Council of Trent blog 1 Calling the Council

IMHO, you cannot truly understand the history and theology of the modern Catholic Church until you read John O’Malley’s excellent histories, Trent, What Happened at the Council, and What Happened at Vatican II.

When John O’Malley was a doctoral student in Rome from 1963 to 1965, he was able to attend some of the public sessions of Vatican II and many of the Vatican press conferences.  He was able to incorporate some of these experiences in his doctoral thesis, and later wrote articles and taught classes in a Jesuit Seminary on the Councils of Trent and Vatican II.[1]  He is the leading scholar on these two councils, and his scholarship is so excellent that IMHO to truly understand the modern Catholic Church you need to read his books, Trent, What Happened at the Council, What Happened at Vatican II, and the Jesuits.

[amazon_link asins=’0674047494′ template=’ProductAd’ store=’seekingvirtue-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’093c78ce-308d-11e8-a344-3b9fa89a31c3′]

Lectures: The Council of Trent: Answering the Reformation and Reforming the Church

Was the Council of Trent a reactionary council?  This is a common perception, that the Council of Trent initiated the Catholic Counter-Reformation to defend the Catholic Church from the influences of the Protestant Reformation started by Martin Luther, and that the Vatican II Council was a rejection of Trent, steering the Catholic Church in a more liberal direction.  Father O’Malley’s history leads to a different conclusion, that the actual Council of Trent, as opposed to the later impressions of Trent, is really a progressive council that is a precursor to Vatican II.  Indeed, the documents of Vatican II and the subsequent Catholic Catechism both cite the Council of Trent extensively.

[amazon_link asins=’0674066979′ template=’ProductAd’ store=’seekingvirtue-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’dcbb91c1-307f-11e8-8a34-856770aea03c’]The post Reformation polemics are to blame for this misunderstanding of the nature of the Council of Trent.  In Father O’Malley’s words, “When Pope Pius IV confirmed the council’s decrees, he forbade the printing of commentaries or notes on them without explicit permission of the Holy See.”  The Pope really had no choice, the Catholic Church was besieged, had the Pope not restricted access to the minutes of the Council of Trent, protestants would have taken out of context and distorted the debates to discredit the Church.  But this prevented balanced scholarship on Trent for four hundred years, until Pope Leo XIII opened the Vatican Archives in 1880.

Also, when he confirmed the decrees of the Council of Trent, Pope Pius IV established the Congregation of the Council that functioned for four hundred years, until the time of Vatican II, 1966.  Many of these interpretations of the Council of Trent were more reactionary than the Council itself, partly in response to the polemic pressures encountered by the Catholic Church.  In Father O’Malley’s words, “the Congregation’s decision promoted the impression that the council answered all possible questions, even on subjects it in fact never addressed, and that is left little room for change or further development and local adaptation.  This impression became an integral element in the myths about the council.”

There have been misunderstandings of what Trent said about the Mass.  Can the Mass be celebrated in the vernacular, or must the Mass be always celebrated in Latin?  The Council of Trent did not forbid celebrating the Mass in the vernacular, and there was discussion that it should be permitted.  But there was not any discussion by the Pope or the Congregation on celebrating the Mass in the vernacular, and indeed as this was an issue that divided Catholics and Protestants, celebrating the Mass in the vernacular become unthinkable, and so the myth grew that this was forbidden by Trent.

In Father O’Malley’s words, “the climate was marked by newly aggressive and intransigent attitudes.  Impassible lines were drawn between Catholics and Protestants.  Catholics were separated from others not only by fundamental teachings such as papal primacy the sevenfold nature of the sacraments but by other matters as well – priestly celibacy, Latin liturgy, wide canon of the Bible, the normative Vulgate, no Eucharistic cup, and so on.  According to the ever more received wisdom, to compromise even on the slightest point threatened to undermine the whole edifice.”

Father O’Malley argues that the Council of Trent embraced a fortress mentality in the Catholic Church.  “In reaction to the Reformer’s accusation that the church had early on so completely broken with the Gospel that its subsequent history was a distortion of it, Catholic apologists rushed to assert the church’s unbroken continuity with the apostolic era. Trent seconded this assertion.  Trent thus helped develop the Catholic mind-set reluctant to admit change in the course of church history,” that the Catholic Church of today and yesterday and before is unchanged from the ancient Catholic Church of the apostles.[2]


Much later we will have a series of blogs on the Reformation itself, so we will only offer a quick summary of some of Luther’s views.

Luther’s biblical studies as a professor at Wittenberg caused him to question the Catholic teaching of his day, namely Romans 1:17, which we will quote from the NIV translation:

For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”[3]

The first edition of Luther’s famous vernacular German translation added a crucial word, “The righteous will live by faith alone.”  Luther’s explanation was that was what the original Greek meant, but no Bible today adds the word ALONE, as it is not present in the Greek original.

Romans 5:1 that teaches that the righteous are justified by faith was another key verse for Luther.  If we are to understand the meaning of these verses we must first try to understand the meaning of words such as faith, justification, righteousness, and many other words, and if people are without a common understanding of the vocabulary their discourses will be trains passing in the night.  Scripture itself warns us to be careful when interpreting the letters of St Paul, perhaps these verses in 2 Peter anticipate the disagreements of the Reformation:

“Our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.”[4]

[amazon_link asins=’0898707463′ template=’ProductAd’ store=’seekingvirtue-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’f8d4887b-308d-11e8-b27c-ab3d91dc06f3′]O’Malley affirms that the delegates to the Council of Trent were not hostile to the doctrine of justification by faith, although they were not keen on adding the word ALONE to the verse.  In Denzinger we have a remarkable joint declaration by the pontifical council and the Lutheran World Federation that the doctrine of justification by faith is a commonly held belief and should no longer be a divisive issue between Catholics and Lutherans.[5]  Although we will not launch into a technical discussion defending this assertion, this joint declaration is not evidence of any significant changes in doctrine but is rather evidence of a desire to find commonalities rather than differences.

Closely related to the doctrines the Original Sin of Adam and Eve taking a bite out of the apple in the Garden of Eden.  Some oversimplify this doctrine by saying that the Eastern Church teaches that man only inherits the propensity to sin from Adam, while the Western Church, both Catholic and Protestant, inherits the guilt of sin from Adam, which may be erased by Baptism, or not, depending on your denomination.  This is at least half true, over the years I have read from several sources the argument that this divergence of interpretation was due to the inadequate Latin translation of Scriptures that St Augustine was using.  The Vulgate came later, St Augustine and Jerome, author of the Vulgate, were contemporaries who actually wrote epistles back and forth.  We quote directly from Jaroslav Pelikan’s explanation of St Augustine’s teaching:

[amazon_link asins=’0226653714′ template=’ProductAd’ store=’seekingvirtue-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’b197aee6-308d-11e8-be53-bff7673bb9a1′] “In the sin of Adam the entire human race sinned.  In Augustine’s Latin Bible Romans 5:12 read, ‘Sin came into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, through one man, in whom all men sinned.’  Although this last clause really meant, ‘because all men sinned,’ the mistranslation ‘in whom all men sinned’ had led an earlier Western theologian to conclude that ‘all have sinned in Adam, as it were in the mass, for he himself was corrupted by sin, and all whom he begot were born under sin.’  Quoting these words, Augustine insisted that ‘all men are understood to have sinned in that first man, because all men were in him when he sinned.’  Just how they were in Adam and sinned in Adam, he usually explained by referring to the ‘carnal begetting’ by which their lives began.  For ‘by the begetting of flesh . . . that sin is contracted which is original’ as distinguished from that which a man committed himself.  Sin and death had been transmitted to all men from one man ‘by the propagation’ of the human race.’ “[6]

Luther and more so Calvin preached an extreme Augustinianism, including these teachings and also St Augustine’s positions against Pelagian, where he taught that we were saved by the overwhelming grace of God, that only the elect were predestined to be saved, and that the damned were doubly predestined.

There are two misconceptions of Lutheranism that I encounter constantly in my studies.  The first concerns the status of the Book of James, which teaches that faith without works are dead.  It is true that Luther did not comment on James, calling it an epistle of straw in opposition to the Pauline Epistles, but to the best of my knowledge no Lutheran Bible has ever excluded the Book of James.  St Jerome doubted whether the Apocryphal books were scriptural, so the Lutherans had patristic tradition to support the exclusion of these books from the Old Testament.  But there was little or no patristic discussion debating the status of the Book of James.

The other frequent misconception is that Luther’s writings define Lutheran doctrine.  Luther did pen the Large and Small Catechisms, but the Augsburg Confession and most other Lutheran statements of faith were drafted by Phillip Melanchthon.  Melanchthon was much more diplomatic than Luther, and whereas he was able to travel freely about Europe, Luther was restricted by his excommunication to the vicinity of Wittenberg.


Soon after the Council of Trent was concluded the council records were locked up and sealed in the Vatican, out of reach of scholars.  The Catholic Church feared criticism, a valid fear, as no doubt the debates in the minutes would be distorted and magnified as faults and smeared across Europe.  And the following centuries were not kind to the Catholic Church, many priests were murdered and many church properties were seized in the French Revolution, and although Napoleon signed a Concordat normalizing relations between the French state and the Church, he was not a true friend of the Catholic Church.

Since the Catholic Church was under attack and was defensive during the period of Trent, the decrees issued by the council tended to be more strident than the conclusions of the discussions in the sessions.  After Trent was concluded and as the centuries passed, as the Catholic Church drew up its drawbridges to defend itself from its detractors, more and more of its reactionary policies were read back into the history of the Council of Trent.

There was a gradual thaw under the Popes in the late nineteenth century.  This led to the opening of the minutes and correspondence of the Council of Trent in the Vatican library.  A scholar named Hubert Jedin sifted through these mountains of documents, publishing a comprehensive four volume history of Trent, which because the basis for John O’Malley’s remarkable book on Trent.[7]  This scholarship was also the basis for the pronouncements of the Vatican II Council and the modern Catholic Catechism many centuries later.  Most of the theological pronouncements of Vatican II reference the Council of Trent.  The many CCC references from DS 1500 through DS 1850 refer to the Denzinger paragraphs containing the decrees of the Council of Trent.

[1] John O’Malley, “What Happened at Vatican II” (Cambridge, Massachusetts, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), Preface.

[2] John O’Malley, “Trent, What Happened at the Council” (Cambridge, Massachusetts, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013), pp. 267-274.



[5] Heinrich Denzinger, Compendium of Creeds, Definitions, and Declarations on Matters of Faith and Morals, 43rd Edition, edited by Peter Hunermann (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2012), paragraphs 5073-5074 and 5081, pp. 1129-1130, 1136-1137.

[6] Jaroslav Pelikan, “The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition,” in The Christian Tradition, History of the Development of Doctrine, volume 1 (Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1971),what happ pp. 299-300.

[7] John O’Malley, Trent, What Happened at the Council, pp. 10-11.

About Bruce Strom 142 Articles
I was born and baptized and confirmed as a Lutheran. I made the mistake of reading works written by Luther, he has a bad habit of writing seemingly brilliant theology, but then every few pages he stops and calls the Pope often very vulgar names, what sort of Christian does that? Currently I am a seeker, studying church history and the writings of the Church Fathers. I am involved in the Catholic divorce ministries in our diocese, and have finished the diocese two-year Catholic Lay Ministry program. Also I took a year of Orthodox off-campus seminary courses. This blog explores the beauty of the Early Church and the writings and history of the Church through the centuries. I am a member of a faith community, for as St Augustine notes in his Confessions, you cannot truly be a Christian unless you worship God in the walls of the Church, unless persecution prevents this. This blog is non-polemical, so I really would rather not reveal my denomination here.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply