Finally, after much negotiation with the Holy Roman Emperor, in 1542 Pope Paul III called the council, which would meet in Trent, a city just on the Italian side of Alps. Finally, three years later, the council began the first of several sessions: 1545-1547, 1551-1552, and 1562-1563.
The pope and the Holy Roman Emperor hoped the Council of Trent would accomplish a number of things. First, they hoped to reconcile, at least to some extent, with the Protestants. Second, they hoped for true reform of the abuses prevalent among many of the clergy. Finally, they hoped to create definitive doctrines that would carry the Church forward for centuries to come. The first meeting of the Council was not very well attended, and, interestingly, spent much of its time discussing what it would discuss. At times the meetings were cordial, but at other times they deteriorated into heated shouting matches and arguments. Nevertheless, after 17 years of debate, the Church had what it needed.
One of the first disagreements that arose at the first session was whether or not the rift between Catholics and Protestants should or even could be reconciled. There were those who hoped that the Council might make some theological concessions to the Protestants in hopes of winning them back. More conservative clergy wanted nothing to do with reconciliation: the Protestants had made their decision and chosen the path of heresy. Those opposed eventually won control of the proceedings, and reconciliation no longer had any real chance.
Another obstacle between Catholics and Protestants was the lack of Protestants at the Council. When the idea for the Council first made its way to the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, they demanded the meetings be held in Germany. Rome demanded they be held in Italy. Trent was controlled by the Holy Roman Emperor but located very close to Italy. A few Protestants showed up for the second session of the Council, but had little or no effect on the proceedings.
Reformed or Reaffirmed?
Perhaps the first order of business for the Council was to outline the major differences between Catholic doctrine and Protestant heresy. The Protestants raised a number of issues over the course of the Protestant Reformation and the Council intended to address those issues. For example, one of the major points of contention for the Protestants was the supremacy of the Bible over all, including Church tradition and the papacy. The Council reaffirmed the Church’s position that while the scriptures are important, Church tradition must be held as equally important.
The Council also dealt with the translation of the scriptures. Many reformers either spoke against the Vulgate, a fifth-century translation of the Bible by St. Jerome written in common Latin, or created new translations from the original texts. In response, the Council recognized St. Jerome’s Vulgate as the official and authorized version of the Scriptures. The Council also addressed Protestant concerns over the interpretation of the scriptures. Protestant reformers often argued that each believer had not only the right but the responsibility to read and interpret the scriptures for themselves—without the Church. The Council rejected that, saying that only the Catholic Church had the authority to interpret the scriptures.
Define Your Terms
The phrase Church tradition generally refers to the writings of the early Church fathers, or those who lived in the first several centuries after Christ, the declarations of the papacy, and the findings of ecumenical councils such as the Council of Trent.
Another of the most significant issues dividing the two sides was that of salvation. Most Protestants claimed that salvation came through faith in God’s grace alone. The Council rejected that claim and upheld the assertion that good works through the Church were as necessary for salvation as faith.
The Council then tackled the Protestant idea that there existed only two sacraments, rather than the seven held by the Church. The Council debated each sacrament and reached the conclusion that there were in fact seven. One sacrament, the Lord’s Supper, caused much disagreement between Catholics and Protestants. The Council rejected the Protestant views of the bread and the wine and upheld the doctrine of transubstantiation. The Council also confirmed that the wine should be withheld from the laity and taken only by clergy.
The Council of Trent also reassessed a number of doctrines held by the early and medieval Church that had come under fire. The Council reaffirmed the doctrines of the belief in purgatory, the veneration of the saints, clerical celibacy, apostolic succession, and the liturgy. Skeptical Protestants pointed to these “findings” as being exactly what they expected.
The Council of Trent did do a few things that should have satisfied at least some Protestants. Although the Council did not dismiss the practice of selling indulgences, it did demand that the wide-scale use of indulgences be reduced and that the abuse of the sale of indulgences be curtailed completely. The Council also found that, as many early reformers claimed, the local clergy had serious issues, including lack of theological training and, even worse, illiteracy. The Council mandated that seminaries be built for the education of priests, a huge step toward cleaning up the clergy. The Council addressed claims of absenteeism and required that bishops actually visit or reside in their dioceses.
The Council of Trent has been evaluated from both the Protestant and the Catholic perspective. To Protestants, the Council of Trent reformed very little and brought about only a few institutional changes. They had always expected the Council to merely go through the motions and uphold everything the Church believed all along.
As a Matter of Fact
While the Catholic Reformation culminated with the Council of Trent, the Council of Trent certainly was not the first such reform-minded gathering of Church scholars. In fact, the Council of Trent was actually the nineteenth meeting of an ecumenical council. The first such meeting occurred in 325 A.D. with the First Council of Nicaea, where the Church adopted the Nicene Creed. The 21st and last such council occurred in the 1960s with the Second Vatican Council. The ecumenical councils hold great importance in Catholicism because the Catholic Church holds Church tradition equal to the importance of the scriptures.
Would You Believe?
When the Council of Trent finally wrapped things up after nearly 20 years, the pope issued a decree officially confirming all the Council's findings, which then became part of official Church tradition.
To Catholics, though, the Council accomplished two of its main goals: it found flaws within the Church and addressed them. The Council very easily could have found nothing at all to change and declared the Church to be in good working order. To its credit, the Council concurred with public opinion and required action on some issues. Additionally, the Council solidified the Church’s position on a number of issues, thereby confirming several very important Church doctrines. The Council of Trent became the guiding light of Catholicism for several centuries because it put in writing exactly what the Church believed on many vital issues.