Council of Trent
The Council of Trent was an ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church held in discontinuous sessions between 1545 and 1563 in response to the Protestant Reformation. The Council should have been held in Vicenza (20 miles west of Venice), but the aristocratic family that
promoted the event was considered to be too fond of the Holy Roman emperor, so the council was moved to Trent.
The nineteenth (or, according to another reckoning, the eighteenth)
of the ecumenical councils recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, the Council of Trent takes its name from the city where it
was held, Trento (or Trent in English), in the southern and Italian part of the
Tyrol (73 miles north west of Venice), and lasted, with interruptions, including a long one from 1552 to 1562, from December 13, 1545, to December 4, 1563.
From a doctrinal and disciplinary point of view,
it was the most important council in the history of the Roman Catholic church, fixing her distinctive faith and practice in
relation to the Protestant Evangelical churches. Its decrees were supplemented by the First Vatican Council of 1870. It clearly specified Catholic doctrines on salvation, the sacraments and the Biblical canon, in opposition to the Protestants, and standardized the Mass throughout the church, largely abolishing
local variations; this became called the "Tridentine Mass", from the city's Latin name Tridentum.
Occasion, sessions, and attendance
In reply to the Papal bull Exsurge Domine of Pope Leon X (1520), Martin Luther had burned the document and appealed to a general council. In
1522, German diets joined in the appeal, and Charles V seconded and pressed it as a means of reunifying the Church
and settling the controversy started by the Reformation. Pope Clement VII (1523-1534) was vehemently against the idea of a council, agreeing with
Francis I of France. After the deliverances of Pope Pius II in his bull Execrabilis (1460) and his reply to the University
of Cologne (1463), setting aside the theory of the supremacy of general councils laid down by the Council of Constance, it was the papal policy to avoid councils.
Pope Paul III, seeing that the Protestant Reformation was no longer a few preachers, but that various princes had
joined in the new ideas, desired a council, but when he proposed the idea to his cardinals, it was unanimously voted against.
Nonetheless, he sent nuncios throughout Europe to propose the idea. France and most of the German Protestants refused the
invitation. Unable, however, to resist the urgency of Charles V, the pope, after proposing Mantua as the place of meeting,
convened the council as exclusively Roman at Trent (at that time a free city of the Holy Roman Empire under a prince-bishop), on Dec. 13, 1545; it was transferred
to Bologna in Mar., 1547 from fear of the plague; indefinitely prorogued, Sept. 17, 1549; reopened at Trent, May 1, 1551,
by Pope Julius III; broken up by the sudden victory of Elector Maurice of Saxony
over the Emperor Charles V., and his march into Tyrol, Apr. 28, 1552; and recalled by Pope Pius IV for the last time, Jan. 18, 1562, when it continued to its final
adjournment, Dec. 4, 1563. It closed with "Anathema to all heretics, anathema, anathema."
The history of the council is divided into three distinct
periods; from 1545 to 1549, from 1551 to 1552, and from 1562 to 1563. The last was the most important. The number of attending
members in the three periods varied considerably. It increased toward the close, but never reached the number of the first
ecumenical council at Nicaea, (which had 318 members), nor of the last of the Vatican (which numbered 764). The decrees were
signed by 255 members, including four papal legates, two cardinals, three patriarchs, twenty-five archbishops, 168 bishops,
two-thirds of them being Italians. Lists of the signers are added to the best editions of the decrees. England was represented
by Reginald Cardinal Pole, Richard Pate, bishop of Worcester, and after 1562 by Thomas Goldwell, bishop of St. Asaph; Ireland
by three bishops, and Germany at no time by more than eight. The Italian and Spanish prelates were vastly preponderant in
power and numbers. At the passage of the most important decrees not more than sixty prelates were present.
A session of the Council of Trent, from an ancient
Objects and general results
The object of the council was twofold:
- To condemn the principles and doctrines of Protestantism, and to define the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church on
all disputed points. It is true the emperor intended it to be a strictly general or truly ecumenical council, at which the
Protestants should have a fair hearing. He secured, during the council's second period, 1551-52, an invitation, twice given,
to the Protestants to be present, and the council issued a letter of safe-conduct (thirteenth session) and offered them the
right of discussion, but denied them a vote. Melanchthon and Johann Brenz, with some other German Lutherans, actually started in 1552
on the journey to Trent. Brenz offered a confession, and Melanchthon, who got no farther than Nuremberg, took with him the
ironic statement known as the Confessio Saxonica. But the refusal to give to the Protestants the right to vote and
the consternation produced by the success of Maurice in his campaign against Charles V. in 1552 effectually put an end to
- To effect a reformation in discipline or administration.
This object had been one of the causes calling forth the reformatory councils, and had been lightly touched upon by the Fifth Council of the Lateran under Pope Julius II and Pope Leo X. The corrupt administration of the Church was one of the secondary
causes of the Reformation. Twenty-five public sessions were held, but nearly half of them were spent in solemn formalities.
The chief work was done in committees or congregations. The entire management was in the hands of the papal legate. The liberal
elements lost out in the debates and voting. The council abolished some of the most notorious abuses, and introduced or recommended
disciplinary reforms affecting the sale of indulgences, the morals of convents, the education of the clergy, the non-residence
of bishops (also bishops having plurality of benefices which was fairly common), and the careless fulmination of censures,
and forbade dueling. Although liberal evangelical sentiments were uttered by some of the members in favor of the supreme authority
of the Scriptures, and justification by faith, no concession whatever was made to Protestantism.
The doctrinal decisions of the council are divided into decrees
(decreta), which contain the positive statement of the Roman dogmas, and into short canons (canones), which condemn the dissenting
Protestant views with the concluding "anathema sit" (or let him/he is anathema). They are stated with great clearness
and precision. The decree on justification betrays special ability and theological circumspection. The Protestant doctrines,
however, are almost always exhibited in an exaggerated form, and sometimes mixed up with heresies that the Protestants also
The canons and decrees
The doctrinal acts are as follows: after reaffirming the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (third session), the decree was passed (fourth session) confirming
that the deuterocanonical books were on a par with the other books of the canon (against Luther's omission of these books in his translation)
and coordinating church tradition with the Scriptures as a rule of faith. The Vulgate translation was affirmed to be authoritative for the text of
Justification (sixth session) was declared to be offered upon the basis of
faith and good works as opposed to the Protestant doctrine of faith alone, and faith was treated as a progressive work. The
idea of man being utterly passive, like a stone, under the influence of grace was also rejected.
The greatest weight in the Council's decrees is given to the
sacraments. The sacramental nature of the seven sacraments was affirmed
and the Eucharist pronounced to be a true propitiatory sacrifice as well as a
sacrament, in which the bread and wine were converted into the body and blood of Christ (thirteenth and twenty-second sessions).
The term transubstantiation was used by the Council, but the specific Aristotelian explanation given by Scholasticism was not cited as dogmatic. Instead, the decree states that Christ is "really, truly, substantially present" in the consecrated
forms. The sacrifice of the Mass was to be offered for dead and living alike and in giving to
the apostles the command "do this in remembrance of me," Christ conferred upon them a sacerdotal power. The practice of withholding
the cup from the laity was confirmed (twenty-first session) as one which the Church had commanded from of old for good and
sufficient reasons; yet in certain cases the pope was made the supreme arbiter as to whether the rule should be strictly maintained.
Ordination (twenty-third session) was defined to imprint a indelible character on the soul. The priesthood of the New Testament takes the place
of the Levitical priesthood. To the performance of its functions, the consent of the people is not necessary.
In the decrees on marriage (twenty-fourth session) the excellence
of the celibate state was reaffirmed (see also clerical celibacy), concubinage condemned, and the validity of marriage made dependent
upon its being performed before a priest and two witnesses. In the case of a divorce the right of the innocent party to marry again was denied so
long as the other party is alive, even if the other may have committed adultery.
In the twenty-fifth and last session, the doctrines of purgatory, the invocation of saints, and the veneration of relics were reaffirmed, as also the efficacy of indulgences as dispensed
by the Church according to the power given her, but with some cautionary recommendations.
The council appointed, in 1562 (eighteenth session), a commission to prepare a list of forbidden
books (Index librorum prohibitorum), but it later left the matter to the action of the pope. The preparation of a catechism and revised editions of the Breviary and Missal were also left to the pope.
On adjourning, the Council begged the supreme pontiff to ratify
all its decrees and definitions. This petition was complied with by Pope Pius IV, January 26, 1564, in a bull which enjoins strict obedience upon all Roman Catholics,
and forbids, under pain of excommunication, all unauthorized interpretation, reserving this to the pope
alone, and threatening the disobedient with "the indignation of Almighty God and of his blessed apostles, Peter and Paul."
Pope Pius appointed a commission of cardinals to assist him in interpreting and enforcing the decrees.
The Index librorum prohibitorum was announced 1564,
and the following books were issued with the papal imprimatur: the Profession of the Tridentine Faith and the Tridentine Catechism (1566), the Breviary (1568), the Missal (1570), and the Vulgate (1590, and then 1592).
The decrees of the council were acknowledged in Italy, Portugal,
Poland, and by the Roman Catholic princes of Germany at the diet of 1566. Philip II of Spain accepted them for Spain, the Netherlands, and Sicily in so far
as they did not infringe on the royal prerogative. In France they were officially recognized by the king only in their doctrinal
parts. The disciplinary sections received official recognition at provincial synods and were enforced by the bishops. No attempt
was made to introduce it into England. Pius IV sent the decrees to Mary, Queen of Scots, with a letter dated June 13, , requesting her to publish them in Scotland, but she dared not
do it in the face of John Knox and the Reformation.
Publication of documents
The canons and decrees of the council have been published
very often and in many languages (for a large list consult British Museum Catalogue, under "Trent, Council of"). The
first issue was by P. Manutius (Rome, 1564). The best Latin editions are by J. Le Plat (Antwerp, 1779), and by F. Schulte
and A. L. Richter (Leipsig, 1853). Other good editions are in vol. vii. of the Acta et decreta conciliorum recentiorum.
Collectio Lacensis (7 vols., Freiburg, 1870-90), reissued as independent volume (1892); Concilium Tridentinum: Diariorum,
actorum, epastularum, ... collectio, ed. S. Merkle (4 vols., Freiburg, 1901 sqq.; only vols. i.-iv. have as yet appeared);
not to overlook Mansi, Concilia, xxxv. 345 sqq. Note also Mirbt, Quellen, 2d ed, pp. 202-255. The best English
edition is by J. Waterworth (London, 1848; With Essays on the External and Internal History of the Council).
The original acts and debates of the council, as prepared
by its general secretary, Bishop Angelo Massarelli, in six large folio volumes, are deposited in the Vatican Library, and remained there unpublished for more than 300 years, and
were brought to light, though only in part, by Augustin Theiner, priest of the oratory (d. 1874), in Acta genuina sancti et oecumenici Concilii Tridentini
nunc primum integre edita (2 vols., Leipzig, 1874).
Most of the official documents and private reports, however,
which bear upon the council, were made known in the sixteenth century and since. The most complete collection of them is that
of J. Le Plat, Monumentorum ad historicam Concilii Tridentini collectio (7 vols., Leuven, 1781-87). New materials were
brought to light by J. Mendham, Memoirs of the Council of Trent (London, 1834-36), from the manuscript history of Cardinal
Paleotto; more recently by T. Sickel, Actenstücke aus österreichischen Archiven (Vienna, 1872); by JJI von Döllinger (Ungedruckte Berichte und Tagebücher zur Geschichte des Concilii
von Trient) (2 parts, Nördlingen, 1876); and A. von Druffel, Monumenta Tridentina (Munich, 1884-97).
List of dogmatic decrees
|The Holy Scriptures
||April 8, 1546
||June 7, 1546
||January 13, 1547
|The Sacraments in General
||March 3, 1547
||March 3, 1547
||March 3, 1547
||October 11, 1551
||November 15, 1551
||November 4, 1551
||June 16, 1562
||September 9, 1562
||July 15, 1563
||November 11, 1563
||December 4, 1563
|Cults: Saints Relics Images
||December 4, 1563
||December 4, 1563
This article includes content derived from the public domain Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, 1914.