On the Council of Trent (I)

I’ve been looking at the Council of Trent (as time allows) for a few months, working on understanding it in its natural context, the 150-year long attempt of reforming elements within the Church to overcome the oppressive, entrenched corruption of the Papal Monarchy system by means of catholic conciliarism. I’m not ready to write full-blown essays on Trent yet, but here’s a couple of interesting tidbits off the top of my notes:

  • Charles V answered the Pope’s call to destroy the wolf in the sheepfold [Luther] by saying that “certainly he would destroy the wolf if he could, and if he was quite certain that it was a wolf and not a sheepdog driven mad by the bad behaviour of the shepherds who were wolves themselves.” [Anthony Froude, Lectures on the Council of Trent (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1969), pg. 8] A very interesting response by the emperor, since numerous reforming parties within the Church had already been for decades speaking of the papacy in terms of it being an out-of-control, drunken helmsman running the ship of the Church into the rocks, and its agents largely as crass simoniacal perverters of the faith of the masses, and so forth.
  • Although there were some moderates at the Council, some of whom were quite sympathetic to Protestant concerns (such as Reginald Pole), the hyper-rigorist sect of Cardinal Giovanni Carafa seems to have carried the debate in the early sessions of the Council. Carafa’s radicalism was such that he had earlier persuaded Pope Paul III to set up a Roman Inquisition along the lines of the Spanish one, declaring that “Even if my own father were a heretic, I would gather the wood to burn him.” With such men as this influencing the Council, it is no wonder things turned out the way they did.
  • Cardinal Pole left the Council in late 1546, pleading illness (but as one commentator of the time noted, really because the strain of trying to maintain a moderating position on justification against so much opposition in the Council had driven him nearly to a breakdown) and never returned. His departure came before the critical canons on justification were promulgated in January of 1547. The Emperor Charles V was also very displeased with the Council’s decision on this matter, as it closed off possibilities of negotiating with his many Lutheran subjects.
  • In early 1547 (just after Charles V crushingly defeated the Lutheran Schmalkaldic League in battle, leaving them vulnerable to negotiation) the Council was transferred by the pope to Bologna–the second most important city in the Papal States–on the pretext of an outbreak of plague in Trent. This was not the first time a pope had imperiously transferred a Council, and that plus the fact that he transferred it to a city firmly within his own essentially autonomous political control showed that the papacy had not learned anything at all from the struggles of the previous century, and was apparently determined to offend as many of its opponents as it could as deeply as it could.The transfer was particularly not a good sign to the Lutherans. A major complaint of theirs, even while Luther was still alive, had been that the call for a General Council had to be free of papal control, because the pope himself was a party to the dispute and it would be illegal for him to be a (the) judge in his own case. Thus, by controlling the very location of the Council, the papacy further damaged the Catholic Charles’s ability to negotiate with his Protestant subjects, further destabilizing an already rapidly disintegrating situation.
  • The reconstituted Council in Bologna met a few times, but the Emperor succeeded in pressuring the pope to suspend it a few months into 1548. Nothing further was able to be done, largely because Paul III was too distracted with his Italian politicking to pay much attention to the needs of the Church. When he died on Nov. 10, 1549, one final chance at moderation appeared in the fact that one favored candidate for his successor was Cardinal Pole. But although Pole came very close to winning the election (there were several votes, and in one of them he lacked only one vote!), the hostility of the high papalists against him persuaded him to back away from his claim to the papal chair. The result was the accession of the scandalous, worldly Julius III–just what was NOT needed at that critical hour.
  • Julius III’s reign was followed by the ultimate insult to the moderate reforming parties still present at Trent: the election of the vicious Cardinal Carafa (who would have burned his own father at the stake for heresy) as Pope Pius IV. Is it any wonder that open war would soon break out between the Roman Catholics and the Protesting Catholics?
  • More to come as I have time. But if you have sufficient time and interest in this subject, I recently uploaded my somewhat lengthy research paper on Luther’s view of Councils, which contains a great deal of the backhistory leading up to the Council of Trent. It really is a fascinating, very human story–one which to my mind confirms the judgment of Jaroslav Pelikan that the Protestant Reformation was a “tragic necessity”.

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