With much attention given this year to the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council — a historic moment for both Catholic doctrine and the reform of the life of the Church — it would be unfortunate if the anniversary of yet another great council of doctrine and reform were completely ignored. This month marks the 450th anniversary of the conclusion of the Council of Trent on Dec. 4, 1563.
Response to Reformation
The council had opened 18 years earlier, in response to the difficulties the Church faced in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. That movement had begun in 1517, when the monk and professor Martin Luther had posted his “95 theses” on indulgences on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, a customary university practice that invited the disputation of other scholars. Eventually, Luther would reject a wide array of Church teaching and practice, including the papacy, most of the sacraments and clerical celibacy.
After years of delay by several popes, Pope Paul III called a general council of the Church to meet in Trent, a small city of northern Italy. It convened in three periods, each separated by several years: 1545-47, 1551-52, and 1562-63.
Though there were about 700 bishops at the time, the first two of these periods were attended by only a couple dozen of them, almost all Italian. The third period was attended by nearly 200. None of the three popes who reigned during these times attended any of the council, though they did follow its affairs closely and exert their influence often. (One bishop in attendance joked that at the previous church councils, the Holy Spirit descended upon the bishops from heaven, but at Trent he arrived in the mailbag from Rome.)
Luther’s revolution fundamentally posed two challenges to the Church. First, he insisted that salvation was available to people by “faith alone” (without good works of any kind) and that the teaching of Christ was found in “Scripture alone” (rejecting Church Tradition). Second, he demanded the reform of the Church, especially the lives and ministry of its pastors and bishops. Trent responded to both of these challenges.
In terms of doctrine, Trent taught that justification came through human cooperation with God’s grace, often expressed in good works, not simply through passive reception of grace. It insisted that God’s revelation comes through both Scripture and “unwritten traditions.” It affirmed that the “deutero-canonical” books of the Bible (including Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, and 1 and 2 Maccabees), which Luther had rejected as not being divinely inspired, were an authentic part of sacred Scripture.
Trent also offered considerable teaching on the sacraments. It affirmed that there are seven, the Eucharist foremost among them. It taught that the Eucharist is sacrificial in nature and that Jesus is “really, truly, substantially present” in the consecrated bread and wine.
Trent also called for the reform of the Church, in particular its clergy. This implicitly affirmed Luther’s complaints, of course. Indeed, calls for such reform had been common in the Church long before Luther made them, and there was no doubt they were necessary. Several popes through the preceding decades each had several illegitimate children, some conceived during their pontificates. They sold church offices to the highest bidders. In many places it was uncommon for bishops to set foot in their dioceses or priests in their parishes, and many bishops held authority over several dioceses at the same time.
Trent called for bishops and pastors to reside and minister within the territories entrusted to their care. It reaffirmed priestly celibacy, made preaching a central aspect of priestly ministry, and established seminaries for the education and formation of clergy.
All said, the Council of Trent marked a historic turning point in the history of the Catholic Church and a decisive response to the Reformation.
Barry Hudock is the author of “Faith Meets World: The Gift and Challenge of Catholic Social Teaching” (Liguori, $16.99).