When Luther and other reformers looked to the words of the Bible (and there were efforts at improving the accuracy of these new translations based on early Greek manuscripts), they found that many of the practices and teachings of the Church about how we achieve salvation didn't match Christ's teaching. This included many of the Sacraments, including Holy Communion (also known as the Eucharist). According to the Catholic Church, the miracle of Communion is transubstantiation—when the priest administers the bread and wine, they change (the prefix "trans" means to change) their substance into the actual body and blood of Christ. Luther denied this change during Holy Communion. Luther thereby challenged one of the central sacraments of the Catholic Church, one of its central miracles, and thereby one of the ways that human beings can achieve grace with God, or salvation.
The Church initially ignored Martin Luther, but Luther's ideas (and variations of them, including Calvinism) quickly spread throughout Europe. He was asked to recant (to disavow) his writings at the Diet of Worms (an unfortunate name for a council held by the Holy Roman Emperor in the German city of Worms). When Luther refused, he was excommunicated ( expelled) from the church). The Church's response to the threat from Luther and others during this period is called the “Counter-Reformation” ("counter" meaning against).
The Council of Trent
In 1545 the Church opened the Council of Trent to deal with the issues raised by Luther. The Council of Trent was an assembly of high officials in the Church who met (on and off for eighteen years) principally in the Northern Italian town of Trent for 25 sessions.
Selected Outcomes of the Council of Trent:
The Council denied the Lutheran idea of justification by faith. They affirmed, in other words, their Doctrine of Merit, which allows human beings to redeem themselves through Good Works, ( and giving money to the Church). and through the sacraments.
They affirmed the existence of Purgatory and the usefulness of prayer and indulgences in shortening a person's stay in purgatory.
They reaffirmed the belief in transubstantiation and the importance of all seven sacraments
They reaffirmed the authority of scripture and the teachings and traditions of the Catholic Church
They also reaffirmed the necessity and correctness of religious art (see below)
The Council of Trent on Religious Art
At the Council of Trent, the Church also reaffirmed the usefulness of images - but indicated that church officials should be careful to promote the correct use of images and guard against the possibility of idolatry. The council decreed that images are useful "because the honour which is shown them is referred to the prototypes which those images represent" (in other words, through the images we honor the holy figures depicted). And they listed another reason images were useful, "because the miracles which God has performed by means of the saints, and their salutary examples, are set before the eyes of the faithful; so that they may give God thanks for those things; may order their own lives and manners in imitation of the saints; and may be prompted to adore and love God, and to cultivate piety."
The “Reformation” was a very violent period in Europe, even family members were often pitted against one another in the wars of religion. Each side, both Catholics and Protestants, were often absolutely certain that they were in the right and that the other side was doing the devil's work.
The artists of this period - Michelangelo in Rome, Titian in Venice, Durer in Nuremberg, Cranach in Saxony - were impacted by these changes since the Church had been the single largest patron for artists. Now art was being scrutinized in an entirely new way. The Catholic Church was looking to see if art communicated the stories of the Bible effectively and clearly (see Veronese's Feast in the House of Levi for more on this). Protestants , on the other hand, for the most part lost the patronage of the Church and religious images (sculptures, paintings, stained glass windows etc) were destroyed in iconoclastic riots.
It is also during this period that the Scientific Revolution gained momentum and observation of the natural world replaced religious doctrine as the source of our understanding of the universe and our place in it. Copernicus up-ended the ancient Greek model of the heavens by suggesting that the sun was at the center of the solar system and that the planets orbited around it.
At the same time, exploration, colonization and (the often forced) Christianization of what Europe called the "new world" continued. By the end of the century, the world of the Europeans was a lot bigger and opinions about that world were more varied and more uncertain than they had been for centuries.
Please note, this tutorial focuses on Western Europe. There are other forms of Christianity in other parts of the world including for example the Eastern Orthodox Church.
This essay is by Dr. Steven Zucker & Dr. Beth Harris
Question: How does the current Roman Catholic Church feel about indulgences, Purgatory, and the other "Selected Outcomes of the Council of Trent" today?
All three of these are still supported by the Vatican today. First, the current Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 1031) defines Purgatory as the place where a soul which is right with God receives final purification before entering Heaven. Second, as affirmed by Pope Paul VI in 1963, the Church stands by practices put in place before 1962--including the Council of Trent. Lastly, indulgences are still a part of Catholic doctrine (But largely prayer and penance). The corrupt "sale" of those indulgences, however, is not (which is part of what the Council of Trent stated; Pope Paul VI also wrote something to this effect in his Apostolic Constitution on Indulgences 1967).