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Answering Luther

John McCafferty
Trent: What Happened at the Council, by John W O’Malley, Harvard University Press, 320 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-0674066977 In Douglas Adams’s The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the answer to the question of the meaning of life, the universe and everything is “42”. One character suggests that finding an answer is impossible because if an answer were found everything in the universe would disappear and instantly be replaced by something infinitely more complex. Another character suggests this may already have happened. What John O’Malley has done here is replace “Trent” with the infinitely more complex “Council of Trent” or as the subtitle has it: “What happened at the Council”. This book could be construed as a companion to his recent What happened at Vatican II and there is a palpable sense throughout that O’Malley wishes to demystify, correct and explain the significance of this sprawling sixteenth century assembly. The title also reflects Leopold Von Ranke’s famous dictum about the task of the historian being “only to show what actually happened, wie es eigentlich gewesen”. The Council known as Trent spread itself over three phases, from 1545-47, 1551-52 and 1562-63. At one point it decamped to Bologna and most of the time nothing whatsoever happened. Meanwhile Europe itself witnessed a schism that turned into the establishment of two confessional identities, Catholic and Protestant. Luther’s protest became a church polity. John Calvin emerged, while the bishops, legates and envoys of Catholic Europe intrigued, stabbed each other in the back and, not infrequently, shouted at each other. O’Malley’s thesis is that the ricochet effect caused by the presence of three blocs – bishops, ambassadors and popes – was both the making and undoing of the council. When the three acted in rough concert the assembly moved on; when they did not it stagnated. Those who see the word “Tridentine” and think monolithic, reactionary and conservative will, on reading this little book, have that pleasant feeling you get when the dun-coloured mess on your plate turns out to be shot through with flavour. There were bishops who dared suggest that the former Augustinian friar Luther might be right about justification by faith alone. The Eucharistic chalice was actually conceded to the laity in central Europe for some decades. Many voices, lay and clerical, called for relaxation of the celibacy requirement for priests. Trent seriously considered vernacular liturgies and did not ban them. Some even flirted with the idea…

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