Council of Trent, blog 4, Conclusion and Implementation

O’Malley speculates that the Council of Trent may have concluded a few years after it started had they not gotten spooked by a possible plague and tried to reconvene in Basel.  But now seventeen years after it started the final session of the Council convened seventeen years later, and like the first session very few bishops came when the council was called, but by January 1562 about a hundred bishops arrived, more would come, and this final third session was the best attended session of the council.

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

The politics and personalities favored the Council.  The next pope, Pius IV, was more amenable, , and the Hapsburg Emperor Ferdinand and the Hapsburg King Phillip II of Spain supported the Council.  The teenage king of France was under a regency by the queen assisted by the DeGuise family, and France was not at war with anyone.  Cardinal Charles DeGuise was a leading voice in this final phase of the Council, meaning that the Italians were not the only active participants.  Cardinal Marone, a curial reformer and accomplished diplomat, was appointed chief papal legate after the original legates passed away.

The reform agenda for this session of the council centered on the role of the bishops and the clergy.  The issues on the role of the bishops were contentious and split and deadlocked the council, it took Marone’s diplomatic skill to come to some compromises, and O’Malley describes in detail the fascinating politics and history behind these disputes.  The first session had passed what was called the “little solution” to the question on whether bishops should reside in their diocese, at issue was the papal practice to grant dispensations to these requirements to family members and favored bishops and cardinals.  The reform party wanted to make the bishop’s residency a divine ordinance or matter of conscience rather than a matter of canon law so the Pope could not grant a dispensation.  The compromise that the bishop’s main duty was to care for the souls of his flock.  O’Malley notes that even with this compromise the bishops knew they were required to live in their diocese.

Another related issue was forbidding the bishops and cardinals from holding multiple bishoprics, which meant they could enjoy the income from multiple dioceses, which made some of the wealthiest men in Europe.  Marone persuaded Pope Pius IV to accept this reform, and the wealthiest cardinal warned that this would cost Marone in the next papal conclave, a promise that was kept.

The council also worked on the job description of the bishop, in addition to caring for the souls of the parishioners in his diocese he was required to preach, hold regular synod meetings with the clergy in his diocese, visit the churches, schools, hospitals and other institutions in his diocese, and care for these meant that the Catholic Church renovated many of the churches in Europe.  The council strove to increase the education of the clergy, each diocese was required to establish a seminary for those upcoming priests who could not afford to attend the universities or the Jesuit schools.

The Council addressed the problem of clandestine marriages where the husband and wife exchanged vows in private, but the husband denied taking these vows when little Johnny and Janie came into the world.  Also, a kidnapper could not marry his captives before she was released, and after that, only with her free consent.  Marriages would not be considered valid unless they were witnessed by a priest, and a lasting consequence is that in the decades after Trent more and more marriages were performed in the Church rather than at home.

Favorable discussions were held regarding administering the Eucharistic cup to the laity and permitting clergy to marry, but the Council took no action on these issues.

Cardinal Marone appointed a special commission under Charles Deguise to work on some final issues the Council still had to address.  Originally he had a week and a half to work on them until word came that the Pope was on his deathbed.  If the Pope died the Council would once again be suspended, so in less than two days this special commission drafted and the Council approved the remaining decrees.  These decrees included statements that Purgatory indeed existed and it was beneficial offer prayers to souls in purgatory, that the veneration of saints and images was encourage, indulgences were allowed, and decrees were issued regarding fasting, the breviary, and the missal.[1]


From these blogs we hope that O’Malley has provided persuasive arguments that that Trent was a progressive rather than a reactionary council.  The decrees of Trent form the core of the decrees of Vatican II, the Catholic Catechism footnotes in the DS 1500’s are from the decrees of Trent.  Many topics were on the table and discussed by the Council and the Popes, including clerical celibacy, offering the cup to the laity, vernacular translations of the Bible, but after the council these discussions were closed and the gates were raised and the moats were filled around the Catholic Church as it faced new hostilities from the Protestants and unforgiving history.

In one respect the Council of Trent was conciliatory, the original instructions were that the decrees of the council should not be critical of any individuals but should rather provide corrections to incorrect doctrine.

On the other hand, the decrees of Trent with their repeating anathemas, as in whoever believes this or that, let him be anathema, whereas Vatican II is much more pastoral and respectful of other religious traditions.  But Trent was following time honored practice, many decrees of preceding councils used this anathema formula, notably the Fifth Ecumenical Council who pronounced anathemas on the monophysites, and when St Cyril for the Fourth Ecumenical Council pronounced anathemas against Nestorius.  The decrees of Trent by necessity were a condensation of the Council discussions, and this anathema format made them more strenuous and stricter than the original discussion.

Pope Pius V, the Pope following the council vacuumed up whatever documents he could regarding the Council of Trent and locked them up in the Vatican library away from the preying eyes of scholars for four hundred years, until Pope Leo XIII opened the archives to scholars in 1880.  Only then could an informed history be written of the Council of Trent by Hubert Jedin.  This four-volume history was published between 1951-1976, which was main source used by O’Malley.

Not only did Pius V hide the history and proceedings of the Council of Trent in the Vatican Library, he forbade anyone to publish commentaries on the Council, leaving this job of interpretation to the Congregation of the Council whose members were Cardinals from the Curia of Rome.  These interpretations and other decrees from Rome at this time were reactionary.  They forbade the reading of the Bible by the laity without the permission of the bishop, they gave the impression that vernacular translations were forbidden, the Roman rite was enforced unless another local rite had been in use for two hundred years.

As O’Malley puts it, “the climate was marked by newly aggressive and intransigent attitudes.”  Hard lines were drawn between Catholics and Protestants.  “Catholics were separated from others not only by fundamental teachings such as papal primacy and 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 forth.”  These differences came to define who Catholics were, to compromise on these matters would mean Catholics would lose their identity.  “To compromise on even the slightest point threatened to undermine the whole edifice.”

The Council of Trent with the new Jesuit order also started many positive trends in the Catholic Church.  Many new churches were built and renovated.  There was a flowering of public preaching among the monks, priests, and bishops.  The seminaries founded after Trent and the Jesuit schools greatly increased the learning and effectiveness of the clergy over the coming centuries.  Everyone understood that bishops should live in their diocese, visit their churches, and preach and care for their flock.  The abuse of multiple benefices was eventually phased out.[2]

[1] John O’Malley, Trent, ‘What Happened at the Council” (Cambridge, Massachusetts, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013), pp. 163-247.

[2] John O’Malley, Trent, What Happened at the Council, pp.248-275.

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.

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