Behind the Tridentine Myth

What Happened at the Council

The Council of Trent, ostensibly the response of the Catholic Church to the Protestant Reformation, is poorly known for what occasioned it and what it did, and, ironically, known too well for things it did not do at all. Few readers have either the time or the inclination to read the four volumes of Hubert Jedin’s magisterial work on Trent, and only its first two volumes appeared in English translation. Partly because Trent deserves to be more widely known and understood and partly because there is such flourishing talk about Vatican II, John O’Malley’s book is especially welcome. Like all O’Malley’s books, this one is beautifully written, richly but manageably detailed, and unostentatiously learned.

O’Malley accomplishes three things in this book. He explains why it took so long to call a council at all. He describes what happened at Trent and how factors internal and external to the church influenced the proceedings. Finally, speaking about the decades—even centuries—after the council, O’Malley carefully distinguishes between Trent and Tridentinismo.

From the middle of the eleventh century until the outbreak of the Great Western Schism (1378), popes routinely called councils and usually assembled them in Rome (twice in Lyons, once in Vienne) and carefully managed them. The Council of Constance (1414–18) put an end to the schism, gave expression to a “conciliarist” ecclesiology that thwarted the monarchical papalism of the preceding centuries, and passed a decree calling for regular councils. In 1431 a new council gathered at Basel and explicitly proclaimed the superiority of councils to the papacy. The popes spent the second half of the fifteenth century trying to defeat conciliarism. Later popes were extremely reluctant to call councils no matter what issues might have arisen.

Julius II was actually required in the conclave that elected him to call a council, but he worked hard to avoid doing so. Eventually he convened Lateran V (1512–17) but managed to prevent it from taking any steps unwelcome to the papacy. The year 1517 saw the beginnings of Martin Luther’s increasingly public and noisy break with Rome. An imperial diet in 1523 called for a council but none met until 1545. There were deliberations from time to time, such as those of 1537 under Paul III, the findings of which were so critical of the church that the report was leaked and then published by Protestants. Paul did want a council to deal with Lutheranism but he could not bring one together until 1545.

Apart from reluctance in the curia, Paul faced a complex diplomatic and military situation. Valois France was literally surrounded by Habsburg territories and the two dynasties were regularly at war. Within Germany, Habsburg rule, always fragile, had been further weakened by the people and princes who rallied to Luther. There was sentiment for a council all over Europe, but none of the great powers trusted each other.All feared a council dominated by someone else, and there was no consensus on what a council ought to do.

In these tortured circumstances, the Council of Trent finally opened in 1545. The council was peculiar in many ways. It met in three sessions that, in all, extended over eighteen years: 1545–47, 1551–52, and 1562–63. There were about seven hundred bishops in Europe in the mid-sixteenth century. Trent’s first session opened with twenty-nine in attendance, its second with fifteen. Perhaps 280 bishops participated in the final session, but the council’s numbers were ridiculously small and never representative of Europe as a whole. Italians always dominated. There was negligible French participation until the third session and virtually no German participation in the second and third sessions. Three very different popes, Paul III, Julius III, and Pius IV, led the church while the council was in session. Through their appointment of legates, always curial cardinals, the popes managed Trent effectively even though it met several days’ ride from Rome “in German lands,” as the emperor demanded.

Despite a few attempts by the assembled bishops to take control of the council’s agenda, the popes and their legates always controlled it. The council decided to work on parallel tracks. Discussions would emphasize dogma and reform. Where dogma is concerned, the council was well-nigh embalmed in scholasticism and instead of theological reflection contented itself with formulaic affirmation. Essential teachings were reiterated much more than they were studied. Where reform was concerned, the popes were adamant that the council not touch the papacy itself or the curia. The council’s working procedure involved hundreds of “congregations,” in which issues were discussed at length and theologians had a significant role, and twenty-five general sessions that, when productive, issued decrees.

The episcopal office is an interesting case study in what could and could not be accomplished under the rubric of reform. Members of the council wanted to explore whether the office of bishop pertained to the jus divinum (divine law) or merely to papal appointment. In the curia, there was no doubt: papal appointment. If the episcopal office were endowed with divine law then bishops and popes would in effect be equals. The council also asked if bishops should be resident in their dioceses. Many were not resident, never preached, never visited their territories. The issue of residence came up in all three sessions of the council. In a grudging concession, the curia finally permitted a modest statement that diocesan residence was the norm for bishops, but the curia was reluctant to concede any of its privileges and dispensations.

The first period opened with a profession of faith (Nicene), affirmed the (long) canon of Scripture, issued a decree on justification, began the discussion of episcopal residence, and then, fearing plague in Trent, decamped to Bologna where, after just a few unproductive weeks, the council went into suspension. The second period issued decrees on the Eucharist, penance, and extreme unction, along with some minor reforming measures. The third period, after debating whether it was a continuation of Trent or a new council, issued decrees on Communion, on the celebration of the Mass, on holy orders, and on matrimony. Regrettably, in a terribly hurried Session 25, a large number of important issues were treated in cursory fashion: purgatory, saints and their relics, images, indulgences, foods and fasting, the Index of Forbidden Books, the Missal, and the breviary.

After the council a flurry of activity yielded the practices that came to be called “Tridentine.” Many of these were rooted in but not explicitly called for by the council. Most of them derived from the implementation of the council in Milan by Carlo Borromeo, who had been Pius V’s key adviser during the third session. The proliferation of seminaries was perhaps the council’s greatest achievement. The catechism and Missal “of Trent” were issued in 1564 and 1570; strictly speaking, there was no “Tridentine” Mass. A new Index was less restrictive than the one of 1559 but still limited vernacular scriptures and made the Vulgate normative despite its many known errors (more than three thousand of them!). Trent proposed to limit severely the kinds of music appropriate to the Mass, but some of the cardinals were familiar with Palestrina and an opening was thereby created for the soaring music of the years ahead. Trent’s affirmation of sacred art made Catholicism the most “sensuous” of the Christian confessions, in O’Malley’s happy formulation.

O’Malley is a sure and companionable guide to a decisive set of developments that shaped the Catholic Church for four centuries.

Published in the 2013-06-01 issue: 

Thomas F. X. Noble is the Andrew V. Tackes Professor Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame.

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