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The Council of Trent

Overview of the Council of Trent

The Council of Trent was the most significant Ecumenical Council in hundreds of years and is was critical in helping to organize the Catholic response to the Protestant Revolt. The council made important theological clarifications that helped the Church fend off heresies and criticisms that afflicted it during the modern era.

Some interesting facts about the council are as follows.

  • The need for a council to address the problems in the Church had long been recognized, and only a few months before Luther's revolt, the Fifth Lateran Ecumenical Council (1512-17) completed its work. Unfortunately it had gotten bogged down in politics, and accomplished little.
  • The Protestant crisis made the need for an effective council even more obvious but due to political complications, a new Council was not convened until 30 years after Luther's revolt, and it required 18 years to complete its work.
  • Emperor Charles V wanted to call an Ecumenical council to help put down unrest in his German dominions, but he was at war with the pope for much of his reign, and failed to get papal backing.
  • At first the German Lutheran leaders wanted a council, but after they realized their ideas would not prevail, they began working to sabotage the council through military attacks on the Emperor.
  • Many of the French bishops opposed the council and did not attend until the last session. England was already in schism and also did not send bishops to Trent. Most active bishops and theologians at the Council of Trent were from Spain and Italy.
  • In order to appease the Germans the Pope did not preside over the council in person, but relied on Papal appointed legates and theologians to represent him.
  • The Jesuit order, especially Lainez and Salmeron, played a critical role, not only in formulating the terms of debate and the canons produced by the council, but also in pressing for implementation of the reforms after the council completed its work.

Issues dealt with by the Council

The major issues everyone agreed that an Ecumenical Council must be called to address were:

  1. Condemn doctrines of the Protestants and clarify doctrines of the Catholic Church, and
  2. Reform Clerical discipline and abolish abuses, and
  3. Defend Catholic practices and devotions from Protestant criticism
  4. .

Specifically, the Council dealt with all of the following issues.

  • Protestant vs. Catholic concepts of Justification (Faith alone)
  • The role of scripture vs. tradition as authority (Scripture alone)
  • Status of Deuterocanonical Books banned by Luther
  • Transubstantiation and the nature of the Eucharist
  • Doctrines of Original and Mortal sin
  • Doctrine of Indulgences and Purgatory
  • Practice of Venerating Saints and Relics
  • Considerations regarding Religious Art and Music
  • Abuses of the Catholic Mass
  • Abuses of Clergy and Religious

The Sacraments—In addition to those topics listed above, a great amount of effort was made to define and reaffirm the Sacraments. Most Protestants denied the necessity of all the sacraments except Baptism and the Eucharist, and there was much debate even regarding the validity of infant baptisms, and the real presence of the Eucharist. Therefore, much time was spent on specifying the precise conditions required for the valid reception of sacraments.

The discussion regarding conditions of a valid marriage, for example, was of great importance because the schism with the Church of England was initiated over a divorce. The council obviously condemned divorce, but also had to specify clearly when the canonical conditions under which the Church would recognize a marriage as valid.

Likewise the conditions for a valid ordination, and proper training for priests was discussed along with the disciplines and duties of the clerical office. This was important because much of the Protestant criticism of the Church involved dubious practices, and abuses of the Clergy.

Decrees and Canons—The Council of Trent wrapped up its work and published dozens of decrees and canons in 1563, but left many important matters to the authority of the Pope. The Pope, working with some of the same advisors who had Dozens of Canons and decrees were published to clarify the Church's position on these matters. Several matters were left to the Pope to deal with after the Council.

  • Preparation of a Roman Catechism based on council teachings
  • Promulgation of an authoritative version of the Vulgate (Latin Bible)
  • Standardization of an approved liturgy (The Tridentine Mass), and Promulgation a new Breviary and Missal.
  • Compiling an index librorum prohibitorum, or list of prohibited books.

Issues NOT dealt with by the Council

The Council of Trent dealt only with Lutheran heresies and did not address any of the radical heresies of Calvin. At the time of the Council, Lutheranism was the predominant threat to the Church and the doctrines of Calvin had not yet spread far beyond Geneva. The Church of England was considered to be in schism and there was still some hope of a reconciliation, while and the radical reforms of Calvin were condemned by Anglicans and Lutherans as well as Catholics.

Eventually the radical anti-Catholic doctrines of Calvin emerged as a great threat to the Church as it played a predominant role in the many religious wars that followed, including the French Religious Wars, the Dutch Revolt, the Thirty Years War, and the Civil War in England. The doctrines of the radical reformers were essentially political rather than theological in nature, since they attacked the unity and authority of the Church directly.

Timeline and Conflicts affecting the Council of Trent

The Council of Trent is remembered as one of the most important and productive councils and is credited with helping the Church withstand its critics even during centuries of upheaval. What is often forgotten is the extremely difficult and politicized environment during which it was called.

Although the need for a council was clear it was impossible to get the Pope and Emperor to agree to a meeting for thirty years, and even after a council was called at Trent, it was twice dismissed over a span of 18 years. Numerous European wars raged during this period, and each conflict greatly complicated the task of presiding over a successful council.

The Italian War, fought over a seventy year period, was a Catholic vs. Catholic contest that pitted the Holy Roman Emperor against a number of French-backed Popes. Also known as the Hapsburg-Valois Wars, the conflict created enormous distrust between Catholic powers, and at one point the Emperor's troops sacked Rome and took the Pope prisoner. Because of the Italian Wars, the most French bishops did not attend the council, and the conflict was not resolved until Charles V abdicated and split the Hapsburg empire into two independent empires.

The Schmalkaldic War was an explicitly Catholic vs. Protestant contest. The Protestant princes of Europe formed a military alliance in 1531. The worst battles of the war were fought twenty years later during the Council, with the explicit intent to break up the council and prevent reforms and doctrinal clarifications from strengthening the church.

The Ottoman War in the Balkans was a terrific threat to the Holy Roman Empire, and the French, who opposed Charles V in Italy, were happy to coordinate their efforts with the Ottomans invasion of Hungary. The Battle of Mohacs was a disaster for Hungary and the necessity of opposing Suleiman in the Balkans forced Charles to make peace with the Lutheran princes of Germany on terms unfavorable to the Catholic cause.

This timeline provides an overview of the Council of Trent and some of the political conflicts that delayed or complicated the proceedings. Military actions or conflicts are show in red to underscore the difficult political situation that confronted the Catholic reformers.

1517Luther initiates the Protestant Revolt
1521-26Italian Wars: Francis I and Charles V content for control of Italy.
1525-26German Peasant War—100,000 Peasants killed
1526Battle of Mohacs—Half of Hungary falls to the Ottomans
1527Rome Sacked by troops of Charles V, Pope taken Prisoner
1530 Augsburg Confession—summary of Lutheran beliefs
1531 Lutheran princes form Schmalkaldic League, a military alliance
1534 Act of Supremacy—Henry VIII breaks with Pope
1545 Council of Trent: First Session called by Paul III, addresses Protestant criticism, theology
1548 Council recessed after an epidemic struck, carrying off several cardinals.
1551 Second Session called by Julius III, addresses sacraments, clerical discipline. Led by Jesuits.
1553 Council recessed after Protestant princes attack nearby city.
1555 Peace of Augsburg — Charles V force to compromise with Lutherans
1562 Third Session called by Pius IV, addresses marriage, indulgences, relics, etc.
1563 Council of Trent completes its work, closes its last session.
1565 Great Siege of Malta
1565 Roman Catechism based on Trent is published.
1570 Missal and Breviary of Tridentine Mass published.
1570 Holy League Victory at the Battle of Lepanto.

Important Characters of the Council

Reformation Era Popes

  • Leo X (r. 1513-21) — Medici Pope, allied with the French. Granted "indulgences", issued a bull condemning the errors of Luther, sponsored Raphael and Michelangelo.
  • Clement VII (r. 1523-34) — Another Medici Pope who reigned during a difficult period. At odds with Emperor Charles V, he was imprisoned following the Sack of Rome. He refused to submit to Henry VII's demand for a divorce and ultimately excommunicated him.
  • Paul III (r. 1534-49) — Italian Pope who called for the Council of Trent and recognized the Jesuit order.
  • Pius IV (r. 1559-1565) — Pope who recalled the Council of Trent after a ten year delay and brought it to a successful close, in spite of great difficulties and many conflicts.
  • St. Pius V (r. 1566-1572) — Dominican pope who was responsible for publishing important documents of the Council of Trent, promulgating the Tridentine Mass, Excommunicating Elizabeth, and organizing the Holy League in advance of the Battle of Lepanto.

Other Heroes of Trent

  • St. Peter Faber (1506-46) — Co-founder of the Jesuit order who emphasized reform. Traveled throughout Europe, especially to Germany helping to resolve religious disputes and make way for a council. Died en route to the Council.
  • Diego Lainez (1512-65) — Brilliant Jesuit scholar who served as one of the chief theologians of the Council of Trent. Elected second superior of the Jesuit order after the death of Ignatius.
  • Alfonso Salmeron (1515-85) — Jesuit scholar best known for assisting Lainez at the council of Trent and Ignatius in drafting the constitutions of the Jesuit order.
  • Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) — Italian Jesuit, Theologian, and doctor of the Church. Renowned for his Catechism, extensive writings, and contributions to Catholic education.
  • Charles Borromeo (1538-1584) — Cardinal-nephew of Pope Pius IV and bishop of Milan renowned for his effective reforms who played an important role in implementing decrees of the Council of Trent.

The following excerpt is from 'Leading Events of Church History: Early Modernd Period'. It provides an overview of the early movement for Catholic Reform

The General Council of Trent

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.

First Session of the Council of Trent called by Paul III

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.

Second Session called by Julius III in 1552

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).

Third Session called by Pius IV in 1562

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.