April 1, 2016

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Renaissance Church: Reforms of the Council of Trent

John F. Fink(Ninth in a series of columns)

As I wrote last week, it was Pope Paul III who finally realized, during the 16th century just how corrupt many leaders in the Church had become and that some (but not all) of Martin Luther’s criticisms were justified. He appointed a commission to study how to reform the Church. Then, based on that commission’s report, he announced that he would convoke an ecumenical council in 1537.

It would be the Council of Trent, the 19th such council in the history of Christianity and the last to be held until Vatican I in 1869. But the pope found lots of opposition to the council, both before it convened and while it was in session. He postponed it once but finally convened it in Trent, Italy, on Dec. 13, 1545. Because of a dispute with Emperor Charles V, the pope then moved it to Bologna.

The Council of Trent lasted for 18 years (1545-1563), but was in session for only a bit more than three years. By the time it was over, 46 years had elapsed since Luther wrote his theses.

Pope Paul died in 1549. His successor, Pope Julius III, was friendly with Emperor Charles, so he reconvened the council in Trent in 1551. Then a war broke out, and the council was recessed. It did not resume for 10 years.

Pope Julius died in 1555, and his successor, Pope Marcellus II, lived only three weeks as pope. His successor, Pope Paul IV, vehemently opposed the council and refused to reconvene it. After his death in 1559, Pope Pius IV revived the council in 1562.

Finally, almost entirely through the efforts of St. Charles Borromeo, Pope Pius IV’s nephew, it finally completed its work in December 1563. Charles, who was also entrusted with the government of the Papal States, organized the third session of the council and personally served as its secretary.

Despite the trouble it had convening, the Council of Trent issued a great number of decrees concerning doctrinal matters opposed by the Protestant reformers. It defined the canon of the Bible, the rule of faith, the nature of justification, grace, faith, original sin and its effects, the seven sacraments, the sacrificial nature of the Mass, the veneration of saints, use of sacred images, belief in purgatory, the doctrine of indulgences, and the jurisdiction of the pope over the whole Church.

It initiated many reforms for renewal in the liturgy and general discipline in the Church, the promotion of religious instruction, the education of the clergy through the formation of seminaries, and much more. Each of the council’s decrees was a response to Martin Luther and other reformers—a very belated response, to be sure.

Besides ending abuses that had crept into the Church over a long period of time, the Council of Trent emphasized the authority of the Church’s ordained ministers. This included the pope’s universal authority over all the faithful, the bishops’ authority of their dioceses and pastors’ authority over their parishes. Relatively little was said about the call to holiness of the laity. †

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