Council of Trent

The Council of Trent provided a basis for reform of abuses in the Catholic Church as a response to the Protestant Reformation and defined key Catholic doctrines that remained in effect until Vatican II in the mid-twentieth century.

Summary of Event

Protestantism Protestantism;Catholic Church and spread rapidly throughout Europe in the sixteenth century, threatening both political and religious stability in central Europe. This led to demands for the internal reform of the Catholic Church. In keeping with an established practice, many people supported the summoning of a general council of all the bishops to consider the needs of the Church. It was generally believed that a council could more readily exert massive pressure for reform than could isolated decrees by the pope or individual bishops. Catholicism;church reform
Trent, Council of (1545-1563)
Charles V (1500-1558)
Paul III
Julius III
Pius IV
Francis I (1494- 1547)
Laynez, James
Seripando, Jerome
Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor)
Francis I (king of France)
Paul III
Seripando, Jerome
Julius III
Maurice, duke of Saxony
Paul IV
Pius IV
Laynez, James

One session of the Council of Trent, from a painting by Titian.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

A general council had met at Rome in 1512-1515, disbanding shortly before Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses in October of 1517. This gathering, the Fifth Lateran Council, Lateran Council, Fifth (1512-1515) anticipating many of the complaints raised by Protestant critics, decreed various reforms, but little was done to implement them.

Support for a general council grew after 1517. The campaign for a general council was led by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. The Holy Roman Empire Holy Roman Empire was a federation of states including Italy and central Europe united under the tutelage of an emperor elected by the German princes. The empire was to provide religious and political unity. The Protestant Reformation threatened this unity. Charles V especially desired a council to place the weight of the Church behind reform measures that he felt could be used to halt the spread of Protestantism and perhaps be used to convince Protestants to return to the Catholic faith.

The popes, however, showed little initial interest in the project because of an earlier experience with conciliarism, a time period when Church councils stripped the popes of much of their power. Francis I of France also opposed such a council. France, like England, had resisted political control by the Holy Roman Emperor and had worked to limit the Church’s interference in state affairs.

In 1537, however, Paul III recognized the need to take steps to counteract the spread of Protestantism, so he appointed a committee of cardinals to study abuses in the Church. Their report was uncompromising in its denunciation of evils and abuses at all levels. For the next few years, as a response to the report, Pope Paul worked for the convening of a council, but it had to be postponed several times. The first session finally met at Trent in northern Italy on December 13, 1545. Attendance was sparse at first, with an overwhelming preponderance of Italian bishops. Two major tasks confronted the council: reform of abuses in the Church and a restatement of Catholic doctrine in clear distinction to Protestantism. Charles V was most concerned with the former and hoped that doctrinal issues would be left undefined so as not to further antagonize Protestants. Pope Paul was most concerned about the latter, hoping for a definitive statement of doctrine that could be used to openly combat Protestant heresy. The bishops agreed to consider both projects simultaneously, but in the first session they were able to agree only on certain points of doctrine.

In matters of faith, the teachings of the Protestants were a strong determinant of the topics that the council discussed. The first point agreed on was the acceptance of the Latin Vulgate Vulgate as the official Bible Bible;Catholic of the Catholic Church, including the books of Judith and the Maccabees and the Epistle of James, whose worth had been questioned by Luther. This was a response to the Protestant practice of translating the Bible into local vernaculars. The delegates at Trent also affirmed that the ancient traditions of the Church are an authoritative guide to religious truth equal to that of the Bible. Luther had in contrast asserted that the Bible should be “the sole rule of faith.”

The most important decree of the first session concerned justification. Protestants taught that a person is wholly sinful and lacks free will so that salvation is totally a gift from God. The Council of Trent, on the other hand, decreed that persons are capable of performing some naturally good works and that they have the capacity to cooperate with God’s offer of grace. The reception of this grace, which is unmerited by persons, makes it possible for them to fulfill God’s law. Salvation depends in part, then, on works and not just on faith, as the Protestants generally taught.

The major reform considered at the first session was the requirement that bishops reside in their dioceses. This was a response to a common practice of bishops to reside in the comfort and stimulation of cities far removed from areas where they were to provide oversight. Likewise, this practice allowed some clerics to have control over a number of areas, thus becoming both financially and politically powerful. Virtually everyone accepted the idea of residency in principle, but there was strong pressure to grant exceptions, especially to cardinals and others who were in the direct service of the pope. When a decree on the subject was finally proposed, it was voted down as being too weak, the only decree of the council to meet that fate.

The first session also officially declared that there are seven Catholic sacraments established by Christ. The seven sacraments are baptism, confirmation, Eucharist (communion), marriage, ordination, penance (confession), and extreme unction (last rites). Most Protestants had rejected all sacraments except baptism and the Eucharist. Also, in contrast to the Protestants, the Council of Trent decreed that sacraments confer grace in their physical operation, although the recipient must be well disposed. Most Protestants argued that the sacraments were simply symbolic reenactments and did not directly confer grace.

Attendance at the first session reached a peak of about seventy-five delegates, including a substantial Spanish contingent. The French bishops largely boycotted the first session. Jerome Seripando, head of the Augustinian order to which Luther had belonged, was the most influential voice at the first session. By late 1547, however, attendance had fallen. Citing an outbreak of typhus and a bad climate, the papal legates transferred the council to Bologna. However, few delegates made the trip, and the council was suspended indefinitely.

The second session met at Trent in 1551 and 1552 under Pope Julius III, who had presided over the first session as a cardinal. It declared that Christ is really and physically present in the Eucharist, reaffirming the doctrine of transubstantiation Transubstantiation in which the bread and wine are understood to be transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ. In contrast, most Protestants, with the notable exception of Luther, believed that the presence of Christ in the Eucharist is merely symbolic. The second session also issued decrees on the sacraments of penance and extreme unction. The second session ended after Maurice, the duke of Saxony’s attack on Charles V placed the town of Trent in danger.

Following the death of Julius, Pope Paul IV assumed office. He was a lifelong reformer but opposed the council as a threat to papal authority. He went forward with certain reform measures, including the strengthening of the Inquisition against heretics and the first edition of Index librorum prohibitorum (the Index of Prohibited Books
Index of Prohibited Books ), but did not resume sessions of the council.

In 1561, the third session of the council was summoned to Trent by Pope Pius IV. A decree on the Mass was issued, in which it was declared to be the same sacrifice as the sacrifice of Christ in the Crucifixion. A decree on marriage was also issued. The question of the residency of bishops again arose, and with papal support a decree was issued from which there were to be no exceptions. Attempts to control the influence of secular rulers over church offices had to be dropped.

In the haste of the closing days in 1563, the council issued decrees on the existence of purgatory and on the propriety of honoring saints, their relics, and their images. All bishops were also required to set up seminaries in their dioceses in which candidates for the priesthood could be trained adequately. Clerical morality and attention to duty were to be rigorously enforced.

In its doctrinal decrees, the Council of Trent set forth clear statements of Catholic belief and thus provided tools for the Jesuits and others in their attempts to win back Europe to the Catholic Church. James Laynez, a Jesuit theologian, was the most influential presence at the third session.

The last session was the best attended of the three, with a maximum of 255 bishops, slightly more than half of whom were Italians. Although in all three sessions German bishops suggested that Protestant representatives attend the Council of Trent for discussions, they were invited only to the second session. A few appeared, but nothing of importance occurred since they were given no real opportunity to present their views.


As a response to the council, Pius IV issued the catechism of the Council of Trent, containing the official doctrines of the Church couched in simple language as a general guide to the layperson. This catechism, coupled with reform of abuses inside the Church, was the foundation for the Counter-Reformation Counter-Reformation[CounterReformation] through which the Catholic Church attempted to halt and reverse the spread of Protestantism. The council provided the Church with doctrinal clarity but in the process also defined the rigid doctrinal lines that would separate the Catholic and Protestant churches until Vatican II (1961-1963), when a new Church council would seek to promote a new era of Christian unity and cooperation.

Further Reading

  • Burns, Edward NcNall. The Counter Reformation. Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand, 1964. Includes some documents from the council and offers a critical perspective.
  • Greengrass, Mark. The Longman Companion to the European Reformation, c. 1500-1618. New York: Longman, 1998. Places the Council of Trent and the Catholic Reformation within the context of the overall European Reformation.
  • Jedin, Hubert. A History of the Council of Trent. 2 vols. Translated by Ernest Graf. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1961. Comprehensive discussion of the council and the religious and political conflict which informed it.
  • Jedin, Hubert. The Medieval and Reformation Church: An Abridgment of the History of the Church. Vol. 5. New York: Crossroad, 1993. Discussion of the council within the context of the Counter-Reformation.
  • Luebke, David M., ed. The Counter-Reformation: The Essential Readings. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1999. Collection of essays surveying Counter-Reformation scholarship in the second half of the twentieth century from the points of view of a variety of disciplines.
  • Mullett, Michael A. The Catholic Reformation. New York: Routledge, 1999. Traces the entire history of the Catholic Reformation, beginning with its roots in the Middle Ages, as well as the impact of the movement on the arts and on daily life. One chapter details the mutual influence of the Papacy upon the Counter-Reformation and of the Counter-Reformation on the Papacy.
  • Olin, John C. Catholic Reform from Cardinal Ximenes to the Council of Trent. New York: Fordham University Press, 1990. Places the Council of Trent in the historical context of the reform movement and includes some documents of the council.
  • O’Malley, John W. “The Council of Trent: Myths, Misunderstandings, and Misinformation.” In Spirit, Style, Story: Essays Honoring John W. Padburg, edited by Thomas M. Lucas. Chicago: Jesuit Way, 2000. Attempts to correct false understandings of the importance of the Council of Trent for Catholic history generally and Jesuit history in particular.

Oct. 31, 1517: Luther Posts His Ninety-five Theses

Aug. 15, 1534: Founding of the Jesuit Order

1550’s-c. 1600: Educational Reforms in Europe

1582: Gregory XIII Reforms the Calendar