by Matthew Gaetano
A friend of the Regensburg Forum, Darryl Hart, has undertaken a dialogue with me about the authority of the Council of Trent, among other things. This will certainly not be the last time that we address this topic here. But I thought that I could offer some more substantial evidence for my claims about Trent’s limited scope, limits that obtain even if one were to have a very high view of conciliar authority–indeed, of the infallibility of councils.
In his essay, “Luther and the Council of Trent,” Roman Catholic historian, Erwin Iserloh (d. 1996), states that most Tridentine Fathers did not have a detailed understanding of Lutheran teaching. Cardinal Reginald Pole was rather troubled that most of the statements being rejected by the Council were from lists of “errors” compiled since the 1520s by Catholic controversialists. He was especially concerned when it came to the doctrine of justification “on which our entire salvation hangs” (166-67). Pole wanted the council fathers to read the books of the Lutherans without bias–to avoid the perspective that “Luther has said it; thus, it is false.” He thought that truth often lies hidden in error and that an error’s success is often based precisely on the truth which it contains. As far as the sources for the decree on justification, Andreas de Vega was one of the theologians relied upon for the Council’s deliberations and a figure who knew Luther’s writings better than most. But even he often based his interpretations upon Luther’s writings from 1519-1521–and occasionally at third hand through the mediation of controversialists. Iserloh sums it up: “From this data, it is to be concluded that the Reformation opinions, collected, abbreviated, and cited in the lists of errors, were understood by the council fathers without a knowledge of their context and often not in their original sense” (167).
Anyone who has spent time grappling with Luther must realize that such an approach is obviously not the best for presenting an interpretation of such a complex thinker. If some teacher presented Luther in class by way of third-hand Catholic controversialists and based his interpretation only on his writings before 1521, would anyone see this as the proper way for developing a full account of Martin Luther’s soteriology?
While this is a troubling realization, we might point out, first of all, that a rich historical account of Lutheran soteriology was (for good or for ill) not the Council’s goal. One might lean on the actual words found in the decree on justification before the canons, which say that the canons exist “so that all may know, not only what they must hold and follow, but also what they ought to shun and avoid.” They don’t say that they will provide a handy guide to a scholarly engagement with the views of Martin Luther.
Iserloh points out that a choice was made not to name any of the Reformers. This fact is a significant one. Previous councils certainly named names (e.g., Wyclif at Constance, Arius at Nicaea, etc.). Iserloh tells us that canon law was clear that “no one should be condemned who has not previously been heard” (168). A bishop of the Council said, “The heretics are to be summoned to the council in order to give an account of their teachings, or to confess their errors, as was done at other councils.” But Protestant theologians were not cited before the council. As Iserloh says, “no Reformers were condemned. Only teachings which one imputed to them were placed under the anathema, without they themselves being mentioned by name.” And this was a procedure that came down from the highest levels, with Cardinal Farnese instructing the Council that heretical teachings should be condemned, not expressly named persons. In the words of the great historian of the Council, Hubert Jedin, the Council of Trent never became “a tribunal.” Perhaps there was some naiveté here, but part of the motivation for this approach (besides its roots in canon law) was to “keep the way to Trent open to the Protestants” (168).
Some canons, it is important to note, were obviously not directed at the Reformers: the first three canons, for instance, were directed against Pelagianism. In some of the decrees, the Council criticizes Anabaptist or Zwinglian views that certainly could not be found in Lutheran writings. We can also see the limited scope of the Council of Trent by attending to the fact that it did not wade into medieval scholastic controversies over the moral or physical causality of the sacraments or the intra-scholastic dispute over the level of certainty attainable regarding one’s being in a state of grace. Jedin points out that this limited scope arises from “the clear consciousness of the fundamental difference between the teaching office and theology.” Iserloh elaborates: “In the face of error, the teaching office sets the boundaries of the field of truth. It is not accidental that the canons are formulated negatively. The task of theology is to develop the field that has been marked out over against error. Here a pluralism is possible. The teaching office claims definitively to condemn error as not compatible with revelation. That does not imply, however, that the teaching office has at its disposal sufficient arguments to establish the negatively formulated condemnation” (169 – emphasis added). Jedin talks about the Council as setting ” official doctrinal limits” rather than providing a complete theology of justification (or original sin, penance, the Eucharist, etc.)
In his essay on “The Canons of the Tridentine Decree on Justification,” Otto Hermann Pesch, another Roman Catholic scholar of Luther and also a Dominican friar, goes through the canons and deals with their actual bases in Lutheran sources. Before getting underway, however, he observes that the Council of Trent’s decree on justification, especially the chapters, did not exist exclusively to reject errors associated with Lutheranism but also to “provide preachers at least the outline of a Catholic doctrine of justification” (177). So, this shows that we need to read the Council as having multiple purposes. Pesch’s article as a whole would, at the very least, provide a fascinating point of departure for further (even critical) inquiry. Pesch is quite willing to argue that many of the canons, even those which took aim at Lutheran teachings, failed to hit the target in part because of the limited sources available to the Tridentine fathers. Again, this is not to say that Trent utterly misunderstood Luther or that it missed the target in every instance. On the contrary, I’ve spent a great deal of time with the Tridentine theologian, Domingo de Soto, and, despite some important problems, I have often found his interpretations of Lutheran soteriology (and Trent) quite illuminating. But we must still take into consideration the Council’s limited access to the complexity of Luther’s soteriology.
While I would be willing to criticize aspects of Trent’s approach (which doesn’t seem to be out of keeping with contemporary practice), this does not in itself undermine the binding character of Trent’s condemnations of particular assertions (understood in the terms widely embraced by the Tridentine fathers, I would think). It remains the case–as far as I know–that those who affirm those teachings anathematized at Trent could be disciplined by bishops in communion with the Bishop of Rome. (We’ll talk about what anathema meant in the sixteenth century at some point in the future.) But perhaps a (very) brief discussion of what is meant by the authority and infallibility of councils and popes is in order here. It’s been suggested that I have been setting the bar too low when talking about conciliar authority. I won’t belabor the point about the distinctions–made long before Vatican II–between what is ex cathedra or not (if we are talking about the pope) or what is disciplinary or doctrinal. Instead, I’ll draw from James Heft’s essay on “Papal Infallibility and the Marian Dogmas,” to point out that, even if we don’t want “low bars,” we are perhaps on safer ground in encouraging caution with the doctrines pertaining to infallibility. John Henry Newman said in “A Letter to the Duke of Norfolk” that “the principle of minimizing” was necessary “for a wise and cautious theology.” Much later, Yves Congar talked about a tendency to “inflate the category of infallibility” so that it at times begins to cover all sorts of papal utterances and so on (49).
But some might object that this is just what one might expect from modest Roman Catholic theologians and historians who are somewhat embarrassed by the strong language of papal and conciliar statements. (To be clear, I am not at all suggesting that this is a fair characterization of Newman and Congar.) But we certainly couldn’t dismiss what the Council Fathers at the First Vatican Council said while they were putting together their definition of papal infallibility.
- Bishop Gasser stated: “Papal infallibility is in no sense absolute, for absolute infallibility belongs to God alone. … Every other infallibility, inasmuch as it is communicated for a certain purpose, has its limits and conditions” (emphasis added).
- Vatican I clearly distinguished–in a way, arguably, that Trent did not–between “faith and morals” and matters which “pertain to discipline and Church government.”
- In the official expositio, Gasser explains that the direct object of infallibility is revealed truth. There is also an indirect object–those truths “intimately bound up with revealed dogmas” that are “necessary to protect, to expound correctly, and to define efficaciously in all its integrity the deposit of faith.” These “dogmatic facts” that are part of the “indirect object” of infallibility “do not belong directly to the deposit of faith, but are necessary for its protection.”
So, to talk about the limits of Trent seems well within the scope of even Vatican I’s teaching (point #1). And, while Lutheran soteriology has implications for “faith and morals” (point #2), the accurate interpretation of Lutheran soteriology itself is obviously not part of revealed truth (point #3).
It is quite clear to me that it would not be part of the “indirect object” either. It is worth noting, however, that the Fathers of Vatican I, according to Heft, disagreed over the “precise content of the indirect object of infallibility.” Even Vatican II leaves this issue of the indirect object (i.e., the dogmatic facts necessary for the protection of the deposit of faith in divine revelation) rather unclear. Lumen Gentium says that infallibility extends “as far as the deposit of revelation.” The commentary on the Vatican II texts states: “The object of the infallibility of the Church, thus expounded, has the same extension as the revealed deposit; it therefore extends to all those things and only to those things which either directly touch upon the revealed deposit or which are required for religiously guarding and faithfully explaining the revealed deposit” (emphasis added). Heft concludes this discussion as follows: “While the object of infallibility is therefore limited to matters of faith and morals, there does not seem to be any consensus to this day as to which unrevealed truths are in fact necessary to protect revealed ones” (51). So, there is admittedly some debate on this point, but I don’t know anyone who would see incorrect conclusions about the evolution of Luther’s teachings or about the shape of Lutheran soteriology as undermining the Council of Trent’s infallibility, as understood not only by Lumen Gentium but even by Vatican I.
Again, my goal is not to open up a discussion about popes and councils and infallibility as such. I’d prefer that we focus on the “Augustinian legacy” and other matters more central to the aims of the Regensburg Forum. But I thought that some information about the limits of the Council of Trent and some preliminary remarks about how to think about those limits in light of the Roman Catholic Church’s traditional views of the infallibility of councils and the pope might be useful for future conversations.