1. The long road to the Council
Luther began his campaign for the reform of the Church on October 31, 1517; the opening session of the Council of Trent took place on December 13, 1545. For decades voices had been heard in the Catholic Church that an ecumenical council was necessary in order to redress the situation and to reform the Church. Why must twenty-eight years pass before the prelates assembled at last?
a. The Fifth Lateran Council
Actually there was a reform council before that of Trent, the Fifth Council of Lateran, convoked by Pope Julius II (1502-1513) and continued by Pope Leo X (1513-1521). Its twelve sessions were held between May 10, 1512, and March 16, 1517, that is, just in the period that Luther's plans for reform were ripening. Its aim was the reform of the Church `in head and members', as the expression then was, the clergy and the faithful. It was well-meant; several useful decrees were voted indeed. Yet there were never more than a hundred prelates attending, most Italians, so that the whole northern half of Europe, and especially Germany, remained entirely unrepresented. The task of implementing the decrees fell to Leo X, but they remained a dead letter in his hands. This Pope, who did not understand what was occurring in Germany, was far more interested in politics and far more concerned with showering favours on those who were close to him. There was no sense of responsibility in him, and thus the last chance of forestalling Luther was missed.
b. The irresolute Pope Clement VII
Leo's successor, Clement VII (1521-1534), realized far better what was happening; he knew that reform was urgently needed, the sooner the better. He was doubtless a better man than his predecessors (with the exception of Hadrian VI); he was an intelligent, serious man, conscientious and religious. Yet, as Jedin explains, he had two great failures. Although confronted with the necessity of taking important and definite decisions in ecclesiastical affairs, for instance, convoking an ecumenical council at the earliest possible date, his primary interest was politics, particularly to safely preserve his position between the Emperor Charles V and the French King Francis I, who both had an Italian policy. His second failure was that his character was undecisive, wavering, and timid, just when a `holy devil' like Gregory VII was needed. A disappointed Contarini wrote in 1527: "The Pope really has the wish to see the abuses of the holy Church eliminated, but he never brings ideas of this kind to execution and does not decide to any measure at all."[i] And while Pope Clement looked irresolutely on, the northern half of Germany, Scandinavia and England were lost to the Church.
Heavy pressure was exercized on the Pope. In 1526 Charles V asked for a council in the strongest terms. In case Clement was not ready to cooperate with him, he would have to bear the responsibility for all the evils that would come over Christendom. "We implore and admonish Your Holiness in the Lord, because of your office as pastor and for the welfare of the flock entrusted to you, to convoke a holy general council at an appropriate place, with the determination of the proper time. For we see ... that the whole ecclesiastical order and the Christian religion are disturbed and that our own interest and that of Christianity are imperilled." He threateningly added that, "if the Pope did not take action, the task of convoking a council would fall to the college of cardinals."[ii] It was only on July 31, 1530, that the Pope answered: yes, he would convoke a council, if the emperor found this necessary in view of the situation in Germany, but only if peace was concluded.[iii]
In Germany, where the problems were most pressing, successive Diets kept asking for an ecumenical council. Around 1530 it was still thought possible that the Lutherans could be reconciled with the Church. However, in July 1530 the emperor wrote to Clement that he doubted whether the Protestants would make concessions. A council was absolutely necessary, firstly, to stop the spread of Lutheranism, secondly, to renew the Church. On July 31 the Pope declared that he was ready to convoke a council in an Italian city, preferably Rome (the emperor has proposed a German city). But he did not really mean it. He and his cardinals feared that they would be subjected to all kinds of pressures by the delegates and that it would end in a schism.[iv]
Yet on December 1, 1530, Clement sent letters to the kings of France, England and Scotland to ask their cooperation for the convocation of a council.[v] King Francis I of France proved less than willing. Formally he gave his consent, but he put up so many objections that this consent was only a veiled refusal. Very probably he did not want to be tied to the emperor's apron strings. All the subsequent manoeuvres only had the result that the convocation of the council was adjourned until an unspecified moment.
c. Postponement after postponement
On September 25, 1534, Pope Clement VII died; after a conclave of only two days cardinal Alessandro Farnese was elected as Pope Paul III on October 13. He made it immediately known that he found the convocation absolutely necessary. He was far less of a politician than his predecessor. The interests of the Church must come before anything else; he also realized that the wish for a general reform of the Church could no longer be ignored.[vi] In spite of these laudable intentions it lasted another eleven years before the first session began. There was much opposition. Francis I did not want an `imperial council'; King Henry VIII did not want a council at all, just as the (Protestant) Schmalkaldian League in Germany, which made it a precondition that the Pope should abandon his rights as the primate of the Church.[vii]
In spite of all these objections Paul III published the bull Ad Dominici gregis curam on June 2, 1536. An ecumenical council was to begin in Mantua on May 23, 1537. The invitation was destined for all bishops, abbots and prelates, and also for the emperor and all the kings (who might send their ambassadors). The aims of the council were fourfold: elemination of all errors and heresies - reform of the morals - the establishment of peace in Christendom - and a general war against the infidels (the old Crusade ideal).[viii] The Lutherans were neither expressly invited nor expressly excluded. The first important step had been taken; there was no going back now.
The Schmalkaldian League reacted on February 24, 1537. There was no sense in Protestant participation, it said; the bull condemned the recent heresies, which meant that there would be no discussion of the Lutheran position. The League once again asked the Pope to relinquish his function as head of the Church and invited him to accept the main Lutheran principle of sola scriptura.[ix] Since these conditions were unacceptable to Rome, it became highly improbable that any Protestant would appear in the council hall. Federigo, the Duke of Mantua, also caused problems; he said that he needed a force of six thousand men to guarantee the safety of the participants. The Pope could not believe his ears: he did not want to see Mantua changed into a military camp during the sessions. The result was that Paul adjourned the opening day. In the end there was no council in Mantua.[x]
On August 28, 1537, the Doge was asked to provide a city within his domains where the council might convene; he put Vicenza at the disposal of the Church. The new date was May 1, 1538. Yet the city council of Vicenza was less than enthusiastic about this plan; it would cause endless trouble, it feared. On that first of May hardly a prelate had arrived in Vicenza. By then the opening had already been adjourned.[xi] All this made an extremely bad impression.
Under pressure of the emperor, whom he met in Genua, Paul III announced that the new opening date would be April 6, 1539. The problem was that there was still a war on between the empire and France, which made the European prelates think twice before they departed for Vicenza. On May 21, 1539, the opening date was adjourned for the fifth time, this time without appointing a new date. Naturally, the blame was laid at the Pope's door, but the real problem was that the kings, although paying lip service to the council idea, found other things more important. There never was a council of Vicenza.
There was periculum in mora. Cardinal Contarini warned Rome that the Reformation might cross the Alps and infect Italy. Soon news arrived that Lutheranism was making headway in the Duchy of Milan. This caused panic in Rome, where until then a certain idea had prevailed that the Reformation was really a local German affair. The first result of this panic was the foundation of the Roman Inquisition on July 21, 1542.[xii] Between September 12 and 18, 1541, Paul III discussed the situation with the emperor in Lucca. It was there that the name of Trent was mentioned for the first time. However, for the time being this city was found to be too much exposed to the French danger.[xiii] Objections of all kinds were made against the choice of Trent: too small, unhealthy, difficult to victual. Nevertheless, the Catholic estates of Germany accepted Trent on April 1, 1542; they were followed in this by the college of cardinals on April 26. The bull of convocation was published on June 29; it determined the opening date on November 1, 1542.
Yet the special Satan who was appointed to prevent the council was still not at the end of his tricks. Francis I declared war on Germany on July 10, 1542; the king had then already rejected the choice of Trent. Only ten bishops had the courage to travel to this city. On July 6, 1543, the opening date was adjourned for the umpteenth time.
New hopes dawned, when the warring parties concluded the Peace of Crépy on September 8, 1544. Twelve days later Rome fixed the opening date of the Council on March 15, 1544. Things began to happen. Two papal legates were appointed, who arrived in Trent on March 13 (it was raining cats and dogs). However, the 15th of March passed without the council being opened (it still rained incessantly). Yet somewhat later ambassadors arrived and a few bishops. On May 23 there were seventeen bishops present, all Italians. Even then a proposal was made to suspend the sessions (which had not even begun) and to transfer it to Rome for a broad international discussion on reform.[xiv] Nothing came of this plan, because Charles V would not hear of it.
Actually, the choice of Trent was a papal concession to the emperor. Paul III clung stubbornly to his idea that only a council on the territory of the Papal States or of a middle Italian state would present no risk to the papacy.[xv] As late as the summer of 1545 plans were discussed for the tranlatio of the council to Ferrara or to Rome. All these plans were torpedoed by a decided `no' from the emperor: because the council would be of the greatest importance for the situation in Germany, he wanted it to be held in a city that was more or less under his control. Once again the cardinals determined a date: the third Sunday of Advent. No wonder that many bishops did not believe this! Yet this time it came true.
2. The opening of the Council of Trent
The solemn opening of the Council of Trent took place on Sunday, December 13, 1545, in the church of the Most Holy Trinity. Present were four cardinals, four archbishops, coming from France, Sicily, Sweden, and Ireland, and twenty-one bishops, of whom sixteen were Italians; there was one Frenchman, one German, and one Englishmen, and also two Spaniards. Given the fact that there were more than five hundred dioceses, the attendance must be considered modest. Five general superiors of monastic Orders were also present. Two envoys of King Ferdinand I, the emperor's substitute, were the only diplomats who had come. There were, however, forty-two theologians, the experti, mostly Italians and Spaniards, and eight jurists. And of course there was the general public.[xvi]
That the council really convened, although a quarter of a century too late, was nothing less than a miracle. The story of the preparations is one of discussions, plans, hesitations, tergiversations, misunderstandings, political intrigues, cowardice, and hardly veiled ill-will. Some people, who were involved in the process, definitely did not want a council. Yet, in spite of all this, on that second Sunday of Advent, the Dom chaplain intoned the Veni Creator and all fell in a mighty choir. Then they rose and went in procession through the streets of the city to the cathedral. There the Mass of the Holy Ghost was celebrated; the bishop of Bitonto, a renowned orator, preached the sermon, beginning with the words Gaudete in Domino. Now the process could not be stopped.[xvii]
3. Trent as the background
It is not my intention to describe the proceedings of the council in any detail. I refer the reader to Hubert Jedin's magnificent four-volumed work Geschichte des Konzils von Trient.[xviii] However, a word must be said on the location. Trent, in the far north of Italy, just south of the Alps and of the Brenner Pass, was a city belonging to the Holy Roman Empire. This means that Charles V was its sovereign. The summers were hot and the winters cold, when the icy Tramontana blew. Occasionally the victualling presented a problem. It goes without saying that prices were high; a stay in Trent during the sessions was expensive. Fantasy rents had to be paid for living quarters. The city was brimful during the session periods, which sometimes led to frictions and clashes between the inhabitants and the guests, that is, the servants of the prelates.[xix] Against this background the work of the council must be placed.
4. No Protestant participation
No Protestant theologian ever took the floor in whichever session between 1545 and 1563. They were not invited for the first session periods. What would have been possible in 1520 was no longer possible in 1545; reconciliation with the Protestants was not one of the aims of the council. The bishop of Fano, Pietro Bertano, expressed this in these words. "If it will not help those already lost to the Church, it will at least help those in danger of becoming lost."[xx] The barrier between the Catholic Church and the Protestant denominations had become impregnable, in other words, dualistic.
5. Tendencies among the Council Fathers
The absence of Protestants did not mean that the prelates formed one solid theological block. Davidson distinguishes four different tendencies among the Fathers. The first group was that of the spirituali, sometimes called `evangelicals', who, however, should not be confused with Lutheran evangelicals. Although they agreed with Luther on the need for reform and a new theology, they remained true to the Church. A second group was that of the `Augustinians', who believed that no human effort could help the faithful to triumph over sin. All is grace. The third group harked back to Duns Scotus, the famous theologian of about 1300, who found that human effort could play a role in justification, but only a limited one.[xxi] The fourth group, that of the Thomists, was the most influential: grace and human effort, that is, good works, are equally necessary for justification.[xxii] That there were differing and opposed groups led to long debates; it is a second miracle that the Fathers succeeded in producing clearly worded and unambiguous statements.
6. Important results of the first session period
The first session period lasted from December 13, 1545 until March 3, 1547; during this period ten sessions were held. In all there were ninety-one prelates with voting rights present, cardinals and bishops, plus six superior generals of monastic Orders. This total was not reached in any session: fifty-nine in sessions V and VI, sixty-four in session VII. It is a curious thing that not a single German bishop took part. There were also no bishops from Switzerland, Poland and Hungary, but all other Roman-Catholic communities of Europe were represented.[xxiii]
The first great decree was voted on April 8, 1546 during the fourth session, the so-called `vulgata decree'. It determined which books belonged to the biblical canon, that is, those books of which `God is the author'. This canon included some books that were rejected by Luther, for instance, the Letter of James.[xxiv] Without mentioning Luther's name, this decree was the first to draw the dividing line between Catholicism and Lutheranism. This decree also stated that biblical revelation and the ecclesiastical tradition - either received from Christ or from the Holy Ghost - were of equal value. This signified that Luther's thesis of sola sciptura was rejected.
On June 2, 1546, a second important decree was voted, that on original sin and baptism. It stated that baptism remits original sin entirely; no trace of sin remains. Concupiscence, as an incentive to sin, remains, but is not a sin in itself.[xxv] Luther's thesis that baptism does not wash of original sin was rejected in this way, although not specifically.
The next and most important decree was that on justification. Was it, as Luther and all other Reformers propounded sola gratia? Was there no possibility to cooperate with grace? Were `good works', although they should be done, without sigificance for salvation? Or was it so that man could be an agent in his own salvation? Should he not cooperate with God by performing good works? Was it not so that, whereas divine grace was the absolutely necessary precondition, `good works', that is, one's way of life, was also an important asset in the process of justification?
There was no foregone conclusion, because, as we have seen, some bishops were, with respect to the question of justification, close to Luther. Consequently the debates were long. The point of view of one prelate, Tommaso Sanfelice, bishop of Cava, was hardly distinguishable from that of Luther; in all there were five dissidents.[xxvi] Two concept formulas were presented to the council. Finally all came round: on January 13, 1547, the decree was unanimously - nemine discrepante - voted during the sixth session.[xxvii] Thirty-three canons were added, all ending with anathema sit;[xxviii] this means that one who does not accept them is automatically excommunicated.
The quintessence of this decree is that man's cooperation with grace is absolutely necessary for salvation. Justification means that man, "formerly unjust, becomes just; formerly an enemy, becomes a friend [of God]." Man is capable of cooperating with God, but must prepare himself for justification; God will "touch his heart by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit". However, works are needed after justification: "no one ought to be complacent because of his faith alone." Therefore, no sola gratia.
An impregnable trapdoor was let down between Catholicism and Protestantism. As Davidson expresses it: "This declaration finally completed the separation of the Catholics and Protestants from the shared theological inheritance of the Middle Ages and created a new, Catholic orthodoxy."[xxix] The Catholic-Protestant divide had become dualistic and would remain so.
During the seventh and last session a decree on the sacraments was voted on March 3, 1547, stating that there were seven sacraments, and not three, as the Protestants held.[xxx]
Then an epidemic of typhoid fever broke out in Trent. During the short eighth session, on March 11, it was decided to transfer the council to Bologna. There the tenth session began on April 21, 1547. Many important issues were discussed, but no new great doctrinal decree was voted. Obviously the council fathers found that they had done enough, for on September 14, 1547, it was decided to prorogue the sessions without a date being fixed for the reopening.
7. The second session period
It lasted until May 1, 1551, before the council convened again, this time in Trent, where sessions 11-15 were held. In the interim Paul III had died on November 10, 1549; after a long conclave he was succeeded, on February 8, 1550, by Cardinal Del Monte, who assumed the name of Julius III (1550-1555). During the thirteenth session a decree stated, against Luther, that it was traditional Catholic doctrine that during Mass, through the words of the priest, transsubstantiation takes place; the Real Presence means that bread and wine are changed into Christ's body and blood.[xxxi] Who does not believe this: anathema sit.
During this same session Protestant theologians were invited to attend; they were promised a free conduct. Some came indeed, but they arrived just at the moment that the Fathers had decided to once again prorogue their sessions. Germany was at war again, with the French intervening. This caused the Fathers to go home. On April 15, 1552, the work of the council was suspended.
8. The third session period
This time it lasted ten years before the Fathers convened again. Julius III died on March 23, 1555, to be succeeded on May 23 by cardinal Caraffa as Paul IV (1555-1559). He was a fanatical reformer, but did nothing to reconvene the council. In this respect he was what Jedin calls `a horrible disappointment'. He died on August 18, 1559. After another extremely long conclave Pius IV (1559-1565) became his successor. He was convinced of the necessity of the conciliar work, so that the seventeenth session began, in Trent, on January 18, 1562. No Protestant theologians turned up. During the twenty-fifth session another Lutheran tenet was rejected, namely, that there is no Purgatory.[xxxii]
The Council of Trent was definitely closed on December 4, 1563. eighteen years after its opening. What I do not mention are the numerous decrees on the reform of ecclesiastical life in all its aspects, because they have no bearing on our subject.
9. An abyss between the denominations
When the council was over, it has to be stated as a negative result, the separation of denominations had become definitive and dualistic. That there is a dualistic separation becomes especially evident through the rule applied by the Catholic Church since Trent: Nulla communicatio in sacris (cum haereticis et schismaticis), no sharing of rituals. This implies that Protestants may not receive communion in a Catholic church, whereas Catholics may not partake in the celebration of the Lord's Supper in a Protestant church.[xxxiii] The abyss has still to be bridged.
Jedin calls the outcome `world historical'. The council "not only did put the seal on the already existing separation of the Churches, it also gave inner ecclesiastical life a new impulse through its reform decrees ... The Popes accepted the decrees and carried them through ... It was decisive that the ruling Pope Pius IV signed the decrees in toto and did what he could to carry them through."[xxxiv] Much was achieved; still more had to be done.
10. The reception of the decrees
On the whole the doctrinal decrees of the council of Trent were well received by the Catholic prelates, clergy and faithful. The confusion was largely dispelled and the frontlines were clearly drawn. There was, however, also opposition. We have seen that there was a party of bishops in Trent during the first sessions, who, without being downright Lutherans, came very close to Luther, especially with regard to his doctrine of grace. Much of the Lutheran viewpoint can be found in the post-tridentine movement that is called `Jansenism'. This movement was so important and influential, especially in France and the Netherlands, that it deserves a separate chapter.
Mansi, J.D., Sacrorum conciliorum collectio. Tomus 33. Paris, 1902 (anastatic reprint of the original edition).
DAVIDSON, N.S., The Counter-Reformation. Series: Historical Association Studies. London, 1987.
JEDIN, Hubert, Geschichte des Konzils von Trient. Band II Die erste Trientiner Tagungsperiode 1546/1547. Band III Bologneser Tagung. Band IV Dritte Tagungsperiode und Abschluß. Freiburg, 1947-1975.
[i].. Jedin, Geschichte des Konzils von Trient I, 177, with the quotation.
[ii].. Jedin, Geschichte des Konzils von Trient I, 189/190.
[iii].. Jedin, Geschichte des Konzils von Trient I, 196.
[iv].. Jedin, Geschichte des Konzils von Trient, I, 206/207.
[v].. Jedin, Geschichte des Konzils von Trient I, 216.
[vi].. Jedin, Geschichte des Konzils von Trient I, 232.
[vii].. Jedin, Geschichte des Konzils von Trient I, 241.
[viii].. Jedin, Geschichte des Konzils von Trient I, 252.
[ix].. Jedin, Geschichte des Konzils von Trient I, 260.
[x].. Jedin, Geschichte des Konzils von Trient I, 263/264.
[xi].. Jedin, Geschichte des Konzils von Trinet I, 271-274.
[xii].. Jedin, Geschichte des Konzils von Trient I, 356.
[xiii].. Jedin, Geschichte des Konzils von Trinet I, 357/358.
[xiv].. Jedin, Geschichte des Konzils von Trient I, 416.
[xv].. Jedin, Geschichte des Konzils von Trient I, 425.
[xvi].. Jedin, Geschichte des Konzils von Trient I, 457.
[xvii].. Jedin, Geschichte des Konzils von Trient I, 458.
[xviii].. Its first two volumes have been translated into English, History of the Council of Trent, London, 1961.
[xix].. Jedin, Geschichte des Konzils von Trient I, 435-444.
[xx].. Quoted by Davidson, Counter-Reformation 9.
[xxi].. See for Duns Scotus Vol. XXI, Ch. V, § 3.
[xxii].. Davidson, Counter-Reformation 9/10.
[xxiii].. Jedin, Geschichte des Konzils von Trient II, 407/408.
[xxiv].. Text of this decree in Mansi 33, 22.
[xxv]..Text of this decree in Mansi 33, 27-29.
[xxvi].. Jedin, Geschichte des Konzils von Trient II, 158-160.
[xxvii].. Text in Mansi 33, 32-39.
[xxviii].. Text in Mansi 33, 4043.
[xxix].. Davidson, Counter-Reformation 11/12.
[xxx].. Text in Mansi 33, 52-55.
[xxxi].. Text in Mansi 33, 80-85.
[xxxii].. Text in Mansi 33, 170-172.
[xxxiii].. In the wake of Vaticanum II this rule has been softened somewhat. Protestants are allowed to receive communion, but only under strict conditions: 1. they must have no opportunity to take part in the celebration of the Lord's Supper in their own church; 2. they must fully accept the Catholic doctrine of Transsubstantiation. Catholics are not allowed to take part in the celebration of the Lord's Supper in a Protestant church.
[xxxiv].. Jedin, Geschichte des Konzils von Trient, Bd.III.2, 251.