Monday, March 31, 2008

Early Council of Trent

By the early 1500s, the Catholic Church (hereafter CC) was in trouble. It was in many places corrupt and was stepping over certain boundary lines of power. While the average European was more fervently and popularly religious than at most other times in Christian history, the Church was seen by a large contingent as failing in certain areas. This is the reason someone like Martin Luther could write against the CC and manage to break it apart. He began critiquing in 1516 until his death; the CC did not issue a total response until the Council of Trent in 1563. This council reformed the CC and corrected many of the injustices that Protestants had complained about. It was too late, however, and German regionalism and a dislike of papal taxation kept the various Protestant movements alive. John Calvin created an even more popular Protestant group, and some Papal hesitancy and English egotism helped create the Church of England.

A history teacher of mine speculated that if the Council of Trent had been held earlier, even in the first decade of Luther's critique it might have been able to head off the Protestants and Europe would still be religiously Catholic. It would do this by taking the wind of popular support out of Luther's sails. Obviously, some would agree with his ideas of 'faith alone' but the majority population would not have supported them if there hadn't be so many vacancies, huckster priests and indulgence peddlers.

The Council of Trent was spurred on by the Protestants, so how might it have happened earlier? There were a huge number of people calling for reform and only a few were ready to split the church. It just so happens that the guy most luckily placed was one of those men. But his anti-schismatic friend Erasmus was also a powerful voice for reform. A more amenable Pope, in combination with more learned men like Erasmus, could have caused the Council to be held earlier.

How it might have happened, written in the style of a history textbook:

With the end of the Council of Trento [this is the real name of the city in which the meetings happened] in 1511, the CC began the widest pattern of reform it would see until Vatican II in the 1960s. Requirements were put in place to ensure all priests had proper training and that Church officials could hold not more than one spiritual office. This did away with incompetent or absent pastors. Indulgences were banned, not because of their invalidity - the Council maintained they did serve a purpose - but that the 'weakness of some' perverted their use and on the whole undermined rather than uplifted the CC.

Erasmus's moderate and popular critiques were highly influential, but the biggest departure for the CC was the doctrine of relationship between faith and works. Quoting from scripture that "Faith without works is dead," the Church laid out the primacy of both faith and works in salvation.

The most important document produced by Trento was a pamphlet that, while not an official Papal doctrine, popularly depicted the relationship between faith and works. Its author, while unknown, is widely assumed to be the young academic and monk Martin Luther, who would go on to publish many popular tracts. He is widely credited with both informing the public of doctrine and with rekindling antisemitic ideas in the eastern Catholic countries.

"How may a man be saved? The priests say that by their miracles alone may God take a man up into heaven upon his death. But what of a child, knowing of our Lord Christ and being baptized in His name, who is stranded upon an island. With no other men about to be priest, can this good Christian really be damned? No, for the abandonment of a good person for no other reason than the lack of a man in a silk robe would be unlike the loving nature of God. How then is the man saved?, for saved he must be. It is by his continued faith in God in the face of a terrible fate. Yet some people are good who have not faith because it is not in them to do so. They may take the communion but their actions are hollow. Yet in their life they practice good works. Because he does not have true faith, is the man damned? No, for again we find a good man who will not be kept out of heaven by circumstances. God is beyond all circumstances and will not be restrained by the legal formulations of 'faith only' and 'works only'. Each of these has its own proper time, neither superior to the other. The sun is in the sky during the day, and the moon at night. Yet neither overmatches the other but plays its own role in its own time. If a situation calls for a man's faith, God will ask that faith for his salvation, but if the demand is for compassion, for sacrifice, for works on the part of God's purpose then those works will be demanded of the man by God. The saying that God demands only one of these at all times is a solution based not in religion but in law, and is like unto the Laws of the Jews, whose God is bound by the Law in determining which are acceptable to him and which not. God is limitless and not bound by Laws that He Himself created, and to say otherwise is both wrongheaded and evil."

This passage shows how even the popular supporters of Trento were often at odds with the papal structure; priests are given only passing mention, and a rather dismissive one at that. The pamphlet then goes on to describe how the Papacy determines which are the good works one should do, and which are the times God calls for faith or works.

The Bible was, for the first time, translated into the native languages of the states. As part of this indigenization, the requirement that all priests be adequately trained was to be borne not by the CC but by each state itself. This not only kept financial pressures off the CC but also allowed German priests to speak and read in German, French in French. As Kings funded Universities for the production of priests, they became more native and nationalistic. While still subservient to Rome, Spanish Catholicism was distinctly Spanish. Local regions took pride in their Universities and the indigenous languages. Indigenous Bibles in high illuminated style were some of the great treasures of the age.

But there were people who called for even more reform, and others who felt the CC had descended into heresy. The reformers failed to gain enough support, though pockets in Germany and Switzerland did convert. The Old Catholics, who denounced Trento as invalid, were declared heretics. Their Pope was hunted down and put to death, as were thousands of followers who refused to accept Trento.

The greatest danger to Catholic unity was England, were a refusal to issue an annulment caused Henry VIII to declare his kingdom separate from the Pope's authority. While he attempted to frame the breakaway as a rejection of Trento, his new Church of England proposed something too close to Trento to be distinguished. Henry's daughter Mary, married to a King of Spain, was proclaimed the ruler by Catholics. A joint French, German and Spanish invasion launched the Anglican Crusade, the last major Crusade action. It resulted in Henry's beheading and the installation of a monarchy descended from Mary and the Spanish royal house.

So it might have gone.

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