The Council of Trent (1545 to 1563) assembled Catholic clergy under the leadership of Pope Paul III as a response to the Protestant Reformation. Throughout three sessions, the Council reiterated the Catholic Church’s authority and denounced Protestant theology, marking the inception of the Catholic Counter-Reformation.
Background: The Protestant Reformation
The Protestant Reformation started in the Germanic regions of the Holy Roman Empire in 1517 when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses. His intention was to invite fellow clerics to engage in a debate regarding the sale of indulgences, which were certificates promising a shorter stay in purgatory after death. By objecting to their sale, he challenged the pope’s authority over souls in purgatory and criticized the apparent greed underlying the practice. In response, the Church excommunicated him in 1521, branding him a heretic. Despite this, Luther’s 95 Theses and other writings had already been published and widely disseminated.
In an attempt to reunify the Church, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, convened the Diet of Augsburg in June 1530. The Lutherans presented the Augsburg Confession, while the Catholics offered the Confutatio Augustana. However, neither party accepted the other’s confessions of faith, and no resolution was reached.
Efforts for reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants were made again in 1537 by Pope Paul III and Charles V. However, this meeting was never realized due to ongoing military conflicts between the latter and King Francois I of France. Charles V, motivated by the need for unity against a potential Ottoman Empire invasion, sought reconciliation among his subjects. The next reconciliation attempt was scheduled for December 13, 1545, in Trent, Northern Italy.
The First Session
Despite being labelled as an ecumenical conference, the Council of Trent excluded Protestants from meaningful participation by denying them the right to vote or voice their opinions in the proceedings. In response, Protestant clergy opted to abstain from attending. Thus, the Council of Trent transformed into a Catholic assembly with the primary objective of rectifying Church abuses, particularly the sale of indulgences, addressing alleged errors in Church teaching and practice, and reinforcing its authority.
To begin with, the Council had to first reach a unanimous consensus on the books of the Bible considered Holy Scripture. In this regard, it affirmed the Vulgate translation of Saint Jerome as the sole authoritative text. Moreover, the Council refuted Luther’s assertion that sinful humanity couldn’t fulfil the law and emphasized God’s grace available through good works.
The Council affirmed Church teachings, covering various aspects such as the impotency of human nature to justify man, the dispensation and mystery of Christ’s advent, and the description of justification and its mode in the state of grace. These canons condemned the Protestant Reformation as heresy and labelled its supporters as heretics, highlighting the Church’s position that individual interpretation of truth and scripture was unreliable due to the inherent sinfulness of human nature. The Council also underscored the importance of adhering to the Church’s traditional practices to ensure a true understanding of scripture. Subsequent sessions were interrupted by the plague, and the Council was prorogued in September 1549.
Second & Third Sessions
The second session of the Council of Trent, which commenced in May 1551 under Pope Julius III, aimed to address theological questions surrounding the Eucharist. Certain Protestant factions asserted that the Mass was merely a commemoration of Christ’s sacrifice, rejecting the belief in the real presence of God during the consecration and the transformation of bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood. The Council condemned this view as heresy, unequivocally stating that Christ was present in the Eucharist.
Under Pope Pius IV, the Council resumed in January 1562. This session focused on reforming Church abuses, including addressing issues related to poorly educated clergy who relied on parishioners’ tithes without providing adequate spiritual guidance. The Council endorsed the establishment of additional seminaries and promoted more in-depth study for clerical candidates. Concerning the Protestant objection to the sale of indulgences, the Council resolved that indulgences would no longer be sold but could be obtained through a donation, with the process regulated.
Simultaneously, to curb the spread of Protestant ideas, the Council approved the Index Librorum Prohibitorum in 1563, which explicitly named the works of Reformers such as Luther, Zwingli, John Calvin, and others. Although detailed in its prohibitions, the Index essentially conveyed that any book condemned by the pope, Holy Office, or local authorities should be rejected by Catholics. The Index remained in effect until its suspension in 1967.
The resolutions, decrees, and canons of the Council of Trent served as the foundation for the Catholic Counter-Reformation, reinstating the Church’s authority through explicit rules, regulations, and definitions of Catholic identity. It essentially upheld medieval Church policies and traditions while reaffirming the Church’s central role as the sole authority in the Christian vision. Although some decrees, like the Index, have been suspended, the decisions of the Council of Trent continued to shape Catholic belief and practice until the 1960s and still partially influence the present.
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