The Council of Trent

The Following is adapted from: The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. Cross, Livingstone; (OUP, 1983).

COUNTER-REFORMATION: The revival of the Roman Catholic Church in Europe, usually considered as extending from about the middle of the 16th cent. to the period of the Thirty Years War (1618–48). Both the conception and the term itself have their dangers, since, though greatly stimulated by Protestant opposition, reform movements within the RC Church had begun almost simultaneously with the Lutheran schism, and the two reforming movements may be regarded with some justification as streams proceeding in reverse directions but from the same source. F. Ximénez de Cisneros, G. Savonarola, and M. Luther himself, in his early career as a Catholic reformer, represent early stirrings of conscience within the Church against the abuses of the Renaissance age, but the new religious orders of the 1520s (Capuchins, Theatines, Barnabites) should probably be regarded as the first organic signs of the Counter-Reformation. These orders preceded by some years St Ignatius Loyola’s foundation of the Jesuits, but soon after its confirmation by Paul III in 1540 the latter organization became the spearhead of the movement both within Europe and as a missionary force in America and the East. The definitions of doctrine and various internal reforms accomplished in the last session of the Council of Trent (1562–3) sealed the triumph of the Papacy both over those Catholics, like the Emp. Ferdinand I and Charles IX of France, who wished for conciliation with the Protestants, and over those French and Spanish bishops who had opposed Papal claims. The Popes of the later 16th cent., notably Paul IV, Pius V, and Sixtus V, took advantage of peace in Italy to improve discipline and efficiency within the Curia and amongst the episcopate. With the Inquisition they paralleled a Spanish conception of ecclesiastical discipline at least in Italy, while Spain under Philip II, the strongest military power of the day, constituted itself the secular arm of the Counter-Reformation throughout Europe. If, however, the movement in its later stages appears increasingly a product of Spanish hegemony and national ideals, there can be no question regarding the apostolic zeal which continued to mark such leaders as St Francis de Sales and St Charles Borromeo, or regarding the spiritual qualities of the Spanish mystics. The all-pervasive zeal of the Jesuits, the co-operation of the Papal nuncios, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the skilful manipulation of the constitutional machinery of the Holy Roman Empire, and the conversion of several important princes were but a few of the factors making for success during the late 16th and early 17th cents. Within Europe the greatest triumph of the movement was the reconquest to the Roman obedience of S. Germany and Poland. In Central Europe the position was scarcely stabilized until the Peace of Westphalia (1648).

M. Philippson, Les Origines du catholicisme moderne: La contrerévolution religieuse au XVIe siècle (Brussels, etc., 1884); P. Janelle, The Catholic Reformation (Milwaukee, 1949); H. O. Evennett, The Spirit of the Counter-Reformation (Birkbeck Lectures, 1951, ed. J. Bossy; Cambridge, 1968); A. G. Dickens, The Counter Reformation (1968); M. R. O’Connell, The Counter Reformation 1559–1610 (New York and London, 1974); A. D. Wright, The Counter Reformation: Catholic Europe and the Non-Christian World (1982); L. Châtellier, L’Europe des dévots (1987; Eng. tr.,The Europe of the Devout: The Catholic Reformation and the Formation of a New Society, Cambridge, 1989); M. D. W. Jones, The Counter Reformation (ibid., 1995); R. P.-c. Hsia, The World of Catholic Renewal 1540–1770 (ibid., 1998); M. A. Mullett, The Catholic Reformation (1999); R. Bireley, The Refashioning of Catholicism, 1450–1700: A Reassessment of the Counter Reformation (Basingstoke, 1999). J. Delumeau, Le Catholicisme entre Luther et Voltaire (Nouvelle Clio, 30 bis; 1971; Eng. tr., 1977). H. Jedin, Katholische Reformation oder Gegenreformation? (Lucerne, 1946). P. Broutin, L’Évêque dans la tradition pastorale du XVIe Siècle ([Fr. adaptation of an essay by H. Jedin, orig. pub. 1942], 1953). J. Bossy, ‘The Counter-Reformation and the People of Catholic Europe’, Past and Present, 47 (1970), pp. 51–70. D. Fenlon, Heresy and Obedience in Tridentine Italy: Cardinal Pole and the Counter Reformation (Cambridge, 1972). W. Reinhard, ‘Gegenreformation als Modernisierung? Prolegomena zu einer Theorie des konfessionellen Zeitalters’, Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte, 68 (1977), pp. 226–52. E. Iserloh, J. Glazik, and H. Jedin, Reformation, Katholische Reform und Gegenreform (Handbuch der Kirchengeschichte, ed. H. Jedin, 4, 1967), pp. 449–686 (Eng. tr., History of the Church, ed. H. Jedin and J. Dolan, 5; 1980, pp. 431–645). J. W. O’Malley, Trent and All That: Renaming Catholicism in the Early Modern Era (Cambridge, Mass., and London, 2000). T. M. Parker in New Cambridge Modern History, 3, ed. R. B. Wernham (1968), pp. 44–71. There is also much material in the histories of the Popes by L. von Ranke and L. Pastor. E. L. Lamp and P. Soergel in NCE (2nd edn.), 4 (2003), pp. 308–14, s.v.

The Following is adapted from: Owen Chadwick, The Reformation.


  Chadwick, The Reformation

  The Council of Trent

CONFRONTED by the doctrine of justification by faith alone,
     the [council fathers] declared that faith alone was not sufficient for justification, but must be accompanied by hope and love.

Confronted by the Protestant appeal to the Scripture,
     they declared that unwritten traditions and Scripture were to be received with equal reverence.

Confronted by the Protestant declaration that the sacraments of the Gospel were three or two in number,
     they affirmed that the sacraments were neither more nor less than seven.

Protestant scholars believed that the Hebrew Bible was the source of the authentic text, and therefore put the Greek apocrypha upon one side as instructive for morals but uncanonical (the question had never been settled by the medieval theologians).
     The Fathers of Trent declared that the Latin Vulgate was the canonical and sacred text.

The Protestant divines believed that the doctrine of a repeated sacrifice of Calvary in the mass, a doctrine which they attributed too sweepingly to the Catholic divines, was perilous and unscriptural;
      and they abolished ‘private masses’ root and branch.

The Fathers of Trent declared that in the mass there was a truly propitiatory sacrifice of Christ,
      and commended those masses at which the priest alone communicated.

The Protestants contended that the liturgy should be in a language understood by the people.
     The bishops declared that the mass should normally continue to be in Latin.


The disciplinary decrees of the Council were henceforth the canonical basis of the Catholic reformation. They were often sweeping in their impact.

The office of indulgence seller or ‘quaestor’ was abolished.

Bishops were given effec­tive powers of supervision in their dioceses.

The Council removed many of those exemptions from episcopal control which during the Middle Ages made the office and work of a bishop so frustrating and so likely to produce litigation.

The patterns of devout shepherds of souls, whether bishop or priest, were described by the canons, but these were liable to be no more effective than the admirable exhortations of earlier Councils. The Council of Trent took one practical step to this end, a measure in the long run the most important of all the measures decreed there. It ordered that the bishop of every diocese where no university existed should establish a seminary to train boys and young men to the priesthood.

The Jesuit colleges provided some precedent. The new training educated the clergy in theology and fostered in them disciplined habits of devotion. Probably the institution of seminaries was more efficacious than any other canon in promoting the chief aim of the Catholic reform — an instructed and pure-hearted priest­hood.

Nothing in the history of the Church has proved more intractable than the problem of turning an illiterate clergy into an educated clergy. The Protestants were shocked to find priests mumbling in the mass words as meaningless as any magical formula, and in their own way set out to instruct the clergy — by establishing schools and colleges, by instituting clerical meetings for study, by encouraging scholarship in the bestowal of benefices, by turning the pastoral emphasis away from the sacraments in favour of the due and efficacious preaching of the Word. The Roman Catholic Church likewise used all these methods, not excluding a more urgent emphasis upon preaching. In 1538 the city of Rome had forgotten that the surplice was the proper garment in which secular priests should preach; for the secular priests hardly ever did preach, and the congregations were accustomed only to friars and other religious, who preached in the habits of their order. The Jesuits, and later the Oratorians, attempted to remedy the defect as part of their vocation of a reformed priesthood — a Jesuit was listed as a ‘reformed priest’ at the Council of Trent. As the Protestants thundered against ‘dumb dogs’ and demanded that pastors should be preaching men, the Council of Trent laid its obligation upon bishops and clergy that they should preach.






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