What is Tridentine Catholicism?

(This is Neil) The purpose of this post is to attract your attention to the learned Jesuit historian Robert Bireley’s recent Presidential Address to the Catholic Historical Association, published in the April, 2009, Catholic Historical Review. What, then, is “Tridentine Catholicism”? Fr Bireley would begin by telling us that this is a badly posed question. Even if we, like Fr Bireley, claim that a meaningful historical break took place around the year 1500 – not, by any means, an obvious or immediate conclusion – we have to acknowledge that not all of the changes were reactions to the Protestant Reformation or originated at the Council of Trent. We are better off speaking of “Early Modern Catholicism,” or, to borrow the title of one of Fr Bireley’s recent books, a “refashioned” Catholicism.

Fr Bireley writes that “early-modern Catholicism represents … a response to the changing world of the sixteenth century”: “The Church both acted on and was acted upon by changing historical circumstances.” He quotes H. Outram Evennett’s words about an “evolutionary adaptation of the Catholic religion and of the Catholic church to new forces both in the spiritual and in the material order.” (The emphases are mine.) 

What were the changes, the “new forces,” that caused such an “evolutionary adaptation”? Fr Bireley identifies five:

First, states “slowly consolidated and centralized authority over their geographical areas.” The popes did likewise, both in the Papal States and the universal church. Thus, in the former, as Jean Delumeau writes, “the popes disposed of a state that administratively was the equal, if not the superior, of any state in Europe,” and became “probably the most heavily taxed state in Italy.” (Eventually, the Papal States stagnated, in part because lay bureaucrats were excluded in favor of clerics.) In the universal church, the Popes marginalized conciliarism. Though the Council of Trent steered clear of defining the prickly relationship of pope and bishop, Pope Pius IV, in his bull Benedictus Deus, claimed the right to interpret the council and create a congregation to carry on with this task. The role of papal nuncios developed. Bishops were now required to make regular ad limina visits to Rome. Already, in 1452, the Roman Inquisition had been established – a precedent for the papal guarding of orthodoxy in more places than just Rome itself.  The popes, then, mimicked the political processes of consolidation and centralization.

The popes also made their peace with the consolidating and centralizing secular states. After all, the princes were necessary allies against the aforementioned conciliarism and the Protestant Reformation. We now see the origins of the state churches of the 18th century. To give but one example, in the Concordat of Munich of 1583, Gregory XIII gave Duke William V of Bavaria the right to tax church property and oversee its administration, and to appoint to many ecclesiastical positions.

Meanwhile, such thinkers as Vittoria, Suarez, and Robert Bellarmine were using Scholasticism to describe the logic of an international society of sovereign states.

Second, Europe was the scene of demographic and economic expansion. This meant the development of a commercial economy. And this meant that theologians began to reexamine usury. In the fifteenth century, the taking of interest could be justified through “loss of gain” (lucrum cessans) – instead of buying and then selling goods, you loaned money to another person to do this, and took reasonable interest as compensation. In 1515, Luther’s opponent, Johann Eck, controversially allowed the Fugger bank of Augsburg to make loans at 5 percent. By the 17th century, many moral theologians were allowing modest rates of interest. The church had adapted to capitalism.

With demographic and economic expansion came poverty. Confraternities grew in response. In the Italian cities, perhaps between one-third and one-fourth of adult males was part of a confraternity at some point in their lives by 1600.

Third, we see another form of expansion – Europe made its way into the Americas. There, by 1550, ten million people had been baptized. (Some Catholics considered this God’s compensation for the endurance Protestantism and Turkish advances). This expansion raised moral issues. In 1537, Pope Paul III, in Sublimis Deus, asserted that the Indians were human beings, capable of becoming Catholic, and should be free from enslavement. But the first provincial council of Mexico City prohibited the ordination of Indians, blacks, and mestizos. Catholicism also expanded into Asia, raising the thorny question of accommodation to Asian culture.

Rome tried to centralize missionary efforts by establishing the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith in 1622, but this often came into conflict with the other form of early-modern centralization – here, specifically, the Spanish and Portuguese monarchies.

Fr Bireley writes, “A global church was aborning.” But it remained stubbornly European in character.

Fourth, the church had to adapt to the Renaissance. Fr Bireley notes the “new individualism, “new self-consciousness” and “recognition of the unique human personality” in the Renaissance. He also notes the technological development of the printing press. The “new individualism” meant new forms of spirituality. One example, perhaps surprising to us today, was the more regular use of the confessional. This occurred because the confessional allowed a private confession and the application of abstract moral norms to particular, individual cases – what we call (and unfortunately tend to dismiss as) casuistry. The “general confession” became popular because it allowed the penitent to look over his or her entire life to identify patterns and foster increased self-discovery.

There were new books concerned with the difficult question of living a Christian life in the world of the Renaissance, which could be a rather Machiavellian world of masks and insincerity. Thus, Francis de Sales’ very popular The Introduction to the Devout Life (1st ed., 1609) gives such advice as, “For my part, I would have devout people, whether men or women, always the best dressed in a group but the least pompous and affected.”

There were also new religious, most prominently the Jesuits, who fostered Renaissance humanism in their schools. Bireley: “Here we see a prominent example of adaptation to contemporary culture.” And there were new feminine religious orders that often seemed very much like the Jesuits. In France, “they eventually came to constitute a professional class committed to activity in the world as social workers and, above all, as teachers,” despite nervous church authorities.

Fifth, the church had to adapt to Protestantism. And it did, with defensiveness and militance that contributed to religious wars, and, at times, forced reconversion. But we can contextualize at least some of the efforts of Luther into a longer narrative of calls for church reform. (These calls only got attention after the shock of the Reformation.) The Council of Constance called for reform. The Fifth Lateran Council (1512-1517) did the same. Under Isabella and Ferdinand, the Spanish church made efforts at reform in 1478. And, throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, more rigorous branches of religious orders were formed.

Furthermore, we can also talk about reform proceeding from the Council of Trent. Bishops and pastors were now “not chiefly benefice-holders but shepherds who resided with their flocks and preached to them regularly.” Seminaries should be established in every diocese, instructed a rather ambitious decree. The catechism of the Council of Trent came out in 1566, a new breviary  in 1568, the missal of Pius V in 1570, a revised version of canon law in 1582, and the Sixto-Clementine Vulgate edition of the Scriptures was issued in 1592. (Of course, the Council, Bireley notes, ignored two of our earlier developments – the rise of new religious orders and new missionary enterprises. It could not do everything.)

After his discussion of the “evolutionary adaptation” that was early-modern Catholicism, Fr Bireley leaves us with a important lesson. The Church’s grappling with thorny, controversial issues “is itself a sign of life and vitality.” We might not always be happy with the manner or result of this “grappling” – at times it might seem like dilution or compromise, but the “grappling” is still a sign of life. Being unchanged is not necessarily a virtue.

I might have liked to see some more discussion of theological developments, such as the consequences of living in a church now wounded by Christian division – Fr Birerely does write of Trent, “The council marked the point at which most Catholics surrendered the hope for reconciliation with Protestants and sought to draw a clear border with them.” But one can always ask for more and more. If you have the chance and access, please read Fr Bireley’s fascinating article.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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10 Responses to What is Tridentine Catholicism?

  1. Liam says:

    I wonder how the author reconciles his discussion of the “new individualism” of “the” (Italian) Renaissance with the “discovery of the individual” that marked the (we might call it French, but it was broader than that) Renaissance of the Twelfth Century (see Morris’ landmark book from 1972 on this point, which is a classic of medieval studies). Among many other things, Abelard and Heloise, the spirituality of folks like Francis of Assisi, and all that…

    One of the tensions between Eastern and Western Christianity during the High Middle Ages (10th-13th centuries) was the pronounced development of individualism in the West.

    What I do agree is new to early modern Catholicism was the systematic approach towards developing spiritual development for non-religious laity, and he rightly highlights the Jesuits and St Francis/St Jane, one might also include the Oratorians (American authors tend to neglect the Oratorians because they never established a major presence here).

    Also, we have to realize that it took much of the 17th century for the Tridentine reforms to take firm root. It was a century and a half long process, in no small part complicated by the waning of papal political power.

    It would have been interesting to see how things might have developed after a pope like Benedict XIV had there not been the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.

  2. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    Thanks, as always, for your insightful message.

    Regarding your first paragraph, Fr Bireley favorably cites Jacob Burckhardt’s claim that the spirit of the Renaissance was “the discovery of man and the world.” He does note that Burckhardt overemphasized the novelty of this “discovery,” oversimplified it, and understood it in a “pagan sense.”

    I am not a Renaissance scholar, but I think that Bireley’s usage of Burckhardt is defensible. For instance, John Martin, in an article in the 1997 American Historical Review (“Inventing Sincerity, Refashioning Prudence: The Discovery of the Individual in Renaissance Europe”), while noting that Burkhardt unfortunately “essentialized” Renaissance individualism so that it was the discovery of man “as he really is,” still writes about a Renaissance “discovery of the individual”:

    “The experience of personhood in the Renaissance world was, in short, often the experience of a divided self, of a person who was frequently forced to erect a public facade that disguised his or her convictions, beliefs, or feelings. In the Renaissance generally and the sixteenth century in particular, we see a new emphasis on inwardness or the idea of an interior self as the core of personal identity. To be sure, there was nothing new about the notion of interiority per se. Medieval society, especially in the wake of the cultural and monastic revivals of the late eleventh and the twelfth centuries, had numerous writers and theologians who fashioned a deep sense of inwardness and interiority. Bernard of Clairvaux’s mystical theology, which was even distributed in vernacular translations, elaborated the most complex psychology of the soul since Augustine. Peter Abelard’s ethics shifted the attention of moral judgment away from deed to the intention that lay behind it. Aelred of Rivaulx underscored the importance of inwardness in his celebrated treatise on spiritual friendship. And medieval penitential theory and practice began to stress contrition – genuine sorrow for one’s sins – over external acts of penance. But there was something significantly new about the way in which men and women in the Renaissance began to conceptualize the relation between what they saw as the interior self on the one hand and the expressions of one’s thoughts, feelings, or beliefs on the other. Indeed, it is by carefully analyzing this shift from medieval to Renaissance notions of the relation of the interior self to such expressions that we can both better grasp what has come to be called the Renaissance discovery of the individual along with the new sense of subjectivity (both in the sense of ownership of and agency behind one’s speech, thoughts, and actions) that it entailed.”

    A good part of Martin’s essay focuses on the “sudden emergence in sixteenth-century discourse of the ideal of sincerity,” using Luther and Calvin as examples.

    Does this seem right?

    I’ll write a bit more about postconciliar (Trent, not Vatican II) reforms when I get a chance.

    Thanks again.


  3. Liam says:

    Yes, I think that presents it rightly more as a development than as a discovery. To the High Middle Ages more properly is sourced the latter, as it were.

  4. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    Well, of course, everything hinges on our definition of “development” and “discovery.”

    We can argue that Renaissance individualism does manifest discontinuity. As Martin points out, the words “prudence” and “sincerity” change meaning.

    Furthermore, the spiritualities based on Renaissance individualism were all, at least to some extent, controversial – the devotio moderna, Luther and Calvin, the Jesuits, and the female religious orders whose apostolic spirituality caused them to leave the cloister.

    Moral theology becomes written in a very different way than medieval moral theology (see Pierre Hurteau on Catholic moral discourse in the Journal of the History of Sexuality 4 [1993]), etc.

    But this might all be semantics …


  5. Liam says:

    I would argue the devotio moderna is pre-Renaissance and thus not based on Renaissance individualism. The latter may have been fed by it in turn, of course. And many would place Luther firmly on the anti-Renaissance side of things in many respects.

  6. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    Thanks again. The question here is “What do we mean by ‘Renaissance’?” Also, “What sort of thing is the Renaissance?”

    I would suggest that “Renaissance” describes a family resemblance. The devotio moderna not only influenced some Renaissance figures – Agricola, Erasmus, Hegius, Wessel – but, though conservative, shared similiarities with more recognizable Renaissance movements, including individualism and the related questioning of religious externals.

    Of course, Luther is known for his debate with Erasmus. But I connect him to the Renaissance here because of the common experience of a “divided self.”


  7. Liam says:

    Well, “the” Renaissance, unmodified, usually refers to the Italian Renaissance and its derivative effects in other lands.

    Of course, there is also the Carolingian Renaissance, the Ottonian Renaissance, the Renaissance of the Twelfth Century (typically seen as centered in France, but arguably linked to Toledo, Palermo, Bologna, Padua, et cet.)

    As you might be able to tell from this, I strongly resist the standard Whig narrative of history that still forms the warp of how many people in the English-speaking world understand “Medieval” vs “Renaissance” vs “Modern”.

    I would count Erasmus as a man of the Renaissance, but Luther at best as very equivocally so and more a reaction to it. The more subtle point is that Western individualism does have some roots in one part of Augustine, and so Augustine’s progeny are somewhat divided. But I would suggest that the “reformers” who were more troubled by the Renaissance were more likely to become Protestant in the early Reformation than those who were not.

    Is Neo-Platonism (and related aspects of Augustinianism) more harmonious with “the Renaissance” than Aristotelianism? Well, empiricism probably owes much more to the latter than the former.

  8. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    I’ll post more directly on narratives of Western Civilization tomorrow, so that you can comment on that. (As, hopefully, you can tell from my various posts, I’m not a partisan of the Whig narrative.)

    Regarding Luther, I’ll just refer you to the Martin article. Let me know if you would like me to e-mail you a PDF.


  9. Liam says:


    Actually, I will be traveling early tomorrow into early next week (going to Todd’s old stomping ground), so I will have to take a rain check. Not intending to be passive aggressive, just honest!


  10. Neil says:

    Next week, then.

    Take care,

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