The Tridentine Masterpiece

 “Nam oportet et hæreses esse.” (1 Cor 11:19).  “It is fitting that there be heresies, so that those who are true, may be manifested among you.” 

How appropriate is this sentiment of St. Paul’s when we apply it to the Ecumenical Council of Trent.

In the annals of difficult ecclesiastical births, none was so trying as the effort to marshal a council following the dawn of the Protestant Reformation.  Even when it met it was plagued by intermittent attendance, sickness, military threats, and political machinations.  Yet 450 years ago, on 4 December 1563, after sporadic meetings lasting over eighteen years, the Council of Trent closed its deliberations and forwarded its decisions to Rome for Papal approval.  What it accomplished during those eighteen is staggering.  If all the other 20 ecumenical synods were put together, they would not equal the dogmatic output of the Tridentine Council.  In terms of Church doctrine, no Council has had a wider effect.

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The implications of this go much further however.  Trent did not even begin to meet until twenty-five years had elapsed since Martin Luther’s excommunication.  For reasons that included politics, geography, fear of conciliarism, and lack of papal leadership, the Council was severely delayed.  During that time large sections of the Church were ripped away: Germany, Poland, the Low Countries, Switzerland, Britain, and Scandinavia.  By the time the Fathers of Trent assembled, those areas were gone, though a few would later be patiently recovered for the Church.

With that said however, this generational delay allowed the Church time to collect her thoughts.  The great theologians of the Mendicant orders (and the young Jesuits) began to focus their efforts to create a comprehensive answer to the Protestant challenge.  The Council would be no knee jerk reaction, nor a mere repeat of the ineffectual Lateran V.  The theologians and bishops came to Trent with a thorough understanding of the theological issues at stake, a firm grasp of Protestant claims, and a sober realization of the seriousness of the task which lay before them.  In a certain sense, the delay of Trent was a providential blessing.

Council_of_Trent_by_Pasquale_Cati 1588While the postponement of the Council was keenly felt throughout Christendom, and though the sessions were at times tense, the outcome was astonishing.  There exists no area of Catholic life that the Council did not address, refine, or reform.  Dogmatically, things which were assumed for over a millennium were defined for the first time (or reaffirmed definitively and solemnly).  The canon of scripture—including the Deuterocanonicals—was proclaimed, along with the septenary number of the sacraments.  Apostolic Traditions were held to be received with equal reverence to the scriptures.  Of course all of these had been accepted immemorially, but Trent re-established them as cornerstones of the Catholic faith.

Of course the Council was eager to address the particular claims of the Lutheran and Reformed movements, but in reality it went much deeper than that.  Instead of merely anathematizing heretical tenets, the Fathers of Trent took the occasion to root their answers in a wholesale reaffirmation of lived, hierarchical, traditional, liturgical, and mystical Christianity.   Nor was the Council needlessly divisive; in clarifying the faith they had no desire further to alienate those outside the fold.  For example, the first decrees it issued were condemnations of Pelagianism, the same heresy Luther himself attacked as latent in late medieval scholasticism.  The Council reasserted the Augustinian position that first grace is absolutely unmeritable by us.  Following that however the Fathers took up a wholesale defense of the intrinsic nature of Justification, that we are really made new creations in Christ, grafted into him and regenerated and, with our graced wills now freely able to do good, merit a real claim to eternal life.  The Tridentine documents on Original Sin and Justification are some of the most theologically sophisticated works ever to be produced by an Ecumenical Council.

Following upon these pivotal decrees the Council turned its attention to the ordinary means of justification and sanctification: the sacraments.  Their grace-conferring characters were confirmed.  Transubstantiation received a substantial defense while the sacrificial nature of the Mass was firmly established.  The Council confirmed the value of celibacy and tightened Church law regarding Marriage.

This is only a sampling of the dozens and dozens of dogmatic decisions reached by the Council, but it is well to draw attention to the manner in which these decisions were framed.  In the first place the Council truly wished to cast these ideas in such a way that Protestants—suspicious of scholastic subtleties—would be able to appreciate.  One of the striking achievements of Trent was that the Council managed to communicate the substance of the medieval Christian tradition without the cumbrous scaffolding of scholastic terminology.  Rather the documents of the Council are filled with the language of the Bible and of the Fathers.  This is an underappreciated aspect of the Council which anticipates the genuine desire for mutual ecumenical understanding, while at the same time taking seriously the Church’s duty to safeguard the deposit of faith.

Trent should also not be seen as an authoritarian Council, intended to reduce Catholic intellectual life to mere rote obedience.  There were many theological traditions represented at Trent: Thomists, Scotists, Augustinians, devotees of the via moderna of Ockham, and even some inclined to the more extrinsic, imputational theories of the Protestants.  The Fathers in their decisions retained Catholic dogma, while permitting a wide latitude of interpretation about that dogma within the various theological schools of Christendom.  Far from silencing theology, Trent merely set the boundaries of the “garden,” within which the thinkers of the Church were free to meet and explore the depths of revelation.

Equally significant were the decrees of Reform that the Council accomplished.  What the Tridentine Fathers brought about was no mere “Counter-Reformation” as it has sometimes been derisively called.  Trent was no reflexive reactionary gathering attempting to circle the wagons.  Rather Trent was the culmination of a period of “Catholic Reform” which had its roots long before Luther, and could be seen in the rise of observant Religious orders, in the purified Church in Spain, and in the great humanistic and artistic achievements of the Renaissance.  Trent set its seal of approval on all of these movements, consolidated them, and gave them an impetus which was to last for hundreds of years.

Indeed it was only after the conclusion of the Council in 1563 that we begin to discern its epoch-making effects.  A congregation was set up for the implementation of Conciliar decrees (today the Congregation for the Clergy).  Under its supervision seminaries were created for the first time, leading to the professionalization of the clergy, instructing them in theology, philosophy, Latin, and canon law, and equipping them to keep their congregations Catholic and to begin to win back those fallen away.  Great reforming bishops like Charles Borromeo and Francis de Sales, fired by the Council’s mandate, reformed their dioceses from top to bottom, providing models of episcopal leadership that would endure well into the modern world.  The incomparable Roman Catechism was written for parish priests, to help them instruct the laity and catechize them in a systematic way for the first time in history, with the aim of beginning the theological education of the lay members of the Church.  The artistic, musical, and mystical traditions of the Church were reaffirmed and given new life and new forms.  The insights of humanism aided in the revision of Jerome’s Vulgate bible, and St. Pius V undertook the great streamlining of the Latin liturgy and Divine Office.  While partisans of medieval liturgical pluralism might blanch a bit at the homogenization of the Roman liturgy, one cannot deny the tremendous success of the Missal of Pius V, particularly in the mission territories.

The Council of Trent did indeed stanch the bleeding.  Northern Europe was gone, however the spirit which the assembly breathed into the Church stopped the spread of Protestantism, and indeed helped whole territories to be won back to the Church, such as Poland and southwest Germany.  More importantly it equipped the Church for worldwide expansion.  For every Protestant lost, 10 souls were gained—in Asia, in Africa, in the Americas.  Trent was a missionary revolution, producing a streamlined, purified Church, free of the corrupting accretions of the late medieval period.  It was also that rarest of things in Church history: a Council of Concord.  We are used to the fruits of a Council being disorder and chaos, and Church history supports our present experience—one need only look to the confusion following Nicea and Ephesus, or the conciliarist councils of the fifteenth century.  Trent was different.  Its spirit inspired a whole age of the Church, lasting hundreds of years.  Nominalist historians have derisively called it the “invention of the Roman Catholicism,” as if Trent fundamentally altered the faith.  In spite of their inaccuracy they identify a central point.  Trent stamped its ineffaceable image upon Catholicism, but it was successful not because it innovated, but rather was able to present that faith “once for all delivered to the saints” in ways that were perfectly suited to its place in history.  Even though responding to new challenges and situations, Catholicism will indeed be “Tridentine” forever.

Editor’s note: The image above depicting the Council of Trent was painted by Pasquale Cati in 1588.


  • Donald S. Prudlo

    Donald S. Prudlo is Chair and Warren Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa. His specialty is saints and sainthood in the Christian tradition, and he is the author of The Martyred Inquisitor: The Life and Cult of Peter of Verona (Ashgate, 2008) and has recently edited The Origin, Development, and Refinement of Medieval Religious Mendicancies (Brill, 2011).

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