The Glorious & Paradigmatic Council of Trent

March 2002By David Vincent Meconi

David Vincent Meconi, S.J., is a Jesuit Scholastic in theological studies at the University of Innsbruck, Austria.

The European Reformation Sourcebook.  Edited by Carter Lindberg. Blackwell Publishers. 320 pages. $31.95.

The Refashioning of Catholicism, 1450-1700.  By Robert Bireley. Catholic University of America Press. 230 pages. $39.95.

The Early Modern Papacy.  By A.D. Wright. Addison, Wesley, Longman. 335 pages. $28.

Trent and All That.  By John W. O’Malley. Harvard University Press. 219 pages. $19.95.



In 1619 a Servite friar by the name of Paolo Sarpi wrote one of the earliest histories of the Council of Trent (1545-63) and chose to open with this audacious line: “The popes, fearing precisely lest the council should show them in their true color and seek to recall them to a sense of duty, have, by diabolical instigation, taken no notice of the ancient councils and stultified the recent ones to the holding of which they have been compelled to consent, for by trickery and intimidation they brought it about that this assembly was not only unable to investigate the truth, but were even compelled to exalt still further the worldly power of the papacy and to destroy the last vestiges of the church’s liberty.” Scholars today, however, have come to view Trent not as some papal thirst for power but as a pastoral response to the changing global and intellectual movements present at the beginning of the 16th century. As these four works (all published within a year of one another) set out to show, Trent should not be understood merely as a scurrying to slow Luther and his followers, but as the Church’s recognition of her own need for reform and renewal.

Trent was held in three sessions of only a few years: 1545-47, 1551-52, 1562-63. The Church, especially in the person of Clement VII (1523-34), had been calling for an ecumenical council to address issues of reform for quite some time. However, sensing that ecclesial renewal might very well weaken their own power and their cries against the papacy, secular rulers such as Francis I of France and Henry VIII of England opposed any organized program of reform. It took the diplomacy of Pope Paul III to convene the Council and insist, against Emperor Charles V, that Trent would deal not only with issues of external reform but matters of religious doctrine as well.

The issues facing the churchmen at Trent had been brewing for quite some time, and so Carter Lindberg’s Sourcebook, a gathering of 220 marvelous texts from the 14th to 16th century, gives the Council a much needed context. The Plague of 1348 took about one-third of Europe’s population. The Papal Schism and Avignon, as well as the 100 Years War between England and France, also contributed to Europe’s sense of confusion. This is the stage on which Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Henry’s Act of Supremacy all appear. In Lindberg’s volume one can read of the spread of polygamy through the Anabaptist sections of Germany — for the purpose of quickening the “New Jerusalem” on earth — and about the norms for drowning Anabaptists in Calvin’s Zurich.

Obvious bewilderment marks the early modern period in which Trent finds itself. Robert Bireley shows how Trent saw itself convening to counter not only the religious changes of the day, but the culture at large. Significant developments in the rise of the modern state and the fracture of a unified Empire brought new questions of how the Church should relate to temporal powers. Similarly, social and economic changes — the repopulation of Europe after the Plague, the subsequent rise in urban living, as well as the demand for more manufactured goods — were ushering in many new issues. Expansions into Asia, the Americas, and Africa were accompanied by a new awareness of cultures outside Europe. Major shifts in the intellectual culture were occurring — Copernicus’s On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres appeared in 1543.

The Church’s reaction to this time is why A.D. Wright entitles his works The Early Modern Papacy. That is, Wright sees the Church not merely countering what was going on, but engaged with and responsive to the demands of the day. He argues against the view that Rome stagnated during this time of change. In a very detailed analysis, Wright shows how Rome displayed a “renewed energy” during the years that witnessed such things as the deterioration of scholastic thought, the dismissal of Renaissance beauty, and the rise of the autonomous individual.

Both Bireley and Wright pay ample attention to the rise of new religious orders as well as a new spirituality accompanying these years. Such bulwarks as the Ursulines (1535), the Jesuits (1540), the Capuchins (1552), and Philip Neri’s Oratory (1575) arose out of this turbulent time with unmatched vigor and brilliance. Formal education was a much-welcomed component to how most of these new religious orders would live and spread the Gospel. Beyond the classroom came a new piety and spirituality affirming the laity. Such masterpieces as the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and Introduction to a Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales appeared.

Naming this period has been no easy task for scholars. Fr. John O’Malley has provided a history of various attempts to identify the aims of the Church in the 16th century. Is the accurate naming of a historical epoch worth an entire book? It is in O’Malley’s hands, as he walks us through the names commonly used by Church historians and shows why referring to the Church’s life during this period as the “Counter-Reformation” means something very different from, say, calling this time the “Tridentine Reform” or the “Catholic Reformation” or the “Confessional Age.” O’Malley eventually sides with “Early Modern Catholicism,” but not before he presents what is at stake in the terms used to describe Trent and all it meant for the Church and the world.

Of course no history of Trent is complete without a nod to Herbert Jedin (1900-80), and O’Malley duly acknowledges his significance. Jedin, a German priest and scholar forced to flee Nazi Germany, spent most of his life in Rome and the Vatican Archives studying the Council of Trent. He saw four phases of Catholic reform. The first, 1500-40, was the Church’s own recognition that bishops absent from their Sees, unquestioned concubinage, and financial abuses and nepotism were leaving souls uncared for and doctrine unguarded, and that something had to be done. The second phase, 1540-60, marks the renewal of the papacy as a universal power and influence. Jedin next argues that 1562-63 is a distinct period as the Tridentine decrees began to be carried out, while 1563-1789 stands as the eventual completion of what was sought at Trent. Although Bireley and Wright avoid the explicit use of these demarcations, it is obvious how Jedin has influenced both.

C.S. Lewis remarked that one cannot intelligently join a conversation at 10 p.m. that began at noon. So it is with the history of the Church. How the Church sees herself today and the way things are done were determined, in a large part, by what happened some 500 years ago in the small town of Trent in northern Italy.

Indeed our situation today is not so different. These highly recommended works on Trent cannot help but remind the reader of the world in which we currently find ourselves. Like 16th-century Europe, the West has undergone vast social and intellectual shifts; we have lost the overarching story that informed life and gave culture coherence. But Christ’s Church will never die, and today’s deformation, pray God, is once again giving way to the truly Catholic movements and vibrant saints being raised up in our midst.



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