Debunking the myths of the Council of Trent

By  Marc B. Cels, Catholic Register Special
  • January 26, 2013

In time for the 450th anniversary of the closing of the Council of Trent, eminent Jesuit historian Fr. John W. O’Malley has written this concise and readable account of the council that determined the features of modern Roman Catholicism.

The very name Trent conjures two opposite stereotypes. For some, Trent symbolizes the bad old Catholicism that needed to be discarded or updated by the Second Vatican Council. For others, Trent symbolizes the good old Catholicism — a presumably ancient, unchanging and certain faith to which Catholics must return. O’Malley exposes the stereotypes as myths by explaining the circumstances and events of the council and telling us how the council was interpreted and implemented.

The Council of Trent is an intimidating subject. Its purpose was to address the doctrinal challenges of Protestantism and abuses among clergy and the hierarchy that had fomented religious dissent in the first place. Martin Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation in Germany in 1517, but the council was convened only in 1545, after more than 20 years of wrangling between rival Catholic rulers, popes and cardinals. Even then, the council met only intermittently until 1563, with long interruptions and the constant threat of cancellation. Attendance by bishops was abysmally poor and usually grudging. Unlike Vatican II, which had John XXIII and Paul VI and a cast of stellar theologians, Trent lacked heroes. Nevertheless, O’Malley weaves an engaging story in which the council itself becomes the underdog protagonist despite the many failings of everyone involved.

It may come as a surprise that Catholic kings pushed for the council. They feared Protestantism would incite rebellions. The kings wanted a council to achieve a theological compromise and reform Church leadership, especially the papacy. Christian rulers had intervened in the past, during low points in the history of the papacy, and even replaced unworthy popes. There was even talk of establishing a sort of ecclesiastical parliament to balance the papal monarchy.

Popes, therefore, feared both calling a council and that a council would be called without them. After convening the council, popes attempted to control it through their legates. No pope actually attended in person.

Popes were also Italian princes. They and their curia of cardinals (some of whom were teenaged papal nephews, grandsons or even lovers) also feared any reforms that would curtail their customary veniality. O’Malley guides the reader through such intrigues and also brings the council to life by detailing the setting and the challenges of hosting such a gathering.

The council is often credited with comprehensively defining Catholic belief and practice according to unchanging traditions. O’Malley exposes this central myth and shows, instead, that Trent struggled to address much narrower goals with limited theological resources. Even by these limited goals, Trent had mixed success.

Disciplinary reforms dealt with getting bishops and parish priests to stay put and do their jobs — a goal that would take generations and the invention of the seminary system to gradually achieve. Trent’s doctrinal concerns only extended to topics that were disputed with the Lutherans. By the time the council got underway, however, Protestantism had already crystallized into a distinct religious system that was unlikely to accommodate itself even within a reformed Catholic Church. The council’s theological advisors had little direct knowledge of the reformers or their writings. In addition, the city of Trent, chosen for political reasons, lacked libraries.

The council’s theologians, moreover, were trained in a medieval, scholastic system of thinking that was very different from the Renaissance humanism then gaining currency. Their early definitions were, at best, cautious and nuanced clarifications of disputed doctrine. At worst, when rushing to finish the council’s last sessions, Trent’s doctrinal statements were hasty reiterations of medieval pronouncements. Some hot topics, such as indulgences and worship of images, were barely mentioned at all. The council agonized over giving the chalice to laity, but, surprisingly, did not forbid vernacular liturgies, contrary to common assumptions. Trent’s dry, academic statements couldn’t compete with Luther’s passionate and snappy slogans: “sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia” (by Scripture alone, by faith alone, by grace alone).”

If Trent failed to resolve the 16th century’s messy theological questions, those who interpreted and implemented the council helped create the myth of a triumphant Tridentinism. Reforming bishops and the papacy used this myth to help create a more modern, defined and authoritarian Church, comparable to the increasingly strict and more starkly defined sects of Protestantism. The catechism and creed issued after Trent simplified doctrine. The index of forbidden books attempted to restrict intellectual debate. Nevertheless, subsequent generations interpreted Trent according to the tenor of their times.

O’Malley’s fresh and compelling history finds Trent’s saving grace in a surprisingly dynamic Tridentine Catholicism that continued to adapt, as best it could, to changing circumstances for 400 years, despite, or perhaps because of the council’s flaws and limitations.

(Cels is a professor of history at Athabasca University in Alberta.)


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