This series has seven easy five minute installments. This first installment: Council of Trent Commences.
After the Catholics had lost much of Europe to the Protestants, they had also lost control of the messaging. Just what did the Catholic Church stand for anyway, apart from the special interests of certain aristocrats? If Catholicism were to survive the challenge of the Protestants, this question had to be answered. The need was urgent. Finally the Pope summoned the bishops to a General Council to Trent for March 15, 1545. The leaders of the Church would finally make an answer but would their answer be sufficient?
This selection is by Adolphus W. Ward.
Place: Trento, Italy
On December 13, 1545, three legates appointed by the Pope held their public entry into Trent, and the council was formally opened. Paul III’s continued desire to conciliate the Emperor was shown by his adherence to Trent as the locality of the council, when the legates again urged the choice of a town on Italian soil. Yet the very Bishop of Trent, Cardinal Madruccio, was a prince of the Empire, and by descent attached to the house of Austria, whose interests he consistently represented during the first series of sessions. The papal legates, with whose control over the council the Emperor at the outset showed no intention of interfering, typified the different elements in the ecclesiastical policy of Paul III. The presiding legate, Cardinal del Monte — afterward Pope Julius III — while notable neither for religious zeal nor for wise self-control, was a thoroughgoing supporter of the interests of the Curia. Cardinal Cervino, afterward Pope Marcellus II, a prelate of blameless life, was animated by those ideas of ecclesiastical reform of which Pope Paul had encouraged the open expression; but he was more especially eager for the extirpation of heresy, and not over-scrupulous in the choice of means for reaching his ends. Lastly, Cardinal Pole’s[*] presence at Trent, in which some have seen a mere papal ruse, must have surrounded the early proceedings of the council with a hopeful glamour in the eyes of those who, like himself, expected from it the reunion as well as the reinvigoration of Western Christendom.
[*] Pole became archbishop of Canterbury (1556) and chief adviser to Queen Mary, under whom he was largely responsible for the persecution of English Protestants.
Nothing, as had probably been foreseen at Rome, could have better facilitated the immediate establishment of the ascendancy in the council of the papal policy than the composition of its opening meeting. Of the thirty-four ecclesiastics present, only five were Spanish and two French bishops, and no German bishop had crossed the Alps. Nor had any secular power except the Emperor and King Ferdinand sent their ambassadors. The business machinery of the council, which the legates lost no time in getting into order, was altogether in favor of their influence as managers. Learned doctors, without being, as in former councils, allowed to take part in the debates, prepared the work of the three committees or congregations, who in their turn brought it up for discussion to the general congregations.
The sessions in which the decrees thus prepared were actually passed had a purely formal character, but before they were successively held opportunity enough was given for manipulation and delay. The voting in the council was by heads, instead of by nations, as at Constance and Basel; and care was taken to refresh by occasional additions the working majority of Italian bishops, mostly, in comparison with the “ultramontane” prelates, holders of petty sees. Some of these are even stated to have bound themselves by a sworn engagement to uphold the interests of the holy see, though by no means all of the Italian bishops were servile Curialists; witness those of Chioggia and of Fiesole. The council in its second session (January 7, 1546) waived the form of title by which previous councils had implicitly declared their representative authority paramount. On the other hand, it boded well for the cause of reform that, by an early resolution, virtually all abbots and members of the monastic orders except five generals were excluded.
Clearly, episcopal interest was resolved upon asserting itself. So long, however, as the German bishops were detained in their dioceses by the duty of repressing heresy there, while the great body of the French were kept away by the vigilant jealousy of their government, the episcopal interest and the episcopal principle were mainly represented in the council by the Spanish prelates, the loyal subjects of Charles. Their leader was Pacheco, Cardinal of Jaen. With him came eminent theological professors, who in the early period of the council at least were without rivals — Dominico de Soto, whom Queen Mary afterward placed in Peter Martyr’s chair at Oxford, and Bartolomeo Carranza, afterward primate of all Spain and for many years a prisoner of the Inquisition. Through the Emperor’s ambassador, the accomplished and indefatigable but not invariably discreet Mendoza, the Spanish bishops were carefully apprised of the wishes of their sovereign.
The crucial question as to the order in which the council should debate the two divisions of subjects which it had met to settle had to be decided at once; and the compromise arrived at showed both the strength of the minority and the unwillingness of the leaders of the majority, the presiding legates, to push matters to an extreme. Their instructions from the Pope were to give the declaration of dogma the preference over the announcement of disciplinary reforms; for it seemed to him of primary necessity to draw, while there was time, a clear line of demarcation between the Church and heresy; and for this, as he correctly judged, the assistance of the council was absolutely indispensable. The Emperor, on the other hand, was still unwilling to shut the door completely against the Protestants, while both he and the episcopal party at the council were eager for that reformation of the life and government of the Church which seemed to them her most crying need.
Ultimately it was agreed that the declaration of dogma and the reformation of abuses should be treated pari passu, the decrees formulated in each case being from time to time announced simultaneously. Taking into account the subsequent history of the council, one can hardly deny that this arrangement saved the work of the assembly from being left half done. Nor was the progress made in the period ending with the eighth session of the council (March 11, 1547), intrigues and quarrels notwithstanding, by any means trifling. On the doctrinal side, the foundations of the faith were in the first instance examined, and the whole character of the doctrinal decrees of the council was in point of fact determined, when the authority of the tradition of the Church, including of course the decrees of her ecumenical councils, was acknowledged by the side of that of Scripture.
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