A thousand voices, long before Luther, had called for a council to reform the Church. Luther appealed from the pope to a free and general council; Charles V demanded such a synod in the hope of getting the Protestant problem off his hands, and perhaps of disciplining Clement VII. That harried Pope could find a hundred reasons for postponing a council until he should be beyond its reach. He recalled what had happened to the papal power at the councils of Constance and Basel; and he could not afford to have hostile bishops, or Imperial delegates, pry into his policies, his domestic difficulties, or his birth. Besides, how could a council help the situation? Had not Luther repudiated councils as well as popes? If the Protestants were admitted to a council and were allowed freedom of speech, the consequent dispute would widen and embitter the schism and would disturb all Europe; and if they were excluded they would raise a rebellious furor. Charles wanted the council held on German soil, but Francis I refused to let the French clergy attend a gathering subject to Imperial domination; moreover, Francis wanted to keep the Protestant fires burning in the Imperial rear. It was a witches’ brew.
Paul III had all of Clement’s fears, but more courage. In 1536 he issued a call for a general council to meet at Mantua on May 23,1537, and he invited the Protestants to attend. He assumed that all parties in attendance would accept the conclusions of the conference; but the Protestants, who would be in a minority there, could hardly accept such an obligation. Luther advised against attending, and the congress of Protestants at Schmalkalden returned the Pope’s invitation unopened. The Emperor still insisted that the council should meet on German soil; on Italian soil, he argued, it would be crowded with Italian bishops and become a puppet of the Pope. After many negotiations and delays Paul agreed to have the council meet at Trent, which, though predominantly Italian, was in Imperial territory and subject to Charles. The council was summoned to meet there on November 1, 1542.
But the King of France would not play. He forbade the publication, in his realm, of the papal summons, and threatened to arrest any French clergyman who should try to attend a council held on his enemy’s terrain. When the council opened, only a few bishops, all Italian, were present, and Paul adjourned the meeting to some time when Charles and Francis would allow a full assembly. The Peace of Crépy seemed to clear the way, and Paul called for the council to reconvene on March 14, 1545. But now the renewal of danger from the Turks compelled the Emperor again to conciliate the Protestants; he asked for another postponement; and it was not till December 13, 1545, that the “Nineteenth Ecumenical Council of the Christian Church” began its active sessions at Trent.
Even that beginning was unpropitious, and far from “half the deed.” The Pope, nearing eighty, stayed in Rome, and presided, so to speak, in absentia; but he sent three cardinals to represent him—Del Monte, Cervini, and Pole. Cardinal Madruzzo of Trent, four archbishops, twenty bishops, five generals of monastic orders, some abbots, and a few theologians made up the gathering; it could hardly claim as yet to be “ecumenical”—universal.36 Whereas at the councils of Constance and Basel priests, princes, and certain laymen, as well as prelates, could vote, and voting was by national groups, here only the cardinals, bishops, generals, and abbots could vote, and the voting was by individuals; hence the Italian bishops—most of them indebted or for other reasons loyal to the papacy—dominated the assembly with their numerical majority. “Congregations” sitting in Rome under the supervision of the Pope prepared the issues which alone could be submitted for debate.37 Since the Council claimed to be guided by the Holy Ghost, a French delegate remarked that the third person of the Trinity regularly came to Trent in the courier’s bag from Rome.38
The first debate was on procedure: should the faith be first defined and then reforms considered, or vice versa? The Pope and his Italian supporters desired first a definition of dogmas. The Emperor and his supporters sought reform first: Charles in the hope of appeasing, weakening, or further dividing the Protestants; the German and Spanish prelates in the hope that reforms would reduce the power of the Pope over the bishops and the councils. A compromise was reached: concurrent commissions would prepare resolutions on dogma and reform, and these would be presented to the Council alternately.
In May 1546, Paul sent two Jesuits, Laynez and Salmerón, to help his legates in matters of theology and papal defense; later they were joined by Peter Canisius and Claude Le Jay. The unequaled erudition of the Jesuits soon gave them paramount influence in the debates, and their unbending orthodoxy guided the Council to declare war against Reformation ideas rather than seek conciliation or unity. It was apparently the judgment of the majority that no concessions to the Protestants would heal the schism; that Protestant sects were already so numerous and diverse that no compromise could satisfy some without offending others; that any substantial alteration of traditional dogmas would weaken the whole doctrinal structure and stability of Catholicism; that the admission of priestly powers in the laity would undermine the moral authority of the priesthood and the Church; that that authority was indispensable to social order; and that a theology frankly founded on faith would stultify itself by submitting to the vagaries of individual reasoning. Consequently the fourth session of the Council (April 1546) reaffirmed every item of the Nicene Creed, claimed equal authority for Church tradition and Scripture, gave the Church the sole right to expound and interpret the Bible, and declared the Latin Vulgate of Jerome to be the definitive translation and text. Thomas Aquinas was named as the authoritative exponent of orthodox theology, and his Summa theologica was placed on an altar only below the Bible and the Decretals.39 Catholicism as a religion of infallible authority dates in practice from the Council of Trent, and took form as an uncompromising response to the challenge of Protestantism, rationalism, and private judgment. The “Gentlemen’s Agreement” of the Renaissance Church with the intellectual classes came to an end.
But if faith was so vital was it also sufficient of itself to merit salvation, as Luther claimed? The fifth session (June 1546) heard violent debates on this point; one bishop clutched another by the beard and plucked out a handful of white hairs; hearing which, the Emperor sent the Council word that if it could not quiet down he would have a few prelates thrown into the Adige to cool them off.40 Reginald Pole argued for a view so dangerously close to Luther’s that Cardinal Caraffa (the future Paul IV) branded him as a heretic; Pole retired from the battle to Padua, and excused himself, on the ground of illness, from continued attendance at the Council.41 Cardinal Seripando defended the compromise formula that Contarini, now dead, had offered at Ratisbon; but Laynez persuaded the Council to stress, in full opposition to Luther, the importance of good works and the freedom of the will.
Measures of ecclesiastical reform moved less actively than definitions of dogma. The Bishop of St. Mark had opened the session of January 6, 1546, by painting a somber picture of the corruption prevailing in the world, which he thought posterity would never surpass, and he had attributed this degeneration “solely to the wickedness of the pastors”; the Lutheran heresy, he said, had been caused chiefly by the sins of the clergy, and the reform of the clergy was the best way of suppressing the rebellion.42 But the only substantial reform accomplished in these early sessions was one forbidding bishops to reside away from their sees, or to hold more than one. The Council suggested to the Pope that the reform of the Dataria should advance from theoretical recommendations to actual directives. Paul, however, wished matters of reform to be left to the papacy; and when the Emperor insisted on greater speed in reform discussions at the conference, the Pope ordered his legates to propose the removal of the Council to Bologna—which, beingin the Papal States, would allow a more expeditious control of conciliar actions by Rome. The Italian bishops agreed; the Spanish and Imperial prelates protested; a minor plague conveniently appeared in Trent and killed a bishop; the Italian majority moved to Bologna (March 1547); the rest stayed at Trent. Charles refused recognition to the Bologna sessions, and threatened to convene a separate council in Germany. After two years of argument and maneuvering Paul yielded, and suspended the Bologna assembly (September 1549).
The situation was eased by Paul’s death. Julius III came to an understanding with the Emperor: in return for Charles’s promise to withhold support from any measure that would reduce papal authority, he summoned the Council to meet again at Trent in May 1551, and agreed that the Lutherans should be given a hearing. Henry II of France, resenting this rapprochement between Pope and Emperor, declined to recognize the Council. When it met it was so meagerly attended that it had to adjourn. It assembled again on September 1, with eight archbishops, thirty-six bishops, three abbots, five generals, forty-eight theologians, Elector Joachim II of Brandenburg, and ambassadors from Charles and Ferdinand.
The thirteenth session of the Council (October 1551) reaffirmed the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation: the priest, in consecrating the bread and wine of the Eucharist, actually changes each of them into the body and blood of Christ. Thereafter it seemed useless to hear the Protestants, but Charles insisted on it. The Duke of Württemberg, Elector Maurice of Saxony, and some south German towns chose the members of a Protestant delegation, and Melanchthon drew up a statement of Lutheran doctrine to be submitted to the Council. Charles gave the delegates a safe-conduct, but these, remembering Constance and Huss, required also a safe-conduct from the Council itself. After much discussion this was granted. However, a Dominican friar, preaching on the parable of tares, in the very cathedral in which the sessions were held, pointed out that the heretic tares might be endured for a time, but in the end they would have to be burned.43
On January 24,1552, the Protestant deputies addressed the assembly. They proposed that the decrees of the Councils of Constance and Basel on the superior authority of councils over the popes should be confirmed; that the members of the present body should be released from their vows of fealty to Julius III; that all decisions hitherto reached by the Council should be annulled; and that fresh discussions of the issues should be held by an enlarged synod in which the Protestants would be adequately represented.44Julius III forbade consideration of these proposals. The Council voted to postpone action on them till March 19, when additional Protestant delegates were expected.
During this delay military developments supervened upon theology. In January 1552, the King of France signed an alliance with the German Protestants; in March Maurice of Saxony advanced toward Innsbruck; Charles fled, and no force could prevent Maurice, if he wished, from capturing Trent and swallowing the Council. The bishops one by one disappeared, and on April 28 the Council was formally suspended. By the treaty of Passau (August 2) Ferdinand conceded religious freedom to the militantly victorious Protestants. They took no further interest in the Council.
Paul IV thought it prudent to let the Council hibernate during his pontificate. Pius IV, a kindly old man, played with the thought that the granting of communion in both kinds might appease the Protestants, as it had done the Bohemians. He summoned the Council to reconvene at Trent on April 6, 1561, and invited to it all Christian princes, Catholic or Protestant. To this new session the French delegates brought an imposing list of the reforms they desired: Mass in the vernacular, communion in bread and wine, the marriage of priests, the subordination of the papacy to general councils, and an end to the system of papal dispensations and exemptions;45 apparently the French government was for the moment in a semi-Huguenot mood. Ferdinand I, now Emperor, seconded these proposals, and added that “the Pope .... should humble himself, and submit to a reform in his own person, his state, and the Curia”; the legends of the saints should be purified of absurdities, and monasteries should be reformed so “that their great wealth might no longer be expended in so profligate a manner.” 46 Matters loomed perilous for Pius, and his legates looked with some trepidation to the opening of the session,
After leisurely or strategic delays the seventeenth session of the Council convened on January 18, 1562, with five cardinals, three patriarchs, eleven archbishops, ninety bishops, four generals, four abbots, and sundry lay representatives of Catholic princes. At Ferdinand’s request a safe-conduct was offered to any Protestant delegate who might care to attend; none came. The Archbishop of Granada and Charles, Cardinal of Lorraine, led a movement to reduce the prerogatives of the pope by asserting that the bishops held their power not through him but by direct “divine right”; and the Bishop of Segovia repeated one of Luther’s heresies by denying that the pope was supreme over the other bishops in the early Church.47 This episcopal uprising was snuffed out by the parliamentary skill of the papal legates, the loyalty of the Italian and Polish bishops to the Pope, and some timely papal courtesies to the Cardinal of Lorraine. In the end the papal authority was not lessened but enlarged, and every bishop was required to take an oath of complete obedience to the Pope. Ferdinand was appeased by the promise that on the termination of the Council the Pope would allow administration of the Eucharist in both kinds.
This basic quarrel over, the Council quickly dispatched its remaining business. Clerical marriage was forbidden, and severe penalties were decreed against priestly concubinage. Many minor reforms were enacted to improve the morals and discipline of the clergy. Seminaries were to be established where candidates for the priesthood could be trained to habits of austerity and piety. The powers of the Curia were curbed. Rules were laid down for the reform of Church music and art; nude figures were to be sufficiently covered to avoid stimulating the sensual imagination. A distinction was drawn between the worship of images and the worship of the persons represented by them; in the latter sense the use of religious images was upheld. Purgatory, indulgences, and the invocation of the saints were defended and redefined. Here the Council frankly recognized the abuses that had sparked Luther’s rebellion; one decree read:
In granting indulgences the Council .... decrees that all criminal gain therewith connected shall be entirely done away with, as a source of grievous abuse among the Christian people; and as to other disorders arising from superstitution, ignorance, irreverence, or any cause whatsoever—since these, on account of the widespread corruption, cannot be removed by special prohibitions—the Council lays upon each bishop the duty of finding out such abuses as exist in his own diocese, of bringing them before the next provincial synod, and of reporting them, with the assent of the other bishops, to the Roman Pontiff.48
Pope and Emperor agreed that the Council had now reached an end of its usefulness; and on December 4, 1563, it was finally dissolved amid the happy acclamations of the wearied delegates. The course of the Church had been fixed for centuries.
The Counter Reformation succeeded in its principal purposes. Men continued, in Catholic as much as in Protestant countries, to lie and steal, seduce maidens and sell offices, kill and make war.49 But the morals of the clergy improved, and the wild freedom of Renaissance Italy was tamed to a decent conformity with the pretensions of mankind. Prostitution, which had been a major industry in Renaissance Rome and Venice, now hid its head, and chastity became fashionable. The authorship or publication of obscene works was made a capital offense in Italy; so Niccolo Franco, secretary and enemy of Aretino, was hanged by order of Pius V for his Priapeia.50 The effect of the new restrictions on art and literature was not indisputably harmful; baroque art is emerging timidly from disrepute; and from a purely literary standpoint Tasso, Guarini, and Goldoni do not fall precipitately from the level of Boiardo, Ariosto, and the dramatist Machiavelli. Spain’s greatest age in literature and art came in the fullness of the “Catholic Reaction.” But the joyous character of Renaissance Italy faded; Italian women lost some of the charm and exhilaration that had come from their pre-Reformation freedom; a somber and conscious morality produced an almost puritan age in Italy. Monasticism revived. From the point of view of the free mind it was a loss to mankind that the comparative Renaissance liberty of thought was ended by ecclesiastical and political censorship; and it was a tragedy that the Inquisition was restored in Italy and elsewhere just when science was breaking through its medieval shell. The Church deliberately sacrificed the intellectual classes to the pious majority, which applauded the suppression of ideas that might dissolve its consoling faith.
The ecclesiastical reforms were real and permanent. Though the papal monarchy was exalted as against the episcopal aristocracy of the councils, this was in the spirit of the times, when aristocracies everywhere, except in Germany, were losing power to the kings. The popes were now morally superior to the bishops, and the discipline required for ecclesiastical reform could be better effected by a centralized than by a divided authority. The popes ended their nepotism, and cured the Curia of its costly procrastinations and flagrant venality. The administration of the Church, according to non-Catholic students of the matter, became a model of efficiency and integrity.51 The dark confessional box was introduced (1547) and made obligatory (1614); the priest was no longer tempted by the occasional beauty of his penitents. Indulgence peddlers disappeared; indulgences, for the most part, were reserved for pious devotions and works of charity rather than for financial contributions. Instead of retreating before the advance of Protestantism or free thought, the Catholic clergy set out to recapture the mind of youth and the allegiance of power. The spirit of the Jesuits, confident, positive, energetic, and disciplined, became the spirit of the militant Church.
All in all it was an astonishing recovery, one of the most brilliant products of the Protestant Reformation.