Tridentine Toleration

The controversy involving the 1962 rite of Mass, sometimes known as the Tridentine rite, serves, among other things, as a study in Catholic toleration. Most people, Catholic or otherwise, believe that ours is a more tolerant age than those that preceded it. Modern toleration is a selective thing, however, as it is applied to only certain issues (these days, often involving sexual behaviors).

For instance, the Council of Trent (1545-1563), whose name the old rite bears, is often said to have initiated an intolerant period in the history of the Catholic world. But as with so many topics in the history of the Church, a rigorous examination of the Council of Trent shows instead that the Council fathers assembled there were probably more tolerant than, say, Pope Francis or Cardinal Roche.

Few councils in Catholic church history met during so divided an era as had the Council of Trent. Pope Paul III’s (1534-1549) decision to convene the council at all was part brilliant diplomacy, part miracle, owing to the array of interests and issues that any prospective council would have had to address. The challenge of Protestant teaching meant that the doctrine of the Church, especially with regard to justification, had to be considered. Many theologians and bishops thought the doctrinal split between Protestantism and Catholicism should be the Council’s primary concern.

Since good government was believed to depend on religion, Catholic Europe’s monarchs also had concerns. In particular, the German Emperor Charles V (1519-1556), in whose realm the Protestant movement began, hoped that the two sides might yet resolve their differences. He looked for a council that would concentrate less on doctrine and more on clerical indiscipline, which he was convinced caused the schism.

According to Charles, the council should improve clerical education and take measures to eliminate abuse; most Protestants would then return to the Catholic fold. The French, mired in dynastic difficulties, wanted no council at all; they preferred to deal with religio-political challenges on their own. They failed, for the Colloquy of Poissy of 1562 not only did not reconcile the Catholic and Protestant factions, but also led to the French Wars of Religion (1562-1589).

Still, a council did begin to meet in the northern Italian town of Trent in 1545. The council fathers – all bishops, who were accountable to their rulers as well as Holy Mother Church – had to devise some way to address the variety of issues at hand.

They were eminently Roman, that is practical, in the protocols they devised to handle the council’s business. Doctrinal and disciplinary debates would be held on alternate days. If on Monday they considered justification, then on Tuesday they would discuss clerical moral formation.


Whether the discussions involved doctrine or discipline, a first round of talks gave experts on the issue at hand a chance to express their views. Next, having heard the opinions of the experts, the bishops received their opportunity to engage in argument. Finally, a conciliar statement would be put together. When complete, that statement would be read to the entire assembly for a vote. If it passed, a decree binding on all Catholics would be promulgated.

Compared to many other councils in the history of the church, the aftermath of Trent was blessedly uncomplicated. To be sure, some of Trent’s decrees were ignored for decades, often for understandable reasons. Sometimes the personnel required to implement them were simply unavailable. In other cases, prudence dictated that bishops proceed slowly. Funding, too, could be an impediment, as could the refusal of the crown to permit the Tridentine decrees to be read in the churches.

Overt dissent from Trent’s decrees, however, was rare. Its doctrinal decrees received a warm welcome from the Catholic world, as did its insistence that Catholic worship remain in Latin, with the priest facing ad orientem. Bishops also endorsed Trent’s decision that they should establish seminaries for the intellectual and moral training of diocesan clergy – even though the foundation of these new schools was expensive and qualified teachers sometimes hard to find, especially in the immediate period after the council.

Why was Trent so successful, given that so many other councils in the history of the church met with defiance or continued division? One central reason was Trent’s protocols themselves. The council fathers managed to give virtually all interested parties an extensive hearing. More importantly, however, votes on prospective conciliar decrees had to be unanimous. A single dissenting vote sent a decree back into the drafting process, or more likely, prompted the council fathers to veto it entirely.

So, where the council fathers could not unanimously agree on an issue, they said nothing, and agreed to disagree, with no suggestion of schism or division.

Perhaps the history of the Council of Trent helps address our current divisions in the Church. Instead of assuming that traditionalist Catholics hold dangerous views, in all charity the best should be thought of them (something that St Ignatius would advise). Could they not they simply be left alone?

The history of Trent and of the Catholic Church down through the ages is of an assembly that could seemingly encompass a wide variety of gifts (as St Paul suggested), just as the medieval church embraced Benedictines, Dominicans, Franciscans, and Cistercians, among a host of others. Trent honored that heritage; the council found room for all faithful believers within the Catholic fold. For all the rhetoric in certain circles now about welcoming the stranger, many Catholics and their leaders – quite evidently – cannot stomach some of their neighbors.

At the beginning of our history, God promised Abraham that Sodom would not be destroyed if even only ten righteous persons could be found in that den of iniquity. Should not the authorities of the Church display the same divine forbearance?


*Image: The Council of Trent (twenty-third session, July 15, 1563, in the central nave of the San Vigilio de Trento cathedral) by an anonymous artist of the Venetian School, c. 1550-1560 [Louvre, Paris]

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Robert W. Shaffern is a professor of medieval history at the University of Scranton. Dr. Shaffern also teaches courses in ancient and Byzantine civilization, as well as the Italian Renaissance and the Reformation. He is the author of The Penitents’ Treasury: Indulgences in Latin Christendom, 1175-1375.