The Council of Trent (Latin: Concilium Tridentinum), held between 1545 and 1563 in Trento (Trent) and Bologna, northern Italy, was one of the Roman Catholic Church's most important ecumenical councils. Prompted by the Protestant Reformation, it has been described as the embodiment of the Counter-Reformation. Four hundred years later, when Pope John XXIII initiated preparations for the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), he affirmed the decrees it had issued: "What was, still is."
As well as decrees, the Council issued condemnations of what it defined to be heresies committed by Protestantism and, in response to them, key statements and clarifications of the Church's doctrine and teachings. These addressed a wide range of subjects, including scripture, the Biblical canon, sacred tradition, original sin, justification, salvation, the sacraments, the Mass and the veneration of saints. The Council met for twenty-five sessions between 13 December 1545 and 4 December 1563, all in Trento (then the capital of the Prince-Bishopric of Trent in the Holy Roman Empire), apart from the ninth to eleventh sessions held in Bologna throughout 1547. Pope Paul III, who convoked the Council, presided over these and the first eight sessions (1545–47), while the twelfth to sixteenth sessions (1551–52) were overseen by Pope Julius III and the seventeenth to twenty-fifth sessions (1562–63) by Pope Pius IV.
The consequences of the Council were additionally significant as regards the Church's liturgy and practices. Throughout its deliberations, the Council made the Vulgate the official example of the Biblical canon and commissioned the creation of a standard version, although this wasn't achieved until the 1590s. In 1565, however, a year or so after the Council finished its work, Pius IV issued the Tridentine Creed (after Tridentum, Trento's Latin name) and his successor Pius V then issued the Roman Catechism and revisions of the Breviary and Missal in, respectively, 1566, 1568 and 1570. These, in turn, led to the codification of the Tridentine Mass, which remained the Church's primary form of the Mass for the next four hundred years.
More than three hundred and fifty years passed until the next ecumenical council, the First Vatican Council was convened in 1869.
Obstacles and events before the Council
On 15 March 1517, the Fifth Council of the Lateran closed its activities with a number of reform proposals (on the selection of bishops, taxation, censorship and preaching) but not on the major problems that confronted the Church in Germany and additional parts of Europe. A few months later, on 31 October 1517, Martin Luther issued his 95 Theses in Wittenberg.
A general, free council in Germany
Luther's position on ecumenical councils shifted over time, but in 1520 he appealed to the German princes to oppose the papal Church, if necessary with a council in Germany, open and free of the Papacy. After the Pope condemned in Exsurge Domine 52 of Luther's theses as heresy, German opinion considered a council the best method to reconcile existing differences. German Catholics, diminished in number, hoped for a council to clarify matters. It took a generation for the council to materialise, partly because of papal reluctance, given that a Lutheran demand was the exclusion of the papacy from the Council, and partly because of ongoing political rivalries between France and Germany and the Turkish dangers in the Mediterranean. Under Pope Clement VII (1523–34), troops of the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sacked Papal Rome in 1527, "raping, killing, burning, stealing, the like hadn't been seen after the Vandals". Saint Peter's Basilica and the Sistine Chapel were used for horses. This, together with the Pontiff's ambivalence between France and Germany, led to his hesitation. Charles V strongly favoured a council, but needed the support of King Francis I of France, who attacked him militarily. Francis I generally opposed a general council due to partial support of the Protestant cause within France, and in 1533 he further complicated matters when suggesting a general council to include both Catholic and Protestant rulers of Europe that would devise a compromise between the two theological systems. This proposal met the opposition of the Pope for it gave recognition to Protestants and additionally elevated the secular Princes of Europe above the clergy on church matters. Faced with a Turkish attack, Charles held the support of the Protestant German rulers, all of whom delayed the opening of the Council of Trent.
Occasion, sessions, and attendance
In reply to the Papal bull Exsurge Domine of Pope Leo X (1520), Martin Luther burned the document and appealed for a general council. In 1522 German diets joined in the appeal, with Charles V seconding and pressing for a council as a means of reunifying the Church and settling the Reformation controversies. Pope Clement VII (1523–34) was vehemently against the idea of a council, agreeing with Francis I of France. After Pope Pius II, in his bull Execrabilis (1460) and his reply to the University of Cologne (1463), set aside the theory of the supremacy of general councils laid down by the Council of Constance.
Pope Paul III (1534–49), seeing that the Protestant Reformation was no longer confined to a few preachers, but had won over various princes, particularly in Germany, to its ideas, desired a council. Yet when he proposed the idea to his cardinals, it was almost unanimously opposed. Nonetheless, he sent nuncios throughout Europe to propose the idea. Paul III issued a decree for a general council to be held in Mantua, Italy, to start on 23 May 1537. Martin Luther wrote the Smalcald Articles in preparation for the general council. The Smalcald Articles were designed to sharply define where the Lutherans could and couldn't compromise. The council was ordered by the Emperor and Pope Paul III to convene in Mantua on 23 May 1537. It failed to convene after another war broke out between France and Charles V, resulting in a non-attendance of French prelates. Protestants, just defeated by Charles V, refused to attend as well. Financial difficulties in Mantua led the Pope in the autumn of 1537 to move the council to Vicenza, where participation was poor. The Council was postponed indefinitely on 21 May 1539. Pope Paul III then initiated several internal Church reforms while Emperor Charles V convened with Protestants at an imperial diet in Regensburg, to reconcile differences. Unity failed between Catholic and Protestant representatives "because of different concepts of Church and justification".
However, the council was delayed until 1545 and, as it happened, convened right before Luther's death. Unable, however, to resist the urging of Charles V, the pope, after proposing Mantua as the place of meeting, convened the council at Trento (at that time a free city of the Holy Roman Empire under a prince-bishop), on 13 December 1545; the Pope's decision to transfer it to Bologna in March 1547 on the pretext of avoiding a plague failed to take effect and the Council was indefinitely prorogued on 17 September 1549. None of the three popes reigning over the duration of the council ever attended, which had been a condition of Charles V. Papal legates were appointed to represent the Papacy.
Reopened at Trento on 1 May 1551 by convocation of Pope Julius III (1550–5), it was broken up by the sudden victory of Maurice, Elector of Saxony over the Emperor Charles V and his march into surrounding state of Tirol on 28 April 1552. There was no hope of reassembling the council while the quite anti-Protestant Paul IV was Pope. The council was reconvened by Pope Pius IV (1559–65) for the last time, meeting from 18 January 1562, and continued until its final adjournment on 4 December 1563. It closed with a series of ritual acclamations honouring the reigning Pope, the Popes who had convoked the Council, the emperor and the kings who had supported it, the papal legates, the cardinals, the ambassadors present, and the bishops, followed by acclamations of acceptance of the faith of the Council and its decrees, and of anathema for all heretics.
The history of the council is thus divided into three distinct periods: 1545–49, 1551–52 and 1562–63. Throughout the second period, the Protestants present asked for renewed discussion on points already defined and for bishops to be released from their oaths of allegiance to the Pope. When the last period began, all hope of conciliating the Protestants was gone and the Jesuits had become a strong force.
The number of attending members in the three periods varied considerably. The council was small to start with, opening with only about 30 bishops. It increased toward the close, but never reached the number of the First Council of Nicaea (which had 318 members) nor of the First Vatican Council (which numbered 744). The decrees were signed in 1563 by 255 members, the highest attendance of the whole council, including four papal legates, two cardinals, three patriarchs, twenty-five archbishops, and 168 bishops, two-thirds of whom were Italians. The Italian and Spanish prelates were vastly preponderant in power and numbers. At the passage of the most important decrees, not more than sixty prelates were present.
The French monarchy boycotted the entire council until the last minute; a delegation led by Charles de Guise, Cardinal of Lorraine finally arrived in November 1562. The first outbreak of the French Wars of Religion had been earlier in the year, and the French had experience of a significant and powerful Protestant minority, iconoclasm and tensions leading to violence in a way the Italians and Iberians did not. Among additional influences, the last minute inclusion of a decree on sacred images was a French initiative, and the text, never discussed on the floor of the council or referred to council theologians, was based on a French draft.
Objectives and overall results
The main objectives of the council were twofold, although there were additional issues that were additionally discussed:
- To condemn the principles and doctrines of Protestantism and to clarify the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church on all disputed points. It is true that the emperor intended it to be a strictly general or truly ecumenical council, at which the Protestants should have a fair hearing. He secured, throughout the council's second period, 1551–53, an invitation, twice given, to the Protestants to be present and the council issued a letter of safe conduct (thirteenth session) and offered them the right of discussion, but denied them a vote. Melanchthon and Johannes Brenz, with a few additional German Lutherans, actually started in 1552 on the journey to Trento. Brenz offered a confession and Melanchthon, who got no farther than Nuremberg, took with him the Confessio Saxonica. But the refusal to give the Protestants the right to vote and the consternation produced by the success of Maurice in his campaign against Charles V in 1552 effectually put an end to Protestant cooperation.
- To effect a reformation in discipline or administration. This object had been one of the causes calling forth the reformatory councils and had been lightly touched upon by the Fifth Council of the Lateran under Pope Julius II. The obvious corruption in the administration of the Church was one of the numerous causes of the Reformation. Twenty-five public sessions were held, but nearly half of them were spent in solemn formalities. The chief work was done in committees or congregations. The entire management was in the hands of the papal legate. The liberal elements lost out in the debates and voting. The council abolished a few of the most notorious abuses and introduced or recommended disciplinary reforms affecting the sale of indulgences, the morals of convents, the education of the clergy, the non-residence of bishops (also bishops having plurality of benefices, which was fairly common), and the careless fulmination of censures, and forbade duelling. Although evangelical sentiments were uttered by a few of the members in favour of the supreme authority of the Scriptures and justification by faith, no concession whatsoever was made to Protestantism.
- The Church is the ultimate interpreter of Scripture. Also, the Bible and Church Tradition (the tradition that made up part of the Catholic faith) were equally and independently authoritative.
- The relationship of faith and works in salvation was defined, following controversy over Martin Luther's doctrine of "justification by faith alone".
- Other Roman Catholic practises that drew the ire of reformers within the Church, like indulgences, pilgrimages, the veneration of saints and relics, and the veneration of the Virgin Mary were strongly reaffirmed, though abuses of them, like the sale of indulgences, were forbidden. Decrees concerning sacred music and religious art, though inexplicit, were subsequently amplified by theologians and writers to condemn a large number of types of Renaissance and mediaeval styles and iconographies, impacting heavily on the development of these art forms.
The doctrinal decisions of the council are divided into decrees (decreta), which contain the positive statement of the conciliar dogmas, and into short canons (canones), which condemn the dissenting Protestant views with the concluding "anathema sit" ("let him be anathema").
Canons and decrees
The doctrinal acts are as follows: after reaffirming the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (third session), the decree was passed (fourth session) confirming that the deuterocanonical books were on a par with the additional books of the canon (against Luther's placement of these books in the Apocrypha of his edition) and coordinating church tradition with the Scriptures as a rule of faith. The Vulgate translation was affirmed to be authoritative for the text of Scripture.
Justification (sixth session) was declared to be offered upon the basis of human cooperation with divine grace as opposed to the Protestant doctrine of passive reception of grace. Understanding the Protestant "faith alone" doctrine to be one of simple human confidence in divine mercy, the Council rejected the "vain confidence" of the Protestants, stating that no one can know who has received the grace of God. Furthermore, the Council affirmed against Protestant doctrine that the grace of God can be forfeited through mortal sin.
The greatest weight in the Council's decrees is given to the sacraments. The seven sacraments were reaffirmed and the Eucharist pronounced to be a true propitiatory sacrifice as well as a sacrament, in which the bread and wine were consecrated into the Eucharist (thirteenth and twenty-second sessions). The term transubstantiation was used by the Council, but the specific Aristotelian explanation given by Scholasticism wasn't cited as dogmatic. Instead, the decree states that Christ is "really, truly, substantially present" in the consecrated forms. The sacrifice of the Mass was to be offered for dead and living alike and in giving to the apostles the command "do this in remembrance of me," Christ conferred upon them a sacerdotal power. The practise of withholding the cup from the laity was confirmed (twenty-first session) as one which the Church Fathers had commanded for good and sufficient reasons; yet in certain cases the Pope was made the supreme arbiter as to whether the rule should be strictly maintained. On the language of the Mass, "contrary to what's most often said", the council condemned the belief that only vernacular languages should be used, while insisting on the use of Latin.
Ordination (twenty-third session) was defined to imprint an indelible character on the soul. The priesthood of the New Testament takes the place of the Levitical priesthood. To the performance of its functions, the consent of the people isn't necessary.
In the decrees on marriage (twenty-fourth session) the excellence of the celibate state was reaffirmed, concubinage condemned and the validity of marriage made dependent upon the wedding taking place before a priest and two witnesses, although the lack of a requirement for parental consent ended a debate that had proceeded from the twelfth century. In the case of a divorce, the right of the innocent party to marry again was denied so long as the additional party was alive, even if the additional party had committed adultery. However the council "refused … to assert the necessity of usefulness of clerical celibacy.
In the twenty-fifth and last session, the doctrines of purgatory, the invocation of saints and the veneration of relics were reaffirmed, as was additionally the efficacy of indulgences as dispensed by the Church according to the power given her, but with a few cautionary recommendations, and a ban on the sale of indulgences. Short and rather inexplicit passages concerning religious images, were to have great impact on the development of Roman Catholic art. Much more than the Second Council of Nicaea (787) the Council fathers of Trent stressed the pedagogical purpose of Christian images.
The council appointed, in 1562 (eighteenth session), a commission to prepare a list of forbidden books (Index Librorum Prohibitorum), but it later left the matter to the Pope. The preparation of a catechism and the revision of the Breviary and Missal were additionally left to the pope. The catechism embodied the council's far-reaching results, including reforms and definitions of the sacraments, the Scriptures, church dogma, and duties of the clergy.
On adjourning, the Council asked the supreme pontiff to ratify all its decrees and definitions. This petition was complied with by Pope Pius IV, on 26 January 1564, in the papal bull, Benedictus Deus, which enjoins strict obedience upon all Roman Catholics and forbids, under pain of excommunication, all unauthorised interpretation, reserving this to the Pope alone and threatens the disobedient with "the indignation of Almighty God and of his blessed apostles, Peter and Paul." Pope Pius appointed a commission of cardinals to assist him in interpreting and enforcing the decrees.
The Index librorum prohibitorum was announced in 1564 and the following books were issued with the papal imprimatur: the Profession of the Tridentine Faith and the Tridentine Catechism (1566), the Breviary (1568), the Missal (1570) and the Vulgate (1590 and then 1592).
The decrees of the council were acknowledged in Italy, Portugal, Poland and by the Catholic princes of Germany at the Diet of Augsburg in 1566. Philip II of Spain accepted them for Spain, the Netherlands and Sicily inasmuch as they didn't infringe the royal prerogative. In France they were officially recognised by the king only in their doctrinal parts. The disciplinary sections received official recognition at provincial synods and were enforced by the bishops. No attempt was made to introduce it into England. Pius IV sent the decrees to Mary, Queen of Scots, with a letter dated 13 June 1564, requesting her to publish them in Scotland, but she dared not do it in the face of John Knox and the Reformation.
These decrees were later supplemented by the First Vatican Council of 1870.
Publication of documents
The most comprehensive history is still Hubert Jedin's The History of the Council of Trent (Geschichte des Konzils von Trient) with about 2500 pages in four volumes: The History of the Council of Trent: The fight for a Council (Vol I, 1951); The History of the Council of Trent: The first Sessions in Trent (1545–1547) (Vol II, 1957); The History of the Council of Trent: Sessions in Bologna 1547–1548 and Trento 1551–1552 (Vol III, 1970, 1998); The History of the Council of Trent: Third Period and Conclusion (Vol IV, 1976).
The canons and decrees of the council have been published quite most often and in a large number of languages (for a large list consult British Museum Catalogue, under "Trent, Council of"). The first issue was by Paulus Manutius (Rome, 1564). The best Latin editions are by J. Le Plat (Antwerp, 1779) and by F. Schulte and A. L. Richter (Leipzig, 1853). Other good editions are in vol. vii. of the Acta et decreta conciliorum recentiorum. Collectio Lacensis (7 vols., Freiburg, 1870–90), reissued as independent volume (1892); Concilium Tridentinum: Diariorum, actorum, epastularum, … collectio, ed. S. Merkle (4 vols., Freiburg, 1901 sqq.; only vols. i.–iv. have as yet appeared); not to overlook Mansi, Concilia, xxxv. 345 sqq. Note additionally Mirbt, Quellen, 2d ed, pp. 202–255. The best English edition is by James Waterworth (London, 1848; With Essays on the External and Internal History of the Council).
The original acts and debates of the council, as prepared by its general secretary, Bishop Angelo Massarelli, in six large folio volumes, are deposited in the Vatican Library and remained there unpublished for more than 300 years and were brought to light, though only in part, by Augustin Theiner, priest of the oratory (d. 1874), in Acta genuina sancti et oecumenici Concilii Tridentini nunc primum integre edita (2 vols., Leipzig, 1874).
Most of the official documents and private reports, however, which bear upon the council, were made known in the sixteenth century and since. The most complete collection of them is that of J. Le Plat, Monumentorum ad historicam Concilii Tridentini collectio (7 vols., Leuven, 1781–87). New materials(Vienna, 1872); by JJI von Döllinger (Ungedruckte Berichte und Tagebücher zur Geschichte des Concilii von Trient) (2 parts, Nördlingen, 1876); and A. von Druffel, Monumenta Tridentina (Munich, 1884–97).
List of decrees
|The Holy Scriptures||4||8 April 1546||none||1|
|Original sin||5||7 June 1546||5||4|
|Justification||6||13 January 1547||33||16|
|Sacraments||7||3 March 1547||13||1|
|Baptism||7||3 March 1547||14||none|
|Confirmation||7||4 March 1547||3||none|
|Holy Eucharist||13||11 October 1551||11||8|
|Penance||14||15 November 1551||15||15|
|Extreme Unction||14||4 November 1551||4||3|
|Matrimony||24||11 November 1563||12||10|
|25||4 December 1563||none||3|
|Indulgences||25||4 December 1563||none||1|
- "How a large number of angels can dance on the head of a pin?", where the question was linked to the need for rationality as complementary to faith.
- Nicolas Psaume, bishop of Verdun.
- Examination of the Council of Trent by Martin Chemnitz.