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Council of Trent

1545-63. By Roman Catholic reckoning the nineteenth ecumenical council, it was brought about by the continuing success of the Protestant Movement. The council was delayed by many problems. For example, although Charles V* was in favor of a council, he was opposed by Francis I of France. Charles envisioned the council as the means to reunite Christendom, while the papacy saw the council as the means to halt Protestantism.

Pope Paul III* summoned a council for Mantua in 1537, but it failed to meet. The council was transferred to Vicenza in 1538, but the indifference of Charles V and the Protestants resulted in the conference at the appearance of only a few churchmen. The failure of the conference at Ratisbon* spurred Paul III to try calling another council, this time for 1542, but the war between Charles V and Francis I prevented its meeting. After the peace of Crépy, the council was decreed by the bull Laetare Hierusalem issued 11 November 1544. The council was to meet in Trent on 15 March 1545 to settle the religious disputes brought about by the Protestants, to reform certain ecclesiastical abuses, and to begin a crusade against Islam. Due to another disagreement with Charles V over the purpose of the council, it was not convened until December of 1545. The council met in three stages: 1545-47, 1551-52, and 1562-63.

During the first stage, some basic ground rules were established that influenced the other two stages. First, the voting was to be by head rather than by nation; this gave the majority vote to the Italian representatives and thus to the papacy. Second, after some discussion with Charles V over which topics had precedence-reform or doctrine-it was decided to consider both concurrently. Those who could vote during the council included bishops, abbots, and generals of orders. Although the first stage included only thirty-four churchmen, the later meetings did include more. The majority of the participants came from Italy, Spain, France, and Germany. Although Protestants did attend some of the sessions, their impact on the council's deliberations was negligible.

During the first meeting of the council, the following important actions were taken: in session III, the Niceno- Constantinopolitan Creed was affirmed as the basis of faith; tradition and Scripture were declared to be equal sources of the faith: the canon of Scripture was fixed, and the Vulgate* was declared to be authentic for matters of faith; the Pelagian* and Protestant views of original sin were rejected; the critical problem of justification by faith was considered, with the affirmation made that man is inwardly justified by sanctifying grace and thus capable of good works only after his cooperation with the gratuitous divine assistance. In this same session, the Protestant position on the number of sacraments was rejected, and the council decreed there were seven, conferring grace ex opere operato. Apparently an epidemic broke out, and with political tension growing after some of the council left for Bologna, the pope suspended the council in 1547.

The second meeting of the council began in 1551, but the French were forbidden to attend on orders from Henry II; the Spanish representatives took a more independent stance with the support of Charles V; the Jesuits made their appearance in the form of Laynez* and Salmeron; and the Protestants made a brief appearance. A revolt of princes against Charles V plus internal friction brought an end to the meeting. The following actions were taken: the concept of the Eucharist* was carefully defined with the rejection of the Zwinglian and Lutheran positions; session XIV defined and affirmed the importance of auricular confession, the judicial character of absolution, the church's position on penance, and extreme unction; it also issued the reform decrees on discipline of the clergy.

With the third meeting of the council, called by Pius IV,* all hope of reconciliation with Protestantism was gone. One of the reasons for resummoning the council was apparently the fear of Pius IV that without the council France might become Calvinist. The council met in January of 1562, and 113 were present. The discussions were now more internal than previously. The struggle was not with Protestantism, but between pro- and antipapal forces. The latter usually were victorious, due partly to the consummate skill of Cardinal Morone.* The following actions were taken: a number of books were added to the Index in session XVIII; session XXI affirmed the belief that Christ is totally present in both species during the Eucharist, but only the bread was to be distributed to the laity; more precise definitions on the sacrificial aspects of the Mass* were arrived at. This was probably the second-most-important decision of Trent. A crisis arose over the appearance of the French bishops in November 1562 and their position on the question of clerical residency. The French and Spanish churchmen were opposed to the papal reform, but after ten months of adjournment due to this issue, a strict decree was promulgated. Other decrees were issued on matrimony, orders, founding of seminaries, and establishment of synods. The council ended 4 December 1563, and the decrees were confirmed 26 January 1564. Later in 1564 Pius IV issued a summary of the council's work called the “Tridentine Creed.”

Although the council did not satisfy Protestants and some Catholics, it did provide the foundation for a revitalization of Catholicism through, for example, the Roman Catechism of 1566, the Revised Breviary of 1568, and the Missal of 1570. The council set the boundaries of Catholic belief, but did not always carefully and minutely define the details of belief, thus allowing some hope for further ecumenical efforts.

Societas Goerresiana (ed.) Concilium Tridentium (1901ff.); H.J. Schroeder (tr.), Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (1941); L. Christiani, L'église à l'empoque du Concile de Trente (1948); G. Schreiber, Das Weltkonzil von Trent (1951); H. Jedin, A History of the Council of Trent (1957); J.A. O'Donohoe, Tridentine Seminary Legislation (1957); C.S. Sullivan, The Formulation of the Tridentine Doctrine on Merit (1959); M. Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent (1971).