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Trent: What Happened at the Council
by John W. O’Malley
Harvard, 352 pages, $27.95

Professor John O’Malley ends his clear and accessible, and also very scholarly, analysis of the Council of Trent and its proceedings hoping that he has dispelled “a few of the myths and misunderstandings that have enshrouded the subject.” Indeed he has.

In the nineteenth century in particular, Protestants of the English-speaking world, and Mazzinian-style nationalists of the Italian Risorgimento, could hardly contain themselves in their denunciations of the wickedness of the Council of Trent, not that they had much knowledge of what they asserted. Their anti-Catholic passions picked on Trent as a kind of circus of evil, designed to solidify the pope’s authoritarian control.

Their opinions lodged deeply into received interpretations of Trent, and it is one of the merits of O’Malley’s study to have cleared some of them to one side. They will not go away, however, for the popular taste for distasteful goings-on in the past is an abiding phenomenon, enhanced by television presentations of the past as a sequence of reprehensible injustices.

Gradually, as O’Malley unfolds his careful account, there emerges an inclination to assess the motives and conduct of the sovereigns less censoriously than those of the papacy. It is only a matter of emphasis and selectivity, but it is enough to allow a touch of the former demonizing of Trent, by Protestant polemical writing and liberal Catholic commentary, to seep into the narrative.

There is, for example, on the face of it a degree of partiality in O’Malley’s assessment of friction in the conduct both of the papacy and the Christian monarchs. The sovereigns wanted to maintain control over the jurisdiction of the universal Church as constituted in their territories: It was a structure of institutions still half-expressed in feudal categories, caught in transition to the aggrandizement of monarchy.

They saw the council as a potential threat to their superintendence of the Church in their own lands, and also as an occasion to enhance the network of alliances and warfare that described their relationships. Trent presented not some gross enlargement of their powers but the restoration of a balance that was being upset by the splintering of Catholicism in the Reformation.

These monarchs were able to use the council to assist in the redressing of internal imbalance and to fulfill their ancient duty of carrying out the temporal obligations that everyone believed derived from God. They divided among themselves as to whether that duty required the suppression or protection of Lutherans.

A byproduct was the rise of the nation-state. But the lines of demarcation, and the extent of the civil authority demanded, were not clearly seen by either the papacy or the rulers with the insistence often envisaged by modern commentators. The eventual outcome of shifts of emphasis in historical time is not always—perhaps not usually—perceived by the participants in change.

There is a sense in which O’Malley is a latter-day Lord Acton, the great Victorian liberal Catholic—though in this he at least lacks Acton’s tedious windbag pronouncements about the “lessons of history.” Like Acton, he allows himself space to enumerate apparently disgraceful episodes in the lives of the popes, and, here, in the lives of senior curial officials at Trent as well. Their venality and occasional sexual license is vehemently attested, so that a layer of discredit is allowed to descend upon their role in the proceedings. O’Malley is certainly more restrained than Acton, and his accounts of the many papal “nephews” holding high office in the Church are not salacious.

It is also true that the contributions of public figures to society, in our own day, are not necessarily denied because of blemishes in their conduct. Gandhi, for example, was a racist in relation to black people during his long years in South Africa; it has not prevented him from becoming a hero for our culture.

Trent existed in another time. Most of the sexual indiscretions of the senior clergy occurred before their perpetrators were in holy orders; most of their venalities were regarded as part of the normal operation of a social system which envisaged office-holding, in both Church and state, as a species of property—still expressed in quasi-feudal terms in which society was considered a hierarchy of obligations and a nexus of duties.

Most of the time, the popes and their officials conducted themselves with apostolic propriety and marked sanctity. It was the political sovereigns—their own behavior left rather opaque in O’Malley’s references—whose exuberant enjoyment of power crossed moral lines with diminished inhibition. Even so, the Holy Roman Emperors and the kings used the Reformation upheaval to their advantage, grabbing ecclesiastical property and “reforming” abuses en route.

On both the Catholic and the Protestant sides, the rulers had no concept of secularizing their territories, and O’Malley does not suggest that they did. Nor was the papal view of papal supremacy abolished: It was transferred by the civil rulers to themselves (see: the Peace of Augsburg), and centuries of Erastianism ensued.

O’Malley’s section asking “How Bad Was It?” is a notably fair account of the abuses, but it is possible to discern another area in which he would appear to reveal partisan inclinations. This is over the question of papal supremacy in the Church.

To this day, there is an element in liberal Catholic opinion that seeks to promote the supremacy of general councils and to reduce the pope’s authority to that of a constitutional monarch. In the past, it was a view rendered in “Conciliarism,” and more obliquely in Gallicanism and Jansenism. It was an audible note reverberating throughout the Council of Trent.

O’Malley is plainly loyal to the traditional view of papal supremacy, yet he is more generous than he needs to be to the machinations of the Conciliarists and their sympathizers at Trent. He spends several pages near the beginning of the book, for example, detailing the earlier Council of Constance’s (1414–1418) decree Frequens. Issued upon the resolution of the Great Western Schism, this document called for general Church councils to be held every ten years and proved to be the highwater mark of conciliarism. O’Malley laments, not quite overtly, the document’s rapid fall into abeyance.

Later in the book, he colors numerous papal interventions in Trent, whether relating to the appointment of legates, the writing of letters and directives, or suggestions about the council’s meeting place, as more-or-less naked papal power plays.

True, the council was characterized, in all its sessions, by hints of revolt from those supporting the independence of bishops—those who believed that episcopal authority derived directly from God and not from the pope. They got nowhere in the end because, through the legates, the papacy succeeded in maintaining control of the agenda.

There was never a formal discussion of whether a general council could overrule the universal sovereignty of the papacy. Catholic teaching is that the government of the Church is intrinsic to the papal office. It emerged from Trent intact; indeed, it was considerably enhanced.

The Council of Trent succeeded beyond its immediate objectives. These had been to restore the Lutherans to the Catholic Church and to preserve the authority of the Holy See through the reform process, to see that “the head,” as the matter was rather discreetly expressed, would remain on the body. Although the Lutherans, and, later, other separatists, were invited to attend the council, they all declined.

But many of the abuses were successfully abolished or contained. The requirement of the council for the creation of diocesan seminaries, in fact, was one of the provisions which most helped to form the modern Catholic Church, as did its insistence that pastors live in their parishes and bishops in their dioceses.

O’Malley examines the reform procedures with impressive expertise and helpful clarity. He also underlines the policy of the council to condemn “teachings not persons,” a charitable arrangement that failed to reconcile the Protestants, who had, by then, achieved a distinct ecclesiological identity, but that assisted the Catholic Church in future divergences of opinion.

On what today might be the most popular association with Trent, O’Malley notes that while Latin remained the normal language of the liturgy, the vernacular Mass was not prohibited: “Despite what is often said,” he observes, “there is no ‘Tridentine liturgy.’” For him, the council’s single most significant result was the publication, in 1566, of the new Catechism it had ordered; it reflected the richness of the council’s deliberations and the beginning of centuries of fulfillment of the work it had begun. Laus Deo.

Edward Norman is emeritus fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge.