunderstandings, and Misinformation,” in Spirit, Style, Story: Essays Honoring John W. Padburg, S.J.  Edited by Thomas Lucas. Jesuit Way Loyola Press: 2002, pp. 205-225.  

Two Issues: Justification & The Sacraments 

“Despite their number and length, the doctrinal decrees deal substantially with only two issues: justification and the sacraments” (210).  For example, “the decree on original sin, though published in its own right, surely needs to be considered as a prelude to the decree on justification” (211).  “Under the rubric of justification” also, “the council made statements about predestination, about the kind of certitude persons might have of their salvation,” and related matters such as a brief statement on purgatory (213). 

Also, because Luther, in attacking the Catholic position on the sacraments, had bolstered a “Scripture alone” argument, before getting underway with the Catholic understanding of the sacraments, the council was forced to deliberate on “the basis on which it would argue them” (213).  This is why Trent initially decides on a canon (including the so-called deuterocanonical books that Luther rejected) and included as an authority, in addition to Scripture, “apostolic traditions” (213).  Thus, although Trent dealt with many doctrinal issues, when understood in this way, the council was essentially attempting to address only two issues: justification and the sacraments.  The other issues, such as authority and original sin, are addressed only because they are forced into the discussion by virtue of the councils desire to address Luther’s doctrine of justification and sacraments. 

Justification: The Necessity, Priority and Ubiquity of Grace

 “Stung by Luther’s criticism that Catholics were Pelagians who believed that ‘works’ rather than grace saved them, the council insisted sedulously that justification was accomplished always and everywhere under the inspiration of grace; that the beginning, middle, and end of the process of justification was grace-inspired.  One did not do what one could on one’s own so that grace would be given.  All movement toward grace was done under the impulse of grace.  ‘Good works’ were not good unto salvation unless they were grace-inspired.  Thus, within the theological framework in which it formulated its decree, the council was resoundingly anti-Pelagian” (211).  “The council interpreted Luther, however, as denying any human part in justification, as altogether eliminating human responsibility—relying on ‘grace alone.’  Anti-Pelagian though the council was, it also taught that in some mysterious way, human beings played a role in their own justification.  Indeed they somehow ‘cooperated’ in it, though grace always held primacy” (211). 

The Sacraments: There are Seven, They Were Instituted by Christ

“Luther had not only denied that there were seven but had also redefined the two that he saw as clearly taught in the New Testament: baptism and the Eucharist.  The council decided to answer Luther point for point,” which made for a frustrating protracted treatment that took much longer than the council expected (212).  Although “in the opening weeks of the council, the bishops decided that, as far as possible, they would frame their teaching in the language of Scripture and the fathers of the church and would eschew the technical language developed by scholastic theologians of the Middle Ages,” this goal was not as well attained in the doctrine of sacraments compared to the doctrine of original sin and justification (212).  “The scholastic framework of matter and form, of the four ‘causes,’ and of similar categories is the first distinguishing mark of the Tridentine doctrine on the sacraments” (212).  The council insisted on seven sacraments but made the qualification that they were not all “equal in dignity” (212).  The chief argument here was this: “they have come down from [Christ] and the apostles to the present in an unbroken and undeviating tradition” (212).  “No previous council had so repeatedly propounded such continuity and changelessness in the handing on of doctrine” (212).

The Ignorance of the Bishops About Luther

“Most of the bishops who assembled at Trent in 1545 had never read a word Luther wrote and knew only through hearsay what he supposedly had taught.  Most of the theologians they called on to assist them knew little more” (210).  The exceptions to this are: Girolamo Seripando (prior general of the Augustinian order) and Cardinal Reginald Pole, “one of the three papal legates who presided over the council in that first, crucial period” of 1545-47, when the decrees concerning justification were hammered out (210-11).

Forbidden Books

The “grab bag of decrees” at the end of the council included a decree “that handed over to the Holy See the publication of … an index of prohibited books” (in addition to a catechism, a revised missal and breviary) (217). 

Veneration of Relics and Sacred Images

In the “grab bag” session “also appeared a decree commending the veneration of sacred relics and of sacred images.  This decree was obviously meant to counter Protestant attacks on such practices” (217).  It did, however, specify that superstition and lasciviousness is to be avoided in sacred images, “thus warranting some later attempts by churchmen to censor all religious art” (218). 

Teachings on Purgatory

In the “grab bag” session there was also a reaffirmation of purgatory, basically reiterating the teaching of the Council of Florence, with this difference: there appear lengthy cautions about abuses of the teachings on purgatory.

Indulgences

The council confirmed the validity of indulgences, asserting that the power of granting them had been bestowed on the church by Christ.  It also anathematizes those who either denounce them as useless or question their efficacy.  As with teaching on purgatory, however, there appear warnings about abuses and an admonition that “moderation be observed.” 

Unauthorized Printings

Although forbidding the printing of scriptures, Bible study notes, and theological books without ecclesiastical approval (and those without the author’s name attached), Trent does not condemn Bible reading in the vernacular as popularly believed.  The council threatens that no one dare question the authenticity of the Latin Vulgate, however.  “Finally, contrary to what often is said, Trent did not decree that the Mass must be celebrated in Latin” (220).  “It is forbidden to hold that ‘the mass ought to be celebrated in the vernacular tongue only’ [lingua tantum vulgari]” (220).  On this last point, “we have an excellent illustration of how the council began to be misconstrued and manipulated almost before the ink was dry, and thus of how ‘Trent’ began often to bear only a distorted relationship to what the council actually decreed and intended” (221).    

In our next post, we will look at the decrees of the Council that addressed many of the areas of corruption in the Catholic Church that Protestants pointed to in order to justify their Reformation.

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