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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.

The Council of Trent: Myths, Misunderstandings, and Misinformation

The following are summaries and excerpts from the following resource: 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.  The following is only a summary up to page 210.  I hope to post more soon, eventually encapsulating his entire article in about three brief posts.  

Introduction 

According to O’Malley, there are two extreme views of the Council of Trent among Catholics: “that the council wrought all the bad things that Vatican Council II saved them from, or that it set forth all the good things Vatical II robbed them of” (205).  Although Hubert Jedin left few stones unturned when he published the most comprehensive treatment of the Council in 1975 (four volumes long, only two of which were translated into English), “few English-language historians” have taken the time to read through them because “as the little girl said about the book on snakes, [Jedin’s work] tells people more about Trent than they could possibly want to know” (206).  

For example, it is now clear that “Charles Borromeo, archbishop of Milan (1564-82) and great implementer of Trent, in effect rewrote the decrees by giving them a specificity and sometimes a rigor they originally lacked, and by supplying what he thought the council ought to have done but had failed to do” (206).  “These interpretations were foisted onto the council and became Trent” (206).  Because many historians have tended to focus on the implementations of the councils decrees rather than the council itself, “this new scholarship, for all its merits, has contributed to the tradition of ignorance and misunderstanding of the council itself” (206).   

Obstacles to Trent

Obstacles to Trent were: 1) “The Vacillation of Pope Clement VII (1523-34), who feared that the council might depose him” (207), and 2) “The obstructive tactics of King Francis I of France (1515-47), who feared that a council, if successful, would strengthen the political hand of his great rival, Charles V, by eliminating in Germany the threat of civil war created by the volatile and often violent religious situation” (207).

Cooperation for Trent and the Double Agenda

“Two persons cooperated in bringing [the council] into being: Pope Paul III (1534-49) and Emperor Charles V (1519-55).  …. Charles V, and his entourage hoped, for the sake of the peace of ‘the empire,’ that is, of Germany, that [the rift] could” be healed between Protestants and Catholics (207).  “A practical man, he sincerely believed that the real problem was reform, and that the unreformed condition of the church had caused the Lutheran crisis.  A reform of the church was therefore the precondition, at least, for resolving it” (209). 

On the other hand, “The pope envisaged the council principally as a response to the doctrinal issues raised by Luther, issues that he and many others interpreted as just some old heresies in a new dress. … The condemnation would probably preclude any possibility of reconciliation with them, but Paul and many in his entourage thought that was a lost cause anyway” (208). 

Thus, all the enactments of the council can be gathered under these two headings: 1) uprooting heresies and 2) reform of clergy and members.  Charles V wanted reform to be dealt with first, while Paul III wanted to first deal with heresies, so the compromise was made: the bishops agreed to “deal with both doctrine and reform alternately: first a decree on doctrine and then a decree on some aspect of reform” (209).  

Simplicity of the Council of Trent: Doctrine and Reform

“The council was far from being as all-encompassing as Vatican Council II tried to be.  Under ‘doctrine,’ the council meant to treat only Protestant teachings. … In this regard Trent had Luther principally in mind” (209).  The reform of the church “meant essentially reform of three offices in the church: the papacy, the episcopacy, and the pastorate” (209).  In other words, the reform was aimed at “institutional church” (210). 

“The council dealt of course with the laity and directed its efforts to the ‘reform of the Christian people,’ but it did so almost exclusively through directives for pastors” (210).  The simplicity of the Tridentine doctrinal and reform agenda easily escapes students because the decrees and canons of the council are always published in chronological order,” thus the decrees seem like “an endless scattershot of rules, regulations, and prohibitions devoid of plan and vision” (210).  “Nonetheless, Trent has, in both its doctrinal and disciplinary enactments, a remarkable and consistently maintained focus”: denouncing protestant doctrine and reforming the “institutional church” (210).  

In our next post, we will continue to explore O’Malley’s understanding of the decrees of the council.

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