At the time of thirteenth century, the Catholic Church was at its peak in regard to power; it would wane in and out of the sphere of influence and today still holds great sway over the masses, but its golden age of power was around this time, especially during the reign of Pope Innocent III. Unfortunately, the Church was about to enter into a time of utter turmoil, from the early 1300s-mid-1500s. The Church was faced with a number of crises from within and outside of itself. For example, the papacy attempted to extend their power and the attempt utterly failed, which led to what is now called the “Babylonian Captivity,” as well as other events such as there being more than one pope in power. A papal decree in 1302 declared that the Pope had the ability to hold power over reigning kings. The pope who made this decree was later attacked and taken out of power, and Pope Clement replaced him. Clement was much more willing to accept the policies of King Philip so as to retain his papacy and as such, he did little to hinder the King. The reign of the Pope itself became more and more oppressive as well – the church had been corrupted, and virtually indistinguishable from every other monarchy of the time.
There were individuals who stand out to us in history who stood up to such power. Catherine of Sienna is one of these individuals. She literally walked hundreds of miles in order to talk face to face with the Pope who was living in Avignon at the time. Catherine challenged the Pope, as the Bishop of Rome, to return to Rome and actually be the Bishop of Rome. She convinced him. Shortly after this time, however, more than one pope came to power – the French sided with Pope Clement whereas the English and Holy Roman Empire were on the side of Pope Urban. Over time, more issues arose in the papacy, and eventually there was at one point three popes vying for power as the legitimate pope – Martin, Gregory and Benedict (Martin won out). Around this time, plagues, wars and other problems create chaos and death all over Europe. People clung to magical and superstitious practices, cherished relics of the saints, and indulgences began being sold to lessen or end a loved one’s time in Purgatory. Those in power in the Catholic Church did little to decrease these growing problems, and certain individuals rose to face these issues face to face.
One of these individuals was Jan Hus. Hus believed that the people ought to have a translation of the Bible to read for themselves, and claimed that indulgences for Purgatory were completely unbiblical. Through a series of events, Hus was not only arrested, he was not given the opportunity to defend himself and was burned at the stake. Around 1517, another individual like Hus came to the forefront, yet history shows that he was much more successful in his reforms: Martin Luther. He disagreed with a number of Catholic teachings and crafted his famous 95 theses, and argued that the papacy, purgatory (and thus indulgences) and various other doctrines were completely unbiblical. After this attempt at reform, reform did indeed come rather quickly. Monks and nuns left their areas and got married, churches were torn down and church images were destroyed, and Masses in various places faced trouble. Luther had not intended for such drastic change, but the essential message of what came to be known as the Protestant Reformation is this: faith is through Jesus only, tradition should not be considered sacred but only Scripture, the Pope is neither needed nor biblical, and the common people ought to be able to discover God’s Word for themselves.
About one-third of Christians became Protestant, and this posed a major threat to the Catholic Church. Not only this, but the king of England’s desires did not line up with the Church, which led to the formation of the Church of England. The Council of Trent was soon called in response to the alleged heresy and falsity being spread by the Protestants, and indeed Trent saved Catholicism. It created documents which clearly spelled out the beliefs of the Church for all to see, and attempted to counter Protestant claims. Reformer Charles Borromeo is perhaps one of the more well-known individuals to come out of this period. He actually cleaned out the church – he took out iconography and ornamentation in order to put an emphasis on the people and the altar, he was respected as a Bishop and personally saw that the reforms made by Trent were carried out.
By the time the Council of Trent had ended, the political, social, cultural, economic and geographic situations were essentially the same as they had been prior to the Council. The papacy did not appear to look fondly on the Council of Trent, and as such, it was hard to believe that the council would bring any important changes to Catholicism as a result. Eventually, however, the Pope had confirmed the decisions made at Trent but there was still hesitation as well as stalling on the part of the Pope. Not long after, efforts begun to come about to attempt to interpret the changes and decisions made by Trent, and the publications to come out of the Council demonstrated that the theology was quite a bit more complicated as well as structured than had been initially portrayed by some. Opposition to the council still continued, however. It was not necessarily Protestants (who often opposed Catholic teachings) who were opposed to the decisions at Trent, but people from within the Catholic faith who did not want to see change done to Church discipline.
During the twenty years following the Council of Trent, there was an intense period of trying to implement the changes and decisions made, yet these were faced with both agreement and further opposition. There were numerous individuals – most famously, it seems, Charles Borromeo – who were even willing to risk their lives to put forth the changes decreed by the Council, even though they knew how Rome was viewing them. Reforms were slow but sure. The reforms were partly concerned with the church structure. It gave the bishops a renewed purpose and role in the church. However, problems still existed. Cardinal Robert Bellarmine pointed out six issues with the implementation of the Council: there were still too many diocese that had no head, the church selection was preferential based on the status of the church, there were many bishops who were still without a home, there were many bishops who had power over more than one diocese, there were still too many bishops who were being transferred from one diocese to the other on a frequent basis, and the resignation of bishops based on personal factors happened much too often. Also, more social power was being given to local parishes: schools, records and overall social control, which forced the parishioners to be loyal to the bishop.
Toward the end of the 1500s onward, Rome conveyed that the Church ought to view the Council of Trent as the final word when it comes to matters of faith. In fact, the decrees of the council not only superseded and replaced the decisions of previous councils, but they also came to be seen as equal with the rest of tradition itself. The idea and system of Tridentinism included the decisions, habits, decrees and practices between the mid-1500s up until the early 1600s. One of the major problems with all of this was the simple matter of what the Council of Trent actually tried to do. It did not seek to reform the entirety of Catholicism but mainly sought to respond to alleged heresy and present a true and coherent Catholic set of beliefs. However, the Council of Trent came to be seen less as a major event in history but instead as a set of disciplines, doctrines and a body of beliefs. Since we now recognize the importance of examining the Council as an event in history within its own historical setting and context as well as its importance as an event, perhaps new light can be shed on Trent.
Vatican II recognized the importance of the Council of Trent as a historical event and in fact utilized terms in their own council such as “implementation” and “reception.” The Council of Trent provided Catholics with the ability to hold firm to their doctrines and beliefs, since the Protestant Reformation had been in full swing at the time and was coming down heavily, specifically upon Roman Catholicism. The council had come about partly in response to Protestant’s alleged problems, yet in our world today, should we not look at these decisions in light of coming together ecumenically in unity? If nothing else, the Council of Trent demonstrates the usage of theological research in the sixteenth century, the kind of faithfulness to the Church that later has been sometimes seen as harmful, yet in many ways is actually much more helpful and enlightening.