The Council of Trent, "in session off and on for eighteen years from 1545 to 1563, was one of the most important councils in the history of the Roman Catholic Church" (1). The Council made many decisions for the church during its years in session in an effort to establish the traditions and doctrines of the church, as well as to correct the corruption within it. In part, is was a response to issues raised by the Protestant Reformers, but it was also part of a period of Catholic renewal which had begun many years before. The Council itself was mainly composed of three different groups of people, Jesuits, papal supporters, and Italian delegates. However, only cardinals, bishops, and heads of religious orders could speak and vote during its full sessions. Protestants were even invited to send representatives.
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During the first session, from December 1545 until March 1547, the Council discussed such matters as the relationship of scripture and tradition, the canon of scriptural books and the doctrines of original sin and justification. They also proposed church administration reforms. In 1547 the Council moved out of Trent to escape the plague. While in another city, they discussed the sacraments. However, they waited until they returned to Trent to make any decisions. This way the Protestants would be more available to participate if they chose to do so.
The second session, which lasted from May 1, 1551, until April 28, 1552, was where the council actually finalized all of the decisions discussed during the period outside of Trent in the four years previous.
After this session, the Council took ten years off due to war in Germany, so the third and final session did not begin until January 18, 1562. It lasted until December 4, 1563. The documents regarding the character of the Mass, the Holy Orders and education of the clergy, the sacrament of marriage, purgatory, and other disciplinary decrees were issued during this last session.
In all, the Council of Trent conducted twenty-five formal sessions. Seventeen of these were actually substantive, and the others were merely ceremonial. The Council, rather than the Pope, was in charge of instituting reforms. This was because the people believed that the papacy was incapable of fixing things and was also too corrupt to do so (2). The Council "offered no sympathy to the Protestants and thus accepted the split in Christian Europe as an unfortunate fact of life" due to the fact that the Catholics and Protestants held different views regarding the Word of God (3). The Council believed that both the Bible and the traditions of the church were the Word of God, but the Protestants believed that only the Bible was the true Word of God. Also, the Council held the belief that only the traditional Catholic Bible, called the Vulgate, was right and official, and thus, they rejected all other versions. This did not go over very well with those of other denominations. They "agreed that salvation should be sought by faith and good works, not by faith alone; they also reaffirmed the seven sacraments" (3) which all worked together to lay the foundations for present day Roman Catholic thought and policies.
Each session of the Council was carried out in much the same manner. First, the theologians and canonists discussed the draft of a particular decree while the Fathers listened. Then, the Fathers met alone and debated until they agreed on how the final text should read. After both of these had been done, there was a "session" where the text was publicly "read out, formally voted upon, and promulgated as the Council's decree" (2), thus ending the duties of the Council for that session.
The Council of Trent defined the differences between the Catholic and Protestant positions and, by formalizing the ideals, doctrines, and laws of the church, reinvigorated the Roman Catholic Church.
1. Sullivan, page 389
2. Encyclopedia of Religion, pages 33-38
3. Matthews, page 335
"Council of Trent," Encyclopedia of Religion. Volume 15, 1987 ed.
Matthews, Roy T. and F. DeWitt Platt. The Western Humanities. Mayfield Publishing Company. Mountianview, CA. 1995.
Sullivan, Richard E., et. al. A Short History of Western Civilization. McGraw-Hill, Inc. New York. 1994.
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