Trent: What Happened at the Council

Article by   August 2013

John W. O'Malley, Trent: What Happened at the Council. Cambridge, MA.: Belknap Press, 2013, 335pp. £20.00/$27.95

Trent looms. Trent looms over Roman Catholicism as a grand mother who bequeathed her enduring theological furniture. Trent looms among Protestant theology and spirituality as the abiding foil. Trent looms in the Orthodox imagination as the full bloom of the Western church's rationalistic theological method. Trent even looms in the midst of the perturbations of the New Atheists as the sword of the Roman Inquisition, and thus the evil weaponry of religious suppression and torture. Whether it be secular or religious thought in the West, Trent looms.  

And yet, despite the formidable shadow it casts through its reputation as the Roman Catholic Church's response to the Reformation, the inner workings and tensions of this council, as well as the historical complexities that brought it about, largely escape from view. This new book by John O'Malley brings these to the foreground by elegantly narrating the background, sketching the chief protagonists and their influence, and detailing the fits and starts of a council spanning almost eighteen years. Through inviting prose O'Malley adds color and texture for the layman who is seeking to understand this consequential period of church history, and for the scholar he provides a rich compendium. For Reformed Protestant readers, he helps dispel the caricature we sometimes make of the Roman Catholic Church in the Reformation period, while clarifying issues that contribute to ongoing protestation. 

O'Malley is a Jesuit who teaches at Georgetown University and writes from a moderately critical perspective. His primary method for illuminating the times and events in and around the council is historical criticism; and so guided by a very able historian the reader gains all the benefits and limitations of such an approach.   

The benefits shine in the introductory material of Trent as well as in two initial chapters detailing the lead-up to the council. The helpful introduction outlines the circumstances and significant personalities of Trent. From the beginning there were two poles in tension, the Holy Roman Emperor and the pope, both of whom represent the complex interplay of political and ecclesiastical interests at Trent. Toward the end of the council, important leadership was provided by kings from France and Spain. As heads of state, they were keenly aware the conclusions of this council would not only be of consequence for the religious landscape of Europe, but for the political as well. With that said, O'Malley recognizes the agenda-setter for Trent was Martin Luther's teaching on key doctrines and the pressure for reform of ecclesiastical offices and religious practice that his teaching provoked. While the pope intended to meet Luther's theological criticisms, the emperor, Charles V, saw the real problem as reform of the clergy and laity. 

There was no greater champion for convoking a council to address the religious turmoil reflected in the Reformation than Charles V. Yet, despite his power and prestige as Holy Roman emperor, the hierarchy of the church repeatedly resisted his efforts. In chapter one O'Malley fills in the fifteenth-century background for this resistance and, in chapter two, details the religious and political tug-of-war that delayed the convoking of Trent. It is here, in setting context through deftly navigating relevant historical and political circumstances, where O'Malley is at his best.

The papal resistance to a sweeping council had its roots in the "threat" of Conciliarism, a theory that held the superior authority of councils in relationship to the papacy. Ever since the Council of Constance (1414-1418) met to resolve the Western Schism, a schism that produced rival papacies, the impulse toward Conciliarism was just below the surface. However, a mechanism produced by Constance that was intended to result in more frequent church councils was largely ignored by the church hierarchy. Unfortunately, at least for the reputation of the church leadership, severe moral failure entered the papal court in the fifteenth century at the same time they were resisting the potential scrutiny of a council. O'Malley doesn't bat an eye in detailing the failures of particular popes, while also pinpointing other corruptions in the life of the church that will be addressed during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation periods: bishops absent from their diocese and priests from parishes, a "quid-pro-quo" understanding of grace among the laity, the selling of church offices for profit, and the propagation of indulgences. It is this catalogue of corruptions, of course, that led to the Reformation movement. The strength of that movement - especially within the confines of Charles V's Empire - coupled with a deeply expressed concern for the health of the church eventually resulted in the emperor and the pope getting on the same page to call a council held in Trent starting in 1545.  

Convened with the hope of ecclesiastical rapprochement, it was Charles V in particular who thought if he could just get leading Protestants to Trent under fair circumstances there would be a basis for a return to the one Church. And once certain political dynamics were settled within his realm in the 1550s, he actually succeeded in getting a Protestant delegation to the council. Yet it became quickly apparent, even to Charles, that by this time - over three decades removed from the initial spread of the Reformation - lines had been established between the Reformers and the old church on how to handle doctrinal matters that made constructive engagement at the council near impossible. A decade later, however, due to the growing strength of the Huguenots in France, another Protestant delegation made its way to Trent, led by such Protestant luminaries as Theodore Beza and Peter Martyr Vermigli. But like the one before it, the Huguenots failed in coming to any agreements with the council.  

It is just such details drawn out by O'Malley that will interest Protestant readers of Trent. He enters these particulars of the actual council from chapter three through six and leaves no stone unturned in drawing a robust, if not dense, picture of its proceedings. With the colorful landscape always before him, he leads the reader through time to understand the many twists and turns (including a controversial relocation to Bologna for two years as the Plague threatened the city of Trent). While space does not allow a full account of these chapters, perhaps a few notes of interest will highlight strengths and at least one significant weakness of Trent.  

O'Malley has a keen sense of the order and logic of Trent's proceedings and the key sectors of influence. He sets in order the initial consequential moves of the council, starting with a decision to address church dogma and church reform in tandem. This way the two issues were treated as intertwined - much as the Reformers saw them. With the order of business set, who would be influencing the results? The balance between the pope and council continued to be of concern and while the pope himself stayed in Rome, papal legates were conspicuously present at Trent, providing input on the agenda. They did not, however, hold the power of a vote in the council's proceedings. Theologians also did not hold a vote but wielded considerable influence. They were the primary voice communicating the views of the Reformers in formal sessions to the voting members of the body - bishops, superior generals of the mendicant orders, and abbots. The accuracy of their expositions, though, is questioned by O'Malley, who suggests a great weakness of the council was a penchant for "proof-texting" the Reformers and lifting their comments out of context. 

As O'Malley probes the at times prolonged doctrinal debates of Trent, the different approach of those at Trent and the Reformers is made startlingly clear. For example, one of the first points to be taken up by the council concerned the basis for its dogma: the canon of Scripture. On the issue of whether to include the Apocrypha, the council faced the reality of another council a century earlier (Florence), which had affirmed the canonicity of the Apocrypha, and the fact that not only Reformers but many in the Church extending back to the patristic era rejected the Apocrypha as Scripture. Trent settled on a somewhat confused position of reaffirming the Council of Florence, while also recognizing it as an area of debate among theologians. In principle, then, the Apocrypha was affirmed as part of the canon, but no strong rationale was offered for its position. 

Naturally, after this the council engaged the question of Tradition. Does Tradition - or "traditions" of various kinds, as was the language of the council - have a role in determining Christian faith and practice? Again, when deliberating on this question, the council not only had to meet the force of the sola scriptura principle in the Reformers' thought, but the reality that the same principle appeared among the Fathers and even the medieval theologians. The council came to a position that upholds Christ and the Apostles as receivers of revelation who then transmitted that revelation in Scripture and traditions, the latter of which have been preserved by the Church. Thus, the Tridentine position ("Tridentine" is a latinized adjective that refers to the Council of Trent) is of one authoritative source - Christ and the Apostles - transmitted through two media. 

Bundling together Trent's approach to the canon and Tradition, the foundation is set for how doctrinal matters will be handled going forward. This can be clearly seen, for example, in how Trent addressed what turned out to be a rather minor point at the close of its proceedings. Surprisingly, given its critique among the Reformers, Purgatory received little attention as a doctrinal point. Trent asserted that Purgatory was a reality based on Scripture and ancient tradition, with the actual emphasis of the decree on the pastoral practice of the doctrine - that it not be applied with superstition. But the quick tip of the hat to "tradition" on such a hotly contested doctrine betrays Trent's confidence in its doctrinal foundation, while still trying to apply reform to practice. In such a snapshot we are able to get a handle on the remaining deep-seated differences between the Protestants and Roman Catholics. While broadly recognizing these entrenchments, a weakness of O'Malley is a misunderstanding of the driving force within the Reformation movement. 

At one point in chapter three O'Malley explains that difficulty in reconciling Protestant and Roman Catholic positions stemmed from their differing "intellectual cultures" (p.116). On the one hand Roman Catholics were more academic and analytical, while on the other hand the Protestants of the sixteenth century were more personal and existential. Such an observation is rooted in a tempered psychological reading of Luther, where the spirit of the Reformation is seen as emanating from Luther's "spiritual anguish". While there is no question as to the depths of Luther's spiritual agony, the Reformation sprang not from that anguish which tormented him in his Augustinian monastery. Rather, it was only as Luther studied and taught the Word of God in Wittenberg that the Reformation received the required fuel for its drive. The power of the Reformation was not found by Luther in a "eureka experience" that brought peace to his soul, but in the authoritative and sufficient answers which the Bible provided for faith and practice, both for the individual as well as for the church.  So, when almost fifty years later a Roman Catholic council addresses a doctrine that was at the heart of Luther's complaints against the Church in the 1510s - that of Purgatory and the sale of indulgences - it does so with eye to its practical abuse. There does not seem to be the thought of revisiting the foundations of the doctrine itself. And given that at the very beginning Trent adopted "traditions" as a viable medium for apostolic doctrine, why should there be? 

O'Malley closes his volume with an extended Epilogue where he looks at "Trent" after the Council of Trent - that is, the "tradition" Trent itself has become - especially in the life of the Roman Catholic Church. In his opinion, whatever may have been the purposes of the framers of the council in the sixteenth century, Trent took on a life of its own in the centuries that followed, gaining its formidable reputation mentioned at the beginning of this review. Perhaps revealing an underlying motive in authoring this book, O'Malley seems keen to trim back what he sees as the accumulated myth of Trent within Roman Catholicism. Once again, his tool of choice for this task is historical criticism.  

Trent's real value is as a well-informed, interesting history - a history of times and events full of theological import. For the theologically minded, then, Trent provides necessary clarity if we are authentically going to engage the remaining theological divides of our own day. After reading Trent, one of the figures I gained a new appreciation for was Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Whatever his motivations, Charles burned to see the Church reunited after the divisions brought into Europe by the Reformation. There was hope Trent might be a means to bring about such reunification. 

In the end, while Trent did help unify Roman Catholics on the matters it addressed, and provided a theological and ecclesiological template for the Counter-Reformation, its argumentation and conclusions only illustrated the difference that could be seen in its first decrees: the locus of authority. So long as "traditions" preserved by the church would be a viable foundation for faith and practice, Protestants and Roman Catholics would continue to speak from different starting points on crucial matters and, consequently, follow differing trajectories. We can only hope and pray, if indeed we share Charles V's great concern, that the Holy Spirit would bring repentance and a mutual return to the foundation of the Word of God so that Christ's bride no longer knows the aching divisions of the sixteenth century. 

Rev. Blair Smith is a minister at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, Maryland. He is also a doctoral candidate in the department Theology and Religion at Durham University

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