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The Tale of Trent: A Council and and Its Legacy | Martha Rasmussen | From The Catholic Church: The First 2000 Years | Ignatius Insight

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The Catholic Church: The First 2000 Years by Martha Rasmussen is a popular overview and study guide to the history of the Catholic Church. Written for non-scholarly readers with little historical background, it includes descriptions of society in different historical eras in order to make the history of the Church more understandable. The book explains important doctrinal, spiritual, and historical questions and developments. It identifies many popular saints and includes interesting historical characters.

Catholics seeking a deeper spiritual life and a closer relationship with God will find many helpful ideas to trust God’s love and care for them. The story of how the Church survived earlier trials will encourage people struggling with current challenges in the Church or discouraged by difficulties in their own lives.

This book is useful in RCIA and religious education classes, for personal study, Catholic high school or college classes, or discussion groups.

“Martha Rasmussen has the ambition to tell a great story on a grand canvas, and she does it admirably well. Rasmussen’s grasp of Catholic history is thorough, engrossing and filled with excellent discussion questions for personal reflection and group study.” —Most Reverend Charles J. Chaput, Archbishop of Denver

The Council of Trent

Pope Paul III was elected in 1534. He began preparing for an ecumenical council by appointing bishops who had reformed their own dioceses or religious orders to be cardinals. They planned for the council and negotiated with secular leaders. Many German rulers were Protestants, and the ones who were Catholic were committed to compromise and discussion. Martin Luther and other Protestant leaders had been asking for a council since 1517. However, when the Pope called for a council, Protestants did everything they could to delay it, because they wanted a different type of council. Some civil authorities made unacceptable demands for control over it. The council finally gathered at the city of Trent in 1545.

The first sessions of the Council of Trent set up the order of procedure. The topics to be discussed were proposed by the Pope's legates and drawn up in documents for discussion by groups of theologians. The whole assembly debated the proposals, which were voted on by the bishops and cardinals. The format reduced the business of reforming the Church to manageable segments and gave bishops the opportunity to accept, reject, discuss, and modify proposals. Even though Protestants were excluded from the Council of Trent, their views were represented because a few Catholic bishops had adopted some Protestant views, and others were uncertain about basic Catholic doctrines. Many Catholic theologians, especially the Jesuits, had obtained copies of Protestant books and studied them thoroughly, since they hoped to persuade Protestants to return to the Catholic Church. Decrees affecting Church abuses and discipline were voted on by some bishops who had committed the offenses that were condemned.

The council was interrupted by the reign of Pope Paul IV, formerly Cardinal Caraffa. He had witnessed the Lateran Council thirty years earlier and doubted that an ecumenical council would really reform the Church. During his reign he made every possible effort to enforce existing Church laws instead of reconvening the council. This made him very unpopular, but he ended many abuses. For example, many bishops and cardinals left Rome to avoid his disciplinary laws and visited their dioceses, often for the first time. After he died, the next Pope reconvened the Council of Trent.

The council had two basic tasks. One was to enact decrees that would end the crimes committed by Church leaders. The other was to define and reaffirm Catholic beliefs, so that Catholics and Protestants would know exactly what the Catholic Church taught about disputed doctrines. Even though Catholic teaching had been consistent, there had been some development of doctrine since apostolic times, and Church teaching on many subjects was not summarized anywhere in a concise and authoritative fashion. St. Thomas Aquinas and other theologians had written summaries of the Catholic faith, but none of them was completely authoritative, and their summaries often filled ten to fifteen volumes. Theologians had to read many books in Latin before they could understand what the Church taught on a few controversial subjects, such as predestination. Some bishops and priests, and most Catholics, did not know enough Latin to read long theological texts.

Many theologians at the council, especially the Jesuits, had spent decades studying the writings of the Bible, the Apostolic Fathers, and later Catholic authors. These theologians had a profound knowledge of Church teachings on every subject. The Jesuits showed so much love of Jesus and loyalty to the Church that most of the bishops attending the council were impressed by their holiness and knowledge. Even so, the documents proposed by Jesuit theologians at the Pope's request were debated and revised before they were passed. The decrees restated traditional beliefs clearly and established disciplinary laws that guided the Church for the next four hundred years.

The disciplinary decrees ended a number of abuses by bishops such as controlling more than one diocese, living outside of their diocese, buying and selling religious offices (simony), collecting the revenue from their diocese without being ordained, and similar crimes. Bishops or priests who committed immoral acts, simony, or other serious offenses were automatically suspended and deprived of their offices. The Council also laid down strict laws regarding the admission of candidates for the priesthood. Priests who were ordained had to have the theological knowledge, training, and stability to live a virtuous life. If these decrees had been in effect earlier they would have excluded most of the immoral Renaissance priests, bishops, and Popes and many men who became Protestant leaders after being ordained or holding offices in the Catholic Church.

The council required that each bishop establish a seminary in his diocese to train priests. This decree was difficult to implement at first, since many dioceses had very little income, and there were not enough trained theologians to act as professors. The situation changed when the new religious orders of priests gained more vocations. Soon many seminaries were staffed by Jesuits or Theatines, and later by French Vincentians or Sulpicians. Since the professors had taken vows of poverty and were willing to live and teach in small, inexpensive buildings, more bishops were able to establish seminaries. The influence of these holy professors on the priests they trained was one of the most important results of the Council of Trent. There were still scandals among Church leaders, but they were much less frequent and were regarded as exceptions in Catholic life.

Since parish priests were expected to live virtuous lives, they set a good example for ordinary Catholics. Immorality in society seems to have gradually declined. Behavior that would have been laughed off in the early Renaissance was regarded as intolerable several hundred years later, and the worst crimes among Church leaders were completely suppressed. Church leaders had learned that tolerating evil behavior did nothing to reform criminals and encouraged others to imitate them. The only way to reform the Church was to punish Church leaders for their evil deeds by depriving them of their Church offices and to insist on good behavior as a prerequisite for ordination. Church leaders were not usually saints, but after the Council of Trent, people who were living openly immoral lives were not allowed to hold offices in the Church.

The decrees of the council on Church teaching did not establish any new doctrines, but they reaffirmed or explained the doctrines taught by earlier Catholics. For instance, each sacrament was defined clearly, and its manner of administration and effects were laid out in detail. Since all sacraments, including the sacrament of Holy Orders, were instituted by Christ, the Church hierarchy was clearly an essential part of Christ's Church. These decrees showed the errors of Protestants who rejected the sacraments and refused to admit that the hierarchy had any authority from God. The council also passed dogmatic decrees defining Catholic beliefs about grace, predestination, the need for unity, and the nature of the Church. The decrees clearly stated that people who held different views had cut themselves off from the Church, and that was a serious sin. Of course, this applied only to people who knew the correct Catholic teaching and deliberately rejected it. Later Protestants who had no opportunity of knowing Catholic teaching were in a different situation. They were deprived of most of the sacraments and the benefits of being a Catholic, but they could be saved if they obeyed Christ to the best of their ability.

The Council of Trent met from 1545 to 1547, 1551 to 1552, and 1561 to 1563. The sessions were interrupted by several wars, the deaths of several Popes, and the reign of Pope Paul IV The eighteen-year interval between the beginning and end of the council may have created a better opportunity for genuine reform. There were more bishops, cardinals, and religious orders dedicated to Catholic reform in 1563 than in 1545. Catholic rulers had less hope that diplomatic or military efforts would restore Church unity, and most of them supported the council reforms after the decrees were passed.

After the Council of Trent, theologians wrote the Roman Catechism, which was approved by the Pope, St. Pius V, in 1566. The book included a short summary of everything Catholics needed to know about their faith. It was easier to read and more complete than the Decrees of the Council of Trent, and it became the basis of most later Catechisms for priests or Jay people. The Roman Catechism was one of the most useful teaching aids during the Catholic Reformation.

By this time Protestant leaders had established firm control in many countries. Most rulers believed that they had the right to choose the religion their people would follow. Rulers could exile or execute anyone teaching unapproved religious beliefs. In many Protestant countries, ordinary people maintained their Catholic faith for several generations, but eventually most of the population conformed to the main religion in most countries. (Ireland, which remained Catholic in spite of domination by Protestant England, was the most notable exception.) The conversion of one ruler often meant that the entire country would eventually follow a new religion. Religious differences increased the bitterness of disputed successions and feuds over land or power. The next hundred years witnessed religious persecution and religious wars in many countries. In the end Protestants controlled independent sections of Germany, Switzerland, Holland, and Eastern Europe and all of Scotland, Scandinavia, and England. Catholics regained control over Poland, Bohemia, parts of Germany, and several other nations after being temporarily displaced by Protestants. The rest of Europe remained Catholic.

The Council of Trent ended religious confusion among Catholics. Protestant and Catholic beliefs were clearly distinguished. The Church hierarchy was effectively reformed, so Protestants who left the Church after the council were forced to reject doctrines or discipline rather than criticize serious abuses. Unfortunately, most Protestants did reject many Catholic doctrines. They remained separated from full unity with the Catholic Church. The split was more serious than the Eastern Schism, since the Greek Orthodox Church retained sacraments and most of the faith that it had received from the Apostles in spite of rejecting the authority of the Pope. Modern improvements in communication and honest dialogue between Catholics and Protestants have increased hopes for full unity among Christians. However, resolving the doctrinal differences will require prayer and conversions as well as charity.

The Church After the Council of Trent

For several hundred years before the Council of Trent ended in 1563, the Church was damaged by scandals among her leaders, pressure from secular rulers and changes in society, and attacks from former Catholics who had become Protestants. Catholics in many countries were so confused by these evils that they had difficulty trusting God to guide the Church. After the Council of Trent, reforms were gradually implemented in most nations. The notorious scandals and abuses stopped. Catholics became more secure in their faith because of the Catechism; improvements in the liturgy; and better education for monks, nuns, priests, and bishops. Life in the Church never became simple, since the Church was never free from problems, but Catholics gradually became more trusting and optimistic. Between the Council of Trent and the Second Vatican Council, which ended in 1965, Catholic life developed a depth of morality and self-confidence that surpassed anything known in the Church since the Middle Ages.

The most obvious change was the improvement in the hierarchy. Priests and bishops were educated in theological seminaries and learned how to live good lives, to pray, and to manage their parishes and dioceses. Priests were expected to avoid close friendships with women, which might lead to scandals or immoral relationships. Bishops who learned about immorality among priests had the obligation to remove them. It was soon uncommon to find priests committing major sins or living scandalous lives. Bishops, priests, and nuns were often the best-educated people in the community, so they were respected more than they had been for several hundred years. Catholics could be proud of their leaders.

Before the Council of Trent, bishops had little legal control over Franciscans, Dominicans, and many other religious orders operating in their dioceses. These orders were under the jurisdiction of the Pope and the orders' own superiors, who might not know what local monks and nuns were doing. Bishops usually had to petition Rome or the religious superiors to remove monks who were not living good lives. The petitions might take many years or be ineffective. After the council, bishops had much more legal control. They were able to stop immoral or unorthodox preachers and to prevent scandalous situations in monasteries and convents from becoming serious abuses. Many religious orders reformed themselves, and the rest avoided most of the evil deeds that had sometimes taken place during the Renaissance.

With a reformed, well-trained hierarchy and improvements in religious orders, Catholics could be confident that any priest they approached in confession would be well educated, orthodox, and trustworthy. This led to a school of spirituality in which lay people respected all authority, especially Church authority, much more than they had during the Renaissance. Satires about Church leaders such as The Praise of Folly became infrequent. Instead, most people respected and loved their leaders. Devout Catholics were usually content to follow the guidance of priests and religious superiors. While this situation lasted, Catholic life was peaceful and secure, at least in countries where the reforms of the council were well implemented. The situation has changed in recent years, because of changes in the modern world and in the education of priests since Vatican II. Many older Catholics miss the tranquillity instilled into the Church by the reforms of the Council of Trent.

After the Council of Trent, Pope St. Pius V published a standardized missal, which contained the readings and prayers for each Mass of the year, including all of the feast days. The new missal did not make any great changes except to increase uniformity in the liturgies for various saints. To avoid mistranslations, increase unity, and follow tradition, the Mass was said in Latin except in the Eastern Rite Catholic churches. Many people understood some Latin, especially the liturgical prayers that were the same for each Mass. Later missals often had translations into local languages printed beside the Latin. The breviary, which contained the prayers said by monks, nuns, and priests every day, was also revised. Both books remained relatively unchanged until Vatican II, and their beautiful prayers helped shape Catholic life and thought for hundreds of years. People who did not understand Latin learned about the faith from sermons, teaching sisters and brothers, catechisms, devotional books, or Bibles in their own languages. The unified liturgy increased the security of Catholic life. Catholics could attend Mass anywhere in the world, with the exception of the Eastern Rite Catholic churches, and find the same liturgy they had at home.

Security in liturgy and doctrine fostered security in social and moral practices. Catholic countries had an established moral code and traditions about how to follow it. For example, everyone was expected to stay married, though Catholics might live apart from their spouses if theirs was an exceptionally bad marriage. Since a couple had to stay married, they had an incentive to find ways to avoid confrontations with their spouses, children, parents, and relatives. Men and women traditionally had different roles in the family, which reduced argument and gave both spouses opportunities to use their energy and creativity. Both spouses were expected to love each other and their children and to sacrifice themselves for their family's good. Children were expected to respect and obey their parents, help with work in the family, and care for their parents in their old age. These ideals helped foster stable, happy marriages and security and love for the children. Large extended families helped with difficult marriages by negotiating problems, giving financial assistance, and providing refuge. Parish priests gave advice and helped settle problems. In modern times, many Americans have lost these ideals and customs. They often wonder how their ancestors survived without divorce, jobs outside of the family, or psychologists. Traditional Catholics did more than endure the hardships of family life. Ideally, they found strength in God in prayer and the sacraments; made use of many social and religious resources, which have become less important in modern society; and gained love and security from their families in return for their sacrifices and efforts.

Catholic priests were required to be obedient to bishops, bishops to the Pope, and monks and nuns to their religious superiors. Even if a bishop or superior were hostile or eccentric, a subordinate could use various methods to avoid confrontation, live a good life, and do God's will. They usually had authority in their own parishes, dioceses, schools, or work. They were able to carry out their responsibilities even if their leaders were unhelpful. Many canonized saints found God's will by peacefully obeying harsh or erratic superiors. Catholic life gained a new dimension of love and generosity because of the sacrifices sometimes needed to trust God to work through his Church. At that time, the benefits of having a strong hierarchy outweighed the difficulties of putting up with difficult superiors. The Church as a whole was much stronger and healthier than she had been during the Renaissance, when religious leaders in most countries were weaker and more tolerant of abuses.

After Catholic life had improved and the Church hierarchy was reformed, Catholics became more confident in proclaiming their belief that the Catholic Church had been founded by Christ and was the true Church. Most of the countries permanently lost to Catholics were converted by Protestants before the reforms of the Council of Trent took effect. After that Catholics defended their faith with more energy and determination. They tried harder to prevent Protestant rulers from taking control of their countries and to stop anyone who was teaching heretical doctrines. Since Protestants also could be very determined, religious differences often caused violence. The quiet work of individual conversion and the search for God can easily be overlooked in the history of wars, persecutions, and martyrdoms. The fervor that led to religious wars reflected the fervor with which many Christians fought their own sins, loved God, prayed, and helped others.

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Martha Rasmussen received a Master’s Degree in Medieval History from the University of Colorado and a Teaching Certificate in Secondary Education from Kansas Newman College. She has taught in private and parochial schools. After converting to the Catholic Church from a Protesant background in 1978, she became a lay Carmelite, and has spent many years studying the Catholic faith and Church history.

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