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The Council of Trent


THE COUNCIL OF TRENT (1545 – 1563)


Note the prominence of the Holy See in view of the non-universality of the council.

-no representatives from the Russian or Ethiopian or

Protestant churches.

-the appeal to the pope in rendering the council’s decrees

operative effectively ended conciliarism.


-papal authority was needed to (i) curb the divisive

tendencies of nationalism

(ii) condemn (erroneous)

Prot. doctrine and reassert Catholic orthodoxy.


– Christian humanists had been the first to recognize the need for thoroughgoing reform in the church.  (the papal court denied any such need until the sack of Rome in 1527)

– following this acknowledgement why wasn’t a council called immediately?



Reasons for the delay:


1] the jealousies of rival European sovereigns.

2] each sov. would promise support only if the pope recognized that sovereign’s political claim.

3] the long-standing dispute between the emperor (of the Holy Roman Empire) and the king of France over Milan.

4] the council could be called only during a time of peace.

5] the emperor needed the Lutherans in his fight against the Turks; he didn’t want to incite hostility among the Lutherans; the emperor wanted to settle religious differences with the Lutherans himself.

6] a strong pope was needed to overcome the resistance of the Roman bureaucracy.

7] previous councils had been a moral disgrace. (E.g., the Council of Constance, 1414-1418)

8] the pope saw the council as the sovereigns’ attempt to deprive him of power.

9] Luther had pleaded for a general council; Prots. now insisted on being admitted on equal terms with Catholics; but this would have legitimated the Prot. understanding of the faith.

10] the humanist critique had found the Catholic church without adequate leadership to implement reform; 30-year wait!

11] material difficulties: e.g., old delegates and slow travel.

12] local conditions at Trent.










Pope Clement VII (1525) had attempted to eliminate abuses —

e.g., (i) all unqualified secular clergy (i.e., parish priests) should be forbidden to serve.

(ii) ordination, of itself, does not guarantee spiritual suitability.

(iii) simony and pluralities should end.


– at the same time individual reform movements were springing up; older forms of monastic discipline were enforced.


One such leader of reform was Giberti, bishop of Verona, a humanist.

– visited entire diocese.

-required priests to reside in the parish.

-insisted on conduct befitting a clergyman.

-imprisoned priests who were fornicating.

-attempted to restore vital parish life and dignified worship.

-founded catechism classes for children.

-obtained permission from Pope Clement VII for the renovation of orders in his diocese.

-established orphanages, homes for the poor and wayward women.

-welcomed to his diocese humanists whom the sack of Rome had dispersed.


(In all of this Giberti anticipated much of Trent.)



               ROLE OF POPE PAUL III (elected 1529)


-consolidated Catholic holdings and rallied the people in the wake of the Turks’ enslavement of south Italians.

-recognized that since bishop-delegates needed their sovereign’s permission to attend council, he might as well call it and see who could come.

– resolved to preside over the council himself.

-stipulated that only bishops could vote.

-left the authority of the papal office undisputed (impossible if Prots. had been present.)


                    ROLE OF CARDINAL CONTARINI


-presided at a pre-council board (Giberti, Caraffa, and Pole, an Englishman, were on it too) whose report (1537) was stark: the fact that the church has ceased to be a spiritual society and has become a venal administration is the root of all its abuses. (e.g., the practice of priests — who had taken a vow of celibacy — bequeathing their benefices to their children, as well as the practice of exempting clergy from criminal charges.)





1] Dogmatic decrees: they refute the new heresies and uncompromisingly assert Catholic orthodoxy.


2] Disciplinary decrees: they deal with moral abuses and with the proper exercise of parish ministry.






1] As sinner one cannot bridge the chasm between the sinner and God, but one can “draw nigh” to the chasm; i.e., dispose oneself for justification, through co-operating with the initial help of grace.






2] Justification includes remission of sin and regeneration; (i.e., imputed and imparted righteousness.)






3] Justification is not by faith alone.






4] Assurance arises through special, supernatural illumination (i.e., private revelation.)