The Meaning of 'Catholic' After Trent

Jeff R. Rada

How did the pronouncements of the Council of Trent (1545-63) change the meaning of "catholic? We begin with the circumstances of the Council and move to the content of its decrees. Its relevance for us today is that it is a classic case study in the abuse of power in the premier of institutional churches the Roman Catholic Church.

For those readers not familiar with the Council of Trent, it was called in response to the rise of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther had posted his famous 95 theses on the cathedral door at Wittenburg in 1517. John Calvin had published his work Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536.

Pope Adrian VI (1522) from Holland openly admitted through his representative Chieriegati at the Diet of Nurnberg, that the church was corrupt from the Pope all the way down, but he considered Luther to be worse - as bad as Mohammed. Later, Pope Paul III (1534-49) appointed a commission to investigate the possibility of an internal reform. This commission determined that the source of the church's corruption was in the absolute dominion of the Pope. Nevertheless, no positive steps were taken.

In the Council of Trent, evangelical princes and thinkers were invited in deference to Emperor Charles V, but since they were denied a deliberative voice, they declined. Under such circumstances, the issues involved would be resolved by papal decrees and the opinions of the scholastics. To the Reformers, such a council would only consolidate the power of the Pope, and would not use the scrip-lures as the sole source of authority.

During the second period of the Council, 1552, some Protestants went from Wuttemberg, Strasburg, and Saxony to Trent. They demanded a revision of the previous decrees but were declined, and returned home.

In the fourth Session, the canonical books are declared to be those in a list which contains many books beyond what was to become the Protestant canon. The Vulgate is pronounced to be the only approved form of the Bible. The Roman power structure pronounces itself to be the only infallible interpreter of the Bible. Section 4 of Session 5 asserts infant baptism. Session 6 chapter 13 appears to contradict itself in that it equivocates between having God granting the ability to persevere on the one hand, and charging the believer with the responsibility for working ()ut his perseverance on the other. Canon 3 of Session 6 advocates total depravity. Canon 3 denies man's free will but canons 4 and 5 affirm it. In Session 7, the sacraments are declared to be Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, Extreme Unction, Order, and Matrimony. Later, Canon 10 anathemizes those who would permit all Christians to administer the word. Under "baptism,'' Canon 3 asserts that the Roman church is the only true church, "the mother and mistress of all churches." The Synod of Trent declares its belief in transubstantiation. By John 20:23 and through apostolic succession, the synod gives itself and the Roman church the power to forgive sins on Earth. The power to forgive sins is reserved only to bishops and priests. Even priests who have unforgiven mortal sins may forgive sins by virtue of their office.

The Synod interprets James 5:14-15 to institute the sacrament of Extreme Unction, to be administered only by bishops or priests.

Session 22 develops the theology of the Mass. By means of the Mass, the Roman church makes itself a mediator between God and mankind. Chapter 8 of Session 22 pronounces that the Mass should not be celebrated in the "vulgar" tongue; i.e., the language of the people; but that the clergy have the charge of explaining the "mystery" of the Mass. Later, anathemas are pronounced on anyone who denies that anything more than Jesus' sacrifice is being observed in the Eucharist. Anathemas are also pronounced on anyone who denies that the church has authority to obtain intercession with God by the [deceased] saints.

In Session 23, the seven "orders" are reaffirmed: priest, deacon, subdeacon, acolyth, exorcist, lector, and doorkeeper! Chapter 4, in reaffirming the clerical hierarchy and ordination, fixes a wide gulf between the lay and clergy.

In the 24th Session, marriage is pronounced a sacrament in the same way that baptism and the Lord's supper are sacraments. Although we read no command to celibacy of the priesthood in this document, celibacy is clearly elevated above marriage in Canon 10.

In Session 25, the existence of Purgatory is reaffirmed. Veneration of images of the saints and of the Virgin Mother is credited with profit for the believer and those who deny this are anathema. Finally, indulgences are justified.

Thus, the Council restates the classic theology of the Roman church of the late medieval period, it excludes the Reformers in advance from meaningful participation. It systematically pronounces anathemas on every significant point on which the Reformers disagree, especially by denouncing the Reformers in areas where they probably had the more accurate interpretation of the Bible. The Council assumed or pronounced its tradition as inspired, or as the infallible interpretation of scripture, or as the only faithful representation of the apostolic period without troubling itself to produce biblical support. In so doing, the council redefined 'catholic' to be not that one body of Christ of all ages, but as a mere sect which represented the theological sedimentation of the late medieval period, with all attendant cultural and philosophical conditioning up to that period.