Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The New Perspective on Trent

The 16th century Council of Trent has been much maligned in my Protestant heritage and is held in considerable disdain by virtually all of my evangelical friends. This is not at all surprising considering the robust response of Trent towards the teachings of the Reformers. The language used is often unashamedly polemic - the word "anathema" is used repeatedly to describe the status of the early Protestants.

After my Catholic bible study tonight, I asked the priest about what he understood to be the key differences between sacramentalism in Lutheranism and Catholicism. I feel that we only scratched the surface, but for some reason we got onto the subject of the Council of Trent. The priest explained to me that the Council of Trent was often badly misunderstood by Protestants and Catholics alike and that several things had to be taken into consideration:

  1. Trent is set in a particular historical, religious and philosophical context. If the Council of Trent were written today, it would be worded somewhat differently.
  2. The declarations that the Protestants were "anathema" must be understood within the interplay of 16th century sectarian dialogue. The exchange was heated on both sides, with the Papacy being labelled as the Antichrist, a label that still exists today in many fundamentalist churches. Vatican II, on the other hand, does not use the term "anathema" once.
  3. Trent was not merely the attempted refutation of Protestantism, but also a strong rebuke of then current Catholic praxis. Trent addressed everything from liturgical abuses to the abrogation of adequate pastoral care by Bishops.

These observations are so obvious, yet for some reason I missed them. I suspect that part of the reason for this is because I have long seen Trent through a Protestant lens. I still haven't read anything in Trent outside of the Canons on Justification and I'm sure that most Protestants can't say that they have either.

Another positive aspect of the conversation was that it helped me to more fully appreciate the important role of the Reformation in the history of the broader Christian Church. The priest acknowledged that many of the Reformers had legitimate concerns and I am sure that this is even a commonly held view within Catholicism. As well as establishing a "large R" Reformation outside of the Catholic Church, the Reformers helped to set the wheels in motion for a "small R" reformation within the Church. Without the influence of the Reformers, Catholicism may well have continued to lose its impetus and died a slow death through emaciation. Ironically, the Reformers themselves are largely responsible for the fact that Catholicism exists today.

1 comment:

Gareth said...

So was the Council of Trent the start of the Counter-Reformation or something?