The Council of Trent and the Reformation of the Church

Having just recently finished reading The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, translated by Rev. H.J. Schroeder, I wanted to share some of what I learned. First, a brief description is probably necessary, and it’s most efficiently stated from the back cover of the TAN Books edition that I read: “The Council of Trent (1545-1563), spanned the pontificates of five popes and shone as a beacon to all the world, condemning errors of the Protestant Reformation and making pronouncements on a vast number of Church doctrines and disciplines… The Council of Trent is universally regarded as the greatest of the twenty-one Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church.”

Although this centuries-old set of canons and decrees was at times tedious reading to say the least, I gained an invaluable understanding of Catholic theology, and insight into the Church’s zealous guarding of historic doctrine.

One of the first things that struck me as I began reading through the book was the desire for Church unity. Pope Paul III stated in his Bull of the Convocation, “Whilst we deemed it necessary for the integrity of the Christian religion and for the confirmation within us of the hope of heavenly things, that there be one fold and one shepherd [John 10:16] for the Lord’s flock, the unity of the Christian name was well-nigh rent and torn asunder by schisms, dissentions and heresies” (pg. 1). Secondly, as seen in the quote I just used, I saw a constant use of Scriptures to reinforce what was being said. Thirdly, I noted an apparently sincere and humble approach to the solemn task set before the leadership, “…that the purity of the Gospel may be preserved in the Church after the errors have been removed” (pg. 17). Along with the touchingly sincere acknowledgment of the need for God’s guidance and mercy, I was impressed to see two themes running throughout the Council: 1. a sincere desire for reforming the problems within the Church, and 2. a sincere desire to have Protestants attend the council, including guarantees of safe passage and delays of proceedings while awaiting their arrival.

There were reforms needed. In the area of indulgences, the Church was determined to ensure that misuse was dealt with, “…so that all may understand that these heavenly treasures of the Church are administered not for gain but for piety” (pg. 144). Discipline in the Church needed more consistent enforcement. Leadership was to be held to the proper high standards: “It is to be desired that those who assume the episcopal office know what are their duties, and understand that they have been called not for their own convenience, not for riches or luxury, but to labors and cares for the glory of God” (pgs. 235-236). Monasteries were reformed by the council: “Since most monasteries, also abbeys, priories, and provostries, have suffered no little loss both in spiritual and temporal things through the maladministration of those to whom they have been entrusted, the holy council desires to restore them entirely to a discipline becoming the monastic life” (pg.233). This is barely a glimpse of the reformation that happened in the Church through the council of Trent. “The distress of the times and the malice of increasing heresies make it necessary that nothing be left undone which may appear to be for the edification of the faithful and for the defense of the Catholic faith” (pg. 237).

I have long understood the Catholic Church to be tyrannical and corrupt, so I was taken aback to see a completely different picture of Catholic Church leadership. If they were indeed tyrannical and corrupt, with the Protestants being justified in breaking away, then the Council of Trent probably would have appeared more like a pamphlet stating, “We are the bosses of YOU, and you will do what we say without question!” Instead, the Church took great pains to make their case for the preservation of unity and the clarity of doctrine through the use of lengthy explanations and scripture references. At risk of allowing the fires of Protestantism to spread farther in Europe, constant delays to await plague, war, the arrival of needed people and the cooperation of governments were implemented in order to ensure the absolute legitimacy of the council. It took 18 years, and ended 17 years after Martin Luther’s death, but the Council of Trent turned out to be one of the most important events in Church history, and was arguably the true reformation of the Church.

Although the history of the council is indeed fascinating, and it lends a crucial appreciation for the accomplishments that resulted, the primary reason that I decided to read this book was in order to more clearly and fully understand Catholic theology. If I might someday join the Catholic Church, I want to have seen for myself the Catholic doctrines that have so alarmed Protestants over the years. And Protestants have much to be concerned about. Not only does the Catholic Church assume authority in the lives of Christians around the world, but this authority was used very decidedly in the canons and decrees that came out of this council. The word “anathema” to describe the condition of dissenters was used numerous times. In reading the descriptions of the false doctrines that were springing up in the 16th century, I was reminded of teachings I have often heard in Protestant sermons and Bible studies.

One of the most essential subjects discussed at the council was the doctrine of justification in session six, 1547. An understanding of justification/salvation doctrine is essential for Christians, and if someone were to read one section in search of theological understanding I would recommend reading session six. I do more fully recommend reading the writings of the entire council, however, because I think too many Protestants can be reinforced in their anti-Catholic thinking by taking parts that they disagree with at face value and running with them, losing the overall context and intention of the council as a whole.

Along with justification, I learned about baptism, the Eucharist, indulgences, saints and relics, confession and penance, purgatory, etc. Much of the accomplishment of this council was that easily-misunderstood doctrines ended up being better explained, pronounced, and enforced across Christendom soon afterward and in the centuries following. With doctrines being better understood, the risk of misinterpretations of sacred Scripture could be reduced, and therefore the spread of heresies could be lessened in the future, at least among those desiring to remain in the Church.

“Let them read with humility, as becomes a Christian, what we have defined concerning our faith, and if some light should come upon them, let them not turn away the face; if they should hear the voice of the Lord, let them not harden their hearts, and if they should wish to return to the common embrace of mother Church from which they severed themselves, they may rest assured that every indulgence and sympathy will be extended to them.”

-Cardinal Ragazonus in his oration in the last session, 1563 (pg. 268)

-Ben 2/22/14

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3 Comments on “The Council of Trent and the Reformation of the Church”

  1. I didn’t read this, but I’m pretty sure if Frank sees it, you’ve just ruined the name Trent for us.  Thanks.  😛