What happened at the council didn’t stay at the council

Trent: What Happened at the Council, John O’Malley, Belknap/Harvard

 John O'Malley


John O’Malley

The Council of Trent in the sixteenth century has a reputation as simply the Catholic Church’s reaction to the Protestant Reformation, and that is at least part of the story. As John O’Malley says bluntly in his new history of the council, “Luther set the agenda”. But what is less commonly known is that there was genuine desire for reform within sectors of the Church, though admittedly not generally at the level of the papacy. The Catholic Church of the sixteenth century was a complicated beast – plenty of corruption, sure, but also some sympathy for the Reformers. And the Reformation was a wake-up call that things, finally, had to change.
The council, which ran intermittently for an amazing 18 years, alternated between reform and denunciation. These two approaches reflected the positions of the Emperor Charles V, who wanted to extend a hand of reconciliation, and Pope Paul III, who wanted to combat the heretics. The trouble was, O’Malley also says, that Luther and the council participants were coming from, by then, entirely different intellectual cultures, and never would the twain meet. It was a case of the mind of the council (steeped as it was in scholasticism) versus the heart of Luther (the man driven by existential crisis).
Interestingly, many of the council participants hadn’t actually read anything of Luther’s, and they, in an effort to pinpoint heretical doctrine, were forced to read Luther, in the process realising there was still much to agree on. Sympathy for Luther was especially strong amongst his fellow Augustinians. But there was no bringing the Protestants back because no matter how hard the council debated doctrine, the Protestants had by this stage rejected the authority of the Catholic Church. There are parallels in today’s Catholic Church, where archbishops proclaim furiously, but some laity ignore them not because they disagree with the doctrine, but more fundamentally because they have rejected the authority.
“Contrary to its popular image,” says O’Malley, “Trent was a pastoral as well as doctrinal council”. Happily for Catholics, the best moves the council made were to enforce pastoral care of congregations, which was woefully neglected by clergy and absent and corrupt bishops, and to provide for education of the clergy, spurred by the Protestants’ fierce enthusiasm for preaching. There was less success with what O’Malley calls “reform of the head”. He thinks it is ironic that although reform of the papacy and curia simmered beneath the surface for the council’s entirety, the papacy’s power emerged stronger after the council finally ended.
The council is not simply a distant historical curiosity. Its decisions, and even simply what it is thought to have decided, continue to impact the Catholic Church, and beyond, today. And reformers within the Catholic Church continue to look back to Trent, be it John XXIII, who convoked Vatican II, or perhaps Francis, who is conspicuously focusing on the pastoral over the doctrinal.

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