It was Martin Luther who, in 1520, brought the discussion of need for a General Church Council back into debate. He, like many others, believed that it should be such a council, and not the Pope, that made all major and final decisions on issues concerning the Papacy. Previously, Popes had gone out of their way to make sure that these councils did not take place. This was because they believed that the Council would spend much of its time trying to wrest Papal control from the Pope.

Under Pope Paul III, this situation changed. He firmly believed that, in order for Catholicism to survive in to the 17th century, a General Church Council (G.C.C.), would have to be convened, mainly to set down in black and white what Catholics should believe. This being the case, Paul made preparations to call a council, although it took almost ten years to come to fruition. But this it did, in Trent, in December 1545. Although the turnout to this first session of the council was small – Francis I of France sent no bishops to the council, having been forced into agreeing to the council after being beaten by Charles V of Spain – there was now a realistic prospect of the council actually meeting.

There was a difference of opinion about the function of the council, particularly between Paul and Charles, who had been calling for reform for a long time. Spain had long since reformed, and was the only place in modern day Europe with little or no Protestantism. Charles expected the council to ‘clean up´ the church, remove abuses etc., that he believed were causing the flow of Catholic defectors. Paul however, had no such wish. He believed that drawing up in black and white what was acceptable and what was heretical to the church, in defence to the protestant attacks on Catholic beliefs.

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Although at the time it was agreed to look at both complaints simultaneously, as it turned out, Paul had little intention of looking at the issue of abuses. Because of this, Charles quickly lost interest in the council, meaning that there was now no France and no Spain attending the council, leaving the way open for the Pope to have a more free run of the council, which he did. He focused on the exact recording of Catholic beliefs; this was intended to force Catholics who sympathised with some Protestant beliefs, to decide one way or another whose side they were on. This is what it did, rather successfully.

Paul was not interested in reaching any kind of compromise with the Protestants; instead he wished to oust them from the Church, as far as he was concerned, they were heretics, who would burn in hell for the rest of eternity. For him to compromise with them would be a heretical act in itself. Also ignored were the protests of Catholic humanist theologians, who had for some time believed that reform was necessary, and who also believed that with the arrival of the council, these matters would be addressed.

This was not the case, and the theologians that attended the council to put across their point of view, were usually outmanoeuvred by the council Legates, who although being mainly of an Italian nationality, were seen generally as ‘neutral chairmen´. These legates quite often employed Jesuit theologians to argue their cases for them. This was extremely effective; indeed, one could say that they were the reason that a lot of Protestant arguments never really got off the ground.

Below are some examples of what was achieved by the council, in terms of allowable Catholic beliefs 1)The only truth is the truth of the old and new testament, and the unwritten traditions that have been passed down from Christ.

2)It is not down to an individual to interpret the bible; it is only to be interpreted by those of the highest order (i.e. the Pope).

3)Baptism takes away ALL sin, for those that dispute this, let them be anathema. (Ousted from the church; a heretic) Point number two was especially important, as it was the translation of the bible by Martin Luther that really sparked interest in the Protestant reformation in the first place.

There is no doubt that the Council of Trent was the most important factor in the counter reformation. It encompassed many of the other factors in the counter-reformation, eg. Giving Jesuits a place to argue their case in front of officials who could pass legislations that would show Catholic willing to reform.



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