Council of Trent

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Council of Trent
Date 1545-1563
Accepted by Catholicism
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, Catholic Reformation
Documents and statements sixteen dogmatic decrees, covering all aspects of Catholic religion
chronological list of Ecumenical councils

The Council of Trent (Italian: Trento) was an ecumenical council of the Catholic Church held in discontinuous sessions between 1545 and 1563 in response to the Protestant Reformation. The Council should have been held in Vicenza (20 miles west of Venice), but the aristocratic family that promoted the event was considered to be too fond of the Emperor, so the council was moved to Trent.

The nineteenth (or, according to another reckoning, the eighteenth) of the ecumenical councils recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, the Council of Trent takes its name from the city where it was held, Trento (or Trent in English), in the southern and Italian part of the Tyrol (73 miles north west of Venice), and lasted, with interruptions, including a long one from 1552 to 1562, from December 13, 1545, to December 4, 1563.

From a doctrinal and disciplinary point of view, it was the most important council in the history of the Roman church, fixing her distinctive faith and practice in relation to the Protestant Evangelical churches. Its decrees were supplemented by the First Vatican Council of 1870. It clearly specified Catholic doctrines on salvation, the sacraments and the Biblical canon, in opposition to the Protestants, and standardized the Mass throughout the church, largely abolishing local variations; this became called the "Tridentine Mass", from the city's Latin name Tridentum.


Occasion, sessions, and attendance

In reply to the Papal bull Exsurge Domine of Pope Leo X (1520), Martin Luther had burned the document and appealed to a general council. In 1522, German diets joined in the appeal, and Charles V seconded and pressed it as a means of reunifying the Church and settling the controversy started by the Reformation. Pope Clement VII (1523-1534) was vehemently against the idea of a council, agreeing with Francis I of France. After the deliverances of Pope Pius II in his bull Execrabilis (1460) and his reply to the University of Cologne (1463), setting 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, seeing that the Protestant Reformation was no longer a few preachers, but that various princes had joined in the new ideas, desired a council, but when he proposed the idea to his cardinals, it was unanimously voted against. Nonetheless, he sent nuncios throughout Europe to propose the idea. France and most of the German Protestants refused the invitation. Unable, however, to resist the urgency of Charles V, the pope, after proposing Mantua as the place of meeting, convened the council as exclusively Roman at Trent (at that time a free city of the Holy Roman Empire under a prince-bishop), on Dec. 13, 1545; it was transferred to Bologna in Mar., 1547 from fear of the plague; indefinitely prorogued, Sept. 17, 1549; reopened at Trent, May 1, 1551, by Pope Julius III; broken up by the sudden victory of Elector Maurice of Saxony over the Emperor Charles V., and his march into Tyrol, Apr. 28, 1552; and recalled by Pope Pius IV for the last time, Jan. 18, 1562, when it continued to its final adjournment, Dec. 4, 1563. It closed with "Anathema to all heretics, anathema, anathema."

The history of the council is divided into three distinct periods; from 1545 to 1549, from 1551 to 1552, and from 1562 to 1563. The last was the most important. The number of attending members in the three periods varied considerably. It increased toward the close, but never reached the number of the first ecumenical council at Nicaea, (which had 318 members), nor of the last of the Vatican (which numbered 764). The decrees were signed by 255 members, including four papal legates, two cardinals, three patriarchs, twenty-five archbishops, 168 bishops, two-thirds of them being Italians. Lists of the signers are added to the best editions of the decrees. England was represented by Reginald Cardinal Pole, Richard Pate, bishop of Worcester, and after 1562 by Thomas Goldwell, bishop of St. Asaph; Ireland by three bishops, and Germany at no time by more than eight. 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 object of the council was twofold:

  1. To condemn the principles and doctrines of Protestantism, and to define the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church on all disputed points. It is true 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, 1551-52, 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 Johann 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 corrupt administration of the Church was one of the secondary 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 liberal evangelical sentiments were uttered by some of the ablest members in favor of the supreme authority of the Scriptures, and justification by faith, no concession whatever was made to Protestantism.

The doctrinal decisions of the council are divided into decrees (decreta), which contain the positive statement of the Roman dogmas, and into short canons (canones), which condemn the dissenting Protestant views with the concluding "anathema sit." They are stated with great clearness and precision. The decree on justification betrays special ability and theological circumspection. The Protestant doctrines, however, are almost always exhibited in an exaggerated form, and sometimes mixed up with heresies that the Protestants also condemn emphatically.

The canons and decrees

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 omission of these books in his translation) 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, like a stone, under the influence of grace was also rejected.

The greatest weight in the Council's decrees is given to the sacraments. The sacramental nature of the seven sacraments was affirmed and the Eucharist pronounced to be a true propitiatory sacrifice as well as a sacrament, in which the bread and wine were converted into the body and blood of Christ (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 had commanded from of old 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 a 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), concubinage condemned, and the validity of marriage made dependent upon its being performed before a priest and two witnesses. 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 also the efficacy of indulgences as dispensed by the Church according to the power given her, but with some cautionary recommendations.

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 action of the pope. The preparation of a catechism and revised editions of the Breviary and Missal were also left to the pope.

On adjourning, the Council begged the supreme pontiff to ratify all its decrees and definitions. This petition was complied with by Pope Pius IV, January 26, 1564, in a bull which enjoins strict obedience upon all Roman Catholics, and forbids, under pain of excommunication, all unauthorized interpretation, reserving this to the pope alone, and threatening 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 Roman Catholic princes of Germany at the diet of 1566. Philip II of Spain accepted them for Spain, the Netherlands, and Sicily in so far as they did not infringe on 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.

Publication of documents

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 (Leipsig, 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 were brought to light by J. Mendham, Memoirs of the Council of Trent (London, 1834-36), from the manuscript history of Cardinal Paleotto; more recently by T. Sickel, Actenstücke aus österreichischen Archiven (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
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
Holy Eucharist 21 June 16, 1562 4 3
Holy Eucharist 22 September 9, 1562 9 4
Holy Orders 23 July 15, 1563 8 3
Matrimony 24 November 11, 1563 12 1
Purgatory 25 December 4, 1563 None 1
Cults: Saints Relics Images 25 December 4, 1563 None 3
Indulgences 25 December 4, 1563 None 1

External links

This article includes content derived from the public domain Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, 1914.

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