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Purgatory... part 6... The Council of Trent

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Part 6 of Purgatory explores the history of events from Luther's excommunication to the Catholic Church's final decree on Purgatory in the Council of Trent.

Part 6 of Purgatory explores the history of events from Luther's excommunication to the Catholic Church's final decree on Purgatory in the Council of Trent.

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  • 1. Purgatory
    Edward J. Hahnenberg, BA, MA, MA, Ed.S.
  • 2. Purgatory – Part 6: The Council of Trent
    In 1530, Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, called together the princes and cities of his German territories in a Diet at Augsburg. He sought unity among them to fend of the attacks of Turkish armies in Eastern Austria. He called upon the Lutheran nobility to explain their religious convictions, with the hope that the controversy swirling around the challenge of the Reformation might be resolved. To this end, Philip Melanchthon, a close friend of Martin Luther and a Professor of New Testament at Wittenberg University, was called upon to draft a common confession for the Lutheran Lords and Free Territories. The resulting document, the Augsburg Confession was presented to the emperor on June 25, 1530.
     
  • 3. Augsburg Confession
    In effect, the Augsburg Confession threw out the need for the sacrament of Penance, sacramental penances, temporal punishment due to forgiven sins, indulgences, and Purgatory.
     
    In 1537, Luther published a significant work, the Smalcald Articles, requesting a “Christian” council to discuss the beliefs of himself and other reformers, although by this time Luther had become increasingly hostile toward any action of any pope, and considered the papacy the “Antichrist.”
     
  • 4. Melanchthon
    Philip Melanchthon, who had authored the Augsburg Confession, signed the Articles with the almost conciliatory qualification: “I, Philip Melanchthon, approve the foregoing Articles as pious and Christian. But in regard to the Pope, I hold that, if he would admit the Gospel, we might also permit him, for the sake of peace and the common concord of Christendom, to exercise, by human right, his present jurisdiction over the bishops, who are now or may hereafter be under his authority.”
     
    Despite the fact the Melanchthon and Luther took different directions later in life, with Melanchthon hoping for reunion with the Catholic church, the beginning of the Protestant rejection of Purgatory had been doctrinalized.
     
  • 5. Rome responds…
    The Catholic Church’s response was indeed a general council as Luther had requested, but on its terms, not those of Luther. Pope Paul III (1468-1549) who reigned from 1534-1549 attempted to convene a general council, planned first to begin in Mantua in May, 1537, but because of opposition of the Protestant princes and the refusal of the Duke of Mantua to assume the responsibility of maintaining order Paul convoked, for a second time, a council at Vicenza, scheduled to begin May 1, 1538.
     
  • 6. The role of Charles V
    Political frustrations again delayed the Vicenza council’s opening, since the Protestants would have no part in a council presided over by the pope, Emperor Charles V was resolved to reduce the princes to obedience by force of arms. To this Paul did not object, and promised to aid him with three hundred thousand ducats and twenty thousand infantry. Interestingly, in 1520, Charles, who began as Charles I of Spain, left Spain to take possession of the German Empire to which he had been elected. The French king, Francis I, had been his rival for the dignity; Leo X had thought that his interests in Italy were endangered by Charles' election. In spite of the opposition of Rome and France, Charles was elected (June, 1519), and everywhere received the title of "Emperor Elect.”
  • 7. Pre-history to Trent - 1
    The death of Leo X in 1521, brought Adrian VI to the papacy. He inherited the debts of Leo, as well as the corruption of the Roman Curia, which he openly acknowledged, to the delight of the Protestant movement. He truly stood alone, ignored in his appeals to prevent the eventual fall of Rhodes to the Muslims. His energies depleted, Adrian died after only two years in the papacy. His successor was Clement VII (1478-1534), who reigned as pope from 1523 to his death in 1534.
     
    If there was a weaker pope in a time of multiple crises within the Church, it would be difficult to name one. Clement was a vacillating political leader for one thing. His on-again, off-again alliance with Charles led to the famous Sack of Rome in 1527. When Clement assumed the papacy, Francis I and the Emperor Charles V were at war.
  • 8. Pre-history to Trent - 2
    It is difficult to imagine the distractions that being head of the Papal States led to Clement’s ineffectiveness in dealing with the Protestant revolt. The Pope's wavering politics also caused the rise of military factions inside his own Curia: Pompeo Cardinal Colonna’s soldiers pillaged the Vatican and gained control of the whole of Rome in his name. Totally humiliated by his own cardinal, Clement promised therefore to bring the Papal States to the military cardinal’s side. But soon after, Colonna left the siege and went to Naples, leaving Clement alone in Italy to face the horde of Landsknechts. It seems probable that the Landsknechte, a very large proportion of whom were Lutherans, had really got completely out of hand, and that they practically forced the Constable Bourbon, now in supreme command, to lead them against Rome.
  • 9. Pre-history to Trent - 3
    On May 5, 1527, they reached the walls, which, owing to the pope’s confidence in the truce he had concluded, were defended by only 5000 soldiers. Clement had barely time to take refuge in the Castle of Sant’ Angelo, and for eight days the "Sack of Rome" continued. After the execution of some 1,000 defenders, the pillage began. Churches and monasteries, but also palaces of prelates and cardinals, were destroyed and robbed. Nuns and other women were raped; surviving men were tortured and killed. Even cardinals had to pay to save their riches from the invading mercenaries.
  • 10. Pre-history to Trent - 4
    It is possible that Charles V was really not aware of the horrors which took place, but he should have had an idea of what mostly Protestant mercenaries under his authority might do. Still he had no objection against the pope bearing the full consequences of his shifty diplomacy, and he allowed him to remain a virtual prisoner in the Castle of Sant’ Angelo for more than seven months.
    After having bribed some soldiers, Clement escaped disguised as a peddler, and took shelter in Orvieto, and then in Viterbo. He came back to a depopulated and devastated Rome in October, 1528. However, before the end of July, 1529, terms favorable to the pope were arranged with Charles. Clement solemnly crowned Charles as Emperor on February 24, 1530, and, by whatever motives the pontiff was swayed, this settlement certainly had the effect of restoring to Italy a much-needed peace.
  • 11. Pre-history to Trent - 5
    Meanwhile in England in 1527, Henry VIII sought a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, whom he had married in 1509 with a dispensation from Julius II, following the Catherine’s short-lived marriage to Henry’s older brother Arthur who died. Henry’s representative went to Rome to seek an annulment of Julius II’s dispensation, but since Clement was imprisoned and Henry’s wife Catherine strongly objected to the idea, claiming that her brief marriage to Arthur had not been consummated, not much was accomplished.
    However, Clement met at Orvieto with the king‘s envoy. Clement was anxious to gratify Henry, and he opted for a preliminary decision by the English episcopate. However, the Emperor Charles, whose origins lay in Spain, home to Catherine, put Clement between a rock and a hard place. How far the pope was influenced by Charles V in his resistance, it is difficult to say; but it is clear that his own sense of justice tipped his vacillation toward the pleas of Queen Catherine.
  • 12. Pre-history to Trent - 6
    Clement ultimately decided not to withdraw the dispensation granted by Julius, and so Henry followed Thomas Cromwell’s suggestion to throw off papal supremacy, and make himself the supreme head of his own religion. This was in fact the course which from the latter part of 1529 Henry undeviatingly followed.
  • 13. Pre-history to Trent - 7
    Obviously, because of the chaotic state of Europe during the first half of the sixteenth century, little thought was given by popes to the issue of Purgatory or to its rejection by Lutherans in the Augsburg Confessions. This turmoil is well to remember as one looks to the eventual general council, the Council of Trent, which reaffirmed both Lyons and Florence in the matter of Purgatory. In other words, Purgatory was not on top of the list of Protestant heresies which would be evaluated and judged.
  • 14. Pre-history to Trent - 8
    After the death of Pope Clement VII in 1534, Emperor Charles informed the newly-elected Pope Paul that only the immediate summoning of a general council could bring about peace. He had always desired this; henceforth it became one of his principal aims, of which he never lost sight. Throughout Charles’ reign, he had to deal with much political and religious unrest in Europe as well as an attack of the Turks, which came in 1532, on land. Charles was successful in forcing them back, and in recovering a large part of Hungary.
  • 15. The Council of Trent convenes…and Purgatory is again defined as dogma.
    Finally, the Council of Trent opened on December 13, 1545. After the most historic general council ever to convene in such extremely difficult circumstances, and after eighteen years of deliberations on a wide scope of dogmatic and disciplinary issues, the doctrine of Purgatory was clearly defined December 4, 1563 in Session 25:
  • 16. Trent’s clear definition re: Purgatory
    Whereas the Catholic Church, instructed by the Holy Ghost, has, from the sacred writings and the ancient tradition of the Fathers, taught, in sacred councils, and very recently in this ecumenical Synod, that there is a Purgatory, and that the souls there detained are helped by the suffrages of the faithful, but principally by the acceptable sacrifice of the altar; the holy Synod enjoins on bishops that they diligently endeavor that the sound doctrine concerning Purgatory, transmitted by the holy Fathers and sacred councils, be believed, maintained, taught, and every where proclaimed by the faithful of Christ. But let the more difficult and subtle questions, and which tend not to edification, and from which for the most part there is no increase of piety, be excluded from popular discourses before the uneducated multitude. In like manner, such things as are uncertain, or which labor under an appearance of error, let them not allow to be made public and treated of. While those things which tend to a certain kind of curiosity or superstition, or which savor of filthy lucre, let them prohibit as scandals and stumbling-blocks of the faithful. But let the bishops take care, that the suffrages of the faithful who are living, to wit the sacrifices of masses, prayers, alms, and other works of piety, which have been wont to be performed by the faithful for the other faithful departed, be piously and devoutly performed, in accordance with the institutes of the church; and that whatsoever is due on their behalf, from the endowments of testators, or in other way, be discharged, not in a perfunctory manner, but diligently and accurately, by the priests and ministers of the church, and others who are bound to render this (service).
  • 17. Trent and Indulgences - 1
    The Council of Trent is often cited as offering the final definitive magisterial teaching on Purgatory. With regard to indulgences, Trent offered this statement in the same Session:
     
    Whereas the power of conferring Indulgences was granted by Christ to the Church; and she has, even in the most ancient times, used the said power, delivered unto her of God; the sacred holy Synod teaches, and enjoins, that the use of Indulgences, for the Christian people most salutary, and approved of by the authority of sacred Councils, is to be retained in the Church; and It condemns with anathema those who either assert, that they are useless; or who deny that there is in the Church the power of granting them. In granting them, however, It desires that, in accordance with the ancient and approved custom in the Church, moderation be observed; lest, by excessive facility, ecclesiastical discipline be enervated.
  • 18. Trent and Indulgences - 2
    And being desirous that the abuses which have crept therein, and by occasion of which this honorable name of Indulgences is blasphemed by heretics, be amended and corrected, It ordains generally by this decree, that all evil gains for the obtaining thereof,--whence a most prolific cause of abuses amongst the Christian people has been derived,--be wholly abolished. But as regards the other abuses which have proceeded from superstition, ignorance, irreverence, or from whatsoever other source, since, by reason of the manifold corruptions in the places and provinces where the said abuses are committed, they cannot conveniently be specially prohibited; It commands all bishops, diligently to collect, each in his own church, all abuses of this nature, and to report them in the first provincial Synod; that, after having been reviewed by the opinions of the other bishops also, they may forthwith be referred to the Sovereign Roman Pontiff, by whose authority and prudence that which may be expedient for the universal Church will be ordained; that this the gift of holy Indulgences may be dispensed to all the faithful, piously, holily, and incorruptly.
  • 19. Dogma settled
    From official Catholic Church teaching, therefore, the doctrine of Purgatory is to be accepted by Roman and Eastern Rite Catholics, as is the efficacy of indulgences. How many souls there are in Purgatory, no one knows ... nor is there any definitive teaching about the manner of purgation.
  • 20. Further thoughts…
    Certainly, Purgatory and indulgences are not on the top of that hierarchy of truths, considering the historical circumstances in which these official teachings of the Catholic faith were formulated. However, to be fair to how dogmas are defined in the Catholic Church, it has, from its beginnings, relied on the guidance of the Holy Spirit in calling councils and synods to clarify its beliefs when confronted with what its leaders consider erroneous teaching, in spite of the turmoil of the times.
     

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