It took some time for the Catholic Church to make an institutional response to Martin Luther’s attacks upon Church sacramental practice, 28 years to be exact. The Catholic consensus leaned toward a Church Council, but popes of the day were quite skittish about separations of powers. Finally, a council was convoked. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) was a lengthy, protracted event that actually took a four-year hiatus and another year at Bologna, where the libraries (and the creature comforts) were significantly better. Trent is one of the most fascinating of our Councils, and a good Kindle read is Trent: What Happened at the Council by John O’Malley. I have a review posted at the book’s Amazon site.
Granted, it did take that Council nearly two decades to address the issue of sacraments, including the issue of indulgences and the remission of sins absolved by the Sacrament of Penance. When it was convoked in 1543, Martin Luther was still alive and his thought held sway among reformers; the Council actually debated at some length over whether to invite him and his followers to the Council for doctrinal debate on matters of biblical interpretation and reform. However, while the Council was plodding along, Luther’s initial movement was fragmenting into a variety of Protestant theologies, and was well on its way toward creating a variety in Protestant scholarship and practices. By the 1560’s the Council abandoned the hope of a “Protestant rapprochement” and under the brilliant leadership of Cardinal Marone turned its full attention toward Church doctrine and reform.
If you looked at statements of Catholic sacramental doctrine before the Council, and compared them to declarations of the Council of Trent, you would notice minimal change. The Church Fathers—on the basis of fifteen centuries of teaching and practice—reaffirmed all the key teachings regarding sacraments, including the number seven and their necessity for salvation. The documents from Trent are not heavy on medieval theological theory; rather, the Tridentine sacramental teachings address Protestant attacks and depend upon the divinely instituted authority of pope and bishops to reaffirm the essence of sacramental life. In fact, this Council concluded by leaving much of the specific work of implementation and reform to the papacy, somewhat in the fashion of Vatican II. The Tridentine Missal, the official Catholic Mass formula right on through the 1960’s, was produced by Pope Pius V after the Council.
The fathers at Trent brought considerable wisdom to this council, with most of them understanding that the term “instituted by Christ” could be understood in a number of ways. Thus they avoided the Protestant limitation that only Baptism and Eucharist could be derived from the New Testament as direct literal commands of Jesus, and thus the only two sacraments that could legitimately bear the name. But equally significant, the bishops understood that it was not just textbook definitions of sacraments that needed clarification, but consideration of the personal experience of holiness and effectiveness of pastoral sacramental celebration. Luther, it may be recalled, did not “feel” saved during his years as a monk; in the late medieval era a large multitude of Catholics did not “feel” saved, either. This accounts for the widespread outbreak of mystical movements in the fifteenth century as well as the practice of seeking indulgences, seen then as an outright guarantee of salvation.
To be clear on one point, even today the Catholic Church does not teach that that a sacrament is invalid or useless if there is an absence of high affect or emotion. There have been times in my life when I received communion in a “grim state,” so to speak, and the experience did not immediately turn my life around. I reasoned at the time—correctly I think—that if my faith was troubled or my life depressed, there was at least a moral value in the duty of Sunday Catholic observance and a connectedness with what I once believed and what I might experience yet again. Looking back, I often wonder if I might have felt worse without those half-hearted efforts to stay in communion with the Church. And as a Catholic, I know that the Eucharist is the Real Presence of Christ whether I am depressed or not.
The Tridentine Council deserves recognition, though, for recognizing that the experience of sacraments is no small thing, either, and it undertook to reform sacramental rites in a way that paid respect to the inner piety and hungers of the faithful. Some of its reforms may seem either obvious or confusing, but in its day they contributed significantly to the enrichment of the life of the faithful. One example is Trent’s emphasis that an ordained Church minister must have the intention of the Church when celebrating sacraments. Originally this teaching was addressed to clerics who had joined Protestant communities and continued to lead communion services. But gradually the teaching took up a second meaning, specifically that clerics must adopt the full spirit of the sacrament and celebrate it in a manner that brought Christ’s original intent to the celebration.
In fact, a good number of Trent’s reforming teachings were addressed to bishops and priests. A factor in the tepid sacramental life of the sixteenth century Church was the reality that bishops frequently held multiple dioceses, drew salaries from all of them, and were rarely seen in any of them. Trent declared the necessity of a bishop living in his home diocese and exercising supervision over the quality of sacramental celebrations performed by his priests. This proposal put the bishops in the necessary but unenviable position of voting themselves significant pay cuts.
It was also true that absentee bishops were a significant factor in the poor quality of priestly candidates. One of the products of the Council of Trent was the establishment of the institutional seminary or formal training school for future priests. The seminary not only screened out opportunists or undesirables, but it provided detailed training on the sacraments with an eye toward theological and ritual excellence so that the typical parishioner would experience his sacraments in compelling rites with sound doctrinal teaching. It is no accident that one of the first great saints of the post-Tridentine era was St. Charles Borromeo, who labored tirelessly and in the face of considerable opposition to implement the decrees of Trent.
Trent would also spark the composition of a new catechism, The Catechism of the Council of Trent, also known as the Roman Catechism, which serves as a major source and outline of today’s Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Roman Catechism was written for parish priests in their duties as preachers and catechists for their parishioners.
On the matter of indulgences and the Sacrament of Penance, Trent preserved the practice and the right of the Church’s to authorize the reception of indulgences, or remission of the punishment of sins confessed in the Sacrament of Penance after death. Indulgences, of course, had been the issue that sent Luther into his first major protest. However, Trent acknowledged that the practice of issuing indulgences in Luther’s time had been abuse ridden, and it prohibited bishops from making almsgiving (actually, the charging of a fee) a condition for receiving an indulgence. As our sacramental historian Joseph Martos observes, “Henceforth indulgences would be, as they once had been, strictly spiritual matters.” (Doors to the Sacred, 101) If you visit the Holy Door in your own diocese, as we did on Thursday past, and meet the spiritual requirements for a full or plenary indulgence, you do not need to bring your VISA card.
Finally, finally, a return to some semblance of thematic order after a month away on vacation, bookended by two family weddings, one involving my in-laws and one my own family of origin. I’m not a big wedding guy; more often than not you’ll find me with all the other older men watching ESPN in the hotel lounge while the bride cuts the cake and tosses the garter and the band plays too loud. Since these were family weddings, I was on good behavior, mostly. But we will address weddings in general on this page in the suitable sequence, unless there is a public outcry otherwise from the old guys in the lounge to do so sooner.
I had to go back quite a bit to find our sequential sacramental thread, to May 28 specifically, where we looked at the impact of the Black Plague, the decline of the later medieval universities, and the growth of lay popular devotion upon the “official” vehicles of salvation, the seven sacraments of the Church. At the risk of egregious oversimplification, suffice to say that by the eve of the Reformation, around 1500, a goodly number of Catholics craved intense religious experience—in no small measure due to fear of damnation—at a time when the official teaching Church was preoccupied with the legitimacy and validity of the sacramental rites. I concluded the May 28 post with a promise of tying this stress to the emergence of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, and this I intend to do.
But there is one more critical step in the saga of sacramental history, and were it not for my recent trip, I would have missed it. During my “If it’s Tuesday it must be Halifax” tour of Canada, I had the opportunity to read the opening chapters of The Reformations by Carlos M.N. Eire, just released by Yale University Press. (I referred to this work on Thursday’s post as well.) In laying the groundwork for the emergence of the Reformation spirit, Eire reminds the reader that the century or so before the emergence of Luther (1517) saw the emergence of “humanism,” which is defined very well in the Wikipedia entry on the Renaissance.
The age of humanism in Europe is often traced back to the thinkers and writers Dante and Petrarch, and would extend on through DaVinci and Michelangelo. Humanism was made possible by two accidents of history: the gradual rediscovery of ancient literature, including early Christian Church Fathers, the eminent pagan philosophers and moralists, and better copies of the Scriptures themselves in more accurate Greek and Hebrew renderings; and the invention of the printing press, which allowed for greater and cheaper distribution of the classics and their commentaries by contemporary men of letters.
This new window on the past led many thoughtful lay readers—and certainly not a few clerics—to conceptualize the centuries around Christ and the emergence of the early Church as a kind of golden age of thought and goodness. Writings of the time compared the clarity and charity of the Gospel—now available in more accurate renderings—to the tepid and legal life of the Catholicism of the day. The humanists were the first to identify what we call today a “middle age” in which, in their view, the Church had lost its baptismal soul, so to speak. However, the first generations of Renaissance humanists did not abandon the Church; on the contrary, they saw opportunities for renewal and restoration. It is no accident that plans for the construction of St. Peter’s in Rome began at this time.
If the early humanists had serious flaws, it was their distrust of much of Catholic piety, particularly devotion to the saints and the cult of relics, which sustained the faith of the uneducated and the unread in many cases. A Christian humanist would argue that more devotion and attention should go the reading of Sacred Scripture; Eire and other historians use the term ad fontes or “to the fountains” or “to the sources” as a description of the golden path to philosophical, spiritual, and Church excellence.
Among other things, humanists were noted for general excellence in philology, linguistics, and historical method. In short, they were men of the texts, possibly at the expense of other aspects of Christian theology. Humanists did not seem to realize—at least as far as I can tell—that the Scripture texts themselves had convoluted histories and that the definition of the New Testament itself was not arrived at until around 200 A.D. The very golden age texts in which they put so much faith were the product of the same Holy Spirit that animated the Church in the present day. Whatever the faults of late medieval Roman Catholicism, this doctrine of an ongoing Spirit guidance of the Church was as much in play in the humanist age as in the ancient days.
As I noted earlier, the first generations of humanists were generally supportive of the Church while recognizing the need for major reforms. Later humanists, certainly by Luther’s day, were less forgiving. Luther, a humanist and a scripture scholar, discovered in his studies of the New Testament—as did many of his academic peers—that a Gospel basis for seven sacraments did not exist, at least in the way he understood the term “instituting a sacrament.” Luther and later Protestant humanists could find clear evidence of Jesus instituting only two sacraments, Baptism (Matthew 28:19) and Eucharist (Matthew 26:26). Roman Catholics continue to hold to this day that our seven sacraments were instituted in several ways, by Jesus’ general teaching and example (marriage, anointing the sick, etc.) and by Church usage guided by the Spirit through the Pentecost event and beyond (the foundation of leadership, or holy orders.)
While Luther himself never went quite this far, many successions of Protestant communities would become “religions of the book,” i.e., the Bible. In its extreme form, this attitude becomes literalism, in which every line of biblical text is regarded as literally true. The major Protestant churches are not literalist, but they have over the past centuries, to varying degrees, argued that the Roman Church—in some of its doctrines and religious practices—has overstepped the parameters of what the Bible actually states. Thus, the concept of sacrament or “ordinance”—ritual encounter with Jesus Christ—is limited in Protestant experience to two rites, Baptism and Communion, and not seven. However, since Vatican II the Catholic Church has recognized the effectiveness of Protestant celebrations such as marriage as well as Baptism and Communion, though we are not at a point of full communion of faith and understanding in terms of sacramental theology and doctrine. For this reason, interfaith communion is not permitted at Catholic Mass or Protestant worship except under extraordinary circumstances.