“How far were the aims and achievements of the Council of Trent influenced by the Protestant Reformation?”
Most certainly, there is no doubt that the Protestant Reformation had impacted upon the Council of Trent and its subsequent decisions. The Catholic Church’s continual corruption had to be stopped, in order for revival to be achieved, and the Popes would have to lead the example in order to achieve this. When the Council of Trent was finally called it served as a catalyst for further reform, as it was generally believed at the time that a general council of the church would save her as an institution. The Council of Trent was part of The Roman Catholic Church’s response to the Protestant Reformation. It served as an ecumenical council of the Catholic Church, it clarified Catholic doctrine and promulgated reforms: fixing the number of sacraments, issuing decrees on clerical morals and ordering the establishment of seminaries. In addition, the Council of Trent, (1545-63), led a doctrinal attack on Lutheranism and clarified Catholic orthodoxy. It helped to establish new reforming religious orders, especially the Jesuits, for missionary work, and the Inquisition was received to root out heresy. Furthermore Catholic monarchs, such as Charles v and Philip II of Spain, campaigned against Protestant states, taking direct action to quash them. At the heart of the issues discussed by the General Council in 1545, were its aims to remove clerical abuses and define the Catholic doctrine.
Luther demanded in1520 the calling of a general Church Council in order to reassess the methods in which the Church taught how salvation was gained. Luther wanted the Catholic Church to accept his reading of St Paul, otherwise known as ‘justification by faith and faith alone’. Even Charles V the Emperor had hoped for a general Council to be called in order to deal with the Protestant and Lutheran issues once and for all. Pope Paul III in 1536 became convinced that only a general council of the Church would rescue the organisation. At the time it was widely held that Germany would become completely Protestant and Henry VIII had already made the break with Rome. Protestant ideas seemed to be spreading to the Northern Italian towns too. This served as a motive for the Catholic Church to make its priority for the key aims of the Council of Trent to focus and distinguish between Protestant and Catholic beliefs. For instance, the teaching on transubstantiation was reinforced, as was, the importance of priests, belief in purgatory and the central importance of the papacy.
The single most important agency in the renewal of Catholicism in the sixteenth century was the general council held at Trent. Trent’s work was particularly important in the clarification of Catholic belief, codifying it in clear and authoritative statements that put clear water between the Catholic and the Protestant Churches. And it would be easy to believe that this work of definition was carried out in a defiant spirit of Counter-reformation and of establishing as Catholic, what was not Protestant. For instance the primary Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, laid down that there were only two sacraments-rites conferring the holiness of divine grace on the believer-baptism and the Eucharist, the only pair, he claimed, that were validated in the Gospels of the New Testament. The Council of Trent, in contrast, ruled that there were seven sacraments ranging from baptism at the beginning of life to a final anointing at its end. In actual fact was Trent aiming to counter the Protestants? It could be suggested that it was not. As the decisions under taken at the Council of Trent were made in such areas, shaped, even pre-determined, by decisions of a series of late medieval councils commencing at Constance in 1414 and concluding at the Lateran in Rome in 1512, or perhaps even at Trent himself, being considered as the last of the medieval councils. It was the general council at Florence in 1538 that had determined that there were ‘seven sacraments of New Law’ and it was Trent that simply reaffirmed what had already been pronounced.
By 1545 the dangers of not calling a Council seemed even greater, for the two great Catholic powers were no longer at war and King Francis I, had pledge himself to further the Emperor’s plan for a Council. As previously politics had conspired to prevent the Council meeting. As the French King Francis I was less keen on a general council because he wanted the Protestants to continue to make life difficult for Charles V. Pope Paul III did not aim to achieve reconciliation with the Protestants. The controversies and disputation of the reformation had made it clear that there was insufficient certainly on too many debatable points. A General Council could only deal with dogmatic definitions, on the scale necessary for reform. By 1540 it had become clear the sympathy for the Reformation was growing south of the Alps. The Church was fearful of schism in Italian cities like Naples, Milan and Venice. It was therefore essential to provide an authoritative statement on justification and other matters where Protestants had departed from Catholic orthodoxy.
The Catholic Church took the instrumental decision of adopting a militant role, because so much of Europe had been lost to the reformers. On of the central reasons was Luther’s criticism of the Church because of its deeply rooted corruption and abuses over Indulgences. The Church addressed these issues head–on, in the form of: Setting up seminaries in all of the churches diocese, therefore setting high standards of behaviour for the clergy. The Bishops as a result had to remain within their diocese and oversee all that went on. In addition pluralism was stamped out, along with the reasserting of doctrine, providing clarity of thought and action. The Council of Trent set an agenda, in which priests and bishops could clearly work towards. As at the beginning of the sixteenth century reform was haphazard and chaotic, being solely driven by individuals. This had been in reaction to Protestant reformers condemning corruption in the Church; they had been challenging orthodox, beliefs and the denounced papal supremacy over the church. The Council of Trent was therefore bound to be influenced by Protestantism, not lease because delegates were aware of its appeal and explicit threat to the survival of Catholic churches in Europe.
The papacy had an alternative reason for calling for the Council of Trent, which was proving to the civilised world that the papacy had changed its attitude and now were motivated towards reform. One of the main concerns for the papacy was the challenge to its authority over the church. As a result the papacy was anxious to assert its supremacy over the church and it did through calling the council. The Council of Trent was the brainchild of the papacy. It was about reasserting papal authority and providing clear and definitive leadership. The Catholic Churches response to the Protestant threat needed to be coordinated. Trent needed to be put into and required the backing of successive Popes. There had been as sense of urgency, as Protestantism had been spreading south beyond the Alps, it was an all or nothing attitude. There was some willingness at first to reach a compromise, although Lutheran delegates the second session, the Catholic majority rejected any compromise with the Protestants; thus many of the Tridentine decrees reflected traditional beliefs and practices. Trent as a result reaffirmed traditional Catholic belief and practices.
Continue to Part 2
Continue to Part 2