Feb 25, 2006

Onward, Christian Soldiers: The Jesuits, The Council Of Trent, And The Counter-Reformation


Left:Piazza del Duomo, center of the city of Trentino

At a time of growing crisis in the Catholic Church, the Jesuit movement and the Council of Trent each, to some extent, carried the banner of reform; however, the role that each played in the Church’s sixteenth century reinvigoration by underscoring doctrinal orthodoxy was just as critical in staving off the power of the Protestant reformation. The documents Council of Trent: Rules on Prohibited Books and Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises reflect this conformist approach towards achieving a more robust Church.

Both documents place a high degree of emphasis upon a military-like obedience to the hierarchy of the Church. Loyola, by placing this concept in his First Rule, wasted no time in exhorting the faithful to comply with Church teachings: "All judgment laid aside, we ought to have our mind ready and prompt to obey, in all, the true Spouse of Christ our Lord, which is our holy Mother the Church Hierarchical."

This sense of individual submission to the precepts of the Church is given further emphasis in the Thirteenth Rule:" To be right in everything, we ought always to hold that the white which I see, is black, if the Hierarchical Church so decides it..."

Clearly, Loyola did not wish for there to be any doubt as to the degree with which followers should conform to the governance of the Catholic Church.

Left: St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus

The same spirit of obedience is apparent in the Rules on Prohibited Books, a document that sought to prevent the spread of heretical thought. The authors, like Loyola, did not leave room for speculation on the intent of their directive: "...all the faithful are commanded not to presume to read or possess any books contrary to the prescriptions of these rules…if anyone should read or possess books by heretics...he incurs immediately the sentence of excommunication."

The issue of doctrinal solidarity was of great importance to both Loyola and the Council; both documents show recognition of the Church’s need for theological accord. In the Ninth Rule, Loyola reminded his readers of this topic: "...to praise all precepts of the Church, keeping the mind prompt to find reasons in their defense and in no manner against them."

In a similar vein, the Council of Trent reiterated this distinct sense of theological primacy in the Rules on Prohibited Books; the outlawed works are described, at various times, as “absolutely condemned,” “absolutely forbidden,” and “absolutely repudiated.” Such language demonstrated the Church’s desire to battle what it perceived as the armies of heresy.

Left: Council of Trent (1562)

The Protestant Reformation was certainly not unnoticed by either Loyola or the Council; while Catholic reform movements had existed long before Luther and other Protestant thinkers, it is clear that both documents were written, in part, to contradict the arguments put forth by dissenters. In his Spiritual Exercises, Loyola specifically authenticated many practices and beliefs scorned by the Protestants; the Sacraments, celibacy, and veneration of Saints and relics were all upheld as praiseworthy.

While Loyola conceded to the Protestants the theological soundness of predestination, he was quick to point out in the Fifteenth rule that the concept could, indeed, lead people astray: "We ought not...to speak much of predestination...(for the people), growing lazy, they become negligent in the works which lead to the salvation and spiritual profit of their souls."

In the Rules the Council of Trent discussed a great many writings; however, the emphasis here was also on the Protestant reformers. The document singled out in particular those thinkers at the forefront of the Reformation: "The books of those heresiarchs...as Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Balthasar Friedburg, Schwenkfeld, and others like these…are absolutely forbidden."

The sixteenth century was an epoch of great upheaval for Christianity; wars were fought not just in the centers of learning, but on the battlefield as well. The writings of Loyola and the Council of Trent paint a picture of a Church that recognized not only the threat from the forces of Protestantism but also the need for a unified Catholic Church in the conflict over millions of Christian souls.

1 comment:

liberal_dem said...

Quixotically, the hierarchical nature of the Roman Catholic Church is its blessing as well as its albatross. So many American Catholics are disgusted by the hierarchy of their church in its power as well as its manifest grandiosity . Many merely attend services without regard to church law and its chain of command.

The present day church has drifted far from its roots, far from those simple first Christians praying together in homes, without appointed leaders, absent of ritual, sexless in ministry.

The demise of this simplistic group of Gnostics is directly attributed to the specious proclimations of the Council of Nicea that set the standards of Catholic beliefs and worship. Suddenly, there was a 'right and wrong' way of being a Christian, which naturally led to a hierarchy and church-fabricated sins, based on the member's kowtowing to their authority.

Just then, in the 5th century, the tone was set: some Christians have the truth while others are forever heretics. We and them. Right and wrong. Sinners and saved. And thus institutionalized religion was born with all of the pitfalls that it entailed.

While the 95 theses of Luther attempted to address some of the transgressions of the past, modern Protestantism, although essentially non-hierarchical, it is still encumbered by doctrine and subsequent 'sin.' Naturally, the 'sin' derives from what both Catholics and Protestants hold as 'gospel truths.' The trouble is that the Bible, both the 'old' and 'new' are based on human interpretations of 'divine revelation' and witnesses of historical events, compounded by personal interpretation of the transcribers.

Holy smoke, to coin a phrase. The Christians living in 2006 are supposed to believe in events and writings which happened two to five thousand years ago, handed down through oral tradition, then written by scribes who were not first-person witnesses of the events. Compounding the problematic sequence, other scribes translated and reinterpreted the older set of writings, which were again re-translated and reinterpreted.

Somewhere along that chain of events, things became quite specious indeed. Yet there exist the original writings of first century Gnostics, discovered preserved in jars in the high, rocky fissures from the Qumran Community in upper Egypt which buried them to preserve their truths. Yet church leaders dismiss these writings as heretical. The reason? They don't 'fit' the set of 'truths' which they use to both rule and dole out sins to the laity. The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, one of the Qumran discoveries, clearly flies in the face of the female role in the church. Further, other writings discovered in the Nag Hammadi collection, tell a simple, non-hierarchical story of early 'Christian' life, with women and men of equal importance in their simple service. Additionally, some of the historical events told on these parchments contradict the 'events' that the Council of Nicea has proclaimed as 'gospel truth.' The most striking disparity is whether Jesus was or was not God. Imagine what a blow that would be to the modern church whose very raison d'être is based on that very hypothesis.

The very reason that so many conservative Christians proselytize so enthusiastically and spread dire warnings to the 'unbelievers' is based upon the duel beliefs that Jesus was God and that he actually rose from the dead. The Nag Hammadi collection says neither, which is quite the conundrum for both Catholics, Protestants and especially to the born-again Christians.