The Sacrament of Reconciliation, the Protestant Reformation, and the Council of Trent
The Response of the Catholic Church in Guarding the Integrity and Centrality of the Mysteries of Faith
Relatively speaking Ash Wednesay is running a little late this calendar year of 2022 A.D. We observe this day of Christian repentance and prayer on March 2. As such, we are afforded some extra time in order to reflect upon this holiest liturgical season in our Catholic lives. A meaningful reflection in this domain concerns the Church’s historic safeguarding of the Sacraments. Today I would draw our attention in context of the upcoming Lenten season on the Sacrament of Reconciliation and how the Church maintained its integrity through trying times. It’s not just about today’s world; historical analysis reveals that the Church has had its challenges throughout the past two millennia, and in many forms and movements.
The early to mid-sixteenth century was such a trying time for Christ’s Church. The Protestant Reformation was in high form, with doctrinal and organizational challenges proliferating throughout western Europe by notable dissenters such as Martin Luther in Germany, John Calvin in France, and Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland, among others. In addition to challenging the magisterium of the Church, the emerging Protestant sects also began propagating theological dissent concerning the nature, essence and even the number of the holy Sacraments of the Catholic Church. Although it should be noted that the word “Protestant” had as its original denotation not Catholic theological dissent, but rather was used as a term of application to those who protested the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V’s announced intention of suppressing the movement (Hitchcock 266-267). This reflection will focus on one of the sacred Catholic Sacraments largely abandoned in the Reformation, that of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and how the Church responded to this challenge to its teaching authority primarily in the convening of the Council of Trent in northern Italy in 1543 through 1563.
The Reformation began in large part as a reaction to certain suspect Church practices of the time, such as the selling of indulgences, most notably illustrated by a Catholic cleric who may have been the greatest salesperson of the sixteenth century: the German Dominican friar Johann Tetzel. The Reformation is traditionally depicted as commencing with Luther’s posting of his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517; although the factual reality of such drama by Luther’s own hands has subsequently been questioned (Marshall). The Reformation as it spread throughout western Europe questioned not only Church doctrine and practices involving both liturgy and governance, but also the very claim of apostolic succession itself. A challenge to apostolic succession was nothing less that a challenge to the very authority of the pope, heretofore seen as the Vicar of Christ on earth, the Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, the Domnus Apostolicus and successor to Saint Peter upon whom Christ built His Church. This major declarational dissent to the apostolic and unbroken chain of authority waged by the principal figures of the Reformation precipitated a major crisis for the Church on many levels. Not only was papal authority being challenged directly, but accepted Church doctrine itself — including the theology of the Sacraments — was also very much under assault.
Examples of the Sacramental challenges to the Church during the Reformation included questioning the nature and significance of the priesthood (through the Sacrament of Holy Orders); the veracity of the nature and essence of the transformation of bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ through a holy process of transubstantiation involving the intercession of the Holy Spirit during Catholic Mass; the nature of Confirmation as a necessary divine Sacrament; and the need for the Sacrament of Reconciliation given the prevailing Protestant view (inherent in both Lutheranism and Calvinism) that a person was saved by the grace of God’s grace alone, and through faith alone, and in Christ alone (termed generally “justification by faith”). These direct challenges to the theology of the Sacraments were all affronts to established Catholic doctrine and magisterial tradition over the prior fifteen centuries.
Indeed, whereas the Catholic Church based its theology of the Sacraments on several essential mysteries of faith, Lutherans, for example, practice perhaps two or maybe three Sacraments. As noted by Kelly, “the Protestants had attacked the notion of seven sacraments, insisting that the Bible speaks only of two: baptism and Eucharist (in fact, the New Testament never uses the word ‘sacrament’). On March 3, 1547, the bishops assembled [at Trent] passed a decree specifying that all seven Catholic sacraments were instituted by Christ, that they have efficacy via their actual administration (ex opere operato) and independent of the disposition of the recipient, and that a sinful but lawfully ordained priest could validly administer sacraments” (136).
Centuries earlier in the East-West Schism of 1054, the event that created separate churches that we now call the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches, this schism did not fundamentally alter the theology of the Sacraments on either side of the schismatic divide. The Eastern Orthodox Churches retained the seven Sacraments, did not alter the holy doctrine of Transubstantiation in the Eucharist (generally defined using the term “metousiosis” in the east, which also refers to a change in substance), and retained the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The major pre-Reformation difference between east and west in Sacramental practices involved the Eastern Orthodox Sacrament of Chrismation — akin to Catholic Confirmation — the difference being one of timing in that the Sacrament is conferred at the same instance as Baptism in the eastern rite.
There were three essential issues in which the Church took issue concerning Luther’s emerging theology of the Sacraments, and related emerging Protestant doctrine. First, that Baptism and the Eucharist were the only two true Sacraments; therefore Reconciliation had a status but not Sacramental status. Second, that the Sacraments themselves had any intrinsic nature or efficacy. Finally, that Sacraments played no significant role in justification or the pursuit of holiness (O’Malley 118). The Protestant affront to the centrality of the number and the sacred nature of Church Sacraments was a major challenge to Church doctrine, and the essential mysteries of faith that Christ delegated to His apostles to guide the faithful until the final judgment.
Fast forward almost five centuries and we see even today the central significance of the seven Church Sacraments as defined in the most recent Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC):
The Greek word mysterion was translated into Latin by two terms: mysterium and sacramentum. In later usage the term sacramentum emphasizes the visible sign of the hidden reality of salvation which was indicated by the term mysterium. In this sense, Christ himself is the mystery of salvation: “For there is no other mystery of God, except Christ.” The saving work of his holy and sanctifying humanity is the sacrament of salvation, which is revealed and active in the Church’s sacraments (which the Eastern Churches also call “the holy mysteries”). The seven sacraments are the signs and instruments by which the Holy Spirit spreads the grace of Christ the head throughout the Church which is his Body. The Church, then, both contains and communicates the invisible grace she signifies. It is in this analogical sense, that the Church is called a “sacrament.” (1075, 515, 2014, 1116).
In his Large Catechism of 1529 Luther endorsed a certain notion of Reconciliation or Confession — possibly conducted through a non-clerical authority — but not in a truly Sacramental sense: “We further believe that in this Christian Church we have forgiveness of sin, which is wrought through the holy Sacraments and Absolution [Matthew 26:28; Mark 1:4; John 20:23] and through all kinds of comforting promises from the entire Gospel. Therefore, whatever ought to be preached about the Sacraments belongs here” (McCain, emphasis added, 54). Luther and his followers advanced the thesis that a complete accounting of sins was not possible, but rather only one’s own sincerity of heart and contrition were required for forgiveness (Tappert). In contrast to the Church’s Sacramental doctrine that the essence of Penance consisted of contritio cordis (contrition of the heart), confessio oris (confession of the mouth), and satisfactio operis (satisfaction of deeds), Lutherans rejected the third element – an extension of the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith that so clearly compromised Church theology apart from the Lutheran detachment of confession from Sacramental status.
The Protestant view of the Sacrament of Reconciliation was in essence a watered down practice which focused upon repentance and restoration under the the authority of the priesthood not of the clergy, but rather of the believer her/himself. For the likes of Luther, the Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation was not biblically-justified, and did not lead to true repentance and contrition. We see these precepts and dictates in the writing of Luther in such treatises as A Sermon on the Ban (1520), The Keys (1530), and more formally in his writing On the Councils and the Church (1539). Clearly Luther in both his thinking and writings on the Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation was challenging the very authority of the Church itself in the administration of the Sacraments as a whole, and the Pope specifically, citing biblical passages such as Matthew 18:15–17, 2 John 1:10-11, 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, and 2 Thessalonians 3:14 to highlight the importance of Christians subjecting themselves to their local church’s Penance in their repentance before God. In Luther’s world view the universal (or catholic with a small “c”) Church under a more centralized authority — specifically under the authority of the pope — need not be consulted or deferred to in this process of atonement of sins.
Responding to the building affronts of the Reformation in real time during the mid-sixteenth century, the Concilium Tridentinum or Council of Trent (Trent) on November 25, 1551 issed a proclamation on the most holy Sacrament of Penance (Catechism of the Council of Trent):
The sacred and holy, ecumenical and general Synod of Trent, lawfully assembled in the Holy Ghost, the same Legate and Nuncios of the holy Apostolic See presiding therein, although, in the decree concerning Justification, there has been, through a certain kind of necessity, on account of the affinity of the subjects, much discourse introduced touching the sacrament of Penance; nevertheless, so great, in these our days, is the multitude of various errors relative to this sacrament, that it will be of no small public utility to have given thereof a more exact and full definition, wherein, all errors having been, under the protection of the Holy Ghost, pointed out and extirpated, Catholic truth may be made clear and resplendent; which (Catholic truth) this holy Synod now sets before all Christians to be perpetually retained.
Given the Reformation’s direct challenges to the essence of the Catholic Sacramental life, how did Trent effectuate a clear and theologically affirming response in maintaining the tradition of Church authority? In short, Trent reaffirmed the Sacrament of Penance in a way that made it more central to the Body of Christ, to His Church, both in essential doctrinal emphasis as well as in practical concerns. For example, regarding the practice of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Trent introduced the confessional as a mechanism to practice the Sacrament, a practice in large part that remains with us to today.
The Council of Trent was a response to Luther and other Reformation figures proclaiming that salvation was attained not through works, but rather through faith alone, what has been termed “justification through faith.” Going back to Scripture, Protestants took umbrage in the Pauline epistles that appeared, on the surface, to lend credence to this theology of salvation. It is true that exegetical analyses of Paul’s writings have had a significant range of interpretive analyses, from the notion that salvation in Christ was obtained as a result of being adopted into God’s family through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross (Romans 8:15, 23; Galatians 4:5) to later Protestant arguments on justification (and therefore salvation) through faith (McGrath 83-84).
Carefully reading Scripture, Paul does appear to integrate the law with righteousness and salvation — but through the Son of God: “Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith” (Gal. 3:23-26). Brought to its natural conclusion in Luther’s theology — referred to at times at his “theology of the cross” — the passion of Jesus Christ on the cross was the mechanism that gives all Christians the experience of grace, of joy and of consolation. This suffering of our Lord and its accompanying despair on earth, to Luther, was a Savior in contrast. What this means is that what we experience on earth, even in sin, is insignificant, inconsequential when being compared to the divine grace of God; and this we experience primarily in our justification by faith, or fides fiducialis.
So what of good works in the Catholic tradition; and what of the vicissitudes of bad works, of the ravages of sin? Luther and the Reformation’s theology focused upon the conclusion that Christians are incapable of escaping from the divine judgment of a perfect God, manifested through our own sinning and imperfection. In this Protestant theology, it is only through faith in Christ that we become innocent or righteous, and ultimately saved. In other words, because our Savior suffered and died on the cross for our sins, in the end God declared the whole world righteous. It is in the faith of the passion and resurrection of Jesus in the Lutheran and other Protestant traditions that we receive both forgiveness and attain salvation. In other words, we are ultimately justified by faith, not by our works. Luther initially maintained the Sacramental nature of Reconciliation, but that special status would fade over time, and then disappear altogether in a Protestant Sacramental world view.
In context of the Catholic theology of Reconciliation, Luther’s response, perhaps at the time an answer to his own existential crisis of faith, was essentially this: what can faith attest to other than or more strongly than God Himself has provided forgiveness? Forgiveness and salvation can only come forth from faith, it is the ultimate accomplishment of the salvation achieved through Christ. Said another way, for Luther it was only through the grace of God that we find peace, reconciliation and salvation. As such, an essential component of the Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation, satisfactio operis, was wholly unnecessary.
A natural corollary to this proposition is that if we engage in good works — outside of faith – in the Reformation world this would be inconsequential because we can never accomplish enough good in the eyes of God through our deeds — in the absence of faith. In the Catholic tradition, however, Penance had three meanings: it was the virtue that directed a person to have remorse for sinning, and to seek to refrain from further sin. In contrast with Luther and others, for Catholics Penance also consisted of the good works offered to God to repair sin. And structurally speaking, Penance was the process, guided by the Church in its Sacrament by which a penitent believer received forgiveness for sins through their confession, and through expressing contrition to a priest who acted as a direct minister of Christ (Freze 15).
Trent essentially confirmed — in a direct rebuke to Luther and other Reformation figures — that “the conversion of an adult to the faith and the return of a believing and baptized sinner to a state of justice must be accounted for by the sacrament of Penance” (Jedin 171). As analyzed above, Luther had started from the notion that a person is saved from sin and despair by a trusting faith, a justification by faith. Otherwise the sinner would never be able to fulfil the law of God, who is, and always has been, perfect. It was this Lutheran exposition of justification by faith that was one of the most prominent issues facing the Church which convened at Trent. In writing to Rome on June 21, 1546 the leaders of the Council wrote: “The significance of this Council in the theological sphere lies chiefly in the article on justification, in fact this is the most important item the Council has to deal with” (Toon 67); even going so far as to request the opinion of other specialists on the topic. As Jedin recounts:
Their request was complied with. Four weeks later, on I7 July, the Camerlengo, Cardinal Santa Fiora, despatched five memorials to Trent, three of them drawn up by Dominicans, one of whom was the Master of the Sacred Palace, the fourth by the Apostolic Sacristan, the Augustinian Barba, and the fifth by the Prior of San Marcello, a Servite. If these documents had been preserved we would be in a position to picture to ourselves the state of opinion in Rome. However, they are lost and we are unable to ascertain whether or not they affected the course of the negotiations and the decree, the first draft of which was practically completed at the time of their reception at Trent (22 July) (171-172).
An analysis of the philosophical, theological and political debates that ensued at Trent on the nature of justification is beyond the scope of the present reflection. Suffice it to say that when the dust settled the Council did unanimously pass a decree on justification that consisted of sixteen chapters, followed by thirty-three canons. As O’Malley (113-114) points out, the first three canons reflecting the Tridentine doctrine of justification made the case clear and strong in responding to Luther and others:
1. If anyone says that a person can be justified before God by his own works, done either by the resources of human nature or by the teaching of the Law, apart from divine grace through Jesus Christ, let him be anathema.
2. If anyone says that divine grace through Jesus Christ is given solely to enable a person to live justly and to merit eternal life more easily, as if each could be done through free will without grace, even though with a struggle and with difficulty, let him be anathema.
3. If anyone says that, without preceding inspiration of the Holy Spirit and without his help, a person can believe, hope, and repent as he ought so that the grace of justification may be granted to him, let him be anathema.
The implications of Trent’s decree on justification was not only important as a Counter-Reformation response, but it also had significant implications for the Catholic theology of the Sacraments; notably in this case the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Reaffirming Church tradition and referring to Augustine it its definition of a Sacrament, Trent was on course to correct the deconstruction of the Sacramental life by the emerging Protestant sects of the sixteenth century. Trent reaffirmed that “a Sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible grace, instituted for our justification...God ordained that every important promise should be confirmed by certain signs, so in the New Law, Christ our Savior, when He promised pardon of sin, divine grace, the communication of the Holy Spirit, instituted certain visible and sensible signs by which He might oblige Himself, as it were, by pledges, and make it impossible to doubt that He would be true to His promises” (Catechism of the Council of Trent, emphasis added).
Trent also made it clear in its declarations that Church tradition held fast as to the number of the Sacraments:
The Sacraments of the Catholic Church are seven in number, as is proved from Scripture, from the tradition handed down to us from the Fathers, and from the authority of Councils. Why they are neither more nor less in number may be shown, at least with some probability, from the analogy that exists between the natural and the spiritual life (Catechism of the Council of Trent).
Echoing back to the challenge of the Reformation, Trent reaffirmed that it was through the Sacraments that sanctification was achieved. Specific to the Sacrament of Reconciliation (referred to as “Penance” by Trent), the demotion of the Sacrament by Luther and others would not stand: “Hence the Council of Trent declares: For those who fall into sin after Baptism the Sacrament of Penance is as necessary to salvation as is Baptism for those who have not been already baptized” (Catechism of the Council of Trent). Whereas Luther adopted the position, modeled by other Protestant sects, that salvation from sin and despair was accomplished by a trusting faith, a justification by faith, Trent affirmed the opposite conclusion from that of Luther: “Penance, however, in those who repent, must be preceded by faith, for without faith no man can turn to God. Faith, therefore, cannot on any account be called a part of penance” (Catechism of the Council of Trent, emphasis added). Furthermore, Trent reaffirmed the Sacramental status of Reconciliation when it pronounced:
That Penance is a Sacrament pastors can easily show from what follows. As Baptism is a Sacrament because it blots out all sins, and especially original sin, so for the same reason Penance, which takes away all the sins of thought and deed committed after Baptism, must be regarded as a true Sacrament in the proper sense of the word. Moreover – and this is the principal reason – since what is exteriorly done, both by priest and penitent, signifies the inward effects that take place in the soul, who will venture to deny that Penance is invested with the nature of a proper and true Sacrament? For a Sacrament is a sign of a sacred thing. Now the sinner who repents plainly expresses by his words and actions that he has turned his heart from sin; while from the words and actions of the priest we easily recognize the mercy of God exercised in the remission of sins. In any event, the words of our Savior furnish a clear proof: I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of Heaven; whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, shall be loosed also in Heaven. (Matt. 16:19). The absolution announced in the words of the priest expresses the remission of sins which it accomplishes in the soul (Catechism of the Council of Trent).
Finally, with regard to the central focus of this reflection, Trent served to rebuke Lutherans and other Protestants in affirming that in “returning now to the Sacrament, it is so much the special province of Penance to remit sins that it is impossible to obtain or even to hope for remission of sins by any other means; for it is written: Unless you do penance, you shall all likewise perish. (Luke 13:3)” (Catechism of the Council of Trent).
Through Trent the Church affirmed in the strongest language that ongoing conversion, confession, forgiveness, penance and reconciliation were not only important but necessary as Sacramental experiences in the rite of Reconciliation, which is the mechanism by which we are restored to God’s grace. In contrast to Luther’s more localized approach on the confession of sins in the reduced status that Reconciliation brought in the Protestant rite, the Church also sought to make practices for Catholics more universal post-Trent. For example, in the post-Tridentine period, “Catholics were required to abstain from meat on Fridays, fast (having only one substantial meal a day) and abstain during the season of Lent, and fast during Ember days and the vigils of certain feasts (e.g., Pentecost, Christmas, All Saints). These regular individual and collective acts of abstinence and fasting were penances or satisfactions for one’s sins; they were also signs of repentance and means of forgiveness as the biblical tradition had held” (Carey 15-16).
The Council of Trent therefore not only reinforced the essential nature and significance of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, it also codified its practices more definitively within the larger context of Church tradition which predated the Reformation. It can be said that the Sacrament of Reconciliation formed a core part of Catholic tradition in the aftermath of Trent up to the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, “and sacramental confession fit into this larger context of sin, repentance, forgiveness, and satisfaction” (Carey 16). Before Luther and others questioned the Sacramental status of Reconciliation, its very necessity, Church tradition up until the Middle Ages dictated that Reconciliation could be conferred but a single time in a the lifetime of an individual, and generally for serious sins such as adultery or murder. Furthermore, the Penance traditionally given was to be performed in public, and could be rather harsh and/or lengthy in its scope. However, by the eleventh century Irish missionaries had paved the way for the private practice of private confession, Penance, as well as absolution. And by the thirteenth century the yearly practice of Sacramental Reconciliation became mandatory in the Church (Freze 15).
After the Reformation, Trent not only confirmed the Sacramental status of Reconciliation, but also codified the Sacrament extensively and in great detail in its fourteenth session published on November 15, 1551. In so doing the Council of Trent established in both theology and practice the fundamental significance of the Sacrament of Reconciliation in Catholic life, which remains with the Church in so many respects up to this day in 2022 A.D. Even the most contemporary version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church pays homage to the great work of the Council of Trent in an environment in which many of the fundamental theological precepts and practices of Catholicism were under attack by reactionary forces: “The Council of Trent initiated a remarkable organization of the Church’s catechesis. Thanks to the work of holy bishops and theologians such as St. Peter Canisius, St. Charles Borromeo, St. Turibius of Mongrovejo, or St. Robert Bellarmine, it occasioned the publication of numerous catechisms” (Catechism of the Catholic Church).
We have in this Missio Dei reflection traced the historic questionable status of the theology of the Sacraments that in large part occasioned the calling of one of the most significant, long-lasting, and impactful Councils in the history of the Catholic Church. Not since the Roman emperor Constantine convened the First Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., what was in essence the first ecumenical council, was so much at stake for the Church in its traditions, and sacred theology. As early Christians grappled with establishing agreed upon Church doctrine and practices, and in so doing dispatching (among other heresies) Arianism, so too did Trent have to take on the Protestant Reformation that was challenging the very core of long-established Church doctrine and practices. As a contemporary scholar, saint, and doctor of the Church Saint Robert Bellarmine concluded in his appraisal of how the Church responded to the Reformation in the mid-sixteenth century: “The Council of Trent, before it progressed to other things, defined the Scriptures and the Apostolic Traditions received for the word of God” (132).
The Council of Trent as history records was a pivotal series of events from 1545 to 1563 A.D. in which the Church not only responded to emerging heresies and challenges to its authority as the instrument of salvation on earth, appointed by the Savior Jesus Christ Himself, but also the Council established a corpus of doctrinal and practical applications richly enshrined in Church tradition. In so doing Trent ensured the integrity of Church traditions and theological consistency, with such specificity in terminology, that the Church not only survived the Reformation, but prospered in the centuries which followed its convening. And subsequent to Trent we have seen in history up to the present that new challenges, outside the Reformation, have made themselves known – such as political, philosophical, scientific, technological, and industrial changes and challenges.
In the Catholic Church of the twenty first century the sanctity of the Seven Sacraments remains intact, in no small part a result of the epic successes of Trent. In particular, the Sacrament of Reconciliation received not only confirmation but also further definition and procedural amplifications as a result of the work of the Council. As Catholics we should never forget that back in the mid-sixteenth century in many areas of western Europe the status of the Sacraments as essential acts of the divine presence of God as sacred mysteries in our daily lives was not only challenged, but either demoted or dismissed in emerging Protestant theology.
Trent was key in putting the faith back on track in this central area of theological truth and witness to the mystery of the Sacraments in our lives in which each and every one of us can form personal connections with God; transmitted to us by a priest or bishop (and in some cases others) in very special and specific ways. This is precisely why the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that “‘Seated at the right hand of the Father’ and pouring out the Holy Spirit on his Body which is the Church, Christ now acts through the sacraments he instituted to communicate his grace. The sacraments are perceptible signs (words and actions) accessible to our human nature. By the action of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit they make present efficaciously the grace that they signify” (1084). It is a goal of this reflection to reinforce the point that as Catholic Christians it is our sacred obligation to maintain the integrity of the seven Sacraments handed to us through Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Trent not only directly responded to this challenge to the Sacraments in our history, but also reasserted and defined more precisely the critical essence and nature of Sacramental theology in the lives of Christians. As the Council itself decreed: “Instruction on the Sacraments, which, by the ordinance of God, are a necessary means of salvation and a plenteous source of spiritual advantage, demands in a special manner his talents and industry. By accurate and frequent instruction (on the Sacraments) the faithful will be enabled to approach worthily and with salutary effect these inestimable and most holy institutions; and the priests will not depart from the rule laid down in the divine prohibition: Give not that which is holy to dogs: neither cast ye your pearls before swine. (Matt. 7:6)” (Catechism of the Council of Trent). May you and your familes have a blessed and holy Lenten season 2022 A.D. as we all move forward as Catholic Christians as active witnesses to the risen Lord, Jesus Christ; who Himself instituted the sacred Sacraments safeguarded by the Church throughout the past two millennia.
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