Title of Work:

Trent: What Happened at the Council

Author of Work:

John O'Malley


Pastor Christopher Doerr

Page Number:


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As to his Trent Re-size Coverpurpose for writing this book, O’Malley says, “The myths, misunderstandings, and misinformation about what the council [of Trent] actually enacted . . . are alive and well today, even in the sacred groves of academe. . . . I hoped to dispel a few of the[m]” (275). Besides that, he says, “My intention is simple: to provide an introduction to the council that will be accessible to the general reader and perhaps helpful even to the professional historian and theologian” (11). O’Malley gives the background to the Reformation and explains what took so long for the council to happen. Then he recounts the events and drama of the council itself in chronological order. He concludes with a pithy epilogue to explain events and decisions that actually occurred after the council to impact Catholicism, but in popular thought were attributed to Trent itself.

I am used to the descriptions of Trent given by Chemnitz, Bente, or J. P. Meyer, who warn us that the theologians at Trent labored long to hide their anti-Christian, anti-grace doctrines behind scriptural-sounding language. I got a different picture of Trent from O’Malley’s book, and this may be what I appreciated most about it. The deceptive nature of Trent’s pronouncements seems to have been more the result of compromise and expediency than of elaborate cunning.

In a sense, O’Malley’s book is one long proof that at Trent you could believe almost anything, so long as you were willing to submit to the pope. “The legates [who ran the council] received frequent and firm directives from the popes, which at the council sparked the sardonic observation that, unlike at other councils where the Holy Spirit descended upon the bishops from on high, at Trent he arrived in the mailbag from Rome” (9). Trent wasn’t just some congregation of hardline semi-Pelagians, rabid Jesuits, and coin-hungry indulgence vendors. O’Malley says, “Not all Catholic theologians, especially members of the Augustinian Order, were convinced ‘the Lutherans’ were altogether wrong in their teaching on both Original Sin and justification, and at Trent the Augustinians’ prior general, Girolamo Seripando, was among them” (104). Seripando actually wrote initial drafts of a few of Trent’s proclamations. There was also Reginald Pole, who in his brief tenure as a papal legate at Trent urged the bishops that they “should not conclude that ‘Luther said it. Therefore it is false’” (108). But however zealous the bishops and the emissaries of Europe’s great leaders were in their desire for reform (which O’Malley documents well for us), or whatever sympathies some of them had for Luther’s positions, or whatever willingness some felt to compromise with the Hussites, Lutherans, or Huguenots whom they knew or ruled over back home—in the end the men at Trent subjected it all to their desire for an outward, on-paper unity under the Antichrist. The result? Doctrinal statements that left room for the crassest works-righteousness, and loophole-riddled reform decrees that left the big decisions (priestly celibacy, the cup for the laity, what books should be on the Index, etc.) up to the Pope to decide at his leisure.

O’Malley clearly reveals another force at work at Trent: the pressure of time. The longer these leaders and their entourages were away from home, the more inconvenient and expensive their attendance at the council became. It was expensive for the popes to underwrite the council, too. “Papal expenditure during the final two years of the council climbed to somewhere around 18 percent of the annual papal budget” (10). Besides that, the longer they took to make decisions and pronouncements, the more foolish and impotent they looked to the rest of Europe, which had waited thirty years since the beginning of the Reformation for there to even be a council. Perhaps the greatest achievement of the Council of Trent was that it finally ended. In discussing Giovanni Morone’s appointment as papal legate, O’Malley’s highest praise for him is, “No one . . . is more responsible for bringing the Council of Trent to conclusion than Morone” (206). During its seventeen-year course, some of Trent’s pronouncements were the result of months of public discussion and deliberation. But with only twelve days of the council left, “[t]he bishops . . . still had not seen even a line of text dealing with indulgences, Purgatory, and other important issues” (240), including fasting and the veneration of saints, images, and relics (241). Decrees on these topics were assembled by closed-door committees, “because those materials were so vast, not all of them could even be read to the assembly” in one meeting. Finally the bishops, given “virtually no time for discussion . . . were simply rubber stamps” (243). With no time for extravagantly-planned duplicity, it was more a matter of, “What’s the minimum we can say, so critics can’t say we skipped the important topics that Europe is all riled up over, but so that everybody here will still be willing to sign their names to it a few days from now?”

The council was all about compromise and expediency for the sake of the institution. O’Malley sums up what the council of Trent achieved: “Although Trent failed at reconciliation with ‘the Lutherans,’ . . . Further schism had been averted, and Catholic leaders had the satisfaction of knowing that they had brought to conclusion a project of defining importance that had often been at the point of spinning completely out of control” (250).

There were several annoyances in the book. O’Malley throws in many names without explaining what the people did that actually mattered. He has a penchant for melodramatic statements (which is perhaps to be understood, since it seems the whole council was one big Antichrist-sponsored melodrama that accomplished little of substance). He is careless with, or doesn’t fully understand, Luther’s positions on original sin and monergism (103, 104), the sacraments (118), and absolution (132). He refuses to show indignation over the way the council gave short shrift to vital issue after vital issue. But the most annoying thing is the ten-and-a-half pages O’Malley spends (38-48) explaining how things weren’t really all that bad leading up to the Reformation. Sure, pastors were often absent and inept, but this does not “necessarily mean that the spiritual needs of the ordinary lay person were not being met” (48). Not only does O’Malley contradict this in the rest of the book, every time he tries to explain why catholic bishops were vehemently demanding this or that reform. But also his “evidence” of spiritual vitality in pre-Reformation Europe is entirely and, it seems, blindly focused on the middle class, ignoring the plight of peasants, who according to at least one historian made up 80-90% of the population, but had no access to O’Malley’s lauded confraternities or humanist schools.

Criticisms aside, such a book gets one thinking about unity in the church. Chemnitz (Examination of the Council of Trent, vol. I, p. 213) quotes the papal theologian Osius, “If anyone has the interpretation of the Roman Church concerning any passage of Scripture, even if he does not know or understand whether or how it agrees with the words of Scripture, he nevertheless has the very Word of God.” The attitude of Osius seems easy to fall into. It is easy to let expediency and on-paper agreement take the place of true unity. What if our church members know the synodical “position” but do not know how to reconcile that position with Scripture? Is that kind of “unity” better than the “unity” of the men at Trent? Or what if “we just don’t have time” at study clubs and pastoral conferences (or even around lunch or a half-barrel afterwards) to get to the bottom of the disagreements that came up in the exegesis or essay? And where we do have actual unity, isn’t that a beautiful miracle that we don’t deserve and for which we would do well to thank the Holy Spirit who “keeps [the church] with Jesus Christ in the one true faith”?

Overall, I would say it is more worthwhile to read Chemnitz and Bente, even if their analysis of the processes of Trent aren’t nearly as good as their analysis of the doctrines of Trent and the Scriptural reasons why we reject those doctrines. But when you’re done with those, O’Malley’s book is an eye-opening supplemental resource, which is worth tackling, and which moves you briskly enough through one of the key events in Reformation history.

John O’Malley is a theology professor at Georgetown University and a Jesuit priest. He is the author of The First Jesuits, which has been translated into ten languages, and What Happened at Vatican II. He received the lifetime achievement award from the Society for Italian Historical Studies in 2002. He received the corresponding award from the Renaissance Society of America in 2005.