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The Council of Trent, 450 Years Later

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We might know that Trent was a council of the Catholic Church called to deal with the Reformation and the reform of the church. We might know that it met between 1545 and 1563 over the course of five pontificates. For most of us, however, our knowledge goes no further. The sad fact is that even many theologians, Catholic and other, have only a generic grasp of the council as a historical happening, and, hence, are led to pronounce judgments on it that are misleading and, generally, more negative than the council deserves.

This year marks the 450th anniversary of the council's close. In the course of the centuries since 1563, Trent has suffered from more than its share of myths and misunderstandings. The reasons are many. In its day the council was an object of vicious controversy and polemic -- and not only from Protestants. The "Most Christian" kings of France, for instance, threw obstacles in its way and in effect boycotted it until the last moment. The council was a political football. It lurched from major crisis to major crisis. (For that perhaps deplorable reason it can be fascinating for history afficionados.)

The fact that only 29 bishops out of an episcopate of perhaps as many as 700 showed up for the council's opening helped make it an object of derision and satire from its first moment. The further fact that it dragged on for a seemingly interminable length did not help its reputation. Its final decrees, moreover, are dense with theological and canonical technicalities that make them extraordinarily susceptible to misunderstanding except by for scholars initiated into the subtleties of canon law and medieval Scholasticism.

Aside from the decrees, which were published almost immediately, virtually all the background materials -- records of the debates in the council, diaries, correspondence, etc. -- were inaccessible until 1880 when the Vatican archives were opened. Even so, it took scholars from 1901 until 2001, a full century, to piece them together, edit them and finally begin publishing them.

With those volumes now in hand and with the scholarship, principally German, expended upon them since the volumes began appearing, we are finally able to dispel the myths and misunderstandings that have plagued the council for centuries. A big myth, for instance, is that the council was a smooth-functioning machine intent upon launching an offensive against Protestants and in making the Catholic laity tow the line in their behavior and thinking.

Like all myths, this one has more than a grain of truth in it. The council did, in fact, settle upon a set of procedures for itself that allowed it to function relatively smoothly, but there were just enough ambiguities in it to cause periodic explosions of outrage and denunciations that the council was being manipulated. The biggest ambiguity, which underlay many disruptions, was the pope's relationship to the council. To what extent did the pope have the authority to determine the council's course? If there ever was an issue-under-the-issues at the Council of Trent, this was it. Of it, however, the council's final decrees breathe not a word.

While it is certainly true that the theologians and bishops at the council were heavily prejudiced against Luther and his followers, they tried their best to be fair. They realized, moreover, that at the insistence of Emperor Charles V the council was convoked to try to effect a reconciliation with the Reformers. That this utopian goal could not be attained was mainly due to factors beyond the council's control. The hour was too late.

After the council the inquisitions in Catholic countries such as Spain, the Republic of Venice and the Papal States engaged in more intense surveillance and disciplining of both laity and clergy than before it. But that phenomenon is at most an indirect result of the council rather than something the council pursued with consistent purpose. The bishops at Trent were not directly intent upon reforming the laity but upon reforming themselves. That is, they wanted to make bishops do their jobs -- to preach, to educate their clergy and, above all, to reside in their dioceses. Although in the 16th century many bishops were devout and took their obligations seriously, a surprising number simply collected the money the bishopric afforded them and hired a vicar to do the work.

The reformers at Trent bent their most determined and intense efforts on obliterating this abuse. The pursuit of this goal brought the council into its most serious confrontation with the papacy. Papal dispensations from church law that required bishops to reside were the loophole the reformers believed they had to close. The confrontation paralyzed the council for 10 long months as both sides jockeyed for victory. Although the crisis had was resolved only by a shaky compromise, the council's ideal of resident bishops bit by bit became the reality that we take for granted today.

Misunderstandings persist about what Trent decreed on certain issues controversial even today. Despite what is often said, for instance, Trent did not insist the Mass be in Latin. It, rather, left the door open for both Latin and the vernacular. What about clerical celibacy? Emperor Ferdinand I and Duke Albrecht of Bavaria begged the council to mitigate it, at least for German-speaking lands. On this issue, as on others, the council decided not to decide, which in effect threw the matter onto the desk of the pope after the council. Pius IV procrastinated over it, but his successor, Pius V, adamantly refused to make any change. Thus, the issue died.

Much, much more could be said about a council that had such an important impact not only on religion but, as well, on the political and cultural fabric of the West. But perhaps, with this brief initiation your appetite has been whetted to know more. In any case, what study makes ever clearer is that some of the problems the Council of Trent tried to deal with, or decided not to deal with, have not gone away for the church and for society at large.