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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).

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