(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.
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