The Protestant Reformation brought radical changes to the beliefs of Christians in the fifteenth century. As the Catholic Church was being greatly damaged by the force of the Protestants, the Church had to do something in response as they grew in followers and gained power. Therefore, the formation of the Council of Trent was a crucial decision in reasserting the doctrines of the Catholic Church. It was the Church’s first major reply to the ongoing Reformation. It was easily the most important movement of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, which was the reply of the Catholics to the growing Protestants Reformation.
The Council of Trent was an ecumenical council made up of an elected group of Catholic clergy, mainly composed of bishops. Serving as part of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, the purposes of this council were to condemn and refute the beliefs of the Protestants, such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, and also to make the set of beliefs in Catholicism even clearer. This council had the power to not only reestablish and clear up previous Catholic beliefs, but it could completely change the beliefs, teachings, and practices of the Church in whatever way they saw appropriate at the time. This power led them to make some important changes to the practices and beliefs of the Church, many of which are still being used in Catholicism today.
Once Pope Paul III established the Council, it convened to discuss these matters for the first time in December of 1545, and it marked the official first day of the Counter-Reformation. From then on, the Council convened twenty-five times over the next eighteen years. The members of the Council accomplished many things in these meetings, but one of the most important was the establishment of seminaries. A seminary is a place where one can go to become educated about Catholicism so that he or she may become part of the clergy of the Catholic Church later. The Council thought that some clergy members needed more education about their religion, and they even went as far to say that they thought some priests were corrupt. The decision to establish seminaries was very important, not only for strengthening the Catholic clergy, but many other religions adopted this concept as well. Seminaries still live on today, as there are still many in place all around the world. This affected the Reformation because it helped the clergy to understand the beliefs of Catholicism better. As a result, there would be less clergy preaching about their own opinions, which could possibly oppose the beliefs of the religion. Other decisions of lesser importance for the Catholic Church were made during the meetings of the Council of Trent. One small change was the requirement that bishops live in the area they preside over, also known as their dioceses. They also changed the rules for the playing of liturgical music in the Church.
The Council of Trent refuted many beliefs of Martin Luther and the Lutherans. One important belief that they condemned was the belief of justification by scripture alone, with the Council saying that it should be justification by faith, scripture, and tradition. However, one of the most important beliefs that was refuted was the use of indulgences. Indulgences are the full or partial remission of the punishments due from sinning. The punishments were either completely eliminated, or the affects were simply diminished. Punishments of sins were seen to take affect only in the afterlife, determining whether you go to heaven, purgatory, or hell. Luther believed that humans should have no power over the afterlife of others; however, the Council of Trent seemed to say the opposite. This is clearly shown in the Decree Concerning Indulgences in the Transcript of the Twenty-Fifth Session of The canons and decrees of the sacred and oecumenical Council of Trent. This passage is from a transcription of the decrees made by the Council, a document split up into sections for each time that they met. The passage clearly states that:
the power of conferring Indulgences was granted by Christ to the Church; and she has, even in the most ancient times, used the said power, delivered unto her of God; the sacred holy Synod teaches, and enjoins, that the use of Indulgences, for the Christian people most salutary, and approved of by the authority of sacred Councils, is to be retained in the Church; and It condemns with anathema those who either assert, that they are useless; or who deny that there is in the Church the power of granting them.
This passage clearly shows the reasons for the acceptance of indulgences by the Council. Based on this passage, the Catholic Church believed that Christ himself gave the right to grant indulgences, and that the Catholic Church has used this power ever since. Also, it states that the holy Synod, another smaller Council made up of more important members of the clergy, approves of the giving of indulgences, and for all the aforementioned reasons, they will continue to grant indulgences. Furthermore, at the end of the quotation, they add that they will condemn anyone that thinks otherwise. This statement definitely seems to be indirectly aimed at Luther, especially since his main point in confronting the Catholic Church was about the illegitimacy of giving indulgences that he perceived. The passage also goes on to say:
and by occasion of which this honourable name of Indulgences is blasphemed by heretics, be amended and corrected … and [will] be wholly abolished.
This is another passage that seems to be clearly directed towards Luther, as he is, in their words, blaspheming the name of indulgences. It tells exactly what they will do to anyone that disagrees with the Church’s right to order indulgences. It is a very strong statement that shows the seriousness of the Church about this issue. This also may have been used as a threat to prevent anyone else from attempting to confront the beliefs of Catholicism.
The Catholic Church was confronted about their beliefs many times, most forcefully by Martin Luther and the Lutherans. Although the Council did not completely stop Luther from standing up to their beliefs, the Council did achieve both of their goals of reestablishing their beliefs while simultaneously, although indirectly, refuting the beliefs of others.
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