Finally, a long distance view of the Council of Trent

Trent: what happened at the council by John W. O’Malley, SJ (Harvard University Press)

- Reviewed by Hilmar Pabel

John O’Malley has done it again. In 2008, he published his splendid What Happened at Vatican II, the best one-volume history of the Second Vatican Council, at least in English. In producing the best one-volume history of the Council of Trent (1545-63), he has rendered equal service to the history of Catholicism.

Until now the authoritative study has been and remains Hubert Jedin’s Geschichte des Konzils von Trient (1949-75). The dense four volumes (in five tomes) have long been out of print. An attempt to translate Jedin’s great work into English never went beyond the second volume. O’Malley’s new history of Trent will be just as influential as his history of Vatican II.

Readers of What Happened at Vatican II will enjoy this new conciliar history and notice several parallels between the two books. After a chapter that establishes the historical background of the century previous to the council, they proceed chronologically through the work of the councils.

In Trent, O’Malley answers the question why the council opened late, a generation after the excommunication of Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer ‘who set the agenda for the council’. European political conflict and the fear of conciliarism, the position that a church council is superior to the pope in ecclesiastical governance, prevented the papacy from summoning a council expeditiously to assert Catholic doctrine and to bring about a long-desired comprehensive reform to the Church.

The worry about conciliarism helped make the pope’s relationship to the council a ‘major issue-under-the-issues’, a famous phrase that O’Malley borrowed from John Courtney Murray, one of the theological experts at Vatican II. The similarity in the titles of O’Malley’s two conciliar histories is deliberate.

An historical understanding of both councils is crucial for their interpretation. To consider what happened, to see the councils as events and not simply as collections of documents, constitutes an important hermeneutical key to unlock meaning.

The ‘drama of the Council of Trent’ drives O’Malley’s explanation of ‘what happened at the council’. In following its twists and turns from its paltry beginnings in December 1545 to the desperate effort to complete its work in December 1563 in the face of the illness of Pope Pius IV, O’Malley vividly demolishes one of the myths about Trent.

The notion of Trent as ‘a monolithic and single-minded gathering, untroubled by rancour, confidently poised to take the steps necessary to put the Catholic house in order’ does not withstand historical scrutiny. Certainly, ‘nothing about the Council of Trent was ideal. It rested precariously on a bed of fragile and shifting compromises’ and ‘lurched from major crisis to major crisis’. ..

Full review in The Tablet:

John O’Malley on Georgetown University site:

John O’Malley on Vatican II:

Review of What Happened at Vatican II in The Tablet:

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