The Council of Trent– And Church Reform Today

The Council of Trent– And Church Reform Today February 28, 2019

The late Father Andrew Greeley once called the Catholic Church’s current sex scandals the biggest challenge it’s faced since the Reformation. As a Church historian, that observation made me wonder: how did the Church get out of that earlier mess, for which its own bishops, and even popes, were largely responsible?

Before answering that question, it’s important to know what led to the Reformation. Church offices were being sold and bought; many bishops and abbots were absentee landlords raking in profits; some of them held revenues from more than one diocese; popes made their adolescent nephews bishops. Priests had no real training; seminaries as such did not exist at the time.

Sometimes popes were the worst of the lot. Alexander VI (1492-1503) was a womanizer and a nepotist. His successor, Julius II, was more warrior than pontiff. It was Leo X’s call for indulgences that inspired Martin Luther to action. (When Leo was elected in 1513, he said: “My friends, God has given us the papacy. Let us enjoy it.”)

So where did Catholic reform originate?

The answer is simple: it started from below. While prelates lived it up, laymen were founding hospitals and starting groups like the Oratory of Divine Love, where laity and clergy discussed reform, cared for the poor, and visited the sick and imprisoned. Two oratory members became leading reformers: St. Gaetano da Thiene, founder of the Theatines, and Gian Pietro Carafa, later Pope Paul IV.

Reform was basically grassroots and lay-initiated. Even several of the key religious orders that became involved in reform were initially lay endeavors, such as Angela Merici’s Ursulines, the first teaching order of women religious. The Jesuit order had its roots in Ignatius Loyola’s lay ministry. Before his own ordination, Philip Neri lived as a layman in Rome for over a decade, founding a confraternity that served Rome’s poor. His Oratorians later followed up on this earlier work.

Eventually, reform proceeded upward, to the clergy and the hierarchy. Reform-minded young priests, influenced by reform movements, became reform-minded bishops. And in time, the most unlikely of reformers was elected pope: Paul III (1534-1549).

Born Alessandro Farnese, he had worked his way up the ecclesiastical ladder, helped no doubt by the fact that his sister was Alexander VI’s mistress. A practiced nepotist and father of several children, somewhere along the way, Farnese experienced a conversion. As pontiff, he appointed a reform commission. He also tried to open dialogue between Catholic and Protestant leaders, albeit unsuccessfully. Most importantly, he opened the Council of Trent.

Trent is a city in Northern Italy dating back to ancient times. In Italian, it’s called Trento, and Tridentum in Latin (hence the term “Tridentine”). In three sessions, held between December 8, 1545 and December 4, 1563, it was host to an Ecumenical Council, one of the most important (and misunderstood) in the history of Catholicism.

For some, the word “Tridentine” evokes reaction and nostalgia for a bygone past. Hence it’s often assumed that the council was an attempt to preserve the Church’s status quo. Nothing was further from the truth. Trent was revolutionary– it wasn’t a reaction to Protestantism– it was a reform council. Despite opposition inside and outside the Church, it aimed to create much needed changes in Catholic life. Deep-set long-standing abuses needed to be corrected if the Church was to fully live again.

At the First Session, it was clear that there would be no blame-shifting. One French cardinal asked:

Whom shall we accuse, my fellow Bishops? Whom shall we declare to be the authors of such great misfortune? Ourselves; we must admit that much, with shame and repentance for our past lives. Storm and tempest have arisen on our account, my brethren, and because of this let us cast ourselves into the sea. Let judgment begin with the house of God; let those who bear the sacred instruments of the Lord be purged and reformed!

Even then, some bishops expected it to be a short council. A French bishop calling for curial reform was heckled: “My, my, listen how well the cock crows!” He responded:  “Yes, and at cock-crow St. Peter roused himself and wept!”

Did Trent accomplish much? Quite a bit, actually. It eliminated most abuses and clarified Church teaching. But it also promoted positive reform with seminaries to train future priests. Every diocese was required to have its own. But the council is most famous for standardizing liturgical practices in what became known as the Tridentine Mass.

So what’s all this talk about Trent got to do with our problems today? Well, If we look at how Catholic reform originated back then, we see much of it started with lay women and men acting on their own initiative to make a difference. They certainly didn’t act on orders from the bishops or popes, many of whom had abandoned their sacred trust by then.

Reform preceded upward from below, not from above. It was the laity who got the ball rolling. And it was through their influence that clergy, bishops and popes embraced reform and institutionalized it at Trent. That’s a good lesson for us today– if things are going to change in today’s Church (and they clearly need to), lay people have to make a difference where they are. It’s time for all of us to live out our baptismal vocation. 

(The drawing of St. Ignatius Loyola is by Pat McNamara.)


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