Because of the People, But for God

Posted on November 18, 2011 by

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The Reformation. Most people know it as a time when people in Europe, and around the world rebelled against the Catholic Church. There is a common conception that the Catholic church simply ignored complaints and objections from the people, in essence, that there was no Reformation. This bring up the question: How much did the Catholic Church truly reform, and why?

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, in 1545, after the excommunication of Martin Luther, Pope Paul III organized a council of bishops and other church figures. This was done in response to growing concerns from within the church about the swiftly declining number of followers. The basic goal of the council was to reform the church as a whole and clarify/update many doctrines. Initially, there was a lot of conflict from within the council about how  to move forward with the countless necessary changes to be made. However, the conflict was soon resolved and the council moved forward while addressing  the clarification of doctrines and reformation of practices. Several of these actions included updating the Church’s definition of sin, clarifying multiple intricacies of bible interpretation, and discrediting Martin Luther’s Doctrines.

The Council of Trent had twenty-five sessions over the course of eighteen years from 1545-1563. Through the later years of the council, many more decrees were made regarding such things as bishop behavior, sacramental wine and bread, and countless other subjects of church action. For many sessions, hundreds of church officials came to discuss and create doctrine clarification and reform in the form of decrees. Surprisingly, Paul III, the pope at the time, never attended any of the session. Despite this, the council was successful in making reform and clarifying their doctrines.

Council of Trent

After completing this section of my research on the Catholics’ reaction to the Reformation, or the Counter-Reformation, I became interested in finding out more about one of the church practices that was most controversial to the protesters: the bishops’ behavior and their lack of modesty outside of their church lives.

Throughout the entirety of the sessions of the Council of Trent, detailed notes were taken on the discussions, and most importantly, all of the decrees made by the Council were recorded. The text, translated by J. Waterworth in 1848, can be found Here. The second session contains a decree titled Decree Touching the Manner of Living, and Other Matters to be Observed. As the name suggests, this section is primarily related to the expectations of the actions of the bishops.

When interpreting the text, the first thing that is made very clear is that the session in the Council of Trent is “lawfully assembled in the Holy Ghost” and furthermore that “recognizing, with the blessed apostle James, that Every best gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father”. Clearly, the Catholic church is ignoring the fact that they are gathered because of protesters, as opposed to for God. Despite the controversy over the real reason for their gathering, the Decree still goes on to say that “those things which need reformation may be reformed”. The fact that they are admitting their mistakes is a quite positive result for the protesters.

Through several parts of the Decree, it is made clear that ” all [the bishops’] actions show forth modesty, as becomes the servants of the servants of God” is the new expectation for the actions of the bishops. Basically, they are expected to be modest in  their lifestyles. In addition, it is stated that “bishops to be blameless, sober, chaste”. According to James D. Tracey, the protesters of the Catholic Church “Sought to reform the church by urging that men of God must imitate the poverty of Christ and his apostles”. This “mission statement” from the protesters seems to be directly related to the modesty portion of the decree, but the decree later goes on to say that these things will be done with a “confession of faith” and to “glorify God, and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”. Yet again, The Church supports their enduring statement that they reform in the name of God.

The final main point that is made by the Decree is stated below.

“In delivering their sentiments, when the priests of the Lord are sitting together in the place of benediction, no one–agreeably to the statute of the council of Toledo–ought either to be boisterous by immoderate outcries, or to cause disturbance by tumult; none to be contentious with false, vain, or obstinate disputation; but let whatsoever is said be so tempered by the mildest utterance of the words spoken, that neither the hearers may be offended, nor the rectitude of a correct judgment be warped by the mind being troubled.”

In essence, the above quotation states again that those who preach for the Lord should be modest in their actions. Yet again, The Church insists that they act and reform in the name of God.

Originally, I asked the question: How much did the Catholic Church truly reform, and why? The answer is not as simple as I originally anticipated. First of all, The Church did reform. This fact is made clear by their statement that “those things which need reformation may be reformed”, and also by the clear change in church policy and expectations for the bishops. The “why” part of the question is much more difficult. Throughout the decree, they insist that they are reforming in the name of God, but many of the expectations for both modesty in lifestyle and through bishops’ actions correspond directly to complaints made by the protesters. Because of this, the reason for the counter-reformation can be stated as follows. The Catholic Church reformed because of the people, but for God.

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Bibliography

  1. Trueman, Chris. “The Counsel of Trent.” History Learning Site. Web. <http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/council-of-trent.htm&gt;.
  2. “Trent, Council of.” Encyclopedia BritannicaEncyclopedia Britannica Online School Edition. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 2011. Web. 31 Oct. 2011. <http://www.school.eb.com/eb/article-9073300&gt;.
  3. Counter-Reformation.” Wikipedia. 2011. Web. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Counter-Reformation
  4. Ed. and trans.  Waterworth, J. “The Counsel of Trent.” Hanover College, 1995. Web. 4 Nov 2011.
  5. Tracey, James D. Europe’s Reformations, 1450-1650:Doctrine, Politics, and Community. 2nd. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2006. 1-28. Print.
  6. “Session the Second”, January 7, 1546, Council of Trent records, Pages 13-15, accessed on http://history.hanover.edu/texts/trent/ct02.html

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