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17. The Council of Trent and the Counter Reformation

Catholic Diversity in the Medieval Era

It is important to remember that Roman Catholic theology had many various views and different schools of theology in the Medieval era. Differences of opinion existed on such questions as the Canon of Scripture, the nature of Justification, and role of the Papacy. Martin Luther did not set out to start a new church but to reform the Roman Catholic Church to which he belonged. When Luther published his 95 Theses he did so in the understanding that he was presenting true Catholic teaching.

The Crisis of the Reformation for the Western Church

In 1522, less than 2 years after Luther’s excommunication, the German princes met at Nuremberg and called for a council in Germany to resolve the issues raised by Luther. Pope Adrian VI (d. 1523) declared that the sins of the Catholic Church caused the crisis leading to the Reformation, and yet Trent would not meet for another 22 years later.

In the early days of the Reformation attempts had been made by leading Catholic Cardinals and theologians to reach out to the Protestants. In 1539 Cardinal Sadoleto (d. 1547) wrote to the churches in Geneva attempting to argue that no major differences existed between the Roman Catholic doctrine of Justification and the Reformers. “We obtain this blessing,” Sadoleto wrote, “of complete and perpetual salvation by faith alone in God and in Jesus Christ.” (Pelikan: 4:254).

The Regensburg Agreement (1541)

On April 27, 1541, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V convened a theological conference at Regensburg (aka. Ratisbon). Among the Protestants were Philip Melanchthon (d.1560) and Martin Bucer (d.1551), with John Calvin observing (d.1564). Representing Pope Paul III (d.1549) were Cardinal Contarini (d.1542), and Luther’s nemesis Johann Eck (d.1543). The conference managed to produce a definition of justification that both the Roman Catholics and Reformers could agree on.

Article 5: 4.5-6 “the faith that truly justifies is that faith which is effectual through love [Gal. 5:6]. (6) Nevertheless it remains true, that it is by this faith that we are justified (i.e. accepted and reconciled to God) inasmuch as it appropriates the mercy and righteousness which is imputed to us on account of Christ and his merit, not on account of the worthiness or perfection of the righteousness imparted to us in Christ.”

Though doctrinal agreement was reached at the Conference on some of the controverted subjects, including a basis of agreement on justification, major issues on church authority and Sacraments remained unresolved (ODCC: 1376)

Calling the Council of Trent

Three Popes, Paul III, Julius III, Pius IV, each convened a separate period of the council of Trent. Though no Pope attended the Council, they presided instead via papal legates. A back and forth mail system kept Rome up to date on proceedings in Trent. This naturally caused considerable delays. The sardonic reply that unlike other councils where the Holy Spirit descended upon the Bishops from on high, at Trent the Holy Spirit arrived in the mail bag (O’Malley, 9). The Council met in three periods over 18 years: 1545-1547, 1551-1552, 1562-1563

PERIOD I (1545–7; Sessions 1–8) Pope Paul III

Trent eventually met on 13 Dec. 1545. At the outset it was a very small assembly. Voting was restricted to bishops not as at the earlier Ecumenical Council of Constance, (1415) where nations voted as blocks. The bishops from the Italian states dominated the voting as they were more numerous.

Scripture and Tradition

At Session 4 (8 Apr. 1546) the validity of both Scripture and unwritten traditions as sources of truth, the sole right of the Catholic Church to interpret the Bible, and the authority of the text of the Vulgate were asserted. A draft decree at Trent proposed: “This truth of the Gospel is contained partly [partim] in written books, partly [partim] in unwritten traditions.” Although it may have represented the majority view, the formula ‘partly/partly’ evoked sharp reaction. It was “ungodly” one bishop declared, to put Scripture and nonspiritual tradition on the same level.” (Pelikan 4:277). Trent agreed to assert that Scripture and Tradition together contained the source of Catholic dogma.


The decrees of Session 5 (17 June 1546) on Original Sin and of Session 6 (13 Jan. 1547) on justification were of critical importance. It took 7 months to formulate the decree on justification (O’Malley, 19).

Tommaso Sanfelice spoke at Trent of justification by faith alone and the ‘slave soul’ which was unable to save itself. He later overheard Dionysius de Zanettini the Franciscan bishop from Crete, nicknamed “the little Greek [Grechetto] call him “an ignoramus or a scoundrel.” Sanfelice confronted Grechetto to his face, and a fight ensued. Sanfelice grabbed Grechetto by his beard and shook him violently. That was the end of Sanfelice’s participation at Trent (Pelikan 4:8, O’Malley, 109). In the end it appears Trent rejected the Reformer’s understanding of Justification by faith alone. However, some Catholic theologians today have questioned whether Trent and the Reformers say something different about Justification or the same thing differently? (Küng, 34). Trent's decree on Justification includes the following statements:

CANON XXX. - If any one says, that, after the grace of Justification has been received, to every penitent sinner the guilt is remitted, and the debt of eternal punishment is blotted out in in such a way, that there remains not any debt of temporal punishment to be discharged either in this world, or in the next in Purgatory, before the entrance to the kingdom of heaven can be opened (to him); let him be anathema (i.e. cursed to hell forever).

CANON XXIV. - If any one says, that the justification received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that these works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification already obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema (i.e. cursed to hell forever).


Political conflict between Charles V and the Pope coupled with a feared epidemic of plague at Trent offered a pretext for transferring the Council to Bologna (Session 8, 11 Mar. 1547). The Council was now virtually suspended for four years, until Julius III (1550–5) re-convoked the assembly to Trent, which some prelates had refused to abandon (ODCC: 1620)

PERIOD II (1551–2; Sessions 9–14) Pope Julius III

Session 14 (25 Nov. 1551) discussed the Eucharist, Penance and Extreme Unction. Transubstantiation was affirmed and the Lutheran, Calvinist, and Zwinglian Eucharistic doctrines repudiated.

A handful of Protestant theologians briefly attended but were not allowed to vote. Their demands for a renewed discussion of the subjects previously defined, the release of the bishops from their oaths of allegiance to the Papacy, and the supremacy of General Councils over the Pope were soundly rejected.


The revolt of the German princes against Charles V led to the suspension of the Council on 28 Apr. 1552. Under the anti-Protestant Paul IV (1555–9) there was no hope of its reassembly, and it would not meet again until ten years later under Pius IV.

PERIOD III (1562–3; Sessions 15–25) Pope Pius IV

All hope of conciliating the Protestants had now evaporated. Proceedings were constantly hindered by struggles between the Papal legate and the opposition bishops and it seemed that the council would never end. Proposed moral and canonical reforms by the Spanish and French came to nothing, disappointing many. The conclusion of the council owed its success largely to the diplomatic skill of the Papal legate, Cardinal Giovanni Morone.

Wrapping up

Session 21 (16 July 1562) outlined the mode of Eucharistic Communion and the presence of the undivided Christ under either species (concomitance). Session 24 (24 Nov. 1563) defined the Sacrament of Matrimony as indissoluble. Session 25 (3–4 Dec. 1563) dealt with Purgatory, the invocation of saints, the veneration of relics and images, and indulgences. In Catholic theology, an indulgence is a remission of temporal punishment due to sin, the guilt of which has been forgiven. These matters were rushed through the council with practically no discussion. The main objective was now to end the council as soon as possible.


The Council ended on 4 Dec. 1563 to the relief of the Papal Legate. In 1564 Pius IV published the ‘Profession of the Tridentine Faith’, which was his official summary of Catholic dogma in light of the council’s proceedings. The revision of the Vulgate, ordered at Trent in 1546, was concluded under Clement VIII in 1592 (ODCC: 1651).


In reality Trent was too late to seriously offer reconciliation with the Protestant churches which had by now established themselves as distinct movements. The two most important doctrines discussed at Trent were Justification and the Sacraments. In both of these doctrines the Catholic Church rejected the position of the Reformers. Interestingly, there were no statements on Papal authority, and Trent side-stepped the issue of celibacy. Concerning the use of vernacular liturgy Trent simply stated it was wrong to maintain the liturgy could only be said in the vernacular, i.e. Latin was still permissible. Trent issued no clear teaching on the question of the Church (O’Malley, 20). It would be another 300 years before the Roman Catholic Church attempted another Ecumenical Council (Vatican I). Trent is still recognized as an infallible Ecumenical Council for the Catholic Church today.


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