Changing the ‘Changeless’ Church

The closing ceremony of the Second Vatican Council, Vatican City, December 1965
Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images
The closing ceremony of the Second Vatican Council, Vatican City, December 1965

In John O’Malley’s When Bishops Meet—the latest of his five books on ecumenical church councils—he compares and contrasts what he has written on the three last councils and argues that there should be a new one. This is the culmination of a great project that was almost forced upon him in the years 1963–1965 when, as a young Jesuit priest, he was in Rome as a fellow at the American Academy, finishing research for his Harvard dissertation on Giles of Viterbo (1469–1532). Giles, a reforming superior of the Augustinian religious order, whose members at one time included the young friar Martin Luther, had delivered the opening address at the Fifth Lateran Council (1512–1517). So the young O’Malley was studying sixteenth-century church reform while watching, along with the entire world, the concluding two years of the Second Vatican Council assembled by Pope John XXIII in 1962. He was given access to the council’s deliberations through Roman connections at the American Academy and through his Jesuit order, headquartered in Rome.

He has maintained this double focus, on the sixteenth and the twentieth centuries, through much of his distinguished career as a Renaissance historian. After receiving his doctorate, he regularly taught a course at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology called “Two Great Councils: Trent and Vatican II.” They seemed to make a natural pair, since the common view was that Trent (1545–1563) launched the Catholic Counter-Reformation and Vatican II ended it. O’Malley does not like the term “Counter-Reformation,” and he wrote the first of his conciliar books, Trent and All That (2000), on the historical treatment (and mistreatment) of the Council of Trent, giving a nuanced account of what the council actually tried to achieve and what uses had been made of it. He argued that Catholic efforts to reform the church had predated the council, and that many of the rigid rules adopted by popes and bishops as “Tridentine”—from the Latin name for Trent—were later accretions to the council’s doctrines. The subsequent ban on reading the King James Version of the Bible, for instance, was part of the reason a separate Catholic school system was set up in America, to escape Protestant indoctrination in public schools.

Vatican II

After this glance at one of the two foci of his years in Rome, O’Malley wrote a book on the other council treated in his course at Weston: What Happened at Vatican II (2008). This was “the biggest meeting in the history of the world.” Pope John XXIII surprised everyone by announcing the council in 1959. The two preceding councils had been called to confront a clear menace—Trent to deal with the Protestant Reformation spreading throughout Europe, Vatican I (1869–1870) to deal with the democratizing…


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