No 👣 tracking social sharing

The Popes And The Council

Chapter VIII --The Popes And The Council


THE order of political Popes outlived the early stages of the Reformation. At the very time that Protestantism was threatening to gain the ascendency in Europe, there were pontiffs who were ready to divide the power of Romanism rather than make any sacrifice of immediate political interests. It has been seen that with Leo X. the great object was to preserve such a balance between different factors as might best secure and promote his temporal sway. A like motive governed several of his successors. Adrian VI, (1522-1523), it is true, had a sincere regard for the spiritual welfare of the Church. But his well-meant efforts were overborne by the adverse tide, and his brief rule brought no amendment of papal policy.

1 The simplicity of Adrian VI. appears to have been, in more than one sense, out of harmony with pontifical traditions of long standing. He was not even aware of his own infallibility. A work of his which was republished in Rome after his installation has this plain denial of the infallibility of the Pope: "Dico: quòd si per Ecclesiam Romanam intelligitur caput ejus, puta Pontifex, certum est quòd possit errare, etiam in iis quae tangunt fidem, haeresim per suam determinationem aut decretalem asserendo: plures enim fuere Pontifices Romani haeretici: item et novissimè fertur de Joanne XXII., quòd publicè docuit, declaravit, et ab omnibus teneri mandavit, quòd animae purgatae ante finale judicium non habent stolam, quae est clara et faciale visio Dei." (Quoted by Bossuet, Defensio Declarationis Conventûs Cleri Gallicani, Praevia Dissertatio, xxviii.) The following from Adrian is far from flattering to his predecessors: "Scimus in hac sancta sede aliquot jam annis multa abominanda fuisse, abusus in spiritualibus, excessus in mandatis, et omnia denique in perversum mutata." (Raynaldus, Anno 1522, n. 70.)
Clement VII. (1523-1534) was no less engrossed in political manœuvring than Leo X. had been, and his worldly scheming was fruitful, in equal or even greater degree, of opportunities for the religious revolution.
1 While not lacking in shrewdness, Clement VII. was singularly unsuccessful. Especially great was the humiliation which he experienced in 1527. when Rome was ruthlessly plundered by the troops of Charles V. Those who believed in the sacredness of treaties might have seen here a reward for his act of the previous year in absolving Francis I. from the obligations which he had assumed at Madrid.
A like temper was manifested by Paul III. (1534-1549). As he saw the victories of Charles V. against the German Protestants in the Smalcald war, he began to fear that the power of the Emperor would become too great to suit the temporal interests of the Papacy. Consequently he withdrew his support, ordered the Council of Trent, in which Charles was deeply interested, to be transferred to Bologna, sought an alliance with France, and in fine used every available means to thwart the imperial conqueror of heretics. Even Paul IV. (1555-1559), who prior to his election had taken a leading part in organizing and operating the Roman Inquisition, and was looked upon as the very soul of ecclesiastical zeal, signalized the first part of his pontificate much more by opposition to Spanish power than by efforts against the Protestants.


But this political animus in the Papacy yielded at length to the compulsion of events. Paul IV. in his closing days, though his dislike of Spanish ascendency still rankled in his heart, made a virtue of necessity, and devoted his energy to the upholding of ecclesiastical interests. This end he pursued with a rigor congenial to his spirit. Under Pius IV. (1559-1565) there was quite a distinct transition to the new phase of the Papacy, in which its representatives appeared less as politicians and more as champions of the general interests of the Roman Catholic Church. "He was the first Pope," says Ranke, "who deliberately abandoned the tendency of the hierarchy to set itself in opposition to the authority of sovereigns." 1 History of the Popes, book iii. His successor, Pius V. (1566-1572), labored with whole-souled ardor for the suppression of Protestantism and the recovery of spiritual dominion. Such, indeed, was his zeal, that it banished every thought of mercy towards those in revolt.

2 The moral strictness of Pius V. commands respect, but his intolerance was simply revolting. One might search the Koran in vain for such an array of lessons on the use of the sword in religion as is found in the letters of this pontiff. They breathe out threatenings and slaughter more fierce than those uttered by the unconverted Saul of Tarsus. We have already had occasion to give one or two extracts (p. 201). The following are a selection from others that might be added. In April, 1569, Pius wrote to Charles IX. respecting the proper dealing with the Huguenots: "Qua in re nullius preces admittere, nihil cujusquam sanguini et propinquitati concedere, sed omnibus qui pro scelestissimis hominibus rogare audent, inexorabilem te praebere oportet." (De Potter, Lettre xvii.) At the same time he sent to the Duke of Anjou the admonition which he had previously applied to Charles IX., warning him that any mistaken leniency would be avenged against his brother and against himself as it was in the case of Saül: "Periculum esset ne quemadmodum adversns Saülem, sic adversus christianissimum regem, fratrem tuum, teque ipsum etiam, eo gravius ira Dei exardesceret, quo benignius atque clementius cum utrisque vestrum divina sua bonitas egisset." (Lettre xviii.) To Charles, in October 1569, he wrote, "Nihil est enim ea pietate misericordiaque crudelius, quae in impios et ultima supplicia meritos confertur." (Lettre xxiv.) Several letters (xxix, xxxii, xxxiii) contain this sentiment: "Ut enim nulla potest esse Satanae cum filiis lucis communio; ita nec inter catholicos quidam et haereticos ulla pacis compositio, nisi ficta, fallaciarumque plenissima, potest."
Pius V. was canonized in 1712. A sympathetic worshiper of the saint, after reading his epistles, can hardly fail to blend with his homage a feeling of sorrowful regret that the pontiff was not spared a few months longer, so as to have opportunity to make jubilee over the St. Bartholomew massacre. That papal duty, it is true, was discharged fairly well by Gregory XIII.; but it may be doubted whether he entered into the celebration with as much zest as would have been felt by Pius V.
It accorded with the type of piety represented by Pius V., that he should desire to have the cursing bull, In Coena Domini, repeated statedly in all Roman Catholic countries, as well as at Rome. However, since the bull, besides showering curses on heretics, insinuated Ultramontanism, it was not accepted even by the most orthodox Romish princes.
Others that followed, if not exhibiting an equal intensity, were governed by the same general tendency. Instead of busying themselves with attempts to order the political balance in Europe as might best promote their temporal sway, they sought to ally themselves with every agency which could help on the Roman Catholic reaction. A more earnest, devout, and enthusiastic temper, a bent even to ascetic piety, began to be manifested at the papal court. This spirit reached across the border of the next century. But when we come to the pontificate of Urban VIII. (1623-1644), we find the political again interfering with the churchly interest. Jealousy of the house of Austria constrained the Pope to pursue a policy which unmistakably aided the discomfited Protestants. One of the near predecessors of Urban, Paul V. (1605-1621) also made a very doubtful contribution to Roman Catholic supremacy. With him, however, the dominant motive was official pride and assumption, rather than political sympathies or interests. Falling into dispute with the Venetian Republic, he thought to humble his opponents by a free use of the excommunication and the interdict (1606). It was a vain expenditure. The Venetians showed themselves able to despise his thunderbolts. The quarrel was finally settled by mutual concessions, but the moral effect of the affair was decidedly opposed to papal prestige.


To the earlier Popes of the period a specially disturbing thought was that of the Council. Holding in mind what had transpired at Constance and Basle, they looked upon the assembling of a council as a threat against their prerogatives and emoluments. Their fears, too, were not entirely groundless. Had it not been for the preponderance of the Italian element in the Council and the keen management of the papal legates, some action would in all probability have been taken which could not well be harmonized with Ultramontane principles.


The Council of Trent might be described as three successive councils, whose decisions were embraced in a common body of canons and decrees. It was assembled under different Popes, and at different times (1545-1547, 1551-1552, 1562-1563), within a space of eighteen years. At its opening it numbered scarcely more than twenty-five members. During the intermediate sessions the attendance ranged from fifty to seventy. At the close the assembly was much larger, and the decrees were signed by two hundred and fifty persons, thirty-nine of whom, however, were not counted as fully qualified members of the Council, and wrote in connection with their names the formula subscripsi judicando, instead of subscripsi definiendo.


The Council of Trent, if it did not create, confirmed and established the essential features of the modern Romish Church. In its elaborate creed numerous items which had claimed no higher character than current speculations received the stamp of dogmatic authority. Opinions which might have been held before the meeting of the Council, and which were in fact held by a number of the most eminent representatives of the Romish Church, were branded as heresy. Some of the most important decrees that were passed encountered a noticeable opposition. Thus, a very respectable minority was adverse to the decision which placed tradition on an equality with Scripture.

1 Pallavicino Hist. Concil. Trid., lib. vi.; Theiner, Acta Genuina Concil. Trid., i. 68-77. Some wished to use, instead of equal, the milder term similar. The vote was as follows: "Par pietatis affectus 34, similis pietatis affectus 11, reverentia debeatur 3."
On the subject of justification, also, there were prominent members of the Council who stood very close to the Protestant theory, and argued much as a Luther or Melanchthon might have done. 2 Pallavicino, lib. viii.; Theiner, i. 166 ff. In the discussions on the nature of the concupiscence which remains after baptism, on assurance, and on various points connected with the sacraments, there was a measure of dissent from the dominant view. The manifest result of the Council, therefore, was to narrow the circle of theological thought and belief. And this narrowing process took place according to a definite principle of selection. The catholic and evangelical element was excluded; the specifically Romish, or the element of legalism, sacerdotalism, and sacramentalism, was retained. No doubt there are sentences in the Tridentine decisions which have an evangelical sound, and seem to exalt Divine grace. But these are no sooner placed on record than the view is intercepted by a throng of sacerdotal and legal representations. How much does it import that the primary grace is declared to be the free gift of God, when all effectual grace is said to be dispensed only through priestly mediation, and works of ecclesiastical obedience are so emphasized that a new life is formally denied to be the best penance? What is really enthroned is sacerdotalism. Divine grace is reduced well-nigh to the rank of a passive treasure placed under the manipulation of an earthly custodian.


The Council closed in a truly Romish fashion. "All confessed the faith," says Pallavicino, "promised obedience to the Tridentine decrees, called upon the High Priest Jesus Christ, upon the immaculate Mother of God, and upon all the saints, and proclaimed the anathema upon the heretics." 1 Lib. xxiv.


Tribute was paid by the Council to the supremacy of the Pope, in that he was asked to confirm its decisions. This was greatly to his satisfaction. In fact, he had occasion to be highly pleased with the general outcome. The ambition of a considerable fraction of the Council to carry through such a decision on the subject of episcopal residence as would appreciably limit the theory of the papal headship and assign a relative independence to the bishops had been thwarted. Eloquent champions of Ultramontane doctrines had been given full opportunity to speak their sentiments before the assembled prelates. Those doctrines, while they had not been approved, had not been formally repudiated. The chance was left to the Papacy which three centuries later was improved in the Vatican Council.


The Church which alleged the obscurity of the Scriptures as a ground for withholding them from the people, had now given its authoritative exposition on the most important subjects. Surely this exposition ought to be so lucid that there could be no serious liability of mistaking its import. But the authorities decided otherwise. In January, 1564, the Pope issued a bull forbidding not merely laymen, but ecclesiastics of whatever rank, to make upon the Tridentine decrees any commentaries, annotations, or interpretations whatsoever.

Pallavicino, lib. xxiv.; Bungener, History of the Council of Trent, p. 534 in English translation. The latter writer cannot be censured very severely for adding this comment: "Truly Rousseau was an excellent Roman Catholic, when he said, 'The man who thinks is a depraved animal.'"


The decrees of the Council were not received with universal acclaim. France, in particular, stood out against the request to give them a formal sanction. But they found a general acceptance; and inasmuch as they supplied a definite platform, they helped in a measure to unify Roman Catholic forces. At any rate, we find these forces, inspirited by the new temper in the Papacy and favored with special means and opportunities, recovering a vast stretch of territory in the next few decades.


In France, Protestantism suffered a very appreciable abridgment by the close of the sixteenth century. Belgium, at one time half Protestant, was made wholly Roman Catholic. In Bavaria, where the Reformation had made extensive progress, the vigorous policy of repression which the government inaugurated about the year 1563, aided by the powerful propagandism of the Jesuits, brought about the complete reinstatement of Romanism. In Austria, also, Protestantism was made to feel the full force of the returning wave of the Roman Catholic reaction. Great advances had been made in this country by the new faith. "In all the provinces of Austria," says Ranke, "German, Slavonic, and Hungarian, with the single exception of the Tyrol, Protestantism might be regarded as ruling paramount in the year 1578." 1 History of the Popes, book v. But that very year witnessed the inauguration by the government of restrictive measures. In the next century the scheme of intolerance was carried through with peculiar vigor by Ferdinand II., Arch-duke of Austria and afterwards Emperor of Germany. The result was the overthrow of Protestantism in Austria, and its emphatic limitation in Hungary. In Poland the Romish cause was urged forward with great effect in the last years of the sixteenth and the first part of the seventeenth century. Though not destroyed, Protestantism was defeated and held in check.

2 The entrance of Protestantism into Poland dates back almost to the beginning of the Reformation under Luther. After the accession of Sigismund Augustus (1548-1572), who adopted a tolerant policy, it advanced rapidly. Both Lutherans and Reformed were numbered among its adherents, and in the second half of the century the Socinian or Unitarian element also attained considerable strength. The spread of Socinianism emphasized the demand for unity among the other Protestants, and in 1570 they attempted in the consensus of Sendomir to provide a platform of agreement. Their subsequent relations, however, were not harmonious, and Romanism found in their divisions a conspicuous aid in its scheme of reconquest. One of the best known representatives of the early stages of Polish Protestantism was John à Lasco who presided for a time over a foreign congregation in London. (See Krasinski, Sketch of the Reformation in Poland.)
The overthrow of the national forces of Bohemia at the opening of the Thirty Years' War left the cause of the Reformation in that realm defenseless, and it was almost wholly extinguished.
1 In this country the Bohemian Brethren had provided the door of entrance. At an early date they engaged in correspondence with Luther. In 1535 they gave distinct expression to their faith in a confession. Their zeal led them to lend assistance to the German Protestants in the Smalcald war. This brought upon them severe persecution for a time. But meanwhile their cause was strengthened by accessions from the Calixtines or Utraquists. Though beset with great difficulties, Protestantism maintained itself in Bohemia, and secured some important concessions, until the great storm of the next century broke upon it.
In Switzerland Protestantism held its ground very fairly. It was made to feel in some measure, however, the pressure of the Roman Catholic revival. Across its borders came the influence of two eminent exponents of Roman Catholic piety, -- two men whose names were enrolled erelong in the calendar of saints, -Carlo Borromeo, who was made Archbishop of Milan in 1560, and Francis de Sales, who commenced his missionary efforts in the neighborhood of Geneva in 1594. The influence of Borromeo was seen in the quickened zeal of the Romish Cantons. In 1586 they were led to unite in the so-called Golden or Borromean league, wherein they pledged themselves to live and die in the Roman Catholic faith. The next year they went so far as to consummate a league with Philip II., which was nothing less than a threat against the Reformed Cantons; for not only was the right of marching troops through the country conceded to Philip, but the contracting parties pledged mutual aid in case of a war for the interests of religion. Francis de Sales, who labored under the auspices of the government of Savoy, is said to have had astonishing success in gaining converts. Neither of these two men was altogether superior to the faults which generally were associated with a zealous propagandism in that age. But they were men in whom religious devotion rose to the plane of an earnest self-denial. Both were representatives, in their spirit and their writings, of mystical piety. A wide celebrity was attained in particular by the treatise of Francis de Sales entitled, "Introduction à la Vie dévote." It represents a less cosmopolitan piety, partakes more largely of Romish alloy, than the kindred writings of Fénelon; but it is entitled, nevertheless, to an honorable place in mystical literature.
1 The fame of Borromeo and De Sales was rivalled by that of the contemporary Spanish mystic Theresa (1515-1582), who combined with an excess of visionary experiences an earnest devotion and tokens of practical sagacity.

Friends and Colleagues