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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).

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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