The Council of Trent and the Catholic Reformation

Topics: Protestant Reformation, Council of Trent, Catholic Church Pages: 8 (2969 words) Published: May 2, 2012
On October 31 of 1517 in Wittenberg, Saxony, a thousand years of Catholic unity are about to be undone. Martin Luther, an Augustan monk and professor of theology at Wittenberg University has written his 95 Thesis which within weeks will spread all across the Holy Roman Empire and beyond. Of all the trials that had faced the Catholic Church over the last two centuries, none was more damaging then the Reformation. Faced with the spreading support of Lutheranism by the people and princes of the Empire, the Church required an overhaul unheard of since the Council of Nicaea. After a long delay caused by the inaction of Pope Leo X and conflict with France and the Holy Roman Empire, Pope Paul III (1534-49) called for what becomes known as the Council of Trent. Meeting on and off between 1545-1563, the Council discussed the issues regarding corruption and immorality that had eroded much of its status as the leader of Christian Europe. This part was the Catholic Reformation, the attempt to restore the Church to the moral respectability and social power it had not wielded since the Crusades. However, the Council also meets to re-affirm the Churches positions on doctoral questions posed by the Protestants, marking the first firm stand the Church makes against the tide of Protestantism. Before any talk of reform can be made, it is necessary to understand the reasons why people felt it was needed. It is also necessary to understand the position of the Church on the eve of the Reformation. The 16th century Church was still recovering from the Great Schism (1378-1413) between the papacy’s claimants in of Rome and Avignon. At its height, the Schism had three pontiffs all claiming the papacy and a diplomatic crisis forming as nations lined up behind the different claimants. Although the Schism ended in 1413 with the election of Martin V (666), the dispute shocks the faith of much of Western Europe’s population, especially since this is when many of the worst Church problems emerge. At the lowest level, there were the parish priests and the monastic orders that people were exposed to every day. Before the rise of the Jesuit Order in the mid 16th century, the average parish priest was little better off than his parishioners. Nearly all of them were illiterate in Latin, the language of Mass, a central part of Catholic life. Even if he was literate and spoken in Latin, it made no difference to the parishioners who attended Mass and listened to what sounded like (and oftentimes was) gibberish. Another complaint was the unusual number of priests who kept “housekeepers,” often women of marriageable age. Even the religious orders of monks and friars, normally the finest examples of Medieval Christianity, were suffering from worldliness, low numbers, and outright corruption. The lack of clerical celibacy was common at all levels of the Catholic hierarchy, but for reformers, this was only the tip of the iceberg. When one looks up the Catholic hierarchy, the scale of the problem is greatly magnified. As a result of generations of land donations from wealthy laypeople, the Church came to possess a great deal of land, which generated lots of revenue for the bishops and archbishops. Indeed, many of these Churchmen lived like, and more often than not acted like princes, often neglecting their spiritual duties in the process. At the highest levels there were three activities that set them apart from the lower clergy, and one which would have dire implications. One was simony, the purchase and sale of church offices. This was a problem throughout the clergy, and only became a serious problem when Leo X’s predecessors in the mid 15th century had conceded the power to make the appointments, the power of investiture, to the strengthening monarchs of Europe in exchange for their support. Simony would play a role in the rise of Protestantism along with two other issues plaguing the higher management; plurality and absenteeism. A...
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