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 of elected bishops. Much of the story here is taken up with self-interest. The papacy wished to keep the council on a firm leash and had to be goaded into convoking it in the first place. Rome did not wish to reform itself so much that it would end up devoid of income. The Holy Roman Emperor and one-man superpower Charles V wished to dominate the whole continent and played a hand of cards with France and England so intricate that only O’Malley’s pellucid prose could render its effect on theological and canonical matters comprehensible. The bishops, too, were tardy in arriving and skittish when the question of their twin duties of residency and preaching came onto the table. The beauty of the treatment here – by far the shortest monograph on Trent to date ‑ is that John O’Malley sets up a number of themes at the very outset and then works through the council chronologically. One of those themes is to point out that the very early decision to “pair” decrees on reform and doctrine proved to be the twin engine that drove the sputtering council.
Visitors to Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome will see a fresco depicting the council by Pasquale Cati. The foreground features an allegorical personification of the Roman church in the form of a female figure wearing the triple tiara while trampling heresy underfoot. Behind her is a “general congregation” of the bishops and papal legates being addressed by a royal envoy. The reality was one of fewer serried ranks and more palely loitering figures. No pope attended Trent. There were points when there were fewer than twenty bishops present. The French, subjects of the Most Christian King, only really turned up for the last period of 1562-63. A tiny Lutheran deputation did arrive but never made it to a formal session. By the end all parties were so exhausted that the world had to wait till 1869 for the next general council.
The whole affair, like most of history, was a mess. Those who would not normally read about the early modern period will, through this lovely volume, be treated to a painless crash course on sixteenth century Europe as a whole. No book is perfect, though, and every review should have quibbles. The first quibble is that John O’Malley, writing now at the very height of his powers, is nowhere identified as a Jesuit, which he is. His approach is Rankean in its objectivity, but there are moments when there is bias. For instance while he cleverly argues that the emotional tone of Luther’s attitude to salvation was essentially incompatible with the cool intellectual tone of the fathers of Trent he makes a scapegoat of scholastic theology. Scholastic theology, apparently, led to bad source criticism and bad historical understanding which, in turn, meant that the gulf with Protestant thought became unbridgeable. This is excessively harsh and quite un-nuanced in comparison with the subtlety of virtually all of the rest of the piece.
A final word on the book as an object. The genius at Harvard’s Belknap Press who decided that the end papers should resemble the watered silk of ecclesiastical court dress deserves a case of the finest Italian wine. It is really pleasing when both the content and design of a book are a joy to the eye, as they so abundantly are here.
John McCafferty is a senior lecturer in UCD. As Director of the Mícheál Ó Cléirigh Institute he works in a unique partnership with the Irish Franciscans whose transfer of manuscripts and rare books has been one of the most significant donations ever made to an Irish university.