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Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
16 Aug 2004

What's Past is Prologue

by Dr. John C. Rao

Council of Trent

As confused and horrified spectators of the tragic collapse of the Church in the West in recent decades, orthodox Catholics justifiably want to identify those responsible for this disaster and punish them. We often look to the decisions of this or that modern conclave, pope, or interest group, or to any of a wide variety of conspiracy theories for what are, indeed, often partial explanations of a seemingly inexplicable nightmare. Nevertheless, our efforts to place the blame where it belongs are often crippled from the outset by our lack of historical knowledge. The Second Vatican Council and the post-conciliar era have a complex historical background, one which begins with the problems emerging from the Council of Trent (1545-1563). Once this background is filled in, a good deal of the astonishment over events of the recent past begins to disappear. What at first seems incomprehensible can be shown to have been, in fact, predictable. What seems uniformly deplorable may actually yield signs of hope. The real role of conspiracies, individual decisions, or historical accidents can be assessed with more accuracy than uniformed speculation can afford, and that which is truly new or subversive in the modern Church revealed in all its awful import.

Most educated Catholics do understand the significance of Trent, doctrinally and pastorally. What needs to be emphasized about that Council as an aid to calmer judgment and action in the midst of the current debacle is four-fold. To begin with, one must never lose sight of the fact that Trent deliberated under the pressure of almost constant ecclesiastical, political, and military crises, preventing it from discussing many matters as fully as a number of Council Fathers would have liked, and forcing certain "hot" topics to be dropped entirely. Secondly, Trent was bound, both by tradition, as well as by prudential considerations of time and energy, to a general policy of focusing only upon contested issues which had led to a falling away from the Church. It sought to avoid doctrinal disputes among different legitimate schools of theology happily flourishing inside the Catholic camp. Next, it follows from the first two points that much of what Trent said dogmatically and decreed pastorally was limited, incomplete, and open to further refinement and explanation under the pressure of future controversies. Finally, one has to underline the fact that Trent also experienced a "post-conciliar era" which involved interpretations of what its decrees did or did not mean, some of which interpretations were not authoritative, were tied to non-dogmatic personal or political considerations, and helped to engender a spirit of confusion and rancor in clergy and laity alike.

It is possible to give a sense of the problems bequeathed to us by Trent by subsuming all the manifold difficulties experienced by the Council under a discussion of two of the basic struggles coloring much of its history: the ecclesiological question of the relationship of the Universal Pontiff to the local bishops of distinct nations united in a Sacred Synod, and the broad issue of man's justification before God and the respective role of grace and free will therein.

Debate over the relationship of pope and bishops, bubbling under the surface and sometimes erupting violently since the first session of the Council, really reached its peak in the third sitting of 1562-1563. Discussion was three-sided. Pope Pius IV (1559-1565), papalist bishops (the so-called zelanti, mostly Italians), and certain theologians, among whom were a number of Jesuits who represented a reform-minded militancy in union with Rome, wished to have Trent confirm the decrees on papal primacy passed at the fifteenth-century Council of Florence. French delegates at Trent did not accept the validity of Florence, and looked instead to the contemporary teaching of the Councils of Constance and Basel, which affirmed the superiority of councils, weakened papal ability to guide individual churches, and thus gave support to the prerogatives of bishops and local concerns which in France were referred to as "Gallican liberties". A Church organized under such guidelines, they argued, followed the model of early Christianity, which was held out by the French as an object of imitation for all problems of teaching and reform. Meanwhile, Spanish bishops, as militant in their concern for the defense and spread of the Faith as any of the sons of St. Ignatius or St. Remigius, accepted papal primacy, rejected the French divinization of the early Church (whose actual character they felt to be still a subject more of speculation than of real knowledge), but did insist upon more precise definition of the dignity of the episcopal state as such. Thus, however much they might admit that the individual bishop owed his jurisdiction to Rome and obedience to her doctrinal leadership, they maintained that his role as successor to the apostles placed him under divine obligation to carry out his responsibilities in a way that required opposition to certain current curial practices. Hence, a conscientious bishop would have to oppose the widespread awarding of dioceses to people who worked in Rome and never actually administered their sees, and the granting of so many exemptions to individuals and religious orders that governance by a resident bishop became frustrating and almost impossible. As an episcopal college, in council, the Spanish bishops felt called upon to reform the papal court itself and eliminate such abuses. From the standpoint of the zelanti, this meant conciliarism in reality if not in theory.

Bishops gained support in their general quarrel with papal primacy or papal governing practices from the various existing and budding European nation-states. Their co-operation reflected a long-gestating national particularism which conflicted with the international vision represented by the papacy. Still, not all "episcopalists" should be tarred with this pronounced particularist brush. Many bishops simply wanted to emphasize the necessity of nuance in local applications of universal principles without in any sense wishing to reject those principles altogether. Some, like the French, were as eager to be as free from French royal control as they were from papal leadership, one expression of this desire being their concern to allow cathedral chapters to name bishops, again, it was thought, in imitation of ancient custom. State support was dangerous support, for it did contain a strong element of national, lay passion to dictate laws to universal Christendom, thereby swallowing up the religious whole in the secular-minded part. The fact that there were problems here that needed to be clarified led Council Fathers to press for discussion of a "reform of the princes" at Trent, and Cardinal Giovanni Morone (1509-1580), who presided, as papal legate, in the Council's last nine months, to use the threat of this discussion to convince the great powers to come to terms on the ecclesiological issue in general. In short, Church awareness of the urgency of marking out the special needs and autonomy of the sacred sphere in the reform of Christendom was placed in vivid contrast to local state conviction that national concerns should dominate religious as well as secular discussion.

Before we examine the resolution of the ecclesiological battle at Trent, let us turn to the second major dilemma of the Council, that involving justification. Almost everyone at the Council was at one in rejecting Luther's concept of total depravity after Original Sin, and his consequent reliance on justification by faith alone. There was, however, significantly less agreement over exactly how to describe the nature of man's flaw after the Fall, and the relation of his free will to the grace that sanctifies him. Thomist, Scotist, and Augustinian schools, with their particular emphases and nuances, skirmished with one another in studying and reworking the original sketches of decrees written by men like Girolamo Seripando (1492-1563), General of the Augustinian Hermits at the time of the first sitting, and Cardinal-Legate at the last. Council Fathers lined up for or against efforts to keep the doors to reconciliation with the Protestants still open by building a decree on justification from the work of Cardinal Gasparo Contarini (1483-1542) at Regensburg in 1541, the last major bilateral attempt to heal the split in Western Christendom. "Double-justification" had been the theme at that colloquy, a first reconciliation by faith being followed up by a second one that called attention to our personal contribution to our salvation. Accompanying all these controversies was another methodological battle. This saw theologians committed to doctrinal formulation in scholastic terminology crossing swords with others determined to work within a humanist framework, sticking as closely as possible to scriptural proof and language in conciliar decisions.

Ecclesiology proved to be so productive of division that Cardinal Morone and a group of leaders of the various nations at the Council concluded that the only way to deal with the matter was to drop it entirely. Still, with the outrightly conciliarist view somewhat muffled through the aid of the French leader, Cardinal Charles de Guise (1524-1574), bits and pieces of the other different ecclesiological positions made their appearance in one specific canon/decree or another in the months from July to December of 1563. Special prerogatives of the Holy See are alluded to, though the Council Fathers did, indeed, lay down certain reform guidelines for the papal court itself. Detailed reform was deemed something that needed elaboration after the Council at the local level, but the presence of papal legates at provincial synods seemed to guarantee continued guidance from an internationally-minded papacy. Religious orders were praised, but said to require changes, and the regular clergy knew that it was being watched by local bishops who did not like feeling hampered in the governance of their dioceses by the independence that such orders cherished. Anyone studying Trent in depth can see that the papal-episcopal question had merely been calmed, but not satisfactorily clarified, while State involvement in the whole matter, and, with it, the broader issue of parochial lay interests in the life of a universalist, clerical-guided and much more self-aware Church, remained barely examined at all. The decision not to tread on State toes at Trent meant, among many other things, that the whole question of what was going on in the world-wide missions under Portuguese and Spanish control, whether spiritual interests were being subordinated to secular ones in the evangelization of the indigenous peoples, was left untouched. Trent thus dealt with the problems of the Church in Europe and not those in the rest of the world.

The decrees passed at Trent related in one way or another to justification did emphasize the work of both grace and free will, though not in the context of a double justification, (criticized as redundant), but as a single act of co-operation of man with God. Traditional positions were reiterated as far as they could be co-opted in the terms of a new debate, so much so that some of the Council Fathers thought that the controversy of the relationship of free will and grace had been left as unresolved as it was before Trent, or that the need to strike at the specific Protestant denial of free will had left the impression that freedom counted more than grace and faith in the Catholic vision. Furthermore, some decrees were introduced by explanatory texts which canonists thought not to possess the same weight as the precise canons and anathemas following them. In short, just as with the ecclesiological issue and its related problems of Church-State conflicts and the fate of non-European Christendom, the post-conciliar era would also witness a hunt for further clarity in matters concerning grace and free will.

One other obvious point helps to explain why the left-over disputes of Trent must be taken into account in order to grasp the current ecclesiastical nightmare: the fact that the sixteenth century Council was a pastoral as well as a doctrinal Council. Rooted in concerns that pre-dated the Protestant revolt, Trent was deeply committed, probably more committed in a practical way than any previous council, to a thorough evangelization of a Christian world which was believed to be still all too rooted in superstitious pagan practices. Evangelization was to be accomplished by a reinvigorated clergy, episcopacy, and papacy. But already from the beginning of the Council's first sitting, it recognized that any attempt to separate pastoral activity from zeal for doctrine was impossible. The minute one touched upon the first realm the second inexorably reared its head, the same being true when approached the other way around. The Christian evangelist had to accomplish his work with good doctrine behind him. He had to be able to teach.

Here lay the difficulty. There remained confusion regarding several key problems in ecclesiology, Church-State relations, missionary activity, and the grace-free will arena with crucial consequences for teaching. Hence, the warning of the great Jesuit papal theologian at the Council, Alfonso Salmerón (1515-1585) about the limitations one had to place upon the dogmatic claims of his own order's educational program:

I think that we must not draw up lists of propositions that we might not be able to defend. This has been done, but it has not yielded good results. Still, if one would truly like to make a catalogue of this type, it would have to contain the smallest number of propositions possible, so that no one could claim that we desire to condemn before the fact opinions and theses that the Church has not absolutely banned.

Identification of the supreme authority within the Church — pope or bishops-in-council — had still to be made more satisfactoraly. Different weight was given to the canons and the explanatory texts coming from the Council itself. What was taught in seminaries and universities about disputed matters, and, a fortiori, about those topics on which the Council had not spoken at all, was, of necessity, more detailed than anything to be found in conciliar texts, nuanced according to the school of thought and preoccupations of specific teachers, and potentially ground-breaking. But it was less authoritative than anything a Council might decree. Statements appearing in popular catechisms, devotional books and practices, preaching, and spiritual direction was subject to the same "school" mentality, and, given the highly personal nature of pastoral work, often justifiably tailored to a particular individual or group in the specific circumstances of their struggle to reach God. Here, one would be dealing with still less authoritative teachings than anything that might be found in the work of seminary and university theologians, themselves operating on a lower scale than Council Fathers and popes. Finally, the State, whose very justification in its work for social order was deeply intertwined with religion, saw the need for the spirit and the law to move in tandem. It worried about the assertiveness of the reform-minded clergy in defining the rules of the cooperation and taught its own version of the doctrines backing evangelization. Given its primarily secular focus, however, it was perhaps the least authoritative spiritual guide of all. Everyone believed that truly effective pastoral work needed to be done, but what was to be the most important force propelling it? Whatever the intrinsic theological merit of the particular force chosen, each had its committed cheering squad. Which authority was it to be? The teachings of popes? Of bishops in their local circumstances or in council? Of the canons of Trent? Of the canons elaborated on by their explanatory introductions? Of theologians trying to deal with unresolved disputes in answering the questions of seminarians and students? Of one's own spiritual director and guide to sacramental/devotional life? Of the laws of the Most Christian King? Couple the desire to transform the world with a confusion as to which authority should lead that transformation and the result had to be a new crisis in the life of what has always been a crisis-filled Church in pilgrimage to God.

Let us take but one example of the problems of Trent's post-conciliar era: that involving the Jesuits. The Society of Jesus, after Trent, was central to much of the work of Catholic evangelization in Protestant territories as well as in mission countries. It was associated in many people's minds with the Council and the Catholic Reform in themselves. But the Jesuits, who claimed to be followers of St. Thomas Aquinas, seemed to be opting for a clarification of the teaching of Trent which emphasized the importance of free will in a way that Dominican Thomists and Augustinians found to be excessive. This was tied together with devotional practices, spiritual direction and missionary practices emphasizing the same theme. Leaving the question uncontested might bring with it a branding of those underlining the significance of grace and, perhaps, promoting a different kind of spirituality, as crypto-Protestants. Hence the sense that the Jesuit position had to be assailed as being at least semi-Pelagian.

Battle was joined, the main lines being formed around the Jesuit Luis de Molina (1535-1600) and the moral theological doctrine of probabilism on the one hand, and a battery of diverse enemies on the other. These latter included the disciples of Michael Baius (1513-1638), the rector of the University of Louvain, Domingo Bañez (1592-1604), Dominican rector of the University of Salamanca, and, ultimately, the tidal wave of varied supporters of Cornelius Jansen (1585-1638), Bishop of Ypres, and author of the Augustinus, the initial "bible" of the Jansenist movement. The question of whether attrition and fear of punishment, or contrition and full love of God, were necessary for forgiveness of sins also played a major role in the conflict.

From inconclusive disputations under the presidency of Popes Clement VIII (1592-1605) and Paul V (1605-1621), through reiterated condemnations of rigorism and laxism, crypto-Protestantism and semi-Pelagianism, the debate continued to rage though the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It very quickly invaded the realm of spiritual direction, liturgical, sacramental, and devotional life, calling up the interest of nations, kings, and law courts, and all ranks of clergy and people, so that anybody who might stake any claim to teaching anything became involved. Since good doctrine was deemed essential to proper pastoral activity, the stakes were thought to be high. It is utterly impossible to give a complete description of the bitterness, rage, and venomous hatred unleashed by this struggle, especially against the Jesuits. From shaky victory to temporary defeat to renewed shaky victory, the free will camp fought to gain the upper hand, and appeared, indeed, to have done so by the time of Clement XI's (1700-1721) encyclical, Unigenitus, in 1713. Ironically, by this time, the issue had been complicated by so many other initially extraneous matters that it needs to be discussed as much as a part of the development of the French Revolution as an example of post-Tridentine crises. But this is what serves as the link with our own time, illustrating the problems of the last council, the current post-conciliar era, and their continuity with the past.

It should be clear by now that the broad lines of what was discussed at Vatican II flow logically from what did not happen at Trent, what was disputed in the years after 1563, and also (something which lies beyond the scope of the present article) what was not fully thrashed out at Vatican I in 1870 either. It is hard to see how almost any issue that came up in the 1960's would have surprised the controversialists of the previous four hundred years. The papal-episcopal college question, Church-State relations, the advisability of the use of the vernacular and other changes in the liturgy, and, one should also add, the need for a clearer teaching on the sacrament of matrimony, were all issues familiar to them. The only way for much of this discussion to appear unusual is to think that Trent pronounced dogmatically on more matters than it actually did. And this, as I have noted, was a tendency that had its own history and did, in fact, enter, erroneously, into men's minds.

Hard as it may be to pick the wheat from the chaff amidst the rubble of contemporary Catholic life, hope can be entertained that the long-term effect of some of what we have experienced over four hundred and more years of controversies will be for the good. Knowledge of Scripture, the Church Fathers, and the Apostolic Tradition as a whole, deepened in the wake of the manifold post-Tridentine battles, clarifying and underlining the decisions of Trent and Vatican I in positive ways. How much more correct the rejection of "double-justification" seems today, when a scripturally and patristicaly informed appreciation of the Mystical Body of Christ, lacking to the Council Fathers of the 1540's, teaches us that everything good which we freely accomplish is done in unity with Christ; the very Christ who simultaneously offers us the grace we need for reconciliation with God.

What is disturbing about developments in our own day is the way in which lessons which were learned at Trent and in its post-conciliar era have been abandoned, wreaking inevitable havoc in consequence. This is especially true with respect to the erroneous presumption that it is possible to deal with pastoral problems separately from doctrinal issues. Again, this attempt to downplay the importance of doctrine in favor of a pastoral approach to Christian life also has a long history behind it. Erasmus (1467-1536), whose ideas commanded the attention of large numbers of Catholics and Protestants, was one of its chief proponents. States troubled by religious disputes already before Trent tried, unsuccessfully, to keep that Council focused on purely pastoral matters to avoid further rancor. Those that continued to be so disturbed after Trent grew in their conviction of the need to avoid emphasizing doctrine. Society, some of their spokesmen argued, needed the moral framework provided by the Decalogue to carry out its business in orderly fashion, and the Decalogue was accepted by all the main parties to religious dispute. Why dwell on more detailed theological matters insignificant to the peace of the commonwealth? Moreover, Trent itself placed such a value upon practical questions of evangelization and the positive social results accruing from them that one line of Tridentine-inspired reformers did, in fact, end by giving support to the "salvation by pastoral work alone" thesis. Such a tendency became especially pronounced at the end of the 1600's, when the moral aberrations connected with the mystic Quietism of Miguel de Molinos (1628-1696) was given a bad press. A pastoral focus seemed more peaceful, productive, and likely to win favor from God than anything too demanding intellectually, and subject to perversion mystically.

Still, Trent, as we have seen, rejected the idea that pastoral matters could be treated without reference to doctrinal ones as an impossibility. And the history of pastoral concerns in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in general has yielded more than ample evidence of the way in which the "practical approach" actually involves its own doctrine, which sometimes conflicts radically with the orthodox position.

One would do well to look briefly at certain aspects of the Jansenist movement with this in mind. Many Jansenists, eager to divert attention from their doctrinal deviation, turned, instead to "pastoral" work. They denied the existence of a Jansenist faction, claiming simply to be going about the business of Christian evangelization in line with the perennial tradition of the Church. Enemies who continued to harass them on doctrinal grounds were accused of private vendetta and perversity, and of being "schismatic" in their desire to stir up trouble where, Jansenists claimed, no grounds for it existed. Through spiritual direction, the publication of catechisms and devotional works, translations of the liturgy, and other activities, they sought to build individual men and women of conscience ready to live and defend their faith.

But since Jansenists forming such conscientious Catholics de-emphasized the role of free will in the relationship of man to God, they necessarily had to clash with the pastoral activities shaped by those, like the Jesuits, operating with a different doctrine. Jansenists had to strike at the concept of men working in union with grace to raise themselves and everything around them to the greater glory of God in a natural world already beautifully structured by the ancient Greeks and Romans. This they did, launching an assault on all the "arrogant", "pompous" forms of "Jesuitical" Baroque practice in the name of noble simplicity, ancient Christian humility, and individual, self-abasing sincerity. Everything elaborate, everything indicative to them of man's and nature's pride had to go. So did all that emphasized God's closeness to man. Thus, as the 1700's progressed, one heard Jansenists thundering more and more, on the "pastoral level", against Latin, music, art, processions, eucharistic devotions, feast days, the rosary, the way of the Cross, and adoration of the Sacred Heart. The spirit and substance of Jansenist pastoral concepts, as well as their inevitable tie-in with a doctrinal system of their own, can be found in the pages of the long-lived clandestine eighteenth-century French periodical, Nouvelles ecclésiastiques (Church News), in the reforms undertaken in Austria under Maria Theresa (1740-1780) and Joseph II (1780-1790), and in the decrees of the Synod of Pistoia (1786) in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. Still, the fact that pragmatic pastoral activity seemed to be their chief concern confused those who did not share Jansenist ideas, making them into unwitting aids of a belief system not their own.

The focus on pastoral activity alone has grown together historically with a demand for the abandonment of the use of authority in the service of spiritual matters, whether by a doctrinally-minded papacy or a State conscious of its responsibilities towards religion. Jansenists also worked to weaken the influence of popes and monarchs who stood in the way of "true" Christian practice. Interestingly enough, in the three cases noted above, they did so in union with other authorities — the French parlements and desacralizing rulers — the imposition of whose will was deemed essential to the creation of a more inward-looking, pastorally-minded Church. The political theory used by these forces defined the word "spiritual" in such a way as to give to religion control over nothing except the inner conscience of an individual, everything else being subject to arbitrary twisting on the basis of changeable interpretations of what was required to establish public order. The ecclesiastical theory developed by the Jansenists gave each "sincere" conscience the certainty that it could and must guide the Church as it determined, even if pope, bishops and the vast concourse of the faithful were against it. In both cases, the pastorally- and spiritually-minded Church became the plaything of arbitrary forces making the supposed concern to eliminate the appeal to power in religious matters from religion laughable. Again, fellow travelers equally preoccupied with pastoral improvement often did not see the doctrinal deviation and practical consequences to which they were giving unintended support.

If one is truly interested in the role of conspiracy in history, the almost unknown but fully-documented conspiracy of Jansenists and their sympathizers against Jesuits, Jesuit pastoral activity, and the post-Tridentine Church that they were said to corrupt is a fine place to begin. It had its centers in Rome, Paris, and practically all of the Catholic courts of Europe, as numerous modern secular historians have identified. Every tool useful in imposing the will of a minority upon a majority and masquerading it as a just and democratic act played its part in this plot: the creation of the cause celebre, the manufacturing of an outraged public opinion demanding satisfaction, the commission of brutal deeds fueled by a hatred of which only the opposing, orthodox side is said to be capable. Moreover, it was a successful conspiracy, albeit only temporarily so. For the realities of the French Revolution and the fight against it awakened the "Baroque" Church to what was eternally essential in her character, long enough to recognize and deconstruct the trick being played on her, and to open the eyes of many purely "pastoral-minded" reformers as well.

None of these problems of a purely pastoral approach towards dealing with ecclesiastical questions have disappeared since the eighteenth century. If anything, it ought to be much clearer now than two centuries ago that a "pragmatic" policy which is also said to secure protection for "conscience" entails the triumph of hidden doctrines and the victory of determined minorities. The same tactic has been used to telling effect again and again in the intervening period, the very social doctrine of the Church having to a large degree been developed to underline this fact. Why, then, has the lesson been lost?

Three reasons may be noted briefly here. There have never ceased to be Catholics arguing for a focus on pragmatic pastoral work in a way that both denigrates the role of authoritative Church teaching of doctrine and yet opens wide the door to ex cathedra pronouncements by the spirit of the times. Nineteenth-century Liberal Catholicism, Americanism, and one strain of twentieth-century Modernism have worked powerfully to this end. Contingencies (chance, if you will) have also played their role. There is no denying that the growth of industrialism and the popular press, the impact of deadly ideological warfare and the sympathies of specific prelates and pontiffs have all contributed to a desire to retreat from the realm of divisive intellect to one unified on the basis of what is immediately and universally appealing. And, finally, there have always continued to be those men honestly dedicated to evangelizing the world and in no way eager to allow false doctrines to subvert the direction of their action, who, nevertheless, saw the pastoral gaps after Trent still looming large before them; saw them, and fell prey to the temptation to relax doctrinal preoccupations under the "new" conditions of the enlightened 1960's.

Unfortunately, our recent pastoral experiment was not worth the proven risk. As ought to have been expected, the children of darkness were more savvy than the children of light. Every positive word of every constitution of Vatican II has come to mean, in the minds of most Catholics, whatever the most willful pragmatic group in a given parish, diocese, or society has wanted them to mean, which is generally something which they ought not to mean. Hence, the validity of what Dietrich von Hildebrand prescribed as the necessary prologue to a truly Catholic pastoral renaissance built from the lessons of the past: the appeal to sound doctrine, the precise pinpointing of error, and the reiteration of the glorious words, anathema sit.

Holy Fathers of the Council of Trent, pray for us.

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