December 4th – The final session of the Council of Trent is held

Council of Trent (1588) by Pasquale Cati

Council of Trent (1588) by Pasquale Cati

On this day in 1563, the twenty-fifth and final session of the Council of Trent was held. An eighteen year process held in the northern Italian city of Trent (in italiano, Trento), this Council was a re-examination of the Catholic Church and what it stood for in light of the Protestant Reformation.

For decades, the Catholic Church had been facing internal turmoil over its state of affairs. In 1517, Martin Luther famously posted his 95 Theses on a church door in Wittenburg, Germany. Within these 95 Theses, Luther outlined problems he saw in the Catholic Church and its practices, in particular, the sale of indulgences. Through indulgences, people were able to pay monetarily to the Church in order to have sins forgiven. The money earned from indulgences were highly profitable for the Church, and in fact funded the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. In later speeches to congregations, Luther would go out and speak against the corruption of church offices (certain positions such as bishop and even Pope were up for sale), the veneration of relics (a body part of a saint or important religious artifact), and the importance of the Pope as head of the Church. Dissatisfied with the Catholic Church, Luther and his followers broke from the Church, and in doing so, started the Protestant Reformation.

Before continuing further, and I know fellow historians would agree, Martin Luther was not the sole originator of the Protestant Reformation. Many individuals came before Luther in denouncing/criticizing certain practices of the Church including, but not limited to, Ulrich Zwingli, Jan Hus and John Wycliffe. I only begin with Luther for ease of this blog post. I am sure that in future posts I will discuss the Protestant Reformation further and Martin Luther as well (interestingly, Martin Luther was voted as the #2 greatest German on the German television show Unsere Besten, similar to CBC’s The Greatest Canadian).

Fearful of the traction the Protestant Reformation gained throughout Europe, the Catholic Church decided to convene the Council of Trent in 1545. This Council has historically been seen as the affirmation of the Counter-Reformation, that is, the Catholic “rebuttal” to the Protestant Reformation that was going on. At Trent, cardinals sought to address the theological and dogmatic issues brought up by the Protestants in regards to the Catholic Church, and re-evaluate/re-assess what the Catholic Church stood for. The Council of Trent was broken up into three periods and twenty-five different sessions, formulating proclamations on Church policy. Amongst other formulations, at Trent the Catholic Church: condemned Protestantism, deplored the sale of indulgences and church offices, and supported the primacy of the Church and Pope as interpreter of Scripture. On December 4th, 1563, 450 years ago, the final session of the Council of Trent was held, and decrees concerning relics and indulgences were made.

While the Council of Trent solidified the Catholic position in the face of Protestant opposition, tensions in Europe concerning Catholicism vs. Protestantism would linger. Religious wars would pit Catholic nations versus Protestant nations for decades after the conclusion of the Council of Trent until the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) was signed, where cuius regio, eius religio was established. Translated from the Latin as “Whose realm, his religion”, this policy dictated that the ruler of the country would decide the religion that his subjects would follow.

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