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John W. OMalleyJanuary 29, 2007

The so-called Tridentine liturgy is once again in the news, with Italian newspapers reporting rumors about a forthcoming papal indult that would loosen limits on the practice. Although as “Tridentine” the liturgy bears the name of the Council of Trent, it is only indirectly related to the council. It is more properly attributed to Pope Pius V (1566-72), who reigned after the council and who never attended it. Liturgy was of course a hot issue in the 16th century after the radical reshaping of it in different ways by the Protestant Reformers, beginning with Luther. That reshaping in every instance included setting it exclusively in the vernacular. There was no way, therefore, the council could avoid saying something about the vernacular. What is remarkable for us today is how little it said.


Despite what we are sometimes led to believe, Trent was consistently circumspect on hot issues. This reticence applied particularly to controversies of a more practical or pastoral nature that the Reformation had ignited. These controversies touched people’s lives directly and were of much more concern to the council participants than abstractions like the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Among them four were especially agitated: clerical celibacy, veneration of images, the Communion cup for the laity and vernacular liturgy. Trent’s response to all four was, under the circumstances, remarkably evenhanded.

The reasons for Trent’s reticence were manifold, including disagreement among the fathers and theologians at the council over what was the better course. Not to be forgotten, however, is the fact that of the approximately 200 members of the council at its peak, practically all of them were from Italy, Spain and Portugal, where the four issues were of little urgency. Only with the arrival of the French delegation of some 20 bishops at, relatively speaking, the last moment of the council, did countries seriously affected by the Reformation begin to have an episcopal voice. The envoys (who were laymen) to the council from the Holy Roman Emperor and the Duke of Bavaria, however, were present all the way through the council, and they ardently advocated a change on celibacy, the cup and the vernacular.

When Luther and the other Reformers took wives and wrote bitter attacks on mandatory celibacy for clergy, the floodgates opened in territories affected by the Reformation. It is significant, though partially explainable on other grounds, that the council did not take up celibacy until in its last months and then dodged the bullet about imposing the traditional discipline. In a short canon it condemned anyone who asserted matrimony was superior to celibacy and virginity. In a slightly longer canon it also condemned the view that clerics in major orders and solemnly professed male religious could validly contract marriage. While in these two canons the council can be interpreted as favoring a celibate clergy, it never said celibacy was obligatory, nor did it say that it was to be retained as the discipline of the church. It left the matter open.

Besides the division of opinion on this issue among the bishops and theologians at the council, the emperor and the Duke of Bavaria were at that very time applying pressure to the council, as they did after the council to Pope Pius IV, to abrogate the discipline or at least mitigate it for their territories. The duke’s envoy to the council, Augustin Baumgartner, addressed the council and pressed for change. After the council Pius IV hesitated. It was his successor, Pius V, who definitively reasserted mandatory celibacy for clergy and religious.


Images, Bread and Cup

Iconoclasm raged in many of the territories affected by the Reformation. This was true to some extent even among Lutherans, despite Luther’s relatively moderate views on the subject. Switzerland (and later Scotland) suffered most severely. In Zurich under Zwingli’s inspiration, the dismantling operation began on June 20, 1524, and was completed in two weeks. Every church was cleared of statues, paintings, altar furnishings, choir stalls and organs. The walls were whitewashed. Five years later in St. Gall, in acts of legalized vandalism, people stormed the churches, destroying almost everything they found. The cathedral alone produced 46 wagons of rubble, which was hauled to a nearby square and burned.

As early as 1525 Paris suffered a few instances of sporadic and uncoordinated destruction and desecration of images. The outbreak was quickly suppressed by the king’s strong action, but it surged again much more virulently in 1561, just a year before the French delegation made its way to Trent. Iconoclasm was, however, unknown in southern Europe. It is therefore not surprising that only in its very last weeks did the council form a committee to deal with it, and not surprising that this committee met in the quarters of the Cardinal of Lorraine, Charles de Guise, the head of the French delegation. We have no information whatsoever about how Trent’s decree on the legitimacy and praiseworthiness of the veneration of images was put together. The decree was never discussed on the council floor. Important and well stated though it is, it seems to be almost an afterthought of the council. By the time the decree was ready, the council was intent on little more than wrapping up its business.

In its 21st session, July 16, 1562, the council issued its statements on Communion under both forms. Pressure from the emperor and the duke to allow it helped steer the issue to a middle path. The council first of all decreed that “Communion under either form is sufficient for salvation,” but it then conceded that for pastoral reasons both forms might be suitable for certain regions under certain circumstances. After the council, in fact, Pius IV allowed the cup for a large part of the emperor’s territories.


Vernacular Liturgy

Even before the Reformation, scholars discussed the advisability of vernacular liturgies, or at least more use of the vernacular. Even Erasmus, a great Latinist, argued that it be more extensively employed. The actions of the Reformers, therefore, did not come out of nowhere. Nonetheless, before the Reformation the advisability of a vernacular liturgy was little more than an occasional and speculative question, most especially in the Latin countries. Even after 1517 it pretty much remained that in Spain, Portugal and Italy. In northern Europe, however, it erupted into a blazing test of where one’s allegiance lay.

In its 22nd Session, Sept. 17, 1562, which was partly devoted to practical questions concerning the Eucharist, the council issued its decree concerning the vernacular. In the eighth chapter (really a short paragraph), the council said, “Although the Mass contains much instruction for the faithful, it has, nevertheless, not been deemed advisable by the fathers that it should be celebrated everywhere [passim] in the vernacular tongue.” As was often the case, the issue was taken up again in a very brief canon that lumped together three eucharistic issues concerning the actions of the presiding priest: using a low tone of voice in saying the words of consecration, using the vernacular and adding a few drops of water to the wine. According to the canon, if anyone says that “the Mass ought to be celebrated in the vernacular tongue only” (lingua tantum vulgari), let him be anathema. Trent issued documentation that in its sheer quantity is second only to the Second Vatican Council. Yet for this burning issue it had only one line, which it repeated in similar words in the canon.

What does that line say? If we turn it around a little, we can paraphrase it to say that Latin is legitimate. The liturgy can rightly and properly continue to be celebrated in Latin. This is surely not the same thing as saying that a vernacular liturgy, or use of the vernacular in the liturgy, is wrong. In fact, one could, out of context, press the statement to indicate that vernacular is the norm. The context, as we shall see, does not quite allow that interpretation; but in any case the council never decreed that the liturgy had to be celebrated in Latin, although that position is often attributed to it.

What is the context that seems not to support the interpretation that vernacular is the norm? In Chapter 8, after the sentence quoted above, the council goes on. “Wherefore, the ancient rite of each church, approved by the holy Roman church…being everywhere retained,” the council urges pastors to explain to the people what is happening during Mass and explain “the mystery of this most holy sacrifice.” Here we see the presumption that the liturgy will continue to be celebrated in traditional ways according to the diversity of rites approved by the church. Nonetheless, given the conventions of the language the council used and the way the council handled similarly controversial issues, it is clear, as Hubert Jedin, the great historian of the Council of Trent, averred decades ago, that the council left the door open to the vernacular. Here, as elsewhere, the supposedly fierce Council of Trent took a moderate stance. Although it was under pressure from outside forces, I do not think the stance can be attributed to cowardice or to a worldly diplomacy. By this time in the council, the fathers had been well schooled in the richness and complexity of the Catholic tradition and were sensitive to the pastoral implications of their decisions. Many were, moreover, trained in canon law and had the canonist’s instinct to say only what was minimally required.

Why, then, did a vernacular liturgy not develop? The answer, as I have implied, is simple. The lines of demarcation, not to be transgressed, had been drawn. Out in the trenches name-calling was the norm, and moderation had long ago taken flight. Latin—along with celibacy, Communion under both kinds and veneration of images—had become battle cries in a fight to the death. No quarter could be given.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
17 years 4 months ago
I write in reference to “Trent and Vernacular Liturgy” (1/29) by John W. O’Malley, S.J.

The Second Vatican Council took place while I was in college, so the Latin Mass was part of my upbringing. I appreciate the vernacular, but I miss the Latin. On various occasions at exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, we sing O Salultaris and Tantum Ergo. When I hear these, as well as Ave Maria, for example, my heart and soul are touched to their depths with a sense of awe and mystery and love.

I had those same feelings last year when I attended a Shabbat service as part of our Catholic-Jewish dialogue group. Listening to the Hebrew was a profoundly sacred experience. My Shabbat experience left me feeling that we truly lost a treasure when we went totally to the vernacular. The Jewish community is blessed for having the beauty of the Hebrew. Maybe we will have more of an opportunity for at least a bit more Latin in the future.

Robert Klahn
10 years 10 months ago
Wasn't Schubert German?

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