Of Paolo Sarpi it has been said that “there was no department of human knowledge about which he did not know everything that had been ascertained by others, and few to which he did not make substantial contributions.” In truth, he seems to have been one of the most extraordinary men of his own or of any age. Born in Venice in 1552, he joined the Servites at thirteen years of age, and was immediately put forward as their champion at the great annual disputation in the Frari Church, where, before all the noble and great and wise of Venice, he held his own against all disputants. Five years later, at eighteen, he was appointed to the chair of Positive Theology at Mantua, and became private theologian to the Duke. In 1575 he returned to Venice, where he held the chairs of Philosophy and Mathematics in the monastery until, in 1579, he became a Principal of his Order. His high character, his intense piety, and his altogether phenomenal erudition and genius, secured for him the friendship of all who were best qualified to supply him with materials for his history of the Council of Trent.
His quarrel with the Vatican came later, and was brought about as follows: In 1606 the Senate of Venice, in order to secure his services, created for him the office of Theological Counsellor; and in the fierce struggle of that year between the Republic and the Pope, Paolo Sarpi was the adviser of the Senate. Paul V. launched his Bull of interdict and excommunication against Venice. Sarpi held that this action was ultra vires; and, acting on their Counsellor’s advice, the Senate confronted and thwarted the Pope at every point. The Pope ordered the clergy to close the churches and suspend all services and sacraments. The Republic threatened to punish any priest who acted on the order. The Pope ordered the clergy to leave the country and repair to Rome. They were warned that if they attempted to act on the order they would be hanged at the frontier. The Pope was brought to his knees, and after pleading in vain for some way to save his dignity, he was compelled to issue another Bull, withdrawing the interdict; and this the Senate, acting on Sarpi’s advice, would not permit to be read in the churches. Never since has any Pope dared to issue such an interdict.
Needless to say, the result was to make the Pope the bitter enemy of Paolo Sarpi. Having tried in vain every artifice to get him to Rome, he determined to be revenged by other means. Though, honours and money were pressed upon Sarpi, he refused to change his mode of life and while his days were spent in the public service, he insisted on returning nightly to his cell in the monastery. On the night of the 5th October, 1607, he was waylaid by assassins hired by Paul V., and left for dead within a few hundred yards of the monastery. But to the bitter disappointment of the Pope, and to the amazement of everybody, he recovered. For another fifteen years he continued his career of service to Venice and the world, and notwithstanding further Papal plots against his life, he died peacefully in his cell on the 15th January, 1623.
His fame may be judged by the fact that his death was formally reported to all the Courts of Europe, and that he was voted a State funeral and a public monument. But the malignity of the Vatican is undying. Plot after plot was hatched to desecrate the dead friar’s tomb and scatter his ashes. Ten times those ashes were disturbed, and secretly reinterred to save them from the Papal emissaries; and for 270 years the decree of the Senate to erect a monument to his memory remained in abeyance. It was not till the 20th September, 1892, that, in pursuance of that decree, the statue which now stands in the Campo di Santa Fosca was unveiled in honour of that truly great and noble man.
“To magnify the importance of the Council of Trent I believe to be impossible,” says Froude; and for the sake of those who may not have access to such a book as his, I give the following brief outline of the wonderful story.
The Papal Bull summoning the Council bore date the 22nd of May, 1542, but the ecclesiastics who came together at Trent in the August following were too few in number to enter on their task. France, in alliance with the Turks, had declared war against the Emperor, and neither French nor German bishops could attend. England, of course, stood aloof; for Cardinal Pole represented no one but himself and the Pope. And the Spaniard had not yet arrived. Thus the year passed away, and when in the winter the Italian bishops, impatient of delay, seemed about to proceed to business, Granvelle, the Imperial chancellor, was despatched to stop them. On January 9, 1543, he delivered in peremptory terms his master’s orders; and though Pope Paul would have gladly disregarded them, the fear of man restrained him; for not sixteen years had passed since Rome had been stormed by a German army, and what had happened so recently might happen again. After many delays, the 15th of March, 1545, was fixed by another Bull for the Council to reassemble, but it was not until May that any of the bishops arrived. Cardinal Del Monti, afterwards Pope Julius III., was the chief Papal Legate.
His first trouble was the claim of the Emperor’s representative, Mendoza, Spanish ambassador at Venice, to sit next to him, and above the bishops. Next came Mendoza’s demand for further delay: By the end of May only twenty bishops were present, all Italians. They must wait for the Spaniards. Again the year almost ran out, and it was not till the 13th of December that the opening ceremony at last took place. But Monti’s patience and skill were sorely taxed. One of the first dangers he had to meet was a demand on the part of the bishops to make the Council independent of the Pope. This was with difficulty avoided. The next was the Imperial demand that the question of morals should have precedence of discussions upon doctrine. This was regarded by Paul as a covert attack upon himself. There was too much glass about his house to make stone-throwing pleasant or safe. Del Monti was ordered to force forward the examination of doctrine and to thrust aside reform. But all he was able to attain was a compromise, that doctrine and morals should be dealt with in alternate sessions. The Imperial representative remonstrated that three cardinals and forty bishops, all of whom were personally insignificant, were incompetent to settle the faith of the world: but the forty bishops thought otherwise, and the Council proceeded to redress. On the motion of Cardinal Pole, they began by affirming the “Apostles’ creed.” The next proposal, to declare allegiance to “the apostolic see,” might have caused a division had not the news of Luther’s death (February 18, 1546) come opportunely to put every one in good humour. They proceeded to consider and anathematise the arch-heretic’s doctrines. The Vulgate, that most depraved translation, was canonised as being itself (including the Apocrypha) Divine Scripture; human tradition was raised to the same level as the Scriptures themselves, and the laity were declared incompetent to interpret, or even to understand them. Explosions occurred from time to time, as one bishop or another paraded his personal grievances against the Pope or the Curia; but in spite of these interruptions the formulating of dogmas went on apace by the obedient vote of “the Pope’s brigade” of Italian bishops. The Emperor was itidignant. It was a reform of morals he wanted, and a fair hearing for the Protestants. But he was helpless. Twenty Spanish bishops had joined the Council, but the Spaniards, though personally abler and purer than the Italians, were, as ecclesiastics, still less disposed to parley with heretics. They forced to the front, however, the question of the corruptions which allowed the Roman Cardinals to live in splendid idleness by drawing the revenues of benefices which they never visited; and it taxed the firmness of Paul and the diplomacy of Del Monti to save the offenders.
The winter of 1546 was exceptionally severe, and the effeminate Italians were miserable at Trent. It was the Emperor’s determination alone which had fixed a German town as the meeting-place, and it was fear of the Emperor that kept them there. But the action of the Spaniards threatened to wreck the whole fabric of the Papacy, and in the following spring, under Del Monti’s advice, the Pope decided to remove the Council to Papal territory. A rumour was started that the plague was in Trent. Paolo Sarpi declares that two physicians were secretly instructed to encourage the belief. The Papal Legate arranged the scheme in spite of the protests of the Imperial representative, and the Council adjourned to Bologna, Don Francis of Toledo and most of the Spaniards alone remaining in Trent. But the work of the Council was practically accomplished. The creed of Christendom - that astounding monument of narrow intolerance and base superstition - had been settled.
The rest is easily told. In November, 1549, Paul III. died, and Del Monti succeeded to the Pontificate. Willing to propitiate the Emperor, he offered to send the Fathers back to Trent. But doctrines had been settled, and the reform of morals was hopeless. Paolo Sarpi narrates that on one occasion when the question was brought up, the bishops set to discussing whether their own exemption from the jurisdiction of ordinary courts ought not to be extended to their concubines! All that remained, therefore, of Charles’ original scheme was to get the German Reformers to the Council. But the Council of Constance had decided that a safe conduct granted to a heretic need not be respected; and, with the fate of Huss before their minds, the Reformers were cautious. The Council was to reassemble on May 2, 1551, but another year passed, and these difficulties still blocked the way. And even then the only Germans who attended were laymen.
The full Council met, and the foreign ministers of State were present in their robes. In plain language Leonard Badehorn addressed the brilliant assembly, repudiating the authority of the Council, because the Scriptures were not the rule of controversy with them, and the members were the servants of the Pope who ought to be on his trial with the rest of them. He scouted the idea that sixty such bishops could settle the faith of the world. He spoke, he declared, as the representative of the Elector Maurice of Saxony. The next day, after Mass in the cathedral, the reply of the Council was read, acceding to the full the German demand for a safe conduct such as they could trust. But it was made plain that the Protestants were to be heard only to please the Emperor. They were to have no deliberative voice, nor were the decrees already passed in condemnation of their doctrines to be reconsidered. Melanchthon and the divines of the Augsburg Confession therefore never attended. The events which followed in Germany - the march of Maurice of Saxony upon Innspruck, and the flight of the Emperor - are among the enigmas of history. But Innspruck was only three days’ march from Trent; and when the news reached the Council, the Italian bishops stampeded, as the historian describes it, “like a gang of coiners surprised by the police.” ‘The Papal Legate, Cardinal Crescentio, and a few of the Spaniards, lingered long enough to pass a vote declaring that all their decrees should be valid for ever.
The Council of Trent of ten years later was, in everything but name, a new assembly. Such in briefest outline is the story of a Council which was repudiated, not only by England and Germany, but even by Catholic France. Thus was the faith of Christendom decreed by a gang of some three-score Italian and Spanish priests. Thus ended one of the most transparent, and yet one of the most successful, impostures in the history of the world.