Trent, The Council Of
pope protestants church princes session emperor germany bishops roman religious
TRENT, THE COUNCIL OF, which may be described as the watershed of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, is the most important occurrence in post-mediaeval church history. It is the culminating event in a long series of similar assemblies, convoked to remedy the evils occasioned during and by the great schism of the papacy, and by the dissolution of lay and clerical morals to which the pagan temper of the Renaissance had largely contributed. But the councils of Pisa, Constance, Basel, Ferrara-Florence, and the Lateran had met and parted without attempting to deal effectually with any of the practical scandals and abuses in the church which were sapping the loyalty and affection it had formerly enjoyed; and these repeated failures, by destroying all hope of redress at the hands of the constituted authorities, precipitated the crash of the Reformation, which was in its inception scarcely concerned with doctrinal issues directly, but aimed mainly at faults of administration and morals.
Consequently a largely new problem presented itself for solution, and necessitated a fundamental change in the attitude of those concerned. Hitherto, whatever may have been the fierceness and bitterness of the disputes which the 15th-century councils had attempted to allay, they were, so to speak, family quarrels between members of the same great household, accustomed to the same mode of looking at religious questions, acknowledging the same hierarchy, and accepting the same standards, and thus with a vast body of agreement to go upon as a basis of reconciliation, leaving only comparatively minor details to be adjusted. But the German and Swiss Reformation had generated new communions, novel alike in their polity and much of their theology, and in active revolt, not merely against this or that detail or abuse, but against the Roman Catholic Church in its entirety, hierarchical, doctrinal, and political. The movement had not been confined long to its earlier limits, but had spread over all western Europe, had virtually conquered Holland and Scandinavia, was making great strides in France and England, and was beginning to threaten even Italy and Spain.. Thus, the task was no longer the comparatively simple one of satisfying the demands of friendly remonstrants, but of winning back alienated nations, and, if that were too much to hope for, at least of saving the remnant of the Roman obedience from further disintegration. And for this purpose it was no longer sufficient, as it would have been a few years earlier, to discuss administrative details alone, but a review of the whole theological fabric of Latin Christianity, no part of which had been left wholly unimpeached, became a necessary factor in any possible scheme of reconciliation. True, a precedent had been set in the theological discussions at the council of Ferrara-Florence, with its abortive effort to reunite Oriental and Latin Christendom, but the area and number of differences to be reconciled upon that occasion were incomparably smaller than those which had subsequently arisen, and the situation was thus one of extreme difficulty and delicacy, since there was always the danger of alienating many who had continued loyal so far, if very large concessions were made to the revolted Protestants, not a few of whom, besides, had already passed beyond the possibility of reconciliation. But, on the other hand, Luther had himself appealed to a general council from the bull " Exsurge Domine" launched at him by Leo X. in 1520, and his demand was taken up by the emperor and the princes of Germany, whether Catholics or Protestants, as the only conceivable means of terminating a crisis whose religious and political results might prove far more serious than even the least hopeful ventured to forecast. There was thus steady pressure from one side put upon the Roman curia to obtain the convocation of such a council, while scarcely less resistance to the proposal was offered by two very unlike parties in the Roman Church itself. For not only did those oppose it who were interested in the maintenance of the principal abuses complained of, and who feared that sweeping measures might be taken for their abolition, but some of the ablest champions of internal reforms, such as Cardinals Sadolet, Contarini, and Reginald Pole, were equally hostile to it, for the very different reason that they believed any such council likely to contain a majority determined on making it as abortive as those great synods had been which were fresh in the memory of all. Accordingly, this section gave its voice for the alternative scheme of pro ceeding by way of less formal conferences, at which mutual explanations and concessions might be made by Catholics and Protestants, whereby a modus vivendi could be established, with less chance of the whole effort being wrecked by the intrigues of those who desired nothing less than practical reforms. A fresh difficulty was presented by the opposition of the German princes to the assemblage of the council at Rome or anywhere outside Germany, as they distrusted the probable action of the Italian element, certain to preponderate in that event ; and, as the curia was equally bent on holding it within the sphere of direct papal influence, this dispute made it impracticable to agree even on the preliminaries during the pontificates of Hadrian VI. and Clement VII. The diet of Spires in 1529 renewed the demand for a general council, to be held in some large German city ; and the diet of Augsburg in 1530 summoned the Lutherans to return into Catholic communion at once and unconditionally, leaving their doctrines (formulated in the Confession of Augsburg that very year) to be judged of in a future council, which the emperor Charles V. pledged himself to obtain within a brief space. Clement VII., then pope, was displeased at this initiative on the emperor's part, but offered to convoke a council in some Italian city, such as Mantua or Milan, belonging to the empire, and outside the States of the Church, - expressing his wish that Charles V. should personally attend it. But he hampered this proposal with conditions which made it valueless for the main object of such an assembly, by declaring that no theological questions upon which the church had spoken could be reopened, and that, if Protestants were to be admitted to the council at all, it must be, not as disputants, but as on their trial, and pledged beforehand to submit to the decisions of the council. No result, consequently, followed upon this step, nor was an embassy which Clement sent in 1533 to the German princes and to the kings of France and England with very similar provisions more successful, for it merely drew out a peremptory rejection of the scheme from the Protestants assembled at Schmalkald, by the emperor's desire, for the purpose of discussing it. So the matter rested till the accession of Alexander Farnese to the papal throne as Paul III. in 1534. A much abler man than his predecessor, he was also more alive to the imperative need of at least appearing to approve some measure of reform, if the church was to be saved from impending dangers (indeed, a report on this subject, drawn up at his desire by a committee of cardinals in 1536, is one of the most important, documents of the era), and he was thought to be favourable to the project of a council, whereas there is little doubt that Clement VII. had weighted his acceptance of the plan with impossible conditions, in order to avoid its realization, yet so as to let the responsibility of refusal rest with others than himself. Paul III. sent Vergerio as envoy into Germany, to confer with the emperor and the princes, offering to convoke a council at Mantua, and urging the danger of attempting to hold it in Germany, by reason of the violent lengths to which the Anabaptists were then proceeding. But, while the Catholic princes were content with this offer, it was refused by the Protestants, and the ambassadors of France and England supported them in their attitude. Vergerio, who had also a fruitless interview with Luther, returned to Rome early in 1536, but Paul III. was not discouraged by his failure, and proposed, in a consistory on April 8, to convoke a council at Mantua. This plan was in turn upset, Dot only by the continued resistance of the Protestants, but by the refusal of the duke of Mantua to permit the use of his city for such a purpose, unless upon conditions which the pope was unwilling to accept. Notice was accordingly given of a council to be opened at Vicenza on May 1, 1538, and legates were despatched thither to make the preliminary arrangements, and to preside so soon as the members should assemble. But when the appointed time was only five days off not one bishop had arrived, and the pope was forced to prorogue the council again and again. Meanwhile, the method which Contarini and Sadolet had recommended, that of conferences between the Catholics and Protestants, was being acted on in Germany, and meetings of this nature were convened successively at Haguenau, Worms, and Ratisbon, at the last of which, in 1541, Contarini was present as legate of the pope, and showed so much tact, moderation, and sympathy that he succeeded in securing a large measure of agreement upon the controversies in dispute, notably on the vexed question of Justification. But, as his concessions and explanations were promptly repudiated at Rome, no practical result followed. In 1542 Paul III. sent Morone as his envoy to the diet of Spires to offer Trent as his final concession of the place of assembly, on the ground that its position in Tyrol, and its being part of the dominions of the king of the Romans, ought to meet all the reasonable requirements of the German princes. Ferdinand, king of the Romans, who presided at the diet, was content with this offer, as were the Catholic princes generally, but the Protestants continued to object, and refused any council which should not be completely free from papal influence and authority. However, the pope issued, on May 22, 1542, a bull appointing the meeting of the council for November 1 following. He sent three legates to Trent to make preparations, - Morone, Parisio, and Reginald Pole; but they did not reach the city till three weeks later than the appointed date for opening the council, and so few bishops arrived during seven months from that time that it was necessary to prorogue the assembly. In fact, the idea of the council was distasteful to a very large proportion of the Latin clergy, especially such as apprehended danger to their private interests from the reforming plans of the pope, and also such as were alarmed lest serious religious innovations might be made in order to conciliate the Protestants. While this delay continued, another diet at Spires in 1544 resulted in great advantages to the Lutherans, who availed themselves of the political straits of Charles V. to extort several important concessions from him. The obnoxious edicts passed against them at Worms and Augsburg were rescinded ; they were permitted to retain such ecclesiastical propc:ty as they had seized; they were made eligible for such civil and ecclesiastical offices as had been previously barred against them; and general toleration for the time being was established. This policy was extremely distasteful to the pope, who addressed a brief to the emperor, strongly remonstrating against it, and renewing his offer of a council. Charles V., who had not been a free agent in the matter, was much of the pope's mind, and proceeded to relieve himself of one difficulty in the way of reversing his action, by concluding peace with Francis I. of France on September 8, 1544. Hereupon Paul III. directed public thanksgivings to be offered throughout the whole Latin Church, and issued a bull removing the suspension of the council, and summoning it to meet at Trent on March 15, 1545. Unable from age and illness to be present himself, as he had wished, he named Giammaria del Monte, bishop of Palestrina (afterwards Pope Julius IIL), Marcello Cervini (afterwards Pope Marcellus IL), and Reginald Pole as his legates. The experience of former abortive openings was repeated, for they found but one bishop awaiting them, and so few continued to arrive that a fresh prorogation was forced upon the legates, and the pope, in the bull authorizing this action, added a proviso that no proxies should be received, twenty archbishops and bishops, five generals of religious orders, and the ambassadors of King Ferdinand had assembled, and none of the conciliar officers had yet been nominated, nor any programme of procedure sketched out. The most important question arising under this last head was whether the voting should be taken by nations, as at the council of Constance, or by individuals, and the matter was referred to the pope, who gave his decision for the latter, as at once the more ancient (since Constance and Basel were the only precedents for the national vote) and the more convenient. Moreover, this ruling secured from the outset a working majority of Italian bishops in the could be reached from Italy than from any other country which sent representatives thither, besides enabling the pope to swell the majority (as in the Vatican council three centuries later) with bishops in partibus, having no dioceses or jurisdiction, thus amply justifying the objection taken all along by the German Protestants to the assemblage of the council anywhere outside Germany.
Some preliminaries had to be settled before the second session, and the plan of holding private "general congregations," where theologians of non-episcopal rank could sit and share in the discussion and preparation of the decrees to be proposed and voted on in public session, was at once adopted and observed thenceforward. And first, the question was raised whether any persons except bishops should be allowed to vote upon matters of doctrine. The decision was that the vote should be allowed to the generals of religious orders also, and that the right of the proxies of absent bishops to vote should be referred to the pope. The title to be given to the council at the head of the decrees in each session was then discussed, and a proposal to add the words "representing the church universal" (as at Basel and Constance) to the usual formula "general and oecumenical" was rejected at the instance of the legates, as indirectly menacing to papal autocracy. The legates also privately informed the pope that the majority of the members desired to take up the question of practical reforms before that of doctrine, and that it might be necessary to yield the point to avoid scandal or the imputation of sympathy with abuses, but that they would insist, in that case, on making the measures of reform apply all round, to princes and laymen as well as to ecclesiastics, which would probably damp the ardour of its advocates.
The actual business of the second session (January 7, 1546) was confined to the promulgation of a decree touching the discipline to be-observed by the members of the council during its progress, as well in the matters of their private devotion and their food as in the conduct of the debates. The congregations which preceded the third session were mainly occupied with debating the thorny question of the order in which the discussion of faith and of discipline was to come, and it was at last agreed to take them simultaneously.
So few additional bishops had arrived up to this time that it was judged inexpedient to promulgate any decrees in the third session (February 4, 1548), and little was done except the public recitation of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed as the authoritative confession of the Roman Church, and, as the council worded it, "that firm and only foundation against which the gates of hell shall not prevail." A fortnight after this third session Martin Luther died (February 18, 1546), just as the situation in Germany was becoming more strained, and the emperor, alarmed at the rapid advance of Reformed opinions and practices (notably in the Palatinate, where the elector had made large concessions), was taking measures for suppressing the religious revolt by force of arms. The canon of Scripture was proposed iu the congregations before the fourth session as the subject for discussion, and the three following questions were raised : - (1) Were all the books of both Testaments to be approved and received ? (2) Was there to be a fresh inquiry into their canonical character before giving such approval? (3) Should there be any distinction drawn between the books, as being some of them read merely for moral instruction, and others for proving the doctrines of Christian belief ? The first of these questions was decided affirmatively. The second led to much de-