The Council of Trent: The Thirteenth Session
The 16th century was an eexciting time of economic and political growth and exploration. The Renaissance, which sparked Humanism, prompted intellectual growth, which stimulated critical questions on topics such as the church fathers, and scripture that gave a completely new approach to looking at the Bible. The birth of the European Reformation (or Protestantism) is often marked by Martin Luther’s posting of The Ninety-Five Theses on October 31, 1517 protesting the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences.
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Luther’s initial intent was not to separate and divide the Holy Mother Church, but to reform ill practices and corruption. However, his good intention grew into a great schism in the Church as doctrinal and canonical differences were challenged, resulting in the Council of Trent as the Church’s response to both institutional and theological issues. It is the background to the Council of Trent and theological decrees that will be addressed this writing, particularly that of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist in session thirteen.
The Reformation has maintained its status as the controversy in western theology despite the centuries that have passed since its occurrence. This controversy emains the decisive historical event that changed the Catholic Church forever. The Reformation is a complicated event with numerous contributing factors: political/ historical, intellectual, technological and widespread corruption in the church. Martin Luther and John Calvin are often referred to as the fathers of the reformation period due to their theological interpretations and challenges to reform the abuses in the Catholic Church.
While others had attempted reform previously their efforts were unsuccessful. The technology of the printing press was a valuable political tool, sed by the Reformation leaders to spread their agenda against the Church. It fostered wider dissemination of their criticisms and ideas; this, coupled by widespread corruption and abuses in the Church made the time ripe for reformation in the Church. The actions of Luther and Calvin had far reaching effects that we live with today. During Medieval times, the Catholic Church councils were not a routine part of the church’s self-governance.
Instead, they were used as instruments of internal and external crisis management. By the time of Martin Luther, it was generally understood that the convocation of a general council might be the church’s nly recourse to resolve a crisis when other attempts had failed. The 19th general council of the Catholic Church, the Council of Trent was Just such an event, convened by Pope Paul Ill in 1545 in response to such: the Protestant Reformation, an issue that had become unmanageable. Many political, institutional and theological factors led up to this crisis.
Many elements of the crisis were old and had troubled the church for years. Critics, both Catholic and Protestant listed issues in need of reform that iincluded the non-residency of bishops, lax enforcement of clerical celibacy, and cclesiastical appointments of unqualified individuals. Other issues were new and iincluded a wide-ranging critique of the teaching authority of the Catholic Church that challenged the heart of the Catholic Church; such a challenge required a response. The theological critique began as an intra-Catholic debate.
It is important to note that all of the initial Protestant reformers had been baptized in the Catholic Church ana many, sucn as Lutner ana I nomas Cranmer naa rlsen to Important leaaersnlp roles. However, by the time of the Council of Trent, Luther had been excommunicated for approximately 20 years. In this time, the Protestant ideas spread and developed roots in northern Europe. Although the majority of Reformers accepted the basic Christian dogmas of the Trinity and two natures of Christ declared at the Councils of Nicea (325) and Chalcedon, they focused on critiques of other theological issues.
These issues iincluded the authority of scripture and tradition, the proper understanding of the Justification of the sinner, the nature of the church and its ministry, and the theology of the sacraments, especially those of the Eucharist and penance. Therefore, the unanswered questions at the time were: were the Reformers Catholics that had gone astray? Or, were they permanently outside the flock? The Council of Trent is one of the Catholic Church’s most significant councils; therefore, before going further, it is important to give further explanation on the Council of Trent.
The Council took almost two decades to complete, three periods, and five papal successions from 1545-1563. The Council’s location in northern Italy was a strategic move due to Imperial and papal power. For political reasons in 1547, the location changed to Bologna; however, there was dissent and therefore the convening of the council was suspended. The Council reassembled six years later in 1 551 after Pope Paul Ill’s death; his successor was Pope Julius Ill, who was a papal legate during the first session of Trent.
During this second session the council addressed important theological issues on the sacraments of penance, Eucharist and extreme unction (anointing of the sick); however due to political dangers, the council was forced into suspension in 1552 with the intent of reconvening in two years. It actually ended up being ten years before the council reconvened and two popes later. Pope Marcellus II, another former papal legate to Trent succeeded Pope Julius Ill but died within a month of his election.
Pope Paul ‘V, succeeded Pope Marcellus II, and believed that the reconciliation with the Protestants was a perilous illusion. He was committed to reform but did not desire reconvening of the council. In 1559, Pope Pius IV succeeded Pope Paul l. ft, unlike his predecessor, Pope Pius IV did indeed desire the council to complete its work. In 1562-1563, the council met. By this time, many of the original leaders to the council had died. This council was a new generation and energetically completed the unfinished agenda from 1 545 during its third session.
In addition, they reaffirmed the work of earlier sessions and issued a long series of decrees and canons regarding both institutional and theological reforms. In 1564, Pope Pius confirmed the decrees and canons from the Council of Trent. The importance of this council cannot be overstated. Its decrees on institutional reform are, perhaps in some cases, as significant as its decrees on theological issues. The Council of Trent became known as the Counter-Reformation, or Catholic Reformation.
The decrees from this council provided vigorous expressions to the Catholic doctrines of grace and sacraments. It provided the Church with greater unity by clearly defining four major, critically disputed areas of Catholic theology: 1) the authority of scripture and tradition; 2) the doctrine of justification by faith; 3) the nature of the church and its ministry; and 4) the theology of the sacraments. Concerning the sacraments in general, the thirteenth session of the Council of Trent followed the medieval tradition by listing seven sacraments.
The council aecreea tnat tne sacraments were Instltutea Dy cnrlst nlmselT ana were necessary for salvation. Further, the council rejected Donatism. While many mportant decrees were made on a wide range of topics, I will focus on the real presence in the sacrament of the Eucharist through transubstantiation. The doctrine of the real presence is central to the Catholic faith and the liturgy. In the Eucharist, Christ is truly present; in other sacraments, Christ’s power is present.
This real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is especially significant to the faithful who receive it and become filled with grace. In the Eucharist, our faith in the Incarnation and faith in the real presence is “a sacramental extension of the Incarnation across space nd time, the manner in which Christ continues to abide, in an embodied way, with his church” (Catholicism). The Eucharist theology is clearly stated in John 6. Jesus’s radical words results in mass defection among his followers On 6: 66) in his own time.
Trent concurred with the 1215 decision of the Lateran Council and defined this real presence as transubstantiation. Transubstantiation is the process by which the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ when consecrated by the priest during the sacrifice of the Mass. This term was not new and had been used since the days of St. Thomas Aquinas; Trent officially affirmed it. In transubstantiation, the appearance of the bread and wine remain the same, but their substance is changed, as Christ performed the Last Supper. This is the heart of the theological doctrine.
The bread becomes the body of Christ; the wine becomes the blood of Christ. The Eucharistic sacrifice relates back to the Old Testament celebrations and temple sacrifices. The Eucharistic meal feeds our church family as we all partake of the sacrificial lamb, our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. This tradition was passed from Christ at the Last Supper to the apostles, “… o this in memory of me” (Lk 22:42). This definition is opposite of transformation, where the substance of something stays the same, but the outward appearance changes.
According to the Cambridge Companion to Reformation Theology, Trent insisted that: The whole Christ, body and blood was equally in the cup and in the consecrated host, that the sacrament was effective ex opere operato (the built-in efficacy of a sacrament properly conferred) and not merely ex opere operantis (the good dispositions with which a sacrament is received), and that the communion of the people was not essential to a valid Eucharist. (pg. ) Reformers had three views: Martin Luther believed in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, but not the doctrine of transubstantiation.
Huldrych Zwingli, a Swiss Reformation leader interested in Christian Humanism believed that Christ was not present in the Eucharist, but that it was a memorial of Christ’s death. Calvin believed there was a spiritual, not a bodily presence in the Eucharist. Luther believed in two sacraments, baptism and Eucharist, because they both had visible signs of water, bread and wine. He refused to accept the doctrine of transubstantiation; he found it illogical, unsupportable and unsubstantiated.
Instead, Luther believed in consubstantiation. Consubstantiation is Eucharistic theological ssimilar to the Catholic understanding, but no less theologically heretical. With consubstantiation, there is a simultaneous presence of both the bread and the body of Christ. For Luther, The words of institution had to be taken literally, because they promised the presence 0T cnrlst ana tne Torglveness 0T sln In sucn a way a tn t cnrlstlans coulo De certain of receiving both in the sacrament.
According to Luther, after the ascension the human nature was linked to the divine nature by a sharing of properties communication idiomatum) in the one person of Christ, and therefore the human nature could be everywhere (ubique) the divine nature could be, especially in the supper. Luther was less interested in abstract Christology than in preserving the sacrament as the objective mearns of forgiveness and the locus of encounter between Christ and the Christian (Cambridge. The fundamental fact for Luther was that “Christ was truly present at the Eucharist – not some particular theory as to how he was present” (McGrath). Zwingli’s importance in the Reformation was cut short due to his death. However, he was important in the arly proliferation of Reformation effort. The term “Zwinglian” is used especially to refer to his belief that Christ was not present in the Eucharist; and reduced the sacrament toa memorial. He believes the sacraments were simply to serve as a reminder to the faithful.
In his opinion, they were simply an act to bolster faith and contained no grace, spiritual or bodily presence. Calvin, like Luther, believed in the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist. Unlike Luther, he believed the elements contained a spiritual but not a bodily presence and therefore could not be the object they signified. Calvin refuted transubstantiation, consubstantiation and ubiquity as absurd and superstitious. Further, he believed that, Christ is substantially present wherever the power and effect of his life, death and resurrection were present.
He believed that the Eucharist was an instrument through which Christ mediated such power to his church” (Cambridge). He did not believe that the substance of Christ’s humanity was in the physical presence but the spiritual. Calvin had a systematic theological method that could have easily been the focus of the entire paper. As stated early theology of the Eucharist is at the center of our Catholic theology and is clearly stated in John 6: I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whowever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world (51)…
Jesus said to them, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whowever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink (54-56). Christ’s words directly institute His real presence in the Eucharistic feast. It was quite a difficult concept for Jesus’ disciples; some walked away.
Tthroughout the history of Christianity, the theology of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist has been a church-dividing issue. Jesus is the divine Word. His words contain transformative power, which he passed to his apostles. In the consecration, the priest speaks through the person of Jesus, thus changing the elements of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. This is the sacrament of the Eucharist. This is how Christ lives in us. This is the reality of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. This iving bread sustains us yesterday, today and tomorrow.
The real presence in this sacrament 0T Inltlatlon opens us to grace, ana allows us to experience cnrlst wltnln creation, ourselves and in all people On 14: 18-20; 17: 23, 26; Col 1:27) and liturgical celebrations (Mt 25: 30). It is important for us to understand that through controversies in Church history, as chaotic as it has been at times, doctrines developed through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. People ask the same questions today on bodily existence, the real presence, and struggle with the relevance of the Old Testament.
It is tempting to remove pieces of doctrine that do not make sense to us, but if we change one piece of doctrine as the reformers did, it is ssimilar to a domino effect that changes interpretations of other doctrines. Luther is a classic example in the evolution of his theology: reducing sacraments from seven to two, and consubstantiation versus transubstantiation. The good intentions of the initial Protestant Reformation movement had wide reaching consequences that are part of our lives today, affecting our communities and families. We must pray for Christian unity, for we are all members of the body of Christ.