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Council of Trent

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Council of Trent
Date 1545-1563
Accepted by Catholic Church
Previous council Fifth Council of the Lateran
Next council First Vatican Council
Convoked by Pope Paul III
Presided by Pope Paul III, Pope Julius III, Pope Pius IV
Attendance about 255 in the last sessions
Topics of discussion Protestantism, Counter Reformation
Documents and statements seventeen dogmatic decrees, covering all aspects of Catholic religion
Chronological list of Ecumenical councils



The Council of Trent (Latin: Concilium Tridentinum) was the 16th century Ecumenical Council of the Roman Catholic Church. Considered to be one of the Church's most important[1] councils, it convened in Trento (then capital of the Prince-Bishopric of Trent, inside the Holy Roman Empire, now in modern Italy) between December 13, 1545, and December 4, 1563 in twenty-five sessions for three periods. Council fathers met for the first through eighth sessions in Trent (1545-1547), for the ninth through eleventh sessions in Bologna (1547) during the pontificate of Pope Paul III.[2] Under Pope Julius III, the council met in Trent (1551-1552) for the twelfth through sixteenth sessions. Under Pope Pius IV the seventeenth through twenty-fifth sessions took place in Trent (1559-1563).

The council issued condemnations on what it defined as Protestant heresies and defined Church teachings in the areas of Scripture and Tradition, Original Sin, Justification, Sacraments, the Eucharist in Holy Mass and the veneration of saints. It issued numerous reform decrees.[3] By specifying Catholic doctrine on salvation, the sacraments, and the Biblical canon, the Council was answering Protestant disputes.[1] The Council entrusted to the Pope the implementation of its work, as a result of which Pope Pius V issued in 1566 the Roman Catechism, in 1568 a revised Roman Breviary, and in 1570 a revised Roman Missal, thus initiating what since the twentieth century has been called the Tridentine Mass (from the city's Latin name Tridentum), and Pope Clement VIII issued in 1592 a revised edition of the Vulgate.[4]

The Council of Trent, delayed and interrupted several times because of political or religious disagreements, was a major reform council and the most impressive embodiment of the ideals of the Counter-Reformation.[4] It would be over 300 years until the next Ecumenical Council. When announcing Vatican II, Pope John XXIII stated that the precepts of the Council of Trent continue to the modern day, a position that was reaffirmed by Pope Paul VI.[5]

Before the Council

Obstacles and events before the Council

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Pope Paul III invoked the Council of Trent

On March 16, 1517, the Fifth Council of the Lateran closed its activities with a number of reform proposals (on the selection of bishops, taxation, censorship and preaching) but not on the major problems that confronted the Church in Germany and other parts of Europe. A few months later, October 31, 1517, Martin Luther issued his 95 Theses in Wittenberg. Luther’s position on ecumenical councils shifted over time.[6]

A general, free Council in Germany

But in 1520 Luther appealed to the German princes to reform the Church, if necessary with a council[7] in Germany, open and free of the papacy. After the Pope condemned in Exsurge Domine forty-one sentences of Luther as heresy, German opinion considered a council the best method to reconcile existing differences. German Catholics, diminished in number, hoped for a council to clarify matters.[8]

It took a generation for the council to materialize, partly because of Papal reluctance—the Lutherans demanded his exclusion from the Council—and partly because of ongoing political rivalries between France and Germany and the Turkish dangers in the Mediterranean.[9] Under Pope Clement VII (1523-1534), troops of the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sacked Papal Rome in 1527, “raping, killing burning, stealing, the like had not been seen since the Vandals”. Saint Peter's Basilica and the Sistine Chapel were used for horses.[10] This, together with the Pontiff's ambivalence between France and Germany, led to his hesitation. Charles V strongly favoured a council, but needed the support of France, which attacked him militarily. Faced with a Turkish attack, Charles needed the support of the Protestant German rulers, all of which delayed the opening of the Council of Trent.[11]

Failure in Mantua-Vicenza

The council was ordered by the Emperor and Pope to convene in Mantua on May 23, 1537. It failed to convene, after another war broke out between France and Charles V, resulting in a non-attendance of French prelates. Protestants, just defeated by Charles V, refused to attend as well. Financial difficulties in Mantua led the Pope in the fall of 1537 to move the council to Vicenza, where participation was poor. The Council was postponed indefinitely on May 21, 1539. Pope Paul III then initiated several internal Church reforms while Emperor Charles V convened a meeting with Protestants in Regensburg, seat of the German diet, to reconcile differences. Unity failed between Catholic and Protestant representatives “because of different concepts of Church and justification”.[12]

Occasion, sessions, and attendance

Council of Trent by Pasquale Cati

The Council, depicted by Cati da Iesi

In reply to the Papal bull Exsurge Domine of Pope Leo X (1520), Martin Luther burned the document and appealed for a general council. In 1522, German diets joined in the appeal, with Charles V seconding and pressing for a council as a means of reunifying the Church and settling the Reformation controversies. Pope Clement VII (1523–34) was vehemently against the idea of a council, agreeing with Francis I of France. After Pope Pius II in his bull Execrabilis (1460) and his reply to the University of Cologne (1463) set aside the theory of the supremacy of general councils laid down by the Council of Constance, it was the papal policy to avoid councils.

Pope Paul III (1534–49)—seeing that the Protestant Reformation was no longer confined to a few preachers, but had won over various princes, particularly in Germany, to its ideas—desired a council. Yet when he proposed the idea to his cardinals, it was unanimously opposed. Nonetheless, he sent nuncios throughout Europe to propose the idea. Paul III issued a decree for a general council to be held in Mantua, Italy, to begin May 23, 1537. Martin Luther wrote the Smalcald Articles in preparation for the general council. The Smalcald Articles were designed to sharply define where the Lutherans could and could not compromise.

However, the council was delayed until 1545, and convened right before Luther's death. Unable, however, to resist the urging of Charles V, the pope, after proposing Mantua as the place of meeting, convened the council at Trent (at that time a free city of the Holy Roman Empire under a prince-bishop), on December 13, 1545; the Pope's decision to transfer it to Bologna in March, 1547 on the pretext of avoiding a plague[4] failed to take effect and the Council was indefinitely prorogued on 17 September 1549.

Reopened at Trent on 1 May 1551 by convocation of Pope Julius III (1550–1555), it was broken up by the sudden victory of Maurice, Elector of Saxony over the Emperor Charles V and his march into surrounding state of Tirol on 28 April 1552.[13] There was no hope of reassembling the council while the very anti-Protestant Paul IV was Pope.[4] The council was reconvened by Pope Pius IV (1559–65) for the last time, meeting from 18 January 1562, and continued until its final adjournment on 4 December 1563. It closed with a series of ritual acclamations honouring the reigning Pope, the Popes who had convoked the Council, the emperor and the kings who had supported it, the papal legates, the cardinals, the ambassadors present, and the bishops, followed by acclamations of acceptance of the faith of the Council and its decrees, and of anathema for all heretics.[14]

The history of the council is thus divided into three distinct periods: 1545–49, 1551–52 and 1562–63. During the second period, the Protestants present asked for renewed discussion on points already defined and for bishops to be released from their oaths of allegiance to the Pope.[4] When the last period began, all hope of conciliating the Protestants was gone and the Jesuits had become a strong force.[4]

The number of attending members in the three periods varied considerably. The council was small to begin with.[4] It increased toward the close, but never reached the number of the First Council of Nicaea (which had 318 members) nor of the First Vatican Council (which numbered 744). The decrees were signed by 255 members, including four papal legates, two cardinals, three patriarchs, twenty-five archbishops, and 168 bishops, two-thirds of whom were Italians. The Italian and Spanish prelates were vastly preponderant in power and numbers. At the passage of the most important decrees not more than sixty prelates were present.

Objects and general results

The main object of the council was twofold, although there were other issues that were also discussed:

  1. To condemn the principles and doctrines of Protestantism and to define the doctrines of the Catholic Church on all disputed points. It is true that the emperor intended it to be a strictly general or truly ecumenical council, at which the Protestants should have a fair hearing. He secured, during the council's second period, 1551-53, an invitation, twice given, to the Protestants to be present and the council issued a letter of safe conduct (thirteenth session) and offered them the right of discussion, but denied them a vote. Melanchthon and Johannes Brenz, with some other German Lutherans, actually started in 1552 on the journey to Trent. Brenz offered a confession and Melanchthon, who got no farther than Nuremberg, took with him the ironic statement known as the Confessio Saxonica. But the refusal to give to the Protestants the right to vote and the consternation produced by the success of Maurice in his campaign against Charles V in 1552 effectually put an end to Protestant cooperation.
  2. To effect a reformation in discipline or administration. This object had been one of the causes calling forth the reformatory councils and had been lightly touched upon by the Fifth Council of the Lateran under Pope Julius II and Pope Leo X. The perceived corruption in the administration of the Church was one of the numerous causes of the Reformation. Twenty-five public sessions were held, but nearly half of them were spent in solemn formalities. The chief work was done in committees or congregations. The entire management was in the hands of the papal legate. The liberal elements lost out in the debates and voting. The council abolished some of the most notorious abuses and introduced or recommended disciplinary reforms affecting the sale of indulgences, the morals of convents, the education of the clergy, the non-residence of bishops (also bishops having plurality of benefices, which was fairly common), and the careless fulmination of censures and forbade dueling. Although evangelical sentiments were uttered by some of the members in favor of the supreme authority of the Scriptures and justification by faith, no concession whatever was made to Protestantism.
  3. The church's interpretation of the Bible was final. Any Christian who substituted his or her own interpretation was a heretic. Also, the Bible and Church Tradition (not mere customs but the ancient tradition that made up part of the Catholic faith) were equally authoritative.
  4. The relationship of faith and works in salvation was defined, following controversy over Martin Luther's doctrine of "justification by faith alone".
  5. Other Catholic practices that drew the ire of reformers within the Church, such as indulgences, pilgrimages, the veneration of saints and relics, and the veneration of the Virgin Mary were strongly reaffirmed, though abuses of them, such as the sale of indulgences, were forbidden. Decrees concerning sacred music and religious art, though inexplicit, were subsequently amplified by theologians and writers to condemn many types of Renaissance and medieval styles and iconographies, impacting heavily on the development of these art forms.

The doctrinal decisions of the council are divided into decrees (decreta), which contain the positive statement of the conciliar dogmas, and into short canons (canones), which condemn the dissenting Protestant views with the concluding "anathema sit" ("let him be anathema").

Canons and decrees

Part of a series on the
Catholic Ecumenical Councils
Council Trent
Antiquity

Nicaea I • Constantinople I
Ephesus  • Chalcedon
Constantinople II
Constantinople III •Nicaea II
Constantinople IV

Middle Ages

Lateran I  • Lateran II
Lateran III  • Lateran IV
Lyon I  • Lyon II  • Vienne

Councilarism

Constance  • Basel • Lateran V

Modern

Trent • Vatican I •Vatican II

046CupolaSPietro Catholicism Portal

The doctrinal acts are as follows: after reaffirming the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (third session), the decree was passed (fourth session) confirming that the deuterocanonical books were on a par with the other books of the canon (against Luther's placement of these books in the Apocrypha of his edition) and coordinating church tradition with the Scriptures as a rule of faith. The Vulgate translation was affirmed to be authoritative for the text of Scripture.

Justification (sixth session) was declared to be offered upon the basis of faith and good works as opposed to the Protestant doctrine of faith alone and faith was treated as a progressive work. The idea of man being utterly passive under the influence of grace was also rejected.

The greatest weight in the Council's decrees is given to the sacraments. The seven sacraments were reaffirmed and the Eucharist pronounced to be a true propitiatory sacrifice as well as a sacrament, in which the bread and wine were consecrated into the Eucharist (thirteenth and twenty-second sessions). The term transubstantiation was used by the Council, but the specific Aristotelian explanation given by Scholasticism was not cited as dogmatic. Instead, the decree states that Christ is "really, truly, substantially present" in the consecrated forms. The sacrifice of the Mass was to be offered for dead and living alike and in giving to the apostles the command "do this in remembrance of me," Christ conferred upon them a sacerdotal power. The practice of withholding the cup from the laity was confirmed (twenty-first session) as one which the Church Fathers had commanded for good and sufficient reasons; yet in certain cases the Pope was made the supreme arbiter as to whether the rule should be strictly maintained.

Ordination (twenty-third session) was defined to imprint an indelible character on the soul. The priesthood of the New Testament takes the place of the Levitical priesthood. To the performance of its functions, the consent of the people is not necessary.

In the decrees on marriage (twenty-fourth session) the excellence of the celibate state was reaffirmed (see also Clerical celibacy (Catholic Church)), concubinage condemned and the validity of marriage made dependent upon its being performed before a priest and two witnesses -- although the lack of a requirement for parental consent ended a debate that had proceeded from the twelfth century. In the case of a divorce, the right of the innocent party to marry again was denied so long as the other party is alive, even if the other may have committed adultery.

In the twenty-fifth and last session, the doctrines of purgatory, the invocation of saints and the veneration of relics were reaffirmed, as was also the efficacy of indulgences as dispensed by the Church according to the power given her, but with some cautionary recommendations, and a ban on the sale of indulgences. Short and rather inexplicit passages concerning religious images, were to have great impact on the development of Catholic art.

The council appointed, in 1562 (eighteenth session), a commission to prepare a list of forbidden books (Index Librorum Prohibitorum), but it later left the matter to the Pope. The preparation of a catechism and the revision of the Breviary and Missal were also left to the pope. The catechism embodied the council's far-reaching results, including reforms and definitions of the sacraments, the Scriptures, church dogma, and duties of the clergy.[1]

On adjourning, the Council asked the supreme pontiff to ratify all its decrees and definitions. This petition was complied with by Pope Pius IV, January 26, 1564, in the papal bull, Benedictus Deus, which enjoins strict obedience upon all Catholics and forbids, under pain of excommunication, all unauthorized interpretation, reserving this to the Pope alone and threatens the disobedient with "the indignation of Almighty God and of his blessed apostles, Peter and Paul." Pope Pius appointed a commission of cardinals to assist him in interpreting and enforcing the decrees.

The Index librorum prohibitorum was announced 1564 and the following books were issued with the papal imprimatur: the Profession of the Tridentine Faith and the Tridentine Catechism (1566), the Breviary (1568), the Missal (1570) and the Vulgate (1590 and then 1592).

The decrees of the council were acknowledged in Italy, Portugal, Poland and by the Catholic princes of Germany at the Diet of Augsburg in 1566. Philip II of Spain accepted them for Spain, the Netherlands and Sicily insofar as they did not infringe the royal prerogative. In France they were officially recognized by the king only in their doctrinal parts. The disciplinary sections received official recognition at provincial synods and were enforced by the bishops. No attempt was made to introduce it into England. Pius IV sent the decrees to Mary, Queen of Scots, with a letter dated June 13, 1564, requesting her to publish them in Scotland, but she dared not do it in the face of John Knox and the Reformation.

These decrees were later supplemented by the First Vatican Council of 1870.

Publication of documents

The most comprehensive description is still Hubert Jedin's The History of the Council of Trent (Geschichte des Konzils von Trient with about 2500 pages in four volumes: The History of the Council of Trent, The fight for a Council (Vol I, 1951); The History of the Council of Trent The first Sessions in Trent (1545-1547) (Vol II, 1957); The History of the Council of Trent Sessions in Bologna 1547-1548 and Trent 1551-1552 (Vol III, 1970, 1998); The History of the Council of Trent Third Period and Conclusion (Vol IV, 1976).

The canons and decrees of the council have been published very often and in many languages (for a large list consult British Museum Catalogue, under "Trent, Council of"). The first issue was by P. Manutius (Rome, 1564). The best Latin editions are by J. Le Plat (Antwerp, 1779) and by F. Schulte and A. L. Richter (Leipzig, 1853). Other good editions are in vol. vii. of the Acta et decreta conciliorum recentiorum. Collectio Lacensis (7 vols., Freiburg, 1870-90), reissued as independent volume (1892); Concilium Tridentinum: Diariorum, actorum, epastularum, ... collectio, ed. S. Merkle (4 vols., Freiburg, 1901 sqq.; only vols. i.-iv. have as yet appeared); not to overlook Mansi, Concilia, xxxv. 345 sqq. Note also Mirbt, Quellen, 2d ed, pp. 202-255. The best English edition is by J. Waterworth (London, 1848; With Essays on the External and Internal History of the Council).

The original acts and debates of the council, as prepared by its general secretary, Bishop Angelo Massarelli, in six large folio volumes, are deposited in the Vatican Library and remained there unpublished for more than 300 years and were brought to light, though only in part, by Augustin Theiner, priest of the oratory (d. 1874), in Acta genuina sancti et oecumenici Concilii Tridentini nunc primum integre edita (2 vols., Leipzig, 1874).

Most of the official documents and private reports, however, which bear upon the council, were made known in the sixteenth century and since. The most complete collection of them is that of J. Le Plat, Monumentorum ad historicam Concilii Tridentini collectio (7 vols., Leuven, 1781-87). New materials(Vienna, 1872); by JJI von Döllinger (Ungedruckte Berichte und Tagebücher zur Geschichte des Concilii von Trient) (2 parts, Nördlingen, 1876); and A. von Druffel, Monumenta Tridentina (Munich, 1884-97).

List of dogmatic decrees

Doctrine Session Date Canons Decrees
On the Symbol of the Faith 3 February 4, 1546 None 1
The Holy Scriptures 4 April 8, 1546 None 1
Original sin 5 June 7, 1546 5 4
Justification 6 January 13, 1547 33 16
The Sacraments in General 7 March 3, 1547 13 1
Baptism 7 March 3, 1547 14 None
Confirmation 7 March 3, 1547 3 None
Holy Eucharist 13 October 11, 1551 11 8
Penance 14 November 15, 1551 15 15
Extreme Unction 14 November 4, 1551 4 3
Cults: SaintsRelicsImages 25 December 4, 1563 None 3
Indulgences 25 December 4, 1563 None 1

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Wetterau, Bruce. World history. New York: Henry Holt and company. 1994.
  2. Hubert Jedin, Konciliengeschichte, Herder Freiburg, 138
  3. Jedin, 138
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford University Press 2005 ISBN 978-0-19-280290-3), article Trent, Council of
  5. What was, still is, quoted in http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20070629_responsa-quaestiones_en.html Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church]
  6. Hubert Jedin, Konziliengeschichte, Herder, 1959,g 80
  7. An den Adel deutscher Nation, 1520
  8. Jedin 81
  9. Jedin 81
  10. Hans Kühner Papstgeschichte, Fischer, Frankfurt 1960, 118
  11. Jedin 79-82
  12. Jedin 85
  13. Trenkle, Franz Sales (2003-03-03). "Council of Trent". http://www.ccel.org/s/schaff/encyc/encyc12/htm/ii.ii.htm. Retrieved 2008-01-22. 
  14. Acclamations of the Fathers at the Close of the Council

see also


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