Retail Adjustments by the Medieval Church

On the retail side, the medieval Catholic Church reacted to competitive entry as economic theory predicts. It attempted to lower price and improve the quality of its product so as to return disaffected customers to its fold. These reactionary attempts by the Catholic Church are documented in The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent. Between 1545 and 1563, the highest officials of the Catholic Church met in Ecumenical Council in the Austrian town of Trent, where it condemned the errors of the Protestant Reformation, made pronouncements on the justification of its own doctrines and practices, and established new measures of discipline.

Measures by the Incumbent Firm to Lower Its Retail Price Many actions taken by the Council of Trent can readily be interpreted as attempts to lower the price, or increase the quality, of church services. We treat quality-raising measures as analogous to price reductions, which roughly comports with economic theory. The Council of Trent issued decrees concerning reforms in doctrine and practice, but we choose to concentrate on the practical reforms because this is what lay at the heart of the movement. The number of decrees on each subject of reform may be taken as a rough indication of the perceived severity of the problem by the fathers of the church (see table 6.1). The largest number of decrees was directed at reforming the rules of conduct of the episcopate, including the regulation of benefices.

The Council issued decrees limiting the conditions and number of benefices that each bishop could hold; establishing residency requirements for bishops and clergy; requiring bishops to exercise closer supervision over priests and monks; establishing minimum competency qualifications

Table 6.1

Decrees of the Council of Trent

Type of decree Number of decrees

Regulation of benefices 19

Duties/authority of bishops 18

Governance of monasteries and convents 16

Competence of clergy 15

Duties/authority of clergy 12

Marriage regulations 8

Visitation requirements of bishops 5

Ownership of property by churchmen 5

Instruction of the faithful 5

Revenue sharing among churches 4

Residence requirements of bishops 4

Establishment/maintenance of churches 4

Measures to reduce simony 3

Rules against concubinage 2

Rules against nepotism 2

Rules of ordination 2

Election of bishops and cardinals 1

of clergy; renewing pious living precepts of priests, monks, and nuns; establishing procedural norms for the election of bishops and cardinals; and establishing penalties for concubinage and other public offenses.6 The goal of these various decrees seems to have been, in the main, to establish a "kindler and gentler'' clergy—a way of lowering the cost to the faithful of membership in the Catholic Church. This spirit comes through in the following passage from Session 13, Chapter 1:

The ... holy Council of Trent, lawfully assembled in the Holy Ghost,... having in mind to decide some things that relate to the jurisdiction of bishops, in order that . . . they may the more willingly reside in the churches committed to them the more easily and conveniently they may be able to rule and keep in uprightness of life and of morals those subject to them, deems it appropriate in the first place to admonish them to bear in mind that they are shepherds and not oppressors and that they ought so to preside over those subject to them as not to lord it over them, but to love them as children and brethren and to strive by exhortation and admonition to deter them from what is unlawful, that they may not be obliged, should they transgress, to coerce them by due punishments. In regard to those, however, who should happen to sin through human frailty, that command of the Apostle is to be observed, that they reprove, entreat, rebuke them in all kindness and patience, since benevolence toward those to be corrected often effects more than severity, exhortation more than threat, and charity more than force.

Another problem that the Council of Trent addressed was financial abuse (the chief lightning rod for Luther's attack). Simony is the act of buying or selling things that are sacred or spiritual, a common practice in pre-Reformation times. In an apparent attempt to outlaw this practice and curb other financial abuses, the Council issued decrees prohibiting bishops from selling rights and offices; eliminating charges for selling certain church services (e.g., dispensations); prohibiting certain leases of church property; enjoining cardinals and prelates from enriching their families from the property of the church; abolishing the office of questor of alms (which was rife with abuse); requiring that clerics be compelled to pay what they owe; restricting abuse of wills and bequests by opportunistic clergy; and establishing restrictions on the conversions of benefices.7 Through its general decrees, moreover, the church tried to institute quality control over the doctrine of purgatory and the veneration of sacred relics, and to abolish "all evil traffic'' in indulgences.

Certain church reforms may be collected under the "advertising" rubric. In response to the Protestant threat, the Catholic Church sought to raise awareness of its members to the benefits of its product. The Council of Trent issued decrees establishing lectureships in Scripture and the liberal arts; imposing duties of preaching and teaching on the clergy; and providing detailed directions for the establishment of seminaries. Finally, the Catholic Church issued decrees to improve financial assistance to poor parishes; to soften some of its punishments, such as the use of excommunication; and to remove certain impediments to marriage, which had the effect of lowering transaction costs for the betrothed.8

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