Council of Trent

Council of Trent
Council of Trent

The Council of Trent was the longest, and one of the most significant, of the General Councils of the Catholic Church. It met at Trent in northern Italy between 1545 and 1563 (with significant interruptions).

While there had been calls on many sides for a reforming council of the church to meet since the 15th century, this call took on new urgency with the advent of the Protestant Reformation. The Emperor Charles V, in his negotiations with the Protestant princes of Germany, had promised to work for a council, which they demanded should be held in German territory.

The pope and many of the cardinals resisted holding such a meeting, arguing that the Protestants would not accede to its decisions. Moreover they tended to be suspicious of the whole idea of a council, seeing it as a threat to papal authority.

When Paul III (r. 1534–49) became pope, he began in earnest to prepare for a council. In 1536, he commissioned a group including Cardinals Gasparo Contarini (1483–1542), Reginald Pole (1500–58), Gian Pietro Carafa (1476–1559), and Jacopo Sadoleto (1477–1547) to study the problems confronting the church.

Their report, the Consilium de emendanda ecclesiae, presented in 1537, advised reform of the papal curia, better discipline for bishops, and reform of the religious orders. The pope proposed holding the council at Mantua, and issued a bull summoning it to meet there in 1537. This proved impossible, owing to objections by the duke of Mantua, and the council was summoned instead to Vicenza in 1538.

King Francis I of France, as well as the Protestant princes of Germany, objected to this proposal, and only six bishops traveled to Vicenza. The pope therefore postponed the council once again and entered into negotiations with the French king and the emperor.

Trent was selected as the location for the council because while it was in Italy and easily accessible to Rome, it was in Imperial territory, meeting the objections of both the French and German rulers to a council too much subject to papal influence.

War between France and the Empire delayed the opening of the council until after peace was concluded in 1544, when Francis I also promised to allow French bishops to attend the council. The bull Laetare Jerusalem, issued November 19, 1544, called the council to meet at Trent on March 15 (Laetare Sunday) 1545.

The opening was delayed, however, and the council was not actually opened until December 13, 1545 (Gaudete Sunday). Cardinal Pole was one of the three legates who served as presidents for the first sessions, together with Cardinal Gian Maria del Monte (1487–1555) and Cardinal Marcello Cervini (1501–55).

The first session of the council included about 40 bishops and heads of religious orders, who would be the voting members, and about 50 theologians. Most of the bishops were from Italy and Spain; in spite of the king’s earlier promise, French bishops were prevented from attending.

The delegates decided to deal with decrees concerning the reform of the church’s government and practices at the same time as those concerning doctrine. Although 25 formal sessions were held during the life of the council, only 12 of them produced substantive decrees, the rest being concerned only with procedure.

During the first period of the council, most of the influential theologians were members of the Dominican order, in particular Domingo de Soto (1494–1560), as well as the general of the Augustinians, Girolamo Seripando (1493–1563). The decrees issued during these sessions concerned the definition of the canon of Scripture, original sin, justification, and the sacraments, in particular baptism and confirmation.

The council defined the canon of Scripture as containing the Deuterocanonical books rejected by Protestants and declared that the church recognized both the written Scriptures and unwritten traditions.

With respect to justification, the council condemned both the semi-Pelagianism of some late medieval Scholastics and the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith alone, upholding the necessity for the cooperation of free will and charity.

Disciplinary decrees passed during this time mandated preaching by all bishops and other clergy with pastoral offices, demanded that bishops reside in their dioceses, and forbade the holding of more than one office involving pastoral care by the same person.

In early 1547, a plague broke out in Trent, and on March 8, the council voted to move to Bologna in the Papal States. The emperor and a number of bishops supporting him refused to agree to this move, and the sessions held in Bologna produced no decrees. The council was suspended on September 14, 1547, and was still awaiting disposition when Paul III died on November 10, 1549.

Cardinal Del Monte, who had presided over the council, was elected pope as Julius III, and on November 14, 1550, he issued a bull recalling the council. The council resumed at Trent on May 1, 1551. During the next two sessions, the council issued decrees concerning the sacraments of the Eucharist, penance, and extreme unction, and reform decrees dealing with the authority of bishops over the clergy in their dioceses.

Two Jesuit theologians, Diego Lainez (1512–65) and Francisco Salmerón (1515–85), who had begun to participate in the earlier sessions, were influential during this period. The council offered safe conduct to Protestants who desired to attend, but the Protestant ambassadors made demands the council would not agree to, including that it withdraw its earlier teaching.

On April 28, 1552, as the war between Elector Maurice of Saxony and the emperor threatened to engulf the city of Trent, the council voted to suspend for two years.

Before Julius III could recall the council, he died on March 23, 1555. His successor was another former president of the council, Cardinal Cervini, who took the name Marcellus II. He died, however, after a reign of only 22 days. Cardinal Carafa was elected to succeed him and reigned as Pope Paul IV from 1555 to 1559 but did not recall the council. His successor, Pius IV, issued a bull recalling the council on November 29, 1560.

To bring about an actual meeting required careful diplomatic negotiations with Emperor Ferdinand I and other monarchs, which were carried out by the pope’s nephew and secretary of state, Cardinal Charles Borromeo (1538–84), later renowned for implementing the council’s reforms as archbishop of Milan.

Council Reopened

The council finally reopened April 28, 1562, and the final sessions included many more bishops than had attended earlier, including a number of French bishops who had been previously forbidden to attend by their monarch.

Seripando, now a cardinal, was one of the legates, and the theologians Salmerón and Lainez continued to be influential, along with a younger Jesuit, Peter Canisius (1521–97), who was particularly concerned with the church in Germany. During the last period of the council, decrees were issued concerning the celebration of Mass, the sacraments of holy orders and matrimony, purgatory, the use of images and relics, indulgences, and fasting.

As with earlier sessions, these decrees mostly upheld traditional teaching that had been attacked by Protestants. The decrees concerning marriage embodied the most significant change in the church’s teaching, holding that marriage contracted without at least two witnesses was invalid, and that families could not force couples to marry or invalidate their marriages.

Reforming Decrees

Among the reforming decrees of this period was the requirement that bishops establish seminaries for the training of priests. The application of this provision had far-reaching implications for the shape of the Catholic Church as it entered the modern period.

Other decrees regulated the lives of monks, friars, and nuns; provided for the establishment of an Index of Forbidden Books; called on the pope to issue a catechism and revisions of liturgical books; forbade dueling; and abolished the preaching of indulgences for the collection of alms, the practice that had occasioned Luther’s protest in 1517.

The council held its final session over two days, December 3–4, 1563. The final acts were signed by 255 bishops and heads of orders. Pope Pius IV confirmed the acts of the council in the bull Benedictus Deus, January 26, 1564.

The council’s disciplinary reforms were implemented only slowly, since they involved overcoming the resistance of many entrenched institutions and required the cooperation of secular rulers, many of whom saw the provisions of the council as threats to their own power and influence over the church. Over the next century, however, the application of the decrees of the Council of Trent led to a radical transformation of the Catholic Church.