As Pope Paul III’s 1542 Bull of Convocation made clear, the Council of Trent was prompted by “the many distresses [of] pastoral solicitude and vigilance” within the church and the many new “schisms, dissensions, and heresies” by which the “Christian commonwealth” was “well-nigh rent and torn asunder.” From the mid-fourteenth century forward, strong kings and princes in France, England, Spain, and Germany had challenged the church’s expansive property holdings, lucrative jurisdiction, and swollen bureaucracy. Humanists had challenged the authenticity of some of the Catholic Church’s canons and called for a renaissance of classical Greek and Roman texts and teachings, freed from medieval glosses and interpretations. Pietists had challenged the church’s monopoly on education, its harsh censorship laws, and its prohibitions on vernacular translations of the Bible. Various propagandists, armed with the new power of the printing press, had exposed all manner of moral and material excesses of the clergy and papacy, whether real or imagined. These criticisms and others proved to be storm signals of the Protestant Reformation, which broke out with Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses in 1517 and his public burning of the canon-law books in 1520.

John Witte Jr., From Sacrament to Contract: Marriage, Religion, and Law in the Western Tradition, 2nd edition (2012)

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