Counter-Reformation for 500 Years
Jason M. Roebuck
Northwest Christian University
According to my research, the Council of Trent issued decrees between 1545 and 1563 that does attempt to make major reforms to the way the church ministers to the faithful, proving that the church was answering the questions posed by the Reformation. So, the question is can we prove that the church was and is attempting to bring Protestants back to the church. I will start out listing some of the grievances of the Protestant Reformation, and then list the decrees from the Council that answers each one of them. Finally, I will end with a discussion of later reformers, and how the church has the answer to even some of the later reformer’s questions as well. I will attempt to keep the Council of Trent and its’ decrees as the guiding force behind all of my arguments.
While researching my topic, I noticed a book that was referenced as a great resource to better understand the period leading up to the Council of Trent. In her book review, Elisabeth Hirsch says, “Jedin himself leaves the careful reader of the book with the impression that a “holier” Pope and less scheming rulers would have done a better job in the interest of the unity of the Church.” (Hirsch, 1958) She was talking about a book called, “A History of the Council of Trent Volume I: The Struggle for the Council”, by Hubert Jedin, and after reading her review completely, I felt I just had to have it. Unfortunately, when I read the book, it was a great historical account of the factors that called for a council before the first reformers came on the scene, as well as the logistical issues that were involved with calling all of the leaders of the church together into one location in Northern Italy. However, the only real insight that I received from his book would be a quote I found at the end of the book, that I could easily use for my own treatment of this topic for this final essay. He said, “Our exposition did not presume to summon to judgment those who bear responsibility-either to condemn them or to absolve them. Our first step was to explain, to understand. This done, it was necessary to appraise, that is, to assess the conduct of men in the light of the historical mission allotted to them. For the appreciations thus arrived at we claim no absolute validity; no such claim can be made, for though based on a firm Catholic view of events all such estimates are not the less conditioned by the writer’s personal conception of history.” (Jedin, 1949) After reading the full history of the events leading up to the Council of Trent, I was left with the impression that the understanding of the Council would be colored by my understanding of my faith, and this celebrated author was making sure I understood that. However, he continued to explain that in another 100 years, we could have a different understanding of these events, as well as the direction the Holy Spirit was leading the church by not providing the answers to the reformers questions in a more timely fashion.
On to the questions of the reformers, and how the Council of Trent was answering these questions. First, the reformers, especially Luther were concerned with how the indulgences were being sold or used to raise money for the church. It wasn’t until the 25th session of the council, after the selling of indulgences was formally condemned by the pope, which the indulgences were explained as to be used for the purposes of all the faithful, and not just those who could afford them. Second, the reformers seemed to question the implications of all of the sacraments, and the 7th session of the council made it very clear that all seven sacraments were instituted by Jesus Christ. Finally, as far as Baptism is concerned, the same session of the council defined the sacrament of Baptism to be as prescribed in the Catholic Church in the name of Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. It was also explained that it is not necessary to be at any certain age in order to receive the sacrament.
There were many more complaints that were brought up by the reformers, but it would be impossible to discuss them all without recreating a good portion of the documents of the Council of Trent in this final essay. Since it was not for another 350 years that another council was convened in the church, it is clear that the church and the world was pretty comfortable with the explanation that the church gave for the way that they wanted to live out their faith. In a research article about the counter-reformation, I read, “In turn, Catholic lay people have begun to emerge not merely as either passive recipients or fierce opponents of Tridentine reforms but as active participants in a dynamic process of cultural negotiation and interaction.” (Walsham, 2005) It is also clear from my research that no amount of clarification of these issues would have ever brought the reformers back from the path that they were already on toward the many different denominations of faith based on the particular movements away from the Catholic Church and the central authority of the papacy.
It was the fact that Jedin explains, where he gives so many reasons that the church was moving toward reform before the issues that were raised by the reformers early in the 16th century, as well the fact that the church was still reaching out to the reformers during the Council of Trent and the councils that followed throughout the past 500 years, that tells me the church will never stop trying to answer the issues that were brought up by the reformers as reasons to break from it. You might assume, as I did, that I would end with a treatment of how we have come so far in our understanding of conciliar movements in the church, that we need only look at the Second Vatican Council to see the many attempts that the church made there at bringing many great minds together to help move the church into the next phase of operations. However, it was a conference that was recently held at the Vatican that I would point to as a better illustration of the fact that the church is reaching out to leaders of all faiths to help explain the issues of our day. Specifically, it was the Humanum Conference in November of 2014 that shows the length that the modern church is willing to go to, in order to make sure the world hears the voices of many different faith leaders, in order to express the solidarity of the church. It was convened for the purpose of upholding the sanctity of marriage. They invited Pastor Rick Warren from Saddleback Church to speak, as well as Princeton Professor, Robert George. They included in the discussion, participants from the Pentecostal church, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism and the Church of Latter-Day Saints. One of the fruits of this effort was a video presentation that was a beautiful explanation of the beauty of marriage that was shown to the participants and is now available on YouTube for anyone to view or use for the purposes of instruction. Finally, it is this example that gives me hope that many of the leaders of the Reformed churches will continue looking for ways that all Christians can come together to bring about the salvation of the world, or at least anyone who, by the grace of God, will listen to the Good News.
Hirsch, E. F. (1958). A History of the Council of Trent. Church History, p 378-379.
Jedin, H. (1949). A History of the Council of Trent Volume I: The Struggle for the Council. Freiburg: Herder & Co.
Walsham, A. (2005). Translating Trent? English Catholicism and the Counter Reformation. Historical Research, p288-310.