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.
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