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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.

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