The Council of Trent: Compromise or Ploy?

Posted on November 18, 2011 by


When Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the castle church of Whittenberg in 1517, criticizing many of their practices and rules, this was not the first time somebody had challenged the Catholic church. In the early 1400’s a man named Jan Hus had preached about the injustice of the Church and was burned at the stake in 1415 heresy. Hus had a major impact on the early stages of the protestant reformation and even on the ideas of Martin Luther. These theses called for major changes in the Church, specifically the termination of sale of indulgences: when the Church asked for money to absolve one’s sins.

In response to this request Pope Leo X issued a message back: Exsurge Domine (Arise, O Lord). This message requested the retraction of many of the points made by Martin Luther. Luther’s made his response clear by burning the Exsurge Domine and sought after a general council. Pope Leo X avoided calling this council, and it was not until Pope Paul III saw the outside support that it had gained, manly from Germany, that a council was granted in 1545. This was the ecumenical Council of Trent.

The council of Trent was first convened in 1545, right before the death of Martin Luther, and lasted until 1563 with a total of 25 sessions being held. Pope Paul III held sessions 1-11, Pope Julius III held the 12th-16th sessions and Pope Pius IV held the 17th-25th sessions. The council was forced to meet 25 separate times due religious and political gridlocks, causing them to postpone the council on many occasions. The aim of the church was to keep its main structure intact and to issue decrees to change some of the actions being criticized, and to justify others.

The transcription from the council provides a detailed description of the justifications, canons, and decrees issued by the Church. During the seventh session in particular many different canons, general laws, were issued regarding the sacraments, baptism, conformation and more. Every decree issued by the council was signed by the 255 members, which included 4 papal legates, 2 cardinals, 3 patriarchs, 25 archbishops and 168 bishops. While many practices of the Church being criticized by the protestants were discussed in the council, three specific perceptions of the Church were not up for discussion. The first being; the manner that the Church interpreted the bible was final. This was a huge conflict between the protestant reformers and the Catholic Church, one of Martin Luther’s main beliefs was an individuals freedom to interpret the bible however they saw fit. However, this was a point that the Church would not back down about. The second point was the Church’s views around marriage. Marriage is one of the Catholic Church’s seven sacraments, and although this was not a point of contention between the protestants and the Catholic Church, it was brought up in the council because of the English Reformation.

During the 24th session of the council, the sacrament of marriage was discussed. The Church does not believe in divorce and claims that man and woman are perpetually bonded after marriage. They also make a point to single out the “impious men of this age” who believe in divorce, more specifically, Henry VIII and his English reformation.

 Whereas therefore matrimony, in the evangelical law, excels in grace, through Christ, the ancient marriages; with reason have our holy Fathers, the Councils, and the tradition of the universal Church, always taught, that it is to be numbered amongst the sacraments of the new law; against which, impious men of this age raging

 While it may seem as if the only conflict going on at that time was the Catholic Church and the Protestant reformers, Henry VIII was starting a reformation of his own. The English Reformation allowed for divorce, and did not hold matrimony as sacred or holy, which conflicts with one of the sacraments of the Church. This created a large conflict between the English reformers and the Catholic Church. While the council did issue several canons on the sacrament of matrimony, these were mainly to reaffirm the acts that conflict with the sacrament of marriage in the Church, the sacrement of marriage was not up for discussion.

The third, and most surprising perception that was barely discussed was; the Church’s right to sell indulgences. This was one of the major criticisms made by Martin Luther about the Church,and only one decree was issued on the topic of the sale of indulgences during the 25th and final session of the council of trent.

 In granting them[indulgences] , however, It desires that, in accordance with the ancient and approved custom in the Church, moderation be observed; lest, by excessive facility, ecclesastical discipline be enervated. And being desirous that the abuses which have crept therein, and by occasion of which this honourable name of Indulgences is blasphemed by heretics, be amended and corrected 

The Church recognizes the need to use moderation to a degree while selling indulgences, they then go on to abolish the unjust gain for indulgences.

It ordains generally by this decree, that all evil gains for the obtaining thereof,–whence a most prolific cause of abuses amongst the Christian people has been derived,–be wholly abolished. But as regards the other abuses which have proceeded from  superstition, ignorance, irreverence, or from what soever other source, since, by reason of the manifold corruptions in the places and provinces where the said abuses are committed, they cannot conveniently be specially prohibited; 

           While this degree does take into account the fact that abuses are being committed by certain bishops, they shift the blame away from the whole of the Church. This decree also lacks definition and provides the Church a lot of room to continue the abuse. At what point is gain from the sale of indulgences unjust? When can this decree be applied?

These three points of contention between the different reformations at the time can be better understood by the decrees and canons, or lack there of, issued by the Church and copied down in the transcription. The council of trent was the last ecumenical council for another 300 hundred years, and while there were many accomplishments made, it took the council 18 years to resolve these issues. The council of Trent didn’t address some of the most important criticism made by Martin Luther, they basically dodged the main issues that caused the council to be convened.  The council’s canons and decrees can be seen in the actual transcription of the council.

The Transcription from the Council of Trent:

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