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History of the Church: Early Modern Times - Notre Dame

The General Council of Trent

Trent in Tyrol

It will be remembered that in 1522–23, at the Diet of Nuremberg, the papal legate, in the name of his Holiness Adrian VI., had proposed that a General Council should be held on German soil. Though the proposition was met with a demand for redress of grievances, the authority of the Church and the Holy See was fully recognized. The Convocation was fixed for the following year. But the social war had broken out; the Orders of the German Empire were at strife; hostility was strong between France and the Empire. The Protestant party repeatedly appealed to a General Council against decisions which trammelled their action; but their object appears to have been either to gain time or to harass the Catholic party in Germany, whose relations with the Holy See, through the conduct of Charles V., were at this time exceedingly strained. At Rome there was also some hesitation as to holding the Council in the domains of a sovereign who seemed disposed to carry things with a high hand, and time after time the project was adjourned. The Council was actually convened for 1537, and Mantua was the place named for meeting. But Francis I. declared against it, and gave his support to the Smalkald League, which also opposed the project, and attempted to convene a counter-council. Dissensions amongst the Protestant divines frustrated the endeavour. At length, in 1544, the Peace of Crespy terminated the long hostilities between Charles V. and Francis I., and Pope Paul III. immediately profited by the tranquillity thus granted to Europe to call the much-desired Council. He assigned Trent, on the frontiers of the Austrian Tyrol, as the meeting-place, and May of the next year as the date.

This time the effort was successful. The Fathers were at their post by December 13, and the great work was taken in hand. They must have needed superhuman courage to face the problems that lay before them. There were the sad records of twenty-five years of the unbridled licence of Protestantism, with its consequent perversion of the doctrines of faith, together with the disciplinary abuses which had existed in the Church itself previous to that time—a prospect that would have appalled any but those who were the guardians of the divine deposit of truth. But, strong in our Lord's promise of abiding help and presence, they manfully set to work to build anew the shattered fabric of discipline, and to promulgate in clearer terms the infallible teaching of the Church.

Practically the most important points to be settled regarded thy relative rights of the popes and the sovereigns, and the popes and the bishops; for the action of ecclesiastics in preceding times had confused the sphere of the spiritual and temporal authorities, and men were uncertain whether papal authority was of Divine or of human right. Again the question had been raised: Was the Pope above or subject to Canon Law? Also the duties of bishops to their dioceses, and of priests to their parishioners, and the reform of religious Orders had to be settled and enforced. In the domain of doctrine the field to be covered was a no less vast one, as it embraced every tenet attacked or repudiated by the new sectaries. In short, the principal points were—Sin, Justification, Grace and Free-will, Prayer and the Seven Sacraments, the Holy Sacrifice, Indulgences, Purgatory, and Prayers for the Dead.

As usual, the earliest sessions of the Council were devoted to settling the method of procedure, and it was determined that questions of doctrine and discipline should go hand in hand, the same matter being treated from the double point of view. The mornings were to be set apart for seeking out the sources of the evils complained of, and for finding suitable remedies; the evenings were to be devoted to the explanation and definition of the Church's teaching, and to meeting the objections of her opponents. One cannot fail to be struck with the very important services rendered to the Council by the papal theologians, Salmeron and Laynez, members of the newly-founded Society of Jesus. To the former was given the task of formulating the topic to be introduced, and to the latter the very momentous duty of sifting all the opinions, reducing the mass of evidence into logical sequence, and of summing up the whole matter under discussion. Later on Laynez was also charged with the stupendous labour of searching out the erroneous statements of heretics on the points in question, and he performed his task to the satisfaction of the Fathers of the Council.

The Council had sat from December 13, 1545, to March 11, 1547, when an epidemic broke out in Trent. Ten sessions, or series of sittings had been held, and the subjects treated of had been those named above, down to the Sacrament of Confirmation exclusively. An interruption at a time when such an important work was proceeding so smoothly seemed to all most inopportune. The majority of Fathers therefore decided, with the approbation of the President, to adjourn to Bologna. But the Spanish and German prelates, instigated probably by Charles V., their sovereign, refused to go, as they would no longer be on imperial territory. The War of Smalkald had broken out between the Protestants and the emperor, who was again on unfriendly terms with the Pope.

The Bologna assembly, therefore, had no general sessions, but smaller assemblies or committees met, in which the question on Penance was completed, and that on the Holy Eucharist prepared. While the Fathers still sat at Bologna, Pope Paul III. died, and the Council was prorogued. After the election of Pope Julius III. the Council entered on its second period at Trent.

In September, 1551, the Fathers again assembled. Six more sessions were held, during which the great question of the Blessed Eucharist was treated. Early in 1552 the Protestants asked to be received, and work was suspended awaiting the arrival of their deputies. Several German towns and the States of Wittenberg and Saxony sent representatives, but none of their theologians appeared. At this juncture Maurice of Saxony, now in open hostility to the emperor, rapidly swept across the intervening provinces, seizing towns by the way. The emperor narrowly escaped, but the victorious general sat down at Innsbruck in perilous proximity to Trent. The bishops were dispersed, and Julius III. suspended the Council (1552).

Eleven years passed. Marcellus II. had succeeded Julius III. Neither this Pope nor the next in order—Pope Paul IV —recalled the Council. It was not till the end of his reign that Pius IV. again summoned the Fathers. Events fraught with immense importance to the Catholic world had been taking place, and when, in 1562, the Pope reassembled the Council at Trent, the Fathers met under far different auspices from those which had greeted the first assembly. Time had smoothed away many of the difficulties surrounding the earlier sessions. Several of the prelates, who might from personal motives have shown some opposition to measures of reform, were dead. A spirit of deep religious earnestness pervaded the new assembly; in spite of religious and political troubles, a notable amelioration in the state of Christendom was making itself felt, and experience had shown the Fathers the way of acting that would win without wounding. The remaining work of the Council was carried through rapidly, but thoroughly. The topics of the Holy Sacrifice, of Holy Orders, of Matrimony, of Purgatory, and Prayers for the Dead were treated. Then came the questions relative to the authority of popes and bishops, and that of the reform of the clergy. On the first point, contrary to the desires of the Sorbonne, it was declared that the Pope is above a General Council. The decrees promulgated on the latter point did little more than solemnly approve the system already working such marvels under the direction of the great men to be hereafter noticed.

The sessions closed on December 4, 1563. It was a momentous occasion, and the Fathers of the Council felt all its import. The highest authority on earth had traced out the paths to be trodden, the doctrines of the faith had never before been so ably defended or so clearly defined, and never had it been more evident that the Spirit of God was at work in His Church. They who had been the Fathers of the Council, cardinals, bishops, heads of religious Orders, dispersed to carry far and wide the decrees of the great assembly, and to strive by every means in their power to put them into practice. The finishing touch was given to the labours of the Council when the Catechism of Trent was published three years later.