Works By John Courtney Murray, S.J.

Woodstock Home | Woodstock Theological Center Library | Bibliography

[p. 463]

A Crisis in the History of Trent

John Courtney Murray, S.J., M.A.

During the last fifty years the labors of historians, largely under the inspiration of Leo XIII, have been powerfully focused on the Council of Trent, the central point of that most complicated, most fascinating, most misunderstood epoch in Church history, the Catholic Reformation. The research done has been prodigious in its extent, profound in its scholarship, and all impregnated with that spirit of insistence on integral presentation of the truth that was the great Leo's ideal in historical writing. And the result has been a remarkable clarification of the relations that existed between the Council and the Popes, and a complete vindication of the ideals that underlay the Papal reform policy as formulated by Paul III and brought to fruition by Pius IV. The ghost of Fra Paolo Sarpi, which had prowled down the centuries right into our own times through the pages of Le Courayer, Ranke, Druffel, Brandi, and even Dollinger, has at long last been effectually laid; and similarly, the shade of the sturdy jesuit, Pallavicini, must now certainly rejoice at the happy fulfillment of the task which he strove so mightily and failed so signally to accomplish.

However, in spite of all the light let in upon the Tridentine era, several prominent figures have remained hitherto rather shadowy, notably the tall, handsome, aristocratic figure of Charles Guise, second Cardinal of Lorraine. Pastor several years ago termed his attitude toward the Holy See "a mystery,"1 and remarked that "a biography complying with the requirements of modern science, of the Cardinal,

[p. 464]

who was a man of most complex character, is still very much wanted."2 Dr. Richard, too, in his recent definitive history of Trent,3 points out the lack of an adequate study of Lorraine as one of the few remaining lacunae in the Tridentine documentation.

Obviously, then, the recent volume of Mr. H. Outram Evennett 4 has been awaited. It forms the first part of the complete reinterpretation of Lorraine undertaken by the distinguished Cambridge don. And though its first and most eminent success consists, of course, in the decisive manner in which it rescues the great French Cardinal from the thicket of historical misunderstanding in which he has so long wandered, alone and almost friendless, yet it has besides a wider significance. For the solidity and sense of the Papal ideals concerning the orientation of the Counter-Reform movement are set in relief more luminously than ever by contrast with the hollowness and impossibility of another set of ideals that found their last personification in Lorraine. Upon this single aspect of Lorraine's significance it might be interesting briefly to dwell.


At the outset we must recall that there was among Catholics themselves in the early and middle sixteenth century a lamentable lack of unanimity as regards the proper method of meeting the Protestant menace, and more especially as regards the relative emphasis that ought to be put on attempts at reunion and efforts for reform. The Papal attitude, though always paternal and not seldom weak, was nevertheless fundamentally intransigent; it never seriously envisaged the possibility of reunion with the dissidents; and this fact gave the handle to one of Fra Paolo's chief com-

[p. 465]

plaints against the Council of Trent, and consequently. against the Popes to which it was supposedly "enslaved," namely, that by its "gratuitously unnecessary dogmatic definitions" it had widened irreparably the rift in the unity of Christendom.

History, however, supreme arbiter of all contemporary differences of opinion, has abundantly established the rightness of the Papal attitude; viewed in retrospect, the rupture with the heretics is easily seen to have been from the outset irremediable. Yet not all had the vision to see or the courage to accept this fact at the time. And from this lack of vision and courage there arose, at least in large part, the so-called continuation controversy between France and the forces of Pius IV. The controversy raged during the interval between the latter's election in 1559 and the reopening of Trent in 1562, and the point at issue was5 whether Trent should be resumed, or whether an attempt should be made to summon an entirely new council, one so constituted as to win the good will of the Christians who had seceded from the obedience of Rome, and thus to hold out hope of restoring the broken unity of Christiandom.

The resumption of Trent meant the definite abandonment of hopes of reunion; a new Council might serve as fuel to keep those hopes faintly flickering yet a while longer.

In France feeling against the resumption of Trent ran high, and on its crest rode Charles Guise. And as he was the coryphaeus of the anti-continuationists, so also and most naturally he was the sponsor of a National Council for an autonomous settlement of French religious difficulties, with which project was in turn associated the search after formulae of reunion with the Calvinists. These, together with the question of toleration (upon whose many thorns, however, Lorraine was too circumspect to rend his scarlet robes), were the issues of the day and by his stand on them Lorraine found himself at odds with the saner, more ecumenical ideals

[p. 466]

of Pius IV, and at the head of a school of thought that neither moved nor spoke with Rome. He undertook to pit Gallic logic against Roman grasp of facts, with the future course of the Counter-Reform hanging on the issue of the combat. Naturally one asks the reason for such hardiness, and in the answer lies the reason why Lorraine simply had to be worsted. He was fighting for a cause already lost before he so much as entered the lists; Gallic logic was far too fragile a weapon with which to stem the onrush of history. All of which needs some explanation.


First of all, what was the motive of Lorraine's opposition?

Personal vanity, ambition, the vision of himself as patriarch of a schismatical France, a subterranean inclination toward heterodoxy—all these were at the time alleged, and since then have been widely believed. Now, however, it must be recognized that Lorraine's campaign against Trent and more especially his support of the National Council were based on a set of principles that he really held with great sincerity. These principles he had inherited from the past, his own and that of France; their soundness was apparently confirmed by the exigencies of circumstances; their hold on him was strengthened by their congeniality with certain peculiar elements of his own character; they determined his course, and held him in it even though it might cut across the path plotted out by Rome.

In the first place, when in the famous memorandum he prepared for the Lutheran princes in 1561, Lorraine stated that his "main object was the reestablishment of Christian unity, which is vital for the preservation of Christianity itself, and is demanded alike by the honor of God and the safety of the State," he was undoubtedly speaking from the heart, whatever we may think of the ingenuousness of other parts of the document. Christian unity, to be sought under

[p. 467]

the double formality of a religious desideratum and a political necessity, was the ideal set in the center of all his activity. And the ideal was certainly traditional enough to be quite legitimate. But Lorraine, like Charles V before him, egregiously erred in his choice of methods wherewith to pursue that ideal; and, in fact, he was wrong in his initial judgment upon the possibility under existing circumstances of the ideal itself.

Still, his reasoning, however erroneous, was clear enough. The Calvinist Reformé had, in 1558, leaped almost overnight into a serious threat against the political and social fabric of the French nation. Persecution had been tried, but, as always, had proved a weapon that broke in the hands of those who used it. Toleration, on the other hand, was altogether illogical; if there were only one true religion how could it consistently allow any other to stand by its side? Nevertheless, some sort of a solution of the problem was imperative. And in arriving at it no help was to be looked for from beyond the Alps; the salvation of the unity of France was not a matter that could safely be trusted to the hands of Italian lawyers. Obviously then, concluded Lorraine, reunion with the Calvinists was the only possible remedy; reason and experience (and prejudice) excluded all others.

Moreover, his own peculiar character added its weight to the balance. He was a congenital opportunist, gifted by nature with an extraordinary facility for adapting himself to circumstances; he had been brought up in the atmosphere of the old Réformisme of the reign of Francis I, that smacked so much of the idealism of Contarini and of an Erasmian spirit of compromise; he had been educated by a theologian of the stamp of Claude d'Espence who was well known and not a little suspected for his conviction that heresy was to be met with argument and persuasion and a willingness to minimize dogmatic differences. Being thus what he was, it is not hard to see why Lorraine should have done what he did, why he should have shrunk from hard-

[p. 468]

and-fast definitions and from "contentious disputations," and have trusted to "eirenic conferences" to wield the magic needle that would repair the rent in the seamless robe.

We are tempted at our distance to smile at the pathetic absurdity of such hopes and at the blindness they display to the realities of the time. But Lorraine was not blind. His only difficulty was that he stood too close to the wall to be able to read on it the handwriting that to us stands out so boldly. He was centuries before the Vatican Council and only thirty years after the Diet of Augsburg. And just as his views on the Papacy as the instrument of Catholic unity lacked the precision so natural to us, so also and with more disastrous results he labored under a vast delusion as to the whole nature of Protestantism and of the forces that were driving it. In this latter respect he was not alone; Contarini, for instance, had done the same before him.6 And Lorraine in 1561 had not glimpsed the revelation that was vouchsafed at length even to Contarini at Ratisbon, that "the differences with Protestants were differences about things, and that therefore no unification could be found in words. . . "7 Lorraine did not realize that what had happened was not a split on any specific problem of theology which could readily be patched up by a little sweet reasonableness on both sides and by a little clever manipulation of formulae, but that it was a complete revamping of man's whole relation to God, a subversive questioning of the very foundation principles of all religious life.


Furthermore, in his attempt at the Colloquy of Poissy to use the Eucharistic doctrine of the Confession of Augsburg as a middle ground on which Catholic and Calvinist could join hands and begin to advance toward understanding, Lorraine showed how little he had profited by the lessons of his-

[p. 469]

tory. It was precisely on this rock, Catholic Eucharistic faith, that the Conference of Ratisbon, after perilously skirting the cape of Justification, had been wrecked and had gone down in wrangling and abysmal failure. The Eucharist is the sacramentum unitatis, Lorraine argued, with a piety quite commendable; but he apparently forgot the concluding verses of the sixth chapter of St. John.

At Poissy also, and later by his meetings at Saverne with the Duke of Wurttemberg and his theologians, Lorraine betrayed how hopelessly he had misread the relations between Germany and Geneva. He failed to see that dogmatic rapprochement with the Lutherans was now a chimera. Indeed, it had never been anything else, as the wretched outcome of the Hapsburg experiments in Konkordia might well have taught him. And furthermore, even if the impossible could have been brought to pass and Augsburg made the common measure between Geneva and Rome, the situation would not have been appreciably changed. The control and direction of the Reformation had as long ago as 1536 passed from the hands of Lutheran theologians. What they had wounded they could not heal.

At Rome on the other hand all this was clearly understood. Back in 1540, the Papal judgment on the futility of round-table discussions with the Protestants had been distinctly enunciated in the Consilium of Cardinals Farnese and Cervini laid before Charles V in an endeavor to dissuade him from holding the Diet of Spires. Typically Roman in its clear-eyed contact with practical reality, this document traces the history of former discussions of this kind. At Augsburg, for example: 8

. . . on account of the sinuous evasions of our opponents no conclusion could be reached. . . . They are slippery as eels, and hence no decisive

[p. 470]

advantage can ever be gained by Catholics from religious debates with them.

The Frankfort negotiations in 1539 had taught a similar lesson:9

. . . at the very outset [of the deliberations) our adversaries again [were] brought up against a snag. It was evident that they had no slightest wish to arrive at a composition of differences, since, having once and for all thrown off the yoke of obedience, they now desire not a reformed Pope but no Pope at all, not the extirpation of Papal abuses but of the Papal office itself. Starting from such a premise, can any hope of composing differences be held out. . . ?

Peace had also been sought at Ratisbon and Worms, and with what result?10

   During the very truce itself, by writings and threats and plots they go on daily seducing men from all ranks of society; since it is easy, once charity has grown cold, to win men over from the stricter to the softer mode of life, wherein continence gives way to low pleasures, and obedience to freedom from restraint.

So the conclusion follows inexorably.11

   One cannot therefore hope for any stable and enduring peace from these "eirenic conferences," unless indeed one wishes such a peace as would completely undo the prestige of the Apostolic See, trample under foot the Catholic religion, and overturn and destroy all ecclesiastical hierarchy.

These were the Roman ideas. But they lay quite beyond the mental horizon of Lorraine. He could not see, much

[p. 471]

less face the fact that the disruption of Christian unity, as the past had understood it, was a fait accompli. The world could never again be what once it had been. And the time had come when the Church had no other choice but that, after one last sorrowful glance at her lost children, rebellious but beloved still, she should turn her hand to strengthening her defenses against their confirmed contumacy and to preparing the ways of a fuller life for her faithful ones. Lorraine could not grasp this fact, and in his pursuit of the will-o'-the-wisp reunion he had to come into forcible collision with the realism of Pius IV. Of course, granted the legitimacy of the French ideal, the logic of their position was unassailable. If the purpose of a General Council was to be reunion, and not reform and the precision of doctrinal formulae, then the continuation of Trent was certainly unthinkable. The great decrees of its earlier sessions—on the Scriptures, Original Sin, Justification, the Sacraments—had dug an impassable chasm between Rome and the Reformers. The fundamental positions of he Reform had been thoroughly examined and categorically rejected. Consequently, over a continued Trent would brood the forbidding shadow of its own past, a shadow which Lutheran and Calvinist alike would shrink from entering. Consequently again, an entirely new Council must be summoned, in which the dissidents might sit without feeling prejudged and in which the former decrees could be thrown open to "rediscussion" (no one, indeed, was quite so hardy as to say "refashioning").12


It ought to be added, of course, that the French opposition to the continuation of Trent was not wholly based on their idealistic concept of what the General Council should

[p. 472]

be and do. For them to accept a continued Trent would have also been to recognize retroactively the ecumenicity of its sessions under Julius III against which Henry II had protested so vigorously, and this was a pie much too humble for the Gallican palate. Again, they were reluctant to imperil their dear Gallican liberties, the defense of which was the whole reason for the presence of French ambassadors at the second period of Trent. An international assembly gathered beyond the Alps and under the domination of a Pope whose centralizing tendencies were well known—what crippling reefs it might put in the sails of His Most Christian indeed, but also most Gallican, Majesty!

Certainly the French had a very definite set of values, religious as well as national, to stress. But in spite of all the force behind their case, supported as it was by the prestige and eloquence of Lorraine, by the diplomatic skill of that "faithful disciple of Machiavelli and past mistress of mendacity,"13 Catherine de'Medici, and by the at times only half-concealed sympathy of the unstable Emperor Ferdinand I, yet it was from the outset doomed to ultimate failure. All its fine logic was shattered between the anvil of facts and the hammer of an irresistible purpose swung vigorously and at times perhaps rather vengefully by the arm of Pius IV. With a persistence and an optimism in which we must recognize something more than human he beat away; and on January 26, 1562 when the weary Bull "Ad Ecclesiae Regimen" at last had done its work and 109 Fathers assembled in the Seventeenth Session of the Sacrosancta Tridentina Synodus, the victory of the Papal ideals was completely assured, and the channels of the Counter-Reformation quite finally and unalterably cut.


This was soon apparent. For almost at the same time that Lutherans and Calvinists alike were scornfully rejecting the

[p. 473]

extremely liberal safe-conducts issued to them by the Council on March 4 and flatly refusing to have anything to do with any Council summoned by a Roman bishop, the Fathers at Trent fell into the long and heated debate on the nature of the episcopal obligation of residence, and thus on their part gave token of where their interests lay. With that debate the inner history of the third period of Trent really began; the threats and jeers of the heretics faded into the distance as the Spirit of God descended upon the Trentino and the Council's energies gradually orientated themselves in accordance with the wishes of the Holy Father toward completing the renovation of the Church's interior discipline and life and toward perfecting the formulation, in terms forever unequivocal, of her ancient beliefs.

On the other hand, in France the inevitable soon came to pass. The Calvinists, who would not be conciliated, finally had to be fought, and amidst the din of civil war, France, too, turned a corner in her history, and entered upon bitter days. Thus do ideals perish when they are divorced from contact with the real, and thus too do they conquer when the blood of actuality is in them.


1 History of the Popes, ed. Kerr, Vol. XVI, p. 158, note 3.

2 Ibid., p. 154, note 1.

3 Hefele-Leclercq, Histoire des Conciles, t. IX, Concile de Trente, par P. Richard, Lre Ptie, p. 17.

4 The Cardnial of Lorraine and the Council of Trent, A Study in the Counter-Reformation, Cambridge, 1930, pp. xvii-517.

5 Evennett, op. cit., p. xiv.

6 Cf. Pastpr, Vol. XI, pp. 433–34.

7 Ibid., p. 447.

8 Ehses, Concilium Tridentinum IV, Actorum Pars la, p. 184: . . . proper tortuosos recessus adversariorum nihil concludi potuit . . . . Igitur si cum iis tractandum erit de religione, cum sint tamquam anguillae lubrici, nihil omnino certi in manibus Catholicorum haberi poterit.

9 Ibid.: . . . in primo limine iterum adveersarii in lapidem impegerunt, ostendentes quam alienum animum habeant a concordia, quippe qui, excusso semel jugo obedientiae, non reformatum Romanum Pontificem sed nullum, non remotos abusus aliquos a Sede Apostolica sed Sedem ipsam destructam velint. Ex quo principio quae potest concordia sperari. . . .?

10 Ibid., p. 185: Durante ipse pace, tum libris tum minis tum practicis aliquos quotidie seducunt ex omni hominum genere, cum facile sit ubi religio refrixerit, evocare homines e duriori vita ad molliorem, e continenti ad voluptuosam, ex obedientia ad libertatem.

11 Ibid.: Nulla igitur spes firmae diuturnaeque pacis ex his amicis tractationibus haberi potest, nisi eam pacem velimus quae et omnem dignitatem Sedis Apostolicae imprimis opprimat, et catholicam religionem conculcet, et omnem ordinem eccelesiasticum confundet ac destruat.

12 It is a nice point whether or not this retractatio would have been at all legitimate. The General of the Jesuits, Lainez, (Disputationes Tridentinae, ed. Grisar, pp. 8*–10*:1–17; 21–23) argued strenuously and acutely against it, and won his point to the extent of having the phrase ab integro indicimus struck out of the Bull of Convocation.

13 The epithets are Pastor's, op. cit. Vol. XVI, p. 159.

Search the Murray Collection: