Lessons from the Council of Trent

Pasquale_Cati_Da_Iesi_-_The_Council_of_Trent_-_WGA04574Today marks the 450th anniversary of the end of the Council of Trent, which not only stood athwart the currents of the Protestant Reformation but even turned the tide of European history by launching the Catholic Counter-Reformation.

The achievements of the Counter-Reformation are breathtaking: It gave rise to great religious orders like the Discalced Carmelites, the Capuchins, and the Jesuits, who, in turn launched the great missions to South America, Africa, China and Japan. It gave birth to great saints like St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Philip Neri, and St. Francis de Sales and inspired a new era of devotional fervor, as exemplified in books written by many of those saints, like The Spiritual Exercises and An Introduction to the Devout Life. And it created the form of Catholicism that withstood centuries of social strife and political turmoil, from the French Revolution to the emergence of communism, as Catholic author George Weigel has observed.

Trent’s anniversary is an opportunity to not only celebrate such extraordinary success, but also to learn from it. In particular, it seems that there are two lessons from Trent and the Counter-Reformation it inspired that are especially applicable today: the emphasis on defending and defining dogma and the embrace of art as tool for evangelization and catechesis.

The first lesson: uncompromising defense of doctrine

At the time of Trent, the Church was facing challenges on seemingly every front from the Protestant Reformation—everything from the sacrificial nature of the Mass and the authority of tradition to the veneration of relics and the use of icons. The Council of Trent, in confronting the Protestants, did not temper its teachings. It did not water them down or soften its tone. Instead, the council took the opposite approach—one that Catholic writer David Carlin has well summed up:

[I]t was just a matter of taking every aspect of Catholicism that Protestants found objectionable and, so far from toning it down, glorying in it. Do Protestants object to ‘worship’ of the Virgin and the saints? Let us venerate them more wholeheartedly than ever. Do they object to the doctrine of transubstantiation? Then let us emphasize it; let us even develop a ritual in which we adore the consecrated Host. Do Protestants think it absurd for religious services to be conducted in anything other than the vernacular? Then let us keep on saying the Mass in a dead language, Latin (The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America, 34).

When the Protestant Reformers were running away from centuries of tradition, Tridentine Catholics did not try to meet them halfway, instead, it ran in the opposite direction defining dogmas more forcefully than it had perhaps ever before. To take one example, consider transubstantiation. This teaching had been codified before, at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215:

There is one Universal Church of the faithful, outside of which there is absolutely no salvation. In which there is the same priest and sacrifice, Jesus Christ, whose body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the forms of bread and wine; the bread being changed (transsubstantiatio) by divine power into the body, and the wine into the blood, so that to realize the mystery of unity we may receive of Him what He has received of us. And this sacrament no one can effect except the priest who has been duly ordained in accordance with the keys of the Church, which Jesus Christ Himself gave to the Apostles and their successors (Canon 1).

But the Council of Trent reasserted this teaching even more forcefully, using the unmistakable language of an infallible dogmatic definition:

If anyone says that in the sacred and, holy sacrament of the Eucharist the substance of the bread and wine remains conjointly with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and denies that wonderful and singular change of the whole substance of the bread into the body and the whole substance of the wine into the blood, the appearances only of bread and wine remaining, which change the Catholic Church most aptly calls transubstantiation, let him be anathema (Session 13, Canon 2).

The same spirit drove Trent to reaffirmed reams of Catholic doctrine on everything from the nature of salvation, the number of sacraments and the existence of original sin to the authority of both tradition and Scripture and the veneration of relics and icons. All told, Trent used the ominous word anathema—Latin for cursed—at least 150 times in its canons.

The terms and tone of Trent may strike some of us today as unduly harsh. But it’s hard to argue with the fruit of the council—the extraordinary missionary activity, an entire new generation of saints, the birth of new religious orders, to restate some examples from above. In retrospect, the lesson is a simple one, but is one that is lost on so many today: clear teachings lead to decisive action—the decision to follow Christ, to accept one’s vocation and to live it out faithfully and forcefully.

The second lesson: art as a tool for evangelization

Of course, the Church did more than simply amass hundreds of dogmatic definitions. Tridentine Catholicism also provided the means for transmitting these clear teachings in terms that were understandable to the average believer. One way of doing this was the drafting of the Church’s first-ever catechism. But Tridentine Catholicism also put heavy emphasis on the arts, particularly the visual arts, as another means of spreading the faith. This is a second vital lesson for today.

In its 25th and final session, Trent affirmed the importance of art:

And the bishops shall carefully teach this, that, by means of the histories of the mysteries of our Redemption, portrayed by paintings or other representations, the people is instructed, and confirmed in remembering, and continually revolving in mind the articles of faith; as also that great profit is derived from all sacred images, not only because the people are thereby admonished of the benefits and gifts bestowed upon them by Christ, but also because the miracles which God has performed by means of the saints, and their salutary examples, are set before the eyes of the faithful; that so they may give God thanks for those things; may order their own lives and manners in imitation of the saints; and may be excited to adore and love God, and to cultivate piety.

No doubt, some might associate the beauty of the Traditional Latin Mass with the aesthetic vision of Trent—which is after all also known as the Tridentine Mass—but the council did not so much  institute a new Mass as standardize and preserve the liturgy that had been in use for centuries. So Trent’s contribution to the Latin Mass was one of conservation, rather than creation. (One could very well argue, were space permitting, that Trent’s reverence for tradition as the proper source for reform and renewal is a third lesson for the present.)

Tridentine Catholicism is also closely linked to the baroque style in the arts (although it’s not clear that the council fathers intended this development). The aesthetics of baroque art mirrored the dogmatic assertiveness of Trent, according to Carlin:

Do Protestants of the puritanical sort object to ornate churches? Let’s make Catholic churches even more ornate. Baroque church architecture is a manifesto in stone and painting of the popular Catholicism of the Counter-Reformation. … In the presence of these new church buildings … even the dullest person could understand that Catholicism had no intention of yielding one inch to Protestantism (The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America, 34-35).

The renewed dogmatic emphasis on transubstantiation also spurred devotion to two of the greatest Christian relics, according to art historian Andrew Casper: St. Veronica’s veil and the Shroud of Turin.

In 1575, barely more than a decade after the end of Trent, the veil was put on public display in Rome. “It was by all accounts a watershed event with a reported attendance of over 400,000 pilgrims from all over Europe,” Casper writes in an article published in the recent book, Religion and the Senses in Early Modern Europe. (One of the pilgrims was El Greco, one of the great painters of the Counter-Reformation.)

The display of the shroud stirred a similar outpouring of piety, drawing tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of the faithful to the city in the late sixteenth century, according to Casper.

Yet another notable intersection of faith and the visual was the surge in devotion to the Sacred Heart, which had roots before Trent, but was really spurred on afterwards, according to Henrik von Achen, a Norwegian art historian. He argues that the devotion was a means of responding to the individualism of the Protestant Reformation while deepening the faith of the laity:

Through the devotion to the Sacred Heart it became possible to rein in the latent excessive individualism promoted by the current devotional concentration on the human heart, but doing so from within piety itself, and not as an outwardly disciplinary manoeuvre. In this way a change of the Theology of the heart took place in Catholicism, a new direction, indeed, but deeply rooted in the entire prehistory and vocabulary of this spirituality, keeping Counterreformation piety from individualistic excesses without giving up the heart as a prominent religious symbol and metaphor.

Here a disclaimer seems in order: none of the above should be construed as an argument that the solution to all the ills of the present Church is to simply to make contemporary Catholic culture a carbon copy of the Counter-Reformation. But the lessons of the Trent can and should be applied the altered circumstances of the present.

The Church today: the need for beauty

This is possible because it already happening in one area: the aggressive defense of dogma against a hostile culture. In the twentieth century and into the current one, arguably the most significant challenge to Church has been in the area of morals. The Church has responded now, as at Trent, by defining its teachings in this area even more forcefully.

One could easily write a synopsis of the Church’s response in the same fashion that Carlin did for Tridentine Catholicism: Does the popular culture celebrate sexual liberation from marriage? Let’s not only renew our commitment to chastity (Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body) but let’s declare that artificial contraception to be immoral—even for unmarried couples (the encyclicals Humanae Vitae and Casti Connubii). Does women’s liberation call for the erasing of gender differences? Let’s reaffirm an unmarried male priesthood (John Paul II).

Again, this should be construed as a call for reactionary extremism: If the culture does one thing, let’s blindly do the opposite and let’s go to even further extremes than before. Trent certainly took its time—the council last almost two decades after all—and the Church’s modern teachings on sexual morality have been carefully developed over several decades by many popes.

The distinctive mark of the Church’s defense of doctrine in both cases was the refusal to compromise with culture. But this was done with great prudence and fortitude, and—even though it might not seem like it—a measure of temperance. (For example, Trent refrained from condemning Luther individually as a heretic and the Church does allow natural family planning as an alternative to artificial contraception.)

But the Church is wanting today in the second area: art as a means of evangelization—something that should be painfully obvious to anyone who has ever been inside just about any church built after Vatican II.

Again, this is not a call for a church-building campaign that painstakingly imitates every detail of the baroque style. Instead, post-Vatican II Catholicism must find its own distinctive style in the arts, one that is both faithful to tradition and is also an authentic development of it. (The journal Image, edited by Gregory Wolfe, and The Way of Beauty at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts might point the way forward.) This most delicate of balancing acts—preserving tradition while applying it to the present—very well may have been the most extraordinary achievement of Trent.

image: The Council of Trent and the Church Triumphant by Pasquale Cati da Iesi, S. Maria in Trastevere, Rome

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Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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