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Trent, Reformation, and the Spirit of Our Age

April 22nd, 2005 | 4 min read

By Tex

With all the news coverage of the passing of Pope John Paul II and now the election of Pope Benedict XVI, I have begun to hear more people abuzz with talk of ecumenism and the possibility of unity between Roman Catholics and Protestants, specifically evangelicals. There seem to have been three major evangelical responses to the death of Pope John Paul II and the sudden rise of interest in the Catholic Church. The first is an unqualified acceptance of the Catholic Church as Christian, and of its pope as a true Christian man (redeemed, saved, born again) now enjoying eternal pleasures in heaven with God. The second is an uncommitted (or non-verbalized) theological position on the Catholic Church, combined with a general admiration for much of the good work done by Pope John Paul II, and a hope that Pope Benedict XVI will further that work. The third is a decided opposition to the Catholic Church and its doctrine, arguing that though Pope John Paul II may have done many good works, those works combined with the Catholic Church’s theology are insufficient for his salvation.

More often than not, however, it seems that many academically oriented evangelical circles, it is assumed that the Catholic Church upholds and teaches true Christian doctrine that is sufficient for salvation and is compatible with evangelical teaching. It is precisely this attitude that puzzles me.

A very brief glance at church history reveals that the Council of Trent met for two major reasons: to respond to the teachings of Protestants, and to reform the Catholic Church. At the conclusion of the (lengthy and oft-interrupted) Council, certain decrees and canons were issued in direct opposition to the teachings of the Protestants. I have listed a few of the major issues at the end of this post; the full text can be found here. A quick perusal of these canons will reveal that the Catholic Church has condemned many doctrines of Protestant churches and holds doctrinal positions that directly contradict the teaching of many Protestant churches. The Catholic Church’s response to the Protestant Reformation was not one of favorable acceptance, nor even one of benign tolerance, but an out and out rejection and anathematization of the doctrines being preached by the Reformers. My point here is not to debate whether the Catholics or Protestants are correct (although I might as well state that being a somewhat doctrinally conservative evangelical Christian, my sympathies lie definitively with the Protestants), but rather to ask how it can be possible for the Catholic Church and Protestant evangelical churches to be in communion and Christian fellowship with one another when the doctrines and decrees of Trent have not been overturned by the Catholic Church.

There seem to be two legitimate ways that this would be possible. One would be for the Catholic Church to overturn or overrule those doctrines and decrees of Trent that anathematize Protestants. The other would be for the Protestants to change their position and acknowledge the falsity of their doctrine and accept the teaching of the Catholic Church as true. A final, and in my mind, illegitimate way to deal with this division is to speak in general, vague and generic terms regarding doctrinal issues so that both parties can say the same words in joyful unison while meaning very different things.

Now, there certainly has been movement towards unification between Protestants and Catholics, and it becomes important to know how this has happened. Has the Catholic Church changed, have the Protestants, or has there been an increasing amount of generic and vague discussion allowing for an appearance of agreement?

The Catholic Church has not changed its position since Trent. The Catholic Catechism finds its origin in the Council of Trent (see paragraph 9). Further, the Catholic Church at Vatican II, recognizes that any ecumenical movement cannot involve change or contradiction to Catholic teaching (see paragraph 24).

An example of what seems to fall in the third class of generalities and vague statements is found in “Evangelicals and Catholics Together”, a document affirming the essential Christian unity between Catholics and Protestants. This document explicitly mentions numerous areas of disagreement that were dealt with at Trent, claiming that these differences (many of which were sufficient fodder to anathematize Protestants in the 16th century) are not sufficient to destroy Christian fellowship between Catholics and Protestants. This seems to deny the conclusions of the Council of Trent by not allowing the full import of the decisive issues to be brought to light, but rather to be neatly swept under the rug with the large brush of “unity in the love of Christ.”

I tend to think that if there has been any change, it has been on the part of Protestants who can more easily change because they aren’t tied to quite as strict a religious authority structure as the Catholic Church (some have no religious authority structure other than their own souls and their interpretation of the Bible). However, I am interested to hear how Protestants who accept the Catholic Church as Christian are able to do so, if not by compromising on issues that were seen to be of the utmost importance by the Reformers.

If Catholics and Protestants of the 16th century saw the issues raised by Luther and other Reformers and addressed at the Council of Trent as so divisive that blood was shed over them in that century and for many more to come, what has changed that now allows for this spirit of ecumenism to come to the forefront? Have Protestants and Catholics really misunderstood what each other have been saying for the past five hundred years? Perhaps we should look to the spirit of our age, when Tolerance is preached as the crowning virtue of mankind, for an answer. After all, we too are deeply influenced by our times, and we live in a time when world peace, tolerance ad absurdum, and being nice above all else, have risen to the top of many people’s agendas. The modern giants of Human Progress on the Council Room walls of the United Nations have not been overthrown by post-modernism, but have only taken on a new form. They still are radically opposed to the Gospel of Jesus by placing man and his wisdom at the center of the cosmos.

How can ecumenism between Catholics and Protestants move forward without sacrificing the Truth to the wisdom of men?

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Some major issues concerning Protestant theology addressed at the Council of Trent: