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  • The Commentaries on the Tridentine Decrees in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries:The First Remarks on a Category of 'Prohibited' Works*
  • Lorenzo Sinisi

The Canones et decreta of the Council of Trent were first officially published in Rome by Paolo Manuzio in March, 1564. They undoubtedly constituted a text of primary reference and played a central role within the framework of sources of canon law throughout the long period that extended from their publication to the creation of the first Codex iuris canonici almost a century ago.

This set of laws – particularly those of a disciplinary character, which were, for the first time, clearly separated from those of a dogmatic nature – was certainly not intended to overturn the system inherited from the mediaeval period, the essential basis of which was to be found in the collections of the Corpus iuris canonici. Nevertheless, it did not fail to innovate numerous points (over 200 according to a census made in the second half of the 18th century) of the law encompassed within those same collections. Thus, it soon came to constitute a revision of and a complement to them, becoming indispensable to teaching, judicial practice and the care of souls.1 [End Page 209]

And yet, despite this evident central role in the juridical life of the Church, in the years following the Council – from the last decades of the sixteenth century to the middle of the seventeenth — we have no record of teachings devoted specifically to the 'lectura' of the Tridentine decrees in university and ecclesiastical institutions. Likewise, we have very few traces of exegetical and doctrinal works dealing with the decrees; and this in a period when publishers were already busily engaged in reproducing the text, possession of which had been prescribed by a considerable number of bishops in their synodal legislation as obligatory for the clergy.2

The reason for this anomaly is well known. It is to be found in a passage of the papal bull Benedictus Deus, whereby Pius IV confirmed all the Tridentine decrees, en bloc and without modifications, thereby meeting the request made by the assembly during the closing session of the Council;3 indeed, besides [End Page 210] ratifying all the Council's rules and prescribing their full observance 'ab omnibus Christifidelibus', the pope approved a rigorous ban on writing and publishing 'commentarios, glossas, annotationes, scholia, ullumve omnino interpretationis genus super ipsius Concilii decretis' without express authorisation from the Apostolic See.4 Infringement of this ban would elicit severe punishment, including excommunication 'latae sententiae'. The stated purpose was therefore to prevent the reform delineated in the decrees from being adulterated or nullified by arbitrary interpretations.

This provision fits into a long-standing tradition of diffidence towards doctrinal 'interpretatio', as manifested not only in civil legislation, from the Justinian's texts up to the later medieval collections of 'ius proprium', but also in canon law, as clearly witnessed by Nicholas III's papal bull Exiit qui seminat of 1279.5 At the time when it was written, the ban issued by Pope Pius was much more restrictive than the one included in the 1279 bull, in that it made no reference even to the legitimacy of literal interpretation. However, it had consequences that were much more far-reaching. Indeed, it gave rise to a situation that was objectively unfavorable to the development of canonical doctrine by the traditional channels and methods. Moreover, it paved the way to the establishment of the Congregation of the Council, which, alongside its original executive duties of applying the Council reform, would very soon assume the prerogative to sanction an authentic interpretation of the disciplinary decrees.6All of this [End Page 211] came about because, unlike the above-mentioned Justinian and statutory bans, which actually had very little effect, Pius' provision was perceived as something that really did have to be observed. At least this was so outside the reformed camp, in which markedly critical initiatives had flourished right from the outset, such as the comments of Martin Chemnitz and Innocent Gentillet.7 A deterrent that was even more effective than the gravity of the sanctions themselves was the fear of their implementation, which at the time seemed to...


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