A Lesson For Today?: Bishops and theologians at the Council of Trent
The year 2013 will mark the 450th anniversary of the closing of the Council of Trent. I am writing a book about the council to contribute in a modest way to the anniversary’s observance. But I am doing so also because I believe that in this case, as in so many others, what happened in the past gives helpful perspectives on the present. What happened at Trent may help Catholics and observers outside the church to reflect upon the current tension between the magisterium and theologians and suggest better ways to deal with it. The problem is not new in the church, but today it is certainly acute.
Its roots are deep in the past, originating in the 12th and 13th centuries with the founding of the universities. Up to that time bishops, who almost invariably came from the upper social strata of society, had the same literary style of education as their peers. If all went well, they directed their literary skills to expounding on the text of the Bible and thus became qualified to teach in the church. St. Augustine and St. Ambrose fit this mold. Although these bishops might on their own devote time to the study of philosophy, their culture remained general, indistinguishable in style from that of other leaders in society. They were the equivalent of the “gentlemen scholars” of later ages. They held no university degrees because there were no universities.
Birth of the Universities
This comfortable situation changed drastically in the High Middle Ages, when Greek science, newly imported, challenged the Bible as the source of all knowledge. Reflection on the “sacred page” would never again be so easy, as the relationship between “reason and revelation” moved into a new and direct confrontation. That confrontation has continued into the present?in different forms, surely, but in forms even more exacerbated. There are no easy answers to the question of reconciling issues arising from the confrontation, most especially not in the intellectually and technologically complicated 21st century.
Just at the time the confrontation first took place, and to some extent because of it, the university came into being. The purpose of the new institution was to train professionals, including professionals in the sacred page. At the University of Paris, the faculty of theology was one of the three professional schools, along with law and medicine. To complete the full course in theology might require some 15 years. It was in that faculty that the many problems arising from the new problematic of reason and revelation intruded into the more serene scenario of contemplation of the sacred page. Disputation, not contemplation, was the standard university exercise.
Note that these new professionals in theology were not bishops. For the most part bishops and future bishops continued to be educated in the old ways; some, however, earned university degrees in canon law, a discipline soon considered more appropriate for them than theology. Thus it happened that bishops, the traditional teachers of the faith, generally did not have the technical expertise required to deal with the ever more challenging questions raised in discourse about “sacred doctrine.” They had to rely on professionals.
In a rough sketch, that is the origin of the tension between magisterium and theologians that we experience today. The relationship between these two classes of teachers has not, of course, always been tense. That is where the Council of Trent can be instructive. It stands as an important instance of cooperation. The Second Vatican Council also provides an instance of cooperation, but at Trent the theologians played a more formally recognized role and had fewer limitations imposed on them.
Vatican II and Trent
At Vatican II the pope directly appointed all official periti, the theological experts, even though bishops were free to bring their own. The theologians sat with the bishops on the commissions that prepared the documents. Although they had considerable influence in the commissions, they were officially admonished that they were to speak only when spoken to. They never addressed the bishops in the plenary sessions in St. Peter’s Basilica. That was reserved exclusively to the bishops.
The procedures at Trent were different in two significant ways. First, the pope appointed only two or three of the council’s theologians. The rest were appointed by the bishops, by monarchs and by the religious orders. At the second period of the council, 1551-52, for instance, the pope appointed 2, the bishops 15, the Holy Roman Emperor 7, Queen Mary of Hungary (the emperor’s sister) 8 and the religious orders 22.
Second, the role the theologians played in the preparation of the doctrinal decrees differed. The procedure was as follows:
First, one or more theologians, designated for the task by the papal legates who presided at the council, sorted out the principal points at issue in the doctrine under discussion. These points, brief and pointed, usually amounting to only a sentence or two, were then given to the other theologians and bishops.
Second, in the presence of the full assembly of bishops, the theologians in turn presented their views on the articles. Individual presentations might last two or three hours. These meetings, called congregations of theologians, were held morning and afternoon and sometimes went on for several weeks at a time. Although bishops were not strictly required to attend these sessions, most did so. They listened in silence and heard a wide spectrum of views.
An example will illustrate the difference between the two councils. The concept of Tradition (the Second Vatican Council) or traditions (Trent) was treated in both. At the Second Vatican Council the Doctrinal Preparatory Commission, made up of bishops, composed a draft decree that was then submitted to the other bishops gathered in St. Peter’s. Two theologians—Karl Rahner, S.J., and the Rev. Joseph Ratzinger—were convinced that a whole school of thought on the matter had been a priori excluded from consideration. They therefore felt compelled to create an alternative text, which they circulated on an unofficial basis among the bishops.
At Trent the first action was in reverse order: theologians vetted the problem, while prelates listened silently to the wide variety of opinions expressed.
Third, only then did the bishops, now well informed about the theological options available to them, in similarly serial fashion address the articles. When they finished, a deputation of bishops together with theologian consultants drew up a draft document, which was then debated by the bishops, amended as needed and finally approved by them. It was a long, often tedious procedure, but it resulted in decrees that were fully informed and well thought out.
The bishops at Trent were typical of the Catholic episcopacy at the time. They had little formal training in theology, even though they otherwise might be well educated according to the standards of the day. If they had university degrees, those decrees tended to be in canon law. The theologians at Trent, however, came exclusively from universities or comparable institutions, and some were men of great distinction. They were not hand-chosen to promote a particular perspective but represented a random sampling of theological “schools.” The bishops did well to hear them out before proceeding to their own deliberations.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, virtually all bishops have had the basic theological training of the seminaries they attended. In that respect they are different from the bishops who participated at Trent. Nonetheless, few have advanced degrees in theology at a time when the Christian situation has become complex to an extent unimaginable in an earlier age. Now as never before, cooperation and mutual respect are important. In that regard, I believe, the Council of Trent may hold a lesson for both parties.