The Council of Trent at 450


Council of Trent, Pasquale Cati, 1588

by John O’Malley

Most people have heard of the Council of Trent, and probably most of what they have heard is negative. It was a church council convoked to condemn the Reformation. It initiated a repressive epoch in Catholic countries and opposed everything good in the burgeoning “modern world.” It launched the dreaded Counter-Reformation.

Beyond such clichés, few can venture. Like most clichés, these are badly misleading.

The time seemed to me ripe for a re-assessment. In 2001 the final volume appeared of the critical edition of the documents pertinent to the council — records of the debates, correspondence, diaries, etc.,— thirteen large volumes. The wealth of scholarship on Trent produced especially in the past fifty years has corrected a lot of misunderstandings. And this year we have an important anniversary, the 450th anniversary of the council’s close in 1563.

These and other considerations moved me to write my book about one of the most important events in the modern history of the West. Besides its obvious religious import, the Council of Trent had a notable impact on politics and culture. The decree of the council on sacred images, for instance, validated and promoted their use in an age when in France, Scotland, parts of England and Switzerland iconoclasm had broken out, often with devastating effects. The decree was a symbol and promoter of cultural appreciations, persistent to this day, that are different from those in places where images were banned or destroyed.

Given the difficulties the council faced, it seems almost a miracle it accomplished anything at all. The council lurched from major crisis to major crisis. War, the threat of war, the plague and political rivalries on a grand scale time and again threw obstacles in the council’s path. Bishops themselves were so skeptical of it that, out of an episcopate of possibly as many as 700, only twenty-nine showed up for the solemn opening on December 13, 1545. In April 1547, the council experienced its own schism when some bishops moved to Bologna and others in protest remained in Trent. After two and half years of stalemate, with the council unable to publish a single decree, Pope Paul III had no alternative but to suspend it.

When the next pope, Julius III, convened it again in 1551, a meager fifteen bishops appeared for the opening day. The French kings — Francis I and Henry II — and the queen regent, Catherine de’Medici, boycotted the council until its last year. Bishops from Germany appeared only briefly and in small numbers. Virtually nobody came from Eastern Europe. During its final period, 1562-1563, the numbers swelled at one point to well over 250, but the vast, vast majority were from Italy, followed at a great distance by Spain.

All this may make for exciting reading, but in me it inspired new appreciation for the accomplishments of the council and compassion in judging its limitations and failures. While it is certainly true, for instance, that the theologians and bishops at the council were heavily prejudiced against Luther and his followers, they tried their best to be fair. They realized, moreover, that at the insistence of Emperor Charles V the council had been convoked in large part to try to effect reconciliation with the Reformers. In late 1551 and early 1552 a few Lutherans in fact made it to the council and were allowed to present their case. The experiment foundered. If the council was unable to achieve reconciliation, the failure was due in large measure to factors beyond its control. The hour was too late.

Trent was anything but a sacristy affair. The great rulers had a great stake in its outcome. Kings Francis I and Henry II of France were pitted against Emperor Charles V, and both sides tried to use the council to their own advantage. The role these and other secular rulers played at Trent was not, however, always selfishly motivated. Charles V in particular was sincerely concerned with reform of the church, and it was principally due to his insistence that the council dealt not only with the teachings of the Reformers but dealt as well with the burning issue of church reform.

Through their official envoys to the council, some of whom were clerics, some laymen, these rulers had a powerful institution to make their concerns known and heard. The envoys had seats of honor at every council session, heard the discussions, and acted as focal points for the bishops from their rulers’ domains. They had privileged access to the papal legates who presided over the council, and they did not hesitate to confront them. On occasion even those who were laymen addressed the council. They minced no words about what they thought the council should be about.

In my opinion they were, by and large, a force for good at the council. Moreover, they acted as a voice for the laity. Of course, this was laity at the highest social and political level, but laity nonetheless. At Vatican Council II in the middle of the last century a supposedly great break-through was allowing several laymen to address the bishops, but this break-through was little more than a token. At the Council of Trent, as at every council up to that point, the laity had a real voice. At Trent that voice urged reform.

Many bishops at Trent eagerly heard this voice, and they directed their efforts in that regard to reforming themselves. That is, they wanted to make bishops do their jobs — to preach, to educate their clergy, to live honest lives, and above all, to reside in their dioceses. Although in the sixteenth century many bishops were devout and took their responsibilities seriously, a deplorable number simply collected the money the bishopric offered them and hired a vicar to do the work.

The reformers at Trent bent their most determined efforts at eliminating this abuse. The pursuit of this goal brought the council into its most serious crisis with the papacy. Papal dispensations from church law requiring bishops to reside were the loophole the reformers believed they had to close. But to touch that loophole was to touch upon “the authority of the Holy See,” and the Holy See reacted accordingly.

As both sides jockeyed for victory, the confrontation paralyzed the council for ten long months between late 1562 and the summer of 1563. During that time the council, once again, could not publish a single decree. Although the crisis would finally be resolved only by a shaky compromise, the council’s ideal of resident bishops who performed their traditional duties slowly took hold after the council and bit by bit became the reality that we take for granted today.

The final decrees of the council breathe not a word about this tension between pope and council, which in fact bedeviled Trent in one form or another almost from its first moment. If there ever was an issue-under-the-issues, it was this tortured relationship — a little known feature of the Council of Trent. The issue, unresolved, returned, of course in different form, at Vatican Council II during the last century.

Misunderstandings persist about a number of specific issues that arose during the council. Despite what is often said, for instance, Trent did not insist that the mass always be celebrated in Latin. It, rather, left the door open for both Latin and the vernacular. Surprising from our perspective today, the council spent little time on this issue. The possibility of vernacular liturgy sparked no controversy. The bishops seemed to agree with one of their colleagues, who reminded them that in the church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem liturgies were celebrated, as he said, “in every language under the sun.”

For the council, therefore, vernacular liturgy was not a problem. Long before the council ended, however, the Latin liturgy had become such a sign of Catholic identity vis-à-vis the Protestants, that the council’s openness on the matter never had a chance to become operative. Even so, in 1615 Pope Paul V gave approval to the Jesuits in China for the preparation of a Chinese missal to be used by future Chinese priests.

It is also commonly thought that the council reaffirmed the law of priestly celibacy in the face of Luther’s declaration that celibacy was unwarranted by the Bible and an instance of papal tyranny over consciences. When the council took up the sacraments of matrimony and holy orders, this issue inevitably arose. Responsible for explicitly raising it, however, were the Duke of Bavaria and of Emperor Ferdinand I, Charles V’s brother and successor. When the envoy of the former addressed the council, he painted a dark picture of the situation in Bavaria. Out of a hundred priests, he maintained, only three or four were not secretly married or keeping concubines.

Both he and the envoys of the Emperor pleaded for permission for the clergy to marry at least in their domains. Strange to say, these interventions engendered only sparse discussion on the council floor. For better or worse, celibacy lacked urgency for bishops of Italy and Spain, who made up the vast majority. The same was true for the theologians. When they presented their views to the bishops on matrimony, only in a few instances did they examine this question.

In the final document on matrimony, the council condemned the view that marriage was a holier state than virginity. But celibacy itself it neither commended nor condemned. In effect, the council decided not to decide, which meant that after the council the matter landed on the desk of Pope Pius IV. The Duke and the Emperor continued their quest with him. In the few months of life that he had left, Pius procrastinated. But when his successor, Pius V, let it be known immediately upon his election that he was determined to grant no concession or to admit any change, the issue died.

On another issue related to matrimony, the council after protracted debate issued a decree that for the first time required a priest-witness for the validity of a marriage entered into by Catholics. This was the only decree of the council that had immediate and direct impact on the laity. Was it a typical power-grab by the church, as it is sometimes portrayed, and an instance of Trent’s unwarranted disciplining of the laity?

Everyone at Trent — and, indeed, all Christian theologians, Protestant and Catholic alike — agreed that the essence of marriage was the exchange of vows between the two partners. Why, then, did Trent think it necessary to issue a decree that imposed this added condition? It did so to try to solve the long-standing problem of “clandestine marriages,” that is, marriages in which the couple exchanged vows without a single witness present. The problem was that after a few years or a few babies one of the partners, usually the man, could deny that a marriage had ever taken place and could move on to take a new spouse. Trent’s decree was meant to protect the innocent spouse so that the other could not without further ado abandon the marriage.

At this point I have run out of the space this magazine allows me, but of course much, much more could be said about a council that had such an important and multifaceted impact on the modern West. But perhaps, with this brief introduction, your appetite, dear reader, has been whetted to know more. In any case, what study makes ever clearer is that some of the problems the Council of Trent tried to deal with, or decided not to deal with, have not gone away either for the Catholic church or for society at large.

About the Author:

John O’Malley is Professor of Theology at Georgetown University. His specialty is the religious culture of early modern Europe, especially Italy. He has received best-book prizes from the American Historical Association, the American Philosophical Society, the Sixteenth Century Studies Conference, and from the Alpha Sigma Nu fraternity. His best known books are The First Jesuits (Harvard University Press, 1993), which has been translated into ten languages, and What Happened at Vatican II (Harvard, 2008). He has edited or co-edited a number of volumes, including three in the Collected Works of Erasmus series, University of Toronto Press. Of special significance is The Jesuits and the Arts, (Saint Joseph’s University Press, 2005), co-edited with Gauvin Alexander Bailey. His most recent publication is Trent: What Happened at the Council.