When most Catholics think about ecumenical councils (if they do at all), Vatican II is probably the first and maybe the only one that comes to mind. Since Vatican II took place in the modern era (1962-1965), it is still fresh in the collective Catholic memory. Every once in a while, though, it is helpful and instructive to reflect on past councils, ones that have shaped the Church for generations and still do so today. In this post, I will offer a brief overview of the Council of Trent (1545-1563).
By 1500, the Catholic Church was badly in need of reform. No one would deny that. Abuses were rampant, laity and clergy alike tended to be poorly educated, and prior attempts at reform (like those by the Fifth Lateran Council in 1512-1514) were unsuccessful. Individual Catholics like Jimenez de Cisneros, John Colet,and Desiderius Erasmus tried to push the Church in the right direction through their writing and leadership, but it took the Protestant revolt to open Catholics' eyes to the state of affairs and spur them on to determined efforts at reform. The Church was threatened and challenged, and Catholics knew they needed to respond, to grasp their faith, and to figure out their true identity.
Pope Paul III understood that he had to take action to strengthen the Catholic Church against Protestant attacks, and this meant clearly defining Catholic faith and practice and curbing abuses. It took a while for him to call the Council, however. There were arguments about location. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V wanted the bishops to gather in Germany, but Paul was afraid that the Protestants would attempt a takeover. Then there was the problem of what kind of tone to set for the Council. Some Church leaders, like Cardinal Gaspero Contarini, preferred a conciliatory tone, while others opted for a more condemnatory and polemical style. Paul finally decided to call the bishops to Trent. The tone would have to develop as the Council progressed.
The Council of Trent was held in three sessions, 1545-1547, 1551-1552, and 1562-1563. Paul oversaw the first of these before his death in 1549. His successor, Julius III, led the second, and Pius IV supervised the third. The ten year gap between the second and third sessions was the result of the negative attitude of Pope Paul IV (1555-1559) toward ecumenical councils. He believed that the pope should be the sole agent of Church reform.
The Council of Trent can be characterized by three words: doctrine, discipline, and devotion. It focused on defining doctrine, tightening up discipline, and encouraging proper devotion.
In terms of doctrine, the Council clearly defined many aspects of the Catholic faith, especially those challenged by the Protestants. For instance, the Council clearly defined seven sacraments; justification by faith and the works that flow out of faith as fruits of charity; Divine Revelation as consisting of both Scripture and Apostolic Tradition; the Mass as a representation and perpetuation of Christ's redemptive sacrifice; and the use of Latin in the Mass and the Latin Vulgate as the canonical text of Scripture. The Creed written and promulgated in the final session emphasizes these elements as well as the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, transubstantiation, the veneration and intercession of the saints, the veneration of images, Purgatory, the role of the Church as Mother and Teacher, the authority of the pope, the power of indulgences, and the obligation of the faithful to obedience. The Council of Trent defined very clearly what it means to be Catholic and what all Catholics must believe. The Roman Catechism, printed a few years later, helped to spread the Council's doctrinal teachings.
The Council of Trent also worked to correct abuses in the Church by tightening up discipline. It abolished the office of indulgence seller and instructed the faithful on proper (i.e., not superstitious) veneration of the saints. The bishops also established a seminary system in which each diocese received a seminary to train young men for the priesthood. Students learned Greek, Latin, logic, Scholastic philosophy, and theology. They were taught how to study Scripture and preach. The goal, of course, was to create educated priests who were also prayerful, faithful, celibate, fervent, and pure-hearted and could pass these characteristics on to their parishioners. The Council bishops even gave themselves more responsibility and authority as they mandated that bishops should be true pastors to the faithful, live in their dioceses, and not hold more than one diocese at a time, a practice called pluralism.
Finally, the Council of Trent offered direction in the area of Catholic devotion. In the Middle Ages, devotion tended to be exterior and even superstitious. The Council emphasized the need for Catholics to grow in their interior spiritual lives and purify their minds and hearts. For example, the bishops called for more missals and devotionals so that Catholics could experience the Mass in their hearts. They also advocated the Rosary and other Marian devotions and Eucharistic worship including the 40 Hours Devotion and Benediction. They even recommended that all Catholics receive the Eucharist more often. In the years following the Council, God gave the Church many saints, including Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Francis de Sales, Jane de Chantal, and Vincent de Paul, to guide the faithful toward a deeper and more meaningful experience of God.
Some historians have claimed that the Council of Trent created a “Fortress Church,” one that turned away from the world and shut out any opposition. Certainly, the bishops firmly and clearly defined Catholic faith and life and forcefully responded to their opponents. This was necessary to guide the Church through the difficult times of the mid-16th century and to proclaim and preserve its unique identity. In reality, the Council of Trent opened the door for the Holy Spirit to blow through the Church, invigorating it and spreading Christ's message of salvation to Catholics and non-Catholics in new and amazing ways.