Walter Mitty, Carafa, and Contarini: what could’ve been?

The Tridentine response to the traditional Protestant understanding of justification by faith was firm and certain, as evidenced by the 1547 Decree on Justification, and left no room for further dialogue such as had occurred in previous years at Worms (November, 1540) and Regensburg (April-May, 1541). The firmly anti-Protestant codification of justification at Trent does not, however, offer an accurate picture of the various positions held by Catholic theologians, even a few of those at the Council of Trent, who were open to forms of justification sola fide. It is tempting to read into pre-Trent time a post-Trent position. Prior to Trent, however, the doctrine of justification had not received much codifying treatment, and so many Roman Catholics prior to Trent were apparently free to hold views of justification which were largely in line with the Lutheran position.

Protestants who held to a doctrine of justification sola fide were accused by Catholics of the “Trent persuasion” of developing a fictitious concept of justification, of “suggesting that the believer lives in a sort of Walter Mitty world in which he is treated as righteous when he actually nothing of the sort.” The same accusation could have been leveled against some from among their own Catholic ranks, especially against many in the Italian spirituali movement. In fact, the Catholic Reformation was largely stimulated by such thinkers prior to Trent. Similarly, the Counter-Reformation was seemingly not just in response to the Protestants, but also in response to some of Catholicism’s very own curia who held quasi-Lutheran views of justification.

As evidence of this reform movement within Roman Catholicism prior to the Council of Trent, this post will focus on the Consilium de Emendanda Ecclesia of 1537. This report on church reform was issued by a reform commission which was appointed by Pope Paul III during the previous year, and is a “surprising attack on the venality and other abuses associated with the curial system.” The commission was presided over by the Venetian diplomat Cardinal Gasparo Contarini, who would also later be appointed papal legate to the Diet of Regensburg in 1541.

Interestingly, other signers of this document include Cardinal Reginald Pole, who would later become Archbishop of Canterbury under the Tudor Queen Mary, and Gian Peitro Carafa who would later become Pope Paul IV in 1555. The signers of this document include many whose names are now synonymous with the spirituali movement. In would seem, then, that even though the spirituali largely held to justification sola fide, that when these theological “Walter Mittys” were given the opportunity to address the Pontiff on issues of reform they voiced their desire for the matters of institutional reform for which the non-spirituali Catholic reformers were calling.

Summary Description and Outline of Reform in the Consilium. The Consilium de Emendanda Ecclesia begins with introductory praise for the pope, followed by an acknowledgement of the presence of abuses within Catholicism as well as the reproach which such abuses were bringing on Christ and the cause of the gospel. The report refers to the abuses as “those most serious diseases” and their ruinous effect of leaving Catholicism “afflicted almost to the despair of salvation.” The prescribed cure for the diseased state of Catholicism must, according to the document’s authors, “begin where the disease had its origin,” namely, with the pope himself. It is for this reason that the pope apparently summoned the group together and commissioned them “in the gravest language to compile all the abuses and to make them known to [the pope]” under penalty of excommunication should any of their findings be made public. The report, however, proceeds beyond a mere compilation of abuses and offers recommended remedies to cure each of the diseased situations.

The scope of the reforms encouraged in this report are limited to those abuses which pertain to the office of “universal pontiff” and to a lesser extent to those pertaining to the bishopric of Rome. The authors purposefully declined to comment on any issues related to the pope’s provincial authority. Abuses relating to the pope’s exercise of authority over the church universal as well as locally in Rome are discussed in four groupings: abuses in the appointment of ministers, abuses in pastoral care and administration, miscellaneous other abuses, and abuses pertaining specifically to the bishopric of Rome.

Abuses in the Appointment of Ministers. Eight abuses relating to the appointment of ministers and the filling of benefices are here discussed with accompanying remedies. Each of these eight abuses has in common the need for the pope’s servants to be qualified for the office which they are discharging. Such qualifications included being educated and of upright moral character. These abuses are, respectively:

  • The ordination of clerics and especially of priests in which no care is taken, no diligence employed, so that indiscriminately the most unskilled, men of the vilest stock and of evil morals, adolescents, are admitted to Holy Orders and to the priesthood.
  • In the bestowing of ecclesiastical benefices, provision is made for the person on whom the benefices are bestowed, but not for the flock. In other words, appointments were made without regard to whom would be most beneficial to the church.
  • Persons resigning from a beneficence is able to reserve all income and payment for the beneficence for himself.
  • The only consideration in the exchange of beneficences is profit from simony.
  • The great many ways in which the law against the bequeathing of a beneficence in a will can be mocked and transgressed.
  • The reservation of beneficences in which the occasion arises when news of another’s death is received with joy due to the expectation to assume that office.
  • The holding of a plurality of beneficences and the holding of beneficences that are “incompatible.”
  • The simultaneous holding of the “incompatible” offices of bishop and cardinal.

This section of abuses closes with an appeal for the pope to avoid public hypocrisy in his choice of exercising reform in this area. The pope is encouraged to set straight and correct the abuses in his own appointments before seeking to correct the abuses of others. Greater spiritual authority, whether that of cardinals or of the pope, does not entail greater license to transgress the law.

Abuses in Pastoral Care and Administration. These abuses are largely matters of pastoral and curial absenteeism, the administration of discipline on lay members, and the taking and exercising of religious orders. Briefly, and in summary paraphrase, the abuses outlined here are:

  • Bishops and parish priests must not be absent from their churches and parishes under heavy financial penalty.
  • Similarly, cardinals are not to be absent from the Curia.
  • In the punishing and correcting of evildoers, those deserving such discipline are able to free themselves from the appropriate jurisdictions.
  • All conventional religious orders ought to be done away with by prohibiting the admission of novices; and the appointments of preachers and confessors needs attention and correction.
  • Various forms of public sacrilege in the convents, including the teaching of ungodly philosophical things in the public schools and the studying of Erasmus’ Colloquies in grammar schools.

Miscellaneous Abuses. The abuses catalogued in this section are also in regard to privileges granted by the pope and relate to his authority as universal Pontiff, but which do not fall under either of the previous two categories. These abuses are not described in as much length or detail, though some of them are of a seemingly greater ethical and theological importance. They can be summarized as follows:

  • Renegade friars who refuse to wear their habits after taking their vows should not granted dispensations to do so. “Pardoners of the Holy Spirit” should no longer deceive peasants and simple people with superstitions.
  • Those established in Holy Orders ought not be granted a dispensation to take a wife. Note: this is the only reform in which the Protestant cause is referenced. This particular reform is encouraged “especially in these times when the Lutherans lay such great stress on this matter.”
  • Marriage ought not be allowed within the second degree of consanguinuity.
  • Those guilty of simony are, for all practical purposes, able to purchase absolution. This should henceforth not be allowable.
  • Permission should not be granted to clerics to bequeath ecclesiastical property.
  • Confessional letters and the use of portable altars should not be readily allowed.
  • Indulgences should only be granted no more than once a year in each principal city.
  • The pope should no longer have the authority to alter the designee of a sum of money bequeathed in a will.

Abuses Pertaining to the Bishopric of Rome. The four brief abuses highlighted here all stem from the view that the city of Rome and the church of Rome are the mother and teacher of all other cities and churches. Therefore, the city and the church ought to be models of piety and polity. Even the appearance of impropriety ought not to be tolerated in this model city and church. In this vein, then, the following abuses are offered:

  • The vile and ignorant priests of the basilica of St. Peter wear robes such as should not even be worn in poor churches.
  • Harlots are allowed to roam the city, attended by clerics and members of cardinals’ households.
  • Hatred and animosity are allowed to brood among the populace without any concern by the bishop to bring reconciliation.
  • The care of orphans and widows is woefully lacking.

This document ends its rather matter-of-fact discussion of these abuses with a concluding appeal to God for this pope, Paul III, to be used to turn away the divine wrath so warranted by decrepit state of Catholicism. Also included in this appeal is a plea to “lead back the sheep into one fold,” an appeal which may indeed be indicative of Contarini’s conciliatory desire for the Protestants to be brought back into the fold once reforms were enacted.

Analysis and Critical Response to the Consilium. Debate apparently exists over who actually composed and penned the Consilium de Emendanda Ecclesia, with perhaps the weightiest arguments indicating that Gian Pietro Carafa was the principal author with Gasparo Contarini being a major contributor. However, the report was apparently read and explained to the pope by Contarini.

Cardinal Sadoleto, who signed the Consilium with some apparent apprehension, followed Contarini’s presentation with a report of his own. The exact content of this report is not known since it is no longer extant, but given the candid and verbally violent nature of the attack he issued on the church and papal abuses at the opening session of the Consilium’s initial discussions, Sadoleto’s report to the pope was perhaps a more scathing (and more interesting?) version of the plan to reform Catholicism.

Pope Paul III’s initial reaction upon receiving the Consilium is not known, but is generally understood to have been favorable of its outlook.

Gian Pietro Carafa: A Walter Mitty Reformer? Perhaps the best example of the rather disappointing long-term effects of the Consilium can be seen in the ministry of Gian Peitro Carafa, one of the nine original signers of the document. Carafa was Leo X’s papal legate to Henry VIII in 1513-1514, as well as holding various bishoprics and serving as a nuncio before founding the Theotines in his dedication to strict poverty, restoring the apostolic way of life, and reforming abuses in the church. All this prior to the Consilium.

Understandably, then, his ascension to the papacy in 1555 as Paul IV “was hailed by partisans of reform.” Their hopes, however, were apparently met with great disappointment. Given that he had signed his name to the Consilium reform initiative not even twenty years previous, it would be expected that his papal tenure would be marked by an implementation of those reforms. By and large, however, such was not the case.

Though Paul IV’s papal tenure was not one of significant reform, as will be discussed momentarily, he did follow through on some minor points called for in the Consilium. He was apparently “scrupulous in his choice of cardinals,” which correlates with the reform called for in the first section of the Consilium (above). Additionally, he insisted on episcopal residence in accord with the specific issue of absenteeism discussed in the second section of the Consilium. He also took steps to improve the “dignity of divine service” in the church in Rome, and to help repress public immorality in the city of Rome. This is a direct answer to the reform discussed in section four of the Consilium. However, even with these modest reforms Paul IV’s papacy was not the reforming milestone that many had apparently hoped for.

He abandoned his previous humanist sympathies and developed a violent hostility to reconciliation with the Lutherans, as illustrated by his rejection of the Peace of Augsburg which he called “a pact with heresy.” In 1557, only two years after his ascension to pope, he created the Index of Forbidden Books, an act of “unprecedented and quite unrealistic severity.” Most curiously, however, he even placed the Consilium de Emendanda Ecclesia on the Index.

The signers of the Consilium were by no means completely agreed on what “reform” within the church should be. Certainly, they agreed on the institutional reforms discussed above, but some wanted more reform in this area and some even wanted reform in the doctrinal life of the church. Perhaps here lies the root of Carafa’s future departure. Contarini and the other members of the spirituali met with increasing difficulty as their calls for doctrinal reform were rejected, as at the Council of Trent and their articles on justification.

One theory holds that Pope Paul III sent Contarini, a well known leader among the Italian Evangelism movement, to Regensburg with the intention of discrediting him and his views. This theory holds that Paul III knew that Regensburg would ultimately prove to be a failure and by naming Contarini as papal legate to the colloquy he could both discredit Contarini and his movement as well as gain some provincial favor from the Emperor. If this is true, and if the failure of Regensburg did indeed help to discredit the Italian Evangelism movement, then perhaps Carafa was intentionally distancing himself from any association with them after his ascension to the papacy. Placing the Consilium on the Index of Forbidden Books would certainly be sequitous to such a conclusion. It seems that this time period breeds speculation.

However, given that by the time he became pope the Roman church had lost two-thirds of Germany, England, and the Scandinavian countries, much of Switzerland an the Low Countries, and part of Austria, Poland, and Hungary, it seems probable that Paul IV had greater concerns than those listed in the Consilium. Could it be that the successful spread of Protestantism throughout Europe was the primary hindrance to the success of the Consilium? It is doubtful that any of the Roman curia in 1537 would have anticipated the state of Catholicism in the 1550s. In addition to the loss of provincial authority noted above, they faced with a “sea of books” and pamphlets promoting the Protestant cause, thus ever keeping the “Lutheran plague” before them. The Roman church had suffered disastrous financial losses through the confiscation of ecclesiastical property, especially in Germany, England, and Scandinavia.


The Consilium de Emendanda Ecclesia is referenced in every contemporary treatment of Catholic Reform with which I am familiar. In one sense this prominent place is justified. It was a candid appraisal of the state of the Catholic institutions, and looked hopefully toward the implementation of its recommended reforms. It desired for the Roman church to again be Supreme in the land, not just in authority and jurisdiction but also in morality and faithful leadership. In this important sense, the Consilium was an historic document which brought the issue of reform to the highest levels of the Roman Curia. However, as history played itself out the Consilium proved to be a disappointing venture. Many, if not the majority of, its calls to reform went unheeded. The reformed state of the church to which many of its authors looked with longing was in the end too elusive.

This disappointing end is illustrated in the directions which the careers of its signers took in the following years. Contarini and the spirituali no doubt held to the institutional reforms promoted in this document as their last hope of progress once their theological commitments were rejected. Others in the group, like Pole, evidently still hoping for some re-enveloping of the Protestants back into the fold of Catholicism, suffered unjust decisions under a paranoid pope with militant hatred for all things Protestant. Carafa, who was apparently not as committed to reforming abuses in the Roman church as he once portrayed himself to be, perhaps illustrates best the Walter Mitty nature of the end of the Consilium de Emendanda Ecclesia.

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