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).
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.
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.”
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.