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The Staying Power of Christianity

Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome
Pasquale Cati: Council of Trent, 1588

Halfway through that second millennium, Western Christianity in turn would tear itself in two. The Protestant Reformation and the Catholic response to it would create and consolidate deep and lasting divisions between the Roman Church under an increasingly centralizing papacy and the many contending varieties of Protestantism, united only by their loathing of Rome. Central both to the consolidation of early modern Catholicism and to subsequent perceptions of it was the Council of Trent, the papally convened assembly of bishops and theologians in the Tyrol that, meeting episodically between 1545 and 1563, hammered out a Catholic response to the doctrinal and practical crises of the sixteenth century, and set the course of the Catholic Church for the next four hundred years.

If Robert Wilken’s book illustrates the bewildering varieties of early Christianity, John O’Malley’s is a study in the modern mythology of a monolithic church. The Catholicism of the centuries after Trent would come to be characterized as “Tridentine,” the adjective derived from the Latin form of “Trent,” an adjective that came to symbolize unchangeable religious uniformity.

John O’Malley is the doyen of historians of the Catholic reformation. Himself a Jesuit priest, his history of the early Jesuit movement set new imaginative and scholarly standards for the study of sixteenth-century religious institutions. O’Malley transformed historical perceptions of the most established of the Catholic Church’s institutional responses to the joint challenges of the Protestant revolt and the discovery of non-Christian civilizations outside Europe, because he emphasized the flexibility and responsiveness to circumstance of the first Jesuits, in contrast to the militaristic rigidity with which the order had often been credited. Correspondingly, he is unhappy about the application of the adjective “Tridentine” to early modern Catholicism, arguing that it attributes a uniformity and indeed coherence that belie the complexities of history.

His new history of Trent sets out to bring the cold light of historical scrutiny to bear on the legends that surround the council itself and its achievements. There is, astonishingly, no modern study of the Council of Trent in English: only the first two parts of the magisterial four-volume study by the German scholar Hubert Jedin were ever translated into English, and O’Malley’s lively one-volume survey is to be welcomed on that score alone. But his scrupulously researched and balanced book is also an intervention in fraught and sometimes acrimonious controversies within the modern Roman Catholic Church.

Fifty years ago the Second Vatican Council initiated profound changes in Roman Catholic thought and practice, revolutionizing Catholic attitudes toward other churches, toward non-Christian religions, and above all toward Jews, and launching a reform of Catholic worship that, among other transformations, swept away the Latin in which the liturgy had been conducted for more than a millennium and a half. For many, these changes seemed a providential and very necessary liberation: for others they represented a radical and destructive break with Catholic tradition, which now necessitates a “reform of the reform.” Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI deplored the liturgical consequences of the post-conciliar years, and in the face of protest from many regional conferences of bishops, permitted the free celebration of the older forms of the mass. With his encouragement, a revanchist critique of the work of Vatican II targeted the historiography of the council, which, it was claimed, had been shaped by an alleged “hermeneutic of rupture” (Benedict’s phrase) in which Vatican II was tendentiously portrayed as breaking with the perceived rigidities of “Tridentine” Catholicism. The intention behind this fashionable historiography, it was alleged, was to legitimate the rootless liberalization and relativizing of the church and its message, to accommodate it to the zeitgeist.

This critique insists that the formal documents of Vatican II are in fact far more conservative than the interpretations that have been placed upon them. Its proponents demand that the conciliar texts be read with respect to their continuities with the teaching and ethos of the pre-conciliar church, rather than by any appeal to an innovatory “spirit of the council,” deduced from the polarization of ecclesiastical politics reflected in the conciliar debates. This conservative insistence on continuity rather than change as the central characteristic of the council has been satirized as the claim that nothing whatever happened at Vatican II.

O’Malley brought his considerable weight as a historian to bear on those debates, in a number of formidable interventions, culminating in his 2008 book What Happened at Vatican II. This was a valuable one-volume history of the council, which accepted its undoubted continuities with much in previous Catholic tradition. But O’Malley also insisted that Vatican II had mandated dramatic new directions for the Catholic Church, and that in its deliberations “a wider vista was trying to break through.”

There is no mention of Vatican II in O’Malley’s new study of the Council of Trent, but the book’s subtitle, “What Happened at the Council,” alerts the informed reader that there is more at stake here than mere ecclesiastical antiquarianism. His concern is to deconstruct the myth of Trent and “Tridentinism” as a timeless encapsulation of the unchanging continuities of a Catholicism immune to history. Trent, in his view, was no monolith but a straggling historical event, stretched out over two decades and often at the mercy of the European politics that had delayed its convening until all realistic hope of a reconciliation with Protestantism had passed.

The pope who convened it, the flamboyant Paul III Farnese, a genuine reformer whose early career had, however, been built on the fact that his sister was the pope’s mistress, was fearful that a strong reform agenda at the council might target papal prerogatives. The Emperor Charles V, by contrast, was determined that the council should confine itself to such practical reforms, leaving him to negotiate doctrinal compromise with his increasingly unmanageable Protestant subjects. The council met during a period of deep uncertainty within the Catholic Church itself on many of the most fraught doctrinal issues of the day. One of the three papal legates who oversaw the early stages of the council, the English Cardinal Reginald Pole, agreed with much of Luther’s teaching on the key doctrinal issue of Justification—the event or process by which a person is made or declared to be righteous in the sight of God. He absented himself from the council before it pronounced on the subject.

Twenty years later, the legate whose theological grip and diplomatic skills steered the council to its successful conclusion in 1563, Pole’s friend Giovanni Morone, had recently emerged from three years in the prisons of the Inquisition, during the pontificate of the fanatical Pope Paul IV, under threat of execution for heresy. The council itself was boycotted by Protestants, and was desperately unrepresentative even of the Catholic world: only a handful of bishops, overwhelmingly Italian, attended its opening, and at its height in the 1560s it consisted of 195 Italians, thirty-one Spanish, twenty-seven French, two Greeks (from Venetian territory), three Dutch, three Portuguese, three Hungarians, three Poles, two Germans, one Czech, and one Croat. Its critics insisted that freedom of speech and deliberation was excluded by the iron control of the papal legates, and joked bitterly that the Holy Spirit came to Trent in the postbag from Rome.

Trent’s constructive theological work was all done in its early sessions in the 1540s, above all its nuanced and masterly decree and canons on Justification, which steered surefootedly between an extreme version of Justification by Faith alone, which would empty both the church’s sacraments and human moral endeavor of any value for salvation, and a Pelagian reliance on human effort that would trivialize the depth of human alienation from God and humanity’s moral helplessness. But much of its theological reflection was rushed and partial. Trent’s treatment of the sacrament of penance dwelt almost entirely on the judicial role of the priest in confession, at the cost of exploring the role of healing and spiritual guidance and comfort in the sacrament: this emphasis on the confessor as judge was to have profound and not entirely wholesome pastoral consequences.

The council’s teaching on such contentious matters as purgatory, indulgences, and the veneration of saints and images were all hastily crammed into its last few days, and its scrappy decrees on these subjects were hurried through without discussion. And the subsequent propagation of the council’s teaching in preaching and controversy was often misleadingly remote from the conciliar decrees themselves. Trent avoided, for example, any extended discussion of the biblical canon, contenting itself with listing the books traditionally received, and the council fathers even left open the questions of whether or not the mass might be celebrated in the vernacular, or the laity given the cup, both issues on which “Tridentinism” would take a notably hard line. Trent’s most substantial practical achievement, the reform and renewal of the office of bishop, emerged gradually from the ruins of conciliar attempts to define the office of bishop in terms that the papacy saw as threatening its prerogatives. Tridentine reform of the episcopate resulted from the gradual education of bishops into the responsibilities of their office, not from enforceable new teaching.

In general, then, O’Malley shows, Trent was no monolith: serendipity and sheer human bloody-mindedness had as much to do with its successes and weaknesses as anyone’s conscious intentions, and its enactments “surely did not pass pure into the church or into the world at large.” Instead they were mediated by the fallible human beings who had to make them work—popes, princes, bishops, theologians, even painters and their patrons, who often propagated in the process the mythology of Trent rather than the council’s actual teaching. For as O’Malley’s book abundantly demonstrates, every council is a complex and unpredictable event whose consequences run far beyond the substance of its formal decisions and decrees. No human construct is timeless, and neither an ecumenical council of the Catholic Church, nor even that church itself, stands above the slippage, flux, and confusion of the tide of history, which carries us toward a future we cannot predict, and do not control.

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