July-August 2013

Trent: What Happened at the Council.  By John W. O’Malley. Harvard University Press. 352 pages. $27.95.

The Council of Trent is among the most momentous of the 21 ecumenical councils convened in the two millennia of the Church’s history. Held in 25 sessions between 1545 and 1563, it responded to the challenges of Protestantism and called for internal Church reforms, significantly impacting life within the Church and how she faced the world for centuries to come.

Despite the importance of Trent for the Church, and in many ways for the Western world at large, relatively little scholarly work on the Council had been undertaken by historians until the past century. Fr. John O’Malley, S.J., has written the first history of the Council in a single volume accessible to a general audience. Drawing mainly on primary sources from the Council itself, and on the groundbreaking four-volume history by renowned Trent scholar Hubert Jedin, Fr. O’Malley presents an engaging narrative. Trent, like any ecumenical council, is extremely complex, so any single-volume history would have to be considerably limited in scope. In explaining what happened at Trent, O’Malley focuses on disproving some common myths about the Council.

One of these myths is that Trent was a “monolithic and single-minded gathering, untroubled by rancor, confidently poised to take the steps necessary to put the Catholic house in order.” The Council was in fact troubled from the start, and that was only after many failed attempts to convoke it. Popes at that time were worldly and corrupt and so were hesitant to call a council for fear that their authority would be compromised and their corruption exposed. This caused much delay, compounding the many problems that necessitated a council and bringing the Church and even entire nations to a crisis point. When Pope Paul III finally agreed to convoke a council, tensions with secular leaders — especially the powerful Holy Roman Emperor Charles V — caused difficulty in deciding where to even hold it. The city of Trent in present-day northern Italy was finally settled upon, even though it was not an ideal location to accommodate an international event.

Bishops were wary of taking part in the Council. Few showed up in the beginning, and their attendance was often poor or inconsistent. There were intense debates throughout. In one famous episode, Bishop Tommaso Sanfelice of La Cava, Italy, and Bishop Dionisio Zanettini of Melopotamos, Greece, got into a heated argument during a doctrinal discussion. Insults were spouted until Bishop Sanfelice physically assaulted Bishop Zanettini. Onlookers had to pull them apart. There was much discord during the Council, combined with external factors such as threats of war and plague, that caused long interruptions and separated it into distinct periods.

Another common myth is that Trent was all-encompassing. Trent was held primarily to address Martin Luther’s ideas, which deeply divided Christendom. “Luther set the agenda for the Council,” O’Malley says, so it focused on those doctrines and practices that he challenged. Therefore, the main subjects of the Council’s doctrinal decrees were justification, the sacraments, the canon of Scripture, and Sacred Tradition. At the very end of the Council came decrees on the veneration of the saints and devotional practices and imagery in response to Calvinist iconoclasm, as well as a decree on indulgences.

In addition to doctrine, matters of internal Church reforms were handled. Therefore, O’Malley argues that Trent was as much a pastoral council as it was doctrinal. Among the more urgent issues of reform was rampant corruption within the episcopacy. Many bishops resided outside their dioceses and shirked their duties in order to pursue wealth and power. Milan, for instance, had no resident bishop for 80 years.

Early on it was decided that issues of doctrine and reform would be treated alternately, since it was difficult to come to a consensus on what topics to discuss. In many cases the decrees on both doctrine and reform included less than what was originally planned or arguably needed, and the Council also said nothing about many things of importance at the time. For example, there was no decree on papal authority, though O’Malley explains that one was expected. The Council also said nothing specific on ecclesiology or the establishment of new religious orders or the substantial missionary efforts going on in the Americas.

The epilogue to the book contains an overview of the post-conciliar period with an analysis of how the Council was implemented. Here O’Malley addresses misconceptions that confuse the Council itself with subsequent developments that are often labeled “Tridentine” (Trent in Latin is Tridentum). The Tridentine Profession of Faith, the Roman Missal of 1570, the Index of Prohibited Books, and the Catechism of the Council of Trent are commonly attributed to the Council; O’Malley makes careful distinctions and explains what in these and other post-Trent phenomena can and cannot be traced directly back to it. In the process we get an idea of how and why the Church took on the form she did in the Counter-Reformation period and even into the present day.

One popular myth not specifically mentioned in the book is that the Church prior to Trent was totally depraved. Granted, there was appalling corruption and laxity that required serious reform, but the record shows that the Church at the time was still holy and vibrant in many ways. In the first chapter, O’Malley assesses the state of the Church before Trent, and his assessment verifies how this was the case. He is generally fair and objective in his overall presentation of the Council and its historical context, though in order to disprove certain myths he does need to place emphasis on the difficulties and shortcomings. Even so, O’Malley is sometimes too critical and unnecessarily reserved in acknowledging ways in which the Council was actually a great success in accomplishing what it set out to do, though this does not significantly distort the book.

Trent: What Happened at the Council is an important addition to Catholic and 16th-century historiography. Thanks to Fr. O’Malley, the great event that was Trent can be more fully understood and appreciated.

- Stephen J. Kovacs





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