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Acta Theologica

On-line version ISSN 2309-9089
Print version ISSN 1015-8758

Acta theol. vol.39 n.1 Bloemfontein  2019 



Care of souls and the logic of Trent as a pastoral council



V.U. Iheanacho

Post Doctoral Fellow, Department Historical and Constructive Theology, University of the Free State. E-mail:




The Council of Trent (1545-1563) is often depicted as being primarily concerned with the promulgations and reaffirmations of traditional doctrines. It is equally perceived to have churned out dogmas and the enunciations of anathemas on those whose Christian beliefs and practices were considered deviations from orthodox teachings and practices of the faith. This article is a departure from such straitjacketing about Trent. Its overall objective is to shed light on Trent as predominantly a pastoral council.

Keywords: Trent, Tridentine, Council, Pastor

Trefwoorde: Trent, Tridentien, Raad, Pastor




Thirty-three years prior to the convocation of Trent, Egidio da Viterbo, at the opening of the Fifth Lateran Council on 3 May 1512, described a church council as "a seed-bed and revival of virtues" since, according to him, "men must be changed by religion, not religion by men" (Olin 1990:48, 54).1 Egidio da Viterbo's thoughts hovered in the background at the Council of Trent, as the conciliar fathers exerted themselves to enact some far-reaching reform decrees, especially as they related to the episcopate and the parochial clergy. In Olin's estimation, this underlying principle of reform that "men must be changed by religion, not religion by men" informed the pastoral concerns of Trent, articulated as cura animarum (the care of souls). Thus, "the work of teaching, guiding, and sanctifying" members of the church implied institutional and structural reforms such that "personal reform and the renewal of the Church's pastoral mission" were complementary or two sides of the same coin (Olin 1990:36).

That complementary two-sided coin objective is the key to unlock the extraordinary complexity of Trent that lasted a total of eighteen years with multiple protagonists. This article sets out to study that very internal logic of Trent. Interest in the Council of Trent has not yet waned. On the contrary, it has rather peaked after the complete publication of the conciliar acts in 2001 (Ditchfield 2013:16).



Trent as a historical event is long and broad. Its effects have equally been long-lasting so that a long view is needed for an appreciable appraisal of the Council. Martin Luther and his fellow reformers may be described as the proximate catalysts that finally shook off the shells of complacency from Rome. Nevertheless, it is pertinent to acknowledge that, in the self-understanding of the Catholic Church, she has always understood herself as ecclesia semper reformanda (church that is always reforming) (Franzen 1965:302). In the Conciliar tradition, such ecclesial self-awareness always entails reformatio - a recapturing of the legendary or mythical "purity" of the apostolic church. Inasmuch as the Church in every epoch holds up the ideals of sanctity and perfection, paradoxically, the reality of her history shows that corruption and reform are two perennial dialectics that define the hazy complexities of her earthly being. These dialectics of corruption and reform are "as old as Christianity itself" (Eire 2007:65). With particular regard to the medieval councils of the Latin Church, the word reformatio featured prominently until it reached its peak in the Council of Constance (1414-1418) with its insistence on reformatio in capite et in membris (reformation in head and in members). It is now an accepted truism that Western Europe, beginning with the fifteenth century, was suffused with the idea of reform. For that very reason, apart from the traditional catchword reformatio, other terms were also employed in the coinage of the prevailing idea of the time. The terms included renovatio, restauratio, reparatio, and instauratio (renovate, restore, repair, and instauration) (Eire 2007:65). It was in that spirit of reformatio that Egidio da Viterbo, at the opening of the Fifth Lateran Council, made the assertion that "celestial and human beings ... crave for renewal" (Eire 2007:65).

O'Malley explicates that reformatio, in the understanding of mainline tradition especially since the Council of Constance, simply meant getting the clergy to do their job well as enumerated in ancient canons (O'Malley 2000:131). It was with such an understanding that Cardinal Pedro Pacheco de Villena retorted, during the first phase of Trent in 1547, that it was of

no use covering paper with writing if we only repeat what is old and add nothing that is new and appropriate to the times (Jedin 1961:364-365).

Reformatio also embraced the reinforcement of discipline on those in the clerical state to conduct themselves in ways that were appropriate to their state of life (O'Malley 2000:131). The reforming party at Trent took as normative already existing stipulations within the long tradition of reformatio. The Council, in taking those stipulations as its own, amplified their applications and directed them chiefly towards bishops and their diocesan priests. Both were understood as having direct responsibility for cura animarum (the care of souls). According to Arnold, Tridentine canons on reforms were not altogether new. They rather acquired their peculiarity in their emphasis and determination to reinforce the pastoral responsibility of bishops and secular clergy in the care of souls. For instance, the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) accorded a prime of place to salus animarum (the salvation of souls) as suprema lex (supreme law) to be above every other consideration (Arnold 2013:420, 422). Squared within that frame of understanding, the entire gamut of Tridentine reforms was enacted on behalf of the mass of the faithful. It was with concerns for their salvation that the rank and file of the parochial clergy was to be reformed and disciplined (Daniel-Rops 1962:151).

Prior to Trent, there existed an unbroken line of "reforming" personalities. In view of this fact, Arnold (2013:425) opines that modern Catholic historiography views Trent as part of an ongoing process of late medieval Catholic reforms and not simply a reaction to Protestant challenge. They were much more than a backlash against Protestant onslaught (Mullet 1984:13). For O'Malley, as important as the Counter Reformation may be, it is not a synonym for post-Tridentine Catholicism, because the reformatio of Trent, together with the attended disciplines associated with it, enjoy a long continuum, with roots stretching back to the eleventh century (O'Malley 2000:129, 133). In that long continuum, one finds Jean Gerson's suggestion that the mass of the simple folk "who are rarely or never at a sermon" should be taught the principal points of the Christian religion (Arnold 2013:425). Despite the tolerant attitude of the medieval church towards the ignorance of the lay people in matters of faith, a few legislations such as the Carolingian decrees demanded that the laity should know and be able to recite the Creed and the Lord's Prayer (Tanner & Watson 2006:399).

In addition to some simple prayers that could be easily memorised, Pope Innocent IV (1243-1254) argued that a minimal knowledge of the faith was required from lay people. For their salvation, it was sufficient "to believe explicitly that God exists and rewards the good, and implicitly (that is, as the church believes) the articles of the faith" (Tanner & Watson 2006:400). Closer to the time of Trent, Erasmus of Rotterdam in 1519, in what may be described as his programme of renewal for the Church, insisted "upon those things that are expressly stated in the Scripture or which of themselves constitute what is essential for salvation". They included, among others,

that we know that all our hope is placed in God who freely gives us all things through His Son Jesus Christ; that by His death we are redeemed, ... that if adversity comes upon us we should bear it in the hope of the future reward which is in store for all good men at the advent of Christ (Dolan 1964:359-60).

With particular care for the laity, Arnold (2013:431) rightly underscores "the hope of reformers of every period was to set the laity on an ever-ascending path".

Concerning the Council's emphasis on the education of the clergy, this too needs to be placed within a wider background. First and foremost, that emphasis was couched in the context of sixteenth-century Europe that was timidly making its way towards mass literacy (Mullet 1984:22). It was naturally connected with the ideals of Christian civic humanism or Christian Renaissance that emerged on the wings of the men of the Renaissance period. The ideal leader was to be trained and educated. He was expected to be selfless and show liberality in service for the good of the whole community (Mullet 1984:22). As an intrinsic part of reformatio, the insistence on better education of the clergy was not made in a vacuum. In its report entitled Consilium de emendanda ecclesia (1537) and presented to Pope Paul III, the reform commission asked the pope to set a good example by appointing prelates to the city of Rome who were "learned and upright men, to preside over the ordination of clerics" (Olin 1990:68). It also recommended that

each bishop should have a teacher in his diocese to instruct clerics in minor orders both in letters and in morals, as the laws prescribe (Olin 1990:68-69).

If there was any clerical shortcoming that was very offensive to Erasmus, it was the ignorance of many rural priests. In a manner typical of Erasmus, he described such ignorant priests as "the dirty crowd of hired priests, unlettered" (Dolan 1964:366).

There is no doubt that the concerns of the Council of Trent about the quality of education of the secular clergy grew, due to sharp criticisms from Protestant reformers of the sixteenth century. The conciliar fathers at Trent could not possibly remain oblivious to those criticisms or even pretend to fend them off lightly. A reformer such as Calvin strongly held the view that "faith rests on knowledge - of God and of Christ - and not on reverence for the church" (Tanner & Watson 2006:401). He rebuked the Catholics for their emotional reverence of the Eucharist without intellectual understanding:

You hold it sufficient if the people are astonished at the visible sign, without any knowledge of the spiritual mystery (Dolan 1964:403).

After Consilium de emendanda ecclesia was made public, Bucer Martin (1491-1551) commissioned Johannes Sturm (1507-1589) to make a Protestant response. As one of the great educators of the Reformed churches of his time, Sturm did not spare the writers of Consilium for their failure to apportion a place to the laity in their recommendations. His major contention was that Catholics were not "well instructed in points of doctrine". On the whole, the thoughts of Sturm were quite insightful, insisting that any positive change in the world was only possible when people were well enlightened (Dolan 1964:395-396):

For if we would have the world amended, we must have the people well instructed and taught; they must be as a field well tilled. Man is well tilled when he has a good preacher, in whom is great knowledge, zeal, and a pure mind, without which preachers, neither the people can be well taught nor the Church flourish. Christ must needs be unknown there, where His benefits with all His acts are unspoken. Surely the cardinals suppress the truth of this fact deliberately for fear of offending the Pope. You cannot be ignorant in this matter, for the whole world knows that the Gospel of Christ is taken from your Churches.



In their conviction and determination for the desired reform that would bring about renewal and pastoral efficiency, the protagonists at Trent, in many ways, perceived their reform agenda as being in continuity with past reform councils. As a midway between Constance and Lateran V Councils, Trent, unlike any previous medieval council before it, explicitly and consistently insisted on its continuity with the past, even back to the apostolic and patristic epochs. It did so in a most remarkable manner in the debates and controversies on the identity and place of the bishop in his local church. Of the twenty-five sessions of the Council, twelve sessions grappled with the question about the origin and identity of the episcopate in the church. For example, Trent posited questions such as: Where did the bishop in his diocese get his authority to govern and pastor his church? Was the bishop an appendage to the pope - a mere necessary extra in the government of the church? In other words, did the episcopate emerge as an historical development and not directly instituted by Christ, understood as "by divine right or divine law"? This was the ius divinum cum divinum praeceptum - controversies at the core of which were the demands for an obligatory residence to be imposed upon bishops and parochial clergy who were responsible for the care of souls in their dioceses and parishes, respectively.

The disagreement and lack of moral unanimity on the removal of that impasse in terms of the way forward, on many occasions and in numerous instances, threatened to derail the entire objective of Trent. It was both a philosophical and a theological problem. Being heirs of the scholastic tradition, the conciliar fathers at Trent knew that the essence of a being is defined by its existence. Therefore, it was paramount to articulate unambiguously the identity of the episcopate so as to be able to outline the inherent duties that naturally flow from being a bishop: office and duty within a given jurisdiction. Theologically, in view of the ecclesiological structure of the epoch, especially, on the wings of the Council of Florence (1439) and the subduing of the dreaded monster of conciliarism, the pope in his capacity as the successor of Peter and the vicar of Christ was understood as being conferred with plena potestas (the fullness of power) to pastor, govern and direct the entire church (Schatz 1999:187).

As the whole issue bothered around episcopal obligatory residence and the power of the pope to grant dispensation from such binding obligation, there emerged two completely opposing views, namely moral/ canonical and ecclesiological. For those who upheld the ecclesiological point of view, the bishop is pastor of his local church. Therefore, episcopal authority comes directly from God. The bishop was in conscience and duty

- bound to attend to his pastoral responsibility with obligatory residence as a precondition. The holders of this position found support in St Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258) who affirmed that "[t]he office of bishop is sacred, held individually by the gift of God" (Jones 1995:76). This appeal to history and to the Fathers of the Church was particularly displayed during the last phase of the Council from 1562. Conciliar fathers such as the archbishop of Granada and the bishops of Auria and Cava unequivocally insisted that Christ gave to each bishop the responsibility for the care of his flock. As far as they were concerned, order and jurisdiction were two separate parts of the episcopal office (Jones 1995:76):

We have it on the unanimous authority of the Fathers that bishops were instituted by Christ. Since their authority is thus held by divine right, so too is the government of their diocese. Cyprian makes clear that Christ chose, appointed and gave authority to all the Apostles, not just Peter. To all Christ gave power to forgive. To all Christ gave responsibility for the care of his flock. As all the Apostles were equal and identical in power so all bishops are equal and identical in power, and each bishop in his diocese is the equal of the pope. Authority derives not from the pope, but from Christ. The pope is a channel of that authority, not its source.

On the opposite side of the spectrum was the curial party that sought to safeguard pontifical prerogatives in the government of the Church, which, according to them, was under fierce attack. In the heat of the contentions, Diego Laynez (1512-1565) (the second Superior General of the Jesuits) proposed a compromise. He agreed with the reforming party that the sacramental powers of the bishop came directly from God, but he differed with them by postulating that the bishop's jurisdictional powers were mediated through the pope (O'Connell 1974:100). This was a midway between two seemingly irreconcilable positions. Unfortunately, the via media proposed by Laynez as a solution to the gridlock was not immediately accepted. His position, however, was consonant with the traditional understanding about the role of the pope in the Latin Church. For instance, St Bernard of Clairvaux in his De consideratione, wrote that the pope was

bound by the sacred duties of his office to watch over the universal Church because Jesus Christ will call him to account for those shepherds whose evil government has shed the blood for their flocks (Daniel-Rops 1962:148).

The clarification of opinions only happened with time, centuries after Trent, when the place of the pope in the Church was finally defined by Vatican I (1869-1870).

Like St Bernard, Cardinal Gasparo Contarini held a similar opinion on the position of the pope. For Contarini, the pope was a dispensator and servus but never a dominus, which meant that the exercise of his authority was never arbitrary (Dolan 1964:395). The reforming party at Trent was determined to curb arbitrariness on the part of the pope in the granting of dispensations and allocation of multiple benefices as well as the encumbrances of the curia. Restraining the arbitrary exercise of papal prerogatives equally implied the clipping of the overstretched wings and interferences of the curia made up by cardinals, in matters of the local church, over which a diocesan bishop was supposed to preside as its pastor. As succinctly expressed by the saintly Archbishop Bartolomeu dos Martires of Braga (1514-1590):

What is the bishop but the sun of his diocese, a man totally inflamed, totally dedicated to approaching the soul of Christ by his constant example and frequent preaching of the Word? (Po-chia Hsia 2005:111).

The pre-eminent place of the pope in the Church was almost taken as a given. In recognition of that fact, the champions of reform at Trent, like their predecessors, demanded that the head should lead the way for the rest of the members of the body to follow. In the footsteps of the authors of Consilium de emendanda ecclesia, their rallying cry was: "Purga Romam, purgatur mundus" (Dolan 1964:392). Every officeholder within the ecclesiastical hierarchy came under the hammer and within the reach of the pruning hook of reforms. The same saintly Archbishop Bartolomeu dos Martires specifically took a swipe at the cardinals (Daniel-Rops 1962:148):

It is my opinion that their illustrious Lordships are in sore need of illustrious reform. Since their duty is to assist the Sovereign Pontiff in the government of Holy Church, it is only right and proper that they should possess such outstanding virtue and regulate their conduct in such a way as to serve as models for the rest of mankind.

The formidable obstructions imposed by the curia in Rome, to a considerable extent, prevented the council from carrying out many of the sweeping reforms that the reforming party wanted to see effected starting from Rome. The bishops at Trent firmly believed, and the members of the commission set up by Pope Paul III in 1536 were convinced that "the cure must begin where the disease had its origin" (Olin 1990:67). Perhaps, it could be argued that the inadvertent obstructions from Rome did, in fact, become propitious for Trent. Jedin and Bireley brightly demonstrated that fact. Unwittingly prevented from reforming the curia as many of them would have preferred, the bishops, therefore, turned the searchlight of reforms on themselves, concentrating their energy and resources upon diocesan and parochial levels (Jedin 1980:496; Bireley 1999:57). What emerged from the Council of Trent, in ecclesiological parlance, was ecclesia in episcopo (bishops as the king-pin of church structure and its ultimate revitalisation) (Daniel-Rops 1962:149), explained in the language of the Church Fathers as: Ubi episcopus, ibi ecclesia (Where the bishop is, there is the Church).

Over a long period of time, the local diocesan church and the parish church became the primary loci for the faith formation of the laity. They became places where the faithful could practice their faith as Catholics. With Trent, the diocese or the local church reacquired the position it once had as the heartbeat of the universal church with the local bishop as its pastor and animator. The attention and the minute details exhibited by the Council to define the bishop, together with his priest collaborators as primary pastoral caregivers, before anything else, eminently established Trent as a pastoral council. O'Malley (2013:245) rightly opined that, if the Council of Trent was severe, it was so to a greater extent to the bishops themselves. For instance, in the decree on the appointment of bishops and the election of cardinals, the Council used strong words to drive home its points on the seriousness of such an obligation. It insisted that each of the individuals charged with the onerous responsibility of selecting and recommending bishopric candidates to the pope must do so "at the peril of his eternal salvation" and to "firmly" believe that the candidates thus shortlisted and recommended were "competent to be placed over churches" (Olin 1990:105). A similar responsibility was also incumbent upon the pope to associate

with himself as cardinals the most select persons only, and appoint to each church most eminently upright and competent shepherds (Olin 1990:106).

Trent did not let bishops off the hook. In the final version of the reform canon on episcopal residence, although not of the status of ius divinum - by divine right or divine law -, the council, nonetheless, decreed that episcopal residence was mandatory because of divinum praeceptum -that is, by divine precept or command. In this manoeuvering of words, the Council moved the discourse from a matter of law to a matter of conscience so that, in the mind of the Council and its protagonists, any transgression of such a divine command was invariably a grave sin (Schatz 1