This article is an excerpt from When Bishops Meet: An Essay Comparing Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II, published this month by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2019 by the president and fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Although the documents of the early councils of the church recognized that bad customs and bad teaching had to be uprooted, which is a form of change, they most characteristically betray a sense of continuity with previous Christian teaching and practice. They called for continuation and implementation of ancient customs and ancient traditions—antiqua lex, antiqua traditio.
The documents of the medieval councils very much follow the same pattern. Although they in fact deal with the twists and turns in culture and institutional structures of their day, they lack a keen sense of discrepancy between past and present, and thus the councils never felt the necessity to address the discrepancy directly. Only with the Italian Renaissance of the fifteenth century and then the Reformation early in the next century did this ahistorical mindset receive its first serious challenges. The Council of Trent was, therefore, the first council that had to take those challenges into account.
The Council of Trent
Luther saw his doctrine of justification by faith alone as the very core of the Gospel message. To reject it was to reject Christianity itself. As he began to experience hostility from the church hierarchy and from theologians concerning his teaching, he concluded that the church had not only failed to proclaim the Gospel but had proclaimed its antithesis, the heresy of justification by good works. The church had betrayed the teaching of Christ and had thereby ceased being the true church. In the course of the centuries, the church had changed, Luther maintained, and changed radically for the worse. Between it and the congregation of Christian faithful founded by Christ yawned a gap of many centuries. The church of his day was discontinuous with the teaching of Christ and the apostles.
When the bishops convened at Trent in 1545, they soon realized that justification was the key doctrinal issue at stake. After seven months of sometimes acrimonious discussion, they were finally able to articulate a statement that won their overwhelming approval. Neither at this nor at any other point did the council explicitly discuss whether the church had failed to proclaim the true doctrine. The prelates at Trent assumed that church teaching was continuous with the teaching of the Gospel, and they therefore simply affirmed or implied that what they taught was orthodox and true to the tradition.
In the early twentieth century, the important English historian and philosopher R. G. Collingwood designated this style of historical thinking “substantialism,” and he saw it as the chief defect of the ancient Roman historians. Livy, for instance, took for granted that Rome was an unchanging substance that sailed through the sea of the centuries without being affected by it. Christian thinkers inherited this tradition and without examining it applied it to the church.
By the time of the council, however, an awareness of living in particularly evil times gripped many Europeans. Their times were the worst of all, the low point in a long process of decline from a purer and more authentic past. The church, they believed, was not exempt from this process. For Catholics and especially for the bishops gathered at Trent, the upheavals in the wake of the Reformation confirmed and exacerbated the awareness of a pervasive darkness. On at least three occasions, the bishops at the council lamented how calamitous were the times in which the council was taking place. They therefore accepted the idea of change for the worse, but they did not see it applying to doctrine, which somehow was immune to the historical process.
They did see change as applying to the discipline of “the clergy and the Christian people.” The expression implies that the morals and mores of the people living within the institution of the church had declined, but not the institution itself, and most certainly not its doctrine. The documents of Trent rest, therefore, on an operative distinction between the church and its members. The former exists unchanged and apart from the contingencies to which the members are subject.
The council directed its changes therefore to the members, especially the clergy who occupied the three official pastoral offices in the church—pope, bishop, pastor of parishes. In trying to enforce changes in the behavior of officeholders, the council did not see itself as innovating but, rather, as restoring former norms and practices.
What was required to counter the evils of the age was a recovery and restoration of the healthy ecclesiastical discipline of the past. The reforms of Trent for the most part consisted, therefore, in strengthening or significantly reformulating older canonical regulations, especially as those regulations related to the clergy. The council restored, revived, and called back into operation the good norms of the past—restituere, innovare, revocare.
In actual fact, however, the council made changes that were innovations, not simply a burnishing of past laws. The decree Tametsi is the clearest example of such innovations. It stipulated that henceforth the church would consider no marriage valid unless witnessed by a priest. The council intended the decree to stamp out the abuse of so-called clandestine marriages—that is, the exchange of vows between the two partners with no witness present. Such marriages made it possible for one of the spouses, usually the man, to deny later that a marriage had taken place and to abandon his wife and, often, his children.
There was no precedent for Tametsi in the entire history of the church, a fact of which the bishops at Trent were aware. They were aware, therefore, that sometimes measures had to be adopted that were real changes from past practice and standards of behavior. The debate at Trent on Tametsi was heated, however, because it did not concern merely sacramental practice but seemed to have doctrinal implications.
The problem was this: If the consent of the spouses constituted the sacrament, which everybody agreed was the case, how could the church legitimately declare a consented-to union invalid? Did the church have the right and the authority to impose a condition on the validity of marriages that intruded on the partners’ exchange of vows, the constitutive element of the sacrament? How could the church declare invalid in the future marriages that in the past it had recognized as valid, even if forbidden? The bishops discussed these objections and somehow came to the conclusion that they could pass the decree. At Trent, therefore, the problem of doctrinal change lurked in the shadows, poised to strike in the open at any moment.
But when Trent treated doctrine directly, it spoke clearly and declared, “No change!” It reformed mores, but it “confirmed” doctrine. In reaction to Luther, no previous council ever insisted as explicitly or implied so regularly that the present teaching of the church was identical with that of the apostolic age and that there had been no change in it in the intervening centuries. When the council affirmed that in the Catholic Church “the ancient, absolute, and in every respect perfect faith and doctrine” of the Eucharist had been retained unchanged, it was only making explicit for one of its doctrinal pronouncements what underlay them all.