Trent: What Happened at the Council by John W. O’Malley

Alec Ryrie salutes a committed and critical look at a key event in the history of Catholicism

January 17, 2013

This book ought not to be necessary. Surely we all know “what happened at the Council” of Trent? This was, after all, an international gathering as important as the Congress of Vienna, the Bretton Woods conference and the Second Communist International rolled into one. In meetings spread across nearly 20 years (1545-63), it redefined Catholicism so successfully that it would be more than three centuries before another full council of the Catholic Church gathered.

The “Tridentine” reform programme’s effects are now very well documented. (The names are a source of confusion: “Trent” refers not to somewhere in Staffordshire but to the small northern Italian city of Trentino, or, in Latin, Tridentum - hence the adjective.) There has been rich and lively history written in recent decades about the Catholic Reformation or the Counter-Reformation, and about which of these two terms is more apposite. But as John O’Malley - one of the ablest of those historians - points out, this history has a hole at its heart. The Council of Trent itself has been weirdly neglected.

There is a simple reason for that: Hubert Jedin. Jedin, a German historian who would serve as an adviser for Vatican II, produced the definitive 20th-century history of the council in four massive volumes, of which only the first two have been translated into English. This daunting, monumental life’s work, more feared than read, made further scholarship on the council seem both futile and virtually impossible.

And indeed, it is not a subject for the faint-hearted. The cast of characters - popes, princes, bishops, legates, theologians - is vast (one of the few things O’Malley’s book lacks is a dramatis personae), and the diplomatic, political and theological complexities are head-spinning.

Nor is it uncontroversial. For Protestants, “Trent” has long been a code word for papist conspiracy. Even if nobody now thinks that the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre was plotted there, the assumption that the council birthed the Counter-Reformation papacy and the centralised Catholicism of the ancien regime runs deep. Above all, Trent is seen as Catholicism’s defiant “no” to Protestantism’s challenge, systematically rejecting every single one of the Protestants’ ideas and turning Catholicism into a religion of knee-jerk denial.

Catholics have had another view of it, of course, but this has rarely considered the council as it unfolded: it has more closely examined its legacy, in particular the reforms carried out in its name in the decades and centuries after it closed. And as O’Malley points out, this view is as misleading as the Protestant black legend.

So he has written what is, amazingly, the first one-volume, scholarly narrative history of the council in English. A Jesuit priest as well as an academic, O’Malley has a partisan perspective like everyone else. But that simply means that this is a history that is engaged and committed as well as being critical - sometimes searingly so. And the picture he paints fits neither of the stereotypes.

A few facts to savour. Trent did not produce a liturgy that all Catholics were required to use. It did not outlaw the use of the vernacular. It banned neither Communion in both kinds nor priestly celibacy. Above all, it was deafeningly silent on the most contentious doctrinal issue of all: the authority of the papacy.

O’Malley’s council was not a creature of Rome: it was an arena where the various powers of the Catholic world struggled grimly to define what their religion would be. On one side were the popes, who do not come out of O’Malley’s account with much credit. They were primarily interested in damage control. They knew that the Protestant Reformation needed a serious response, which only an ecumenical council could provide, but they also knew that a council can have a mind of its own, and they were determined to fetter and limit it. So they postponed it repeatedly, with Paul III finally convening it in 1545, nearly 30 years after Luther’s protest began. They tried to keep the agenda as firmly fixed on mere doctrinal reaffirmations as they could, and to keep its business on a very short leash. Twice they engineered its suspension, the second time for a full decade (1552-62). Grand schemes for reform, and for reconciliation with the Protestants, were seen by successive popes primarily as unacceptable threats to the status quo.

On the other side were the bishops themselves (the voting members of the council) and the secular princes, above all the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and his successor, Ferdinand I. The emperors wanted serious reconciliation with the Protestants, and far-reaching disciplinary and structural reform. The bishops were divided: unenthusiastic about doctrinal compromise, many were persuaded of the case for renewed discipline. In particular, they were keen to emphasise the independence and dignity of their own office, and to bring the papacy itself under their reforming eye.

With such different agendas, the wonder is not that the council was so long delayed but that it took place at all. It was born of a series of compromises - hence its location at Trent, a small town quite without sufficient lodgings, libraries or other facilities, whose only merit was that it was on the border between the papal and imperial spheres of interest. Unfortunately, that also put it in a war zone.

The other key compromise was the decision to tackle the papal agenda (doctrinal reaffirmations) and the imperial one (structural reform) in tandem. The doctrinal decrees have had the most subsequent attention, but O’Malley downplays their importance. Real hopes for reconciliation with the Protestants were already dead. The one Protestant delegation to the council achieved nothing whatsoever. And in fact, by refusing to pronounce on clerical celibacy or the lay chalice, Trent was more flexible than it is given credit for.

Structural reform was the really explosive issue, and it nearly torpedoed the whole enterprise as late as the winter of 1562-63. The key question: how could bishops be compelled actually to reside in their dioceses? In particular, what could stop the Pope from simply waiving that compulsion whenever he felt like it? The reformers wanted to make residence a matter of absolute divine law, and claimed that bishops’ authority and responsibilities derived directly from God. Rome could not accept such an intrusion on its authority.

The deadlock was broken by O’Malley’s hero, the new papal legate Cardinal Morone, in spring 1563. Morone in effect persuaded the reformers that even though the papacy’s powers would be left formally intact, Rome had got the message. No more blase dispensations: discipline would now be enforced for real.

And surprisingly enough, he was right. In most of the crucial disciplinary areas, Trent itself achieved little. What it did was to trust the papacy to carry the baton of reform forward. And successive popes did exactly that - in their own way. Tridentine reform, as it was implemented, became something much more centralised, much more uniform, much more papal and, it must be said, much more effective than anything the council itself could have done. The reform programme of the next century was called Tridentine, and had something of the council’s spirit. In truth, though, it was born not in Trent but in Rome.

Which is why it is important to remember what actually happened at the council. And that is why this little book, this readable masterpiece of compression, is going to be so indispensable.


“I was born in Tiltonsville, Ohio, population 3,000. I liked it because it was all I knew, but in retrospect I can see I was casting my eye to distant horizons,” says John O’Malley.

“My mother was a great reader, a history buff, and a great talker about what she had read. So I always had my nose stuck in a book. Lots of it was sheer trash, but there was good stuff, too, as my parents passed books down to me. I used to play at being a teacher and would try to write textbooks for my classes. Strange!”

Leaving high school, he knew he wanted to be a priest - but not a parish priest. “I read about the Jesuits, learned they were missionaries and teachers, and wrote asking to join…never having laid eyes on a Jesuit in my life. After they spent some months looking me over, they accepted me - and, miracle, it worked. They encouraged my scholarly instincts, so I just gradually began to assume that within the Society I would teach at a university, and maybe even do a little writing.”

O’Malley, university professor in the department of theology at Georgetown University, would “live in New York, if I had tons of money, or in Padua, Siena or Bergamo, where I could eat lots of pasta and nourish my spirit on the art and the beauty Italy offers”.

Friends in the city were a spur to move to Washington DC six years ago, although O’Malley jokes that he was given a “sweetheart deal” by Georgetown’s president.

He commends the institution’s “focus on the full development of the students (not just career advancement)” and its “broad, international scope and outreach”.

He calls Washington “a beautiful city with lots of cultural institutions, to say nothing of the Library of Congress. All you have to do is steer clear of the politicians.”

Trent: What Happened at the Council

By John W. O’Malley

Harvard University Press

352pp, £20.00

ISBN 9780674066977 and 67608 (e-book)

Published 25 January 2013

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