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The Council of Trent: Myths, Misunderstandings, and Misinformation

The following are summaries and excerpts from the following resource: John W. O’Malley’s article “The Council of Trent: Myths, Misunderstandings, and Misinformation,” in Spirit, Style, Story: Essays Honoring John W. Padburg, S.J.  Edited by Thomas Lucas. Jesuit Way Loyola Press: 2002, pp. 205-225.  The following is only a summary up to page 210.  I hope to post more soon, eventually encapsulating his entire article in about three brief posts.  

Introduction 

According to O’Malley, there are two extreme views of the Council of Trent among Catholics: “that the council wrought all the bad things that Vatican Council II saved them from, or that it set forth all the good things Vatical II robbed them of” (205).  Although Hubert Jedin left few stones unturned when he published the most comprehensive treatment of the Council in 1975 (four volumes long, only two of which were translated into English), “few English-language historians” have taken the time to read through them because “as the little girl said about the book on snakes, [Jedin’s work] tells people more about Trent than they could possibly want to know” (206).  

For example, it is now clear that “Charles Borromeo, archbishop of Milan (1564-82) and great implementer of Trent, in effect rewrote the decrees by giving them a specificity and sometimes a rigor they originally lacked, and by supplying what he thought the council ought to have done but had failed to do” (206).  “These interpretations were foisted onto the council and became Trent” (206).  Because many historians have tended to focus on the implementations of the councils decrees rather than the council itself, “this new scholarship, for all its merits, has contributed to the tradition of ignorance and misunderstanding of the council itself” (206).   

Obstacles to Trent

Obstacles to Trent were: 1) “The Vacillation of Pope Clement VII (1523-34), who feared that the council might depose him” (207), and 2) “The obstructive tactics of King Francis I of France (1515-47), who feared that a council, if successful, would strengthen the political hand of his great rival, Charles V, by eliminating in Germany the threat of civil war created by the volatile and often violent religious situation” (207).

Cooperation for Trent and the Double Agenda

“Two persons cooperated in bringing [the council] into being: Pope Paul III (1534-49) and Emperor Charles V (1519-55).  …. Charles V, and his entourage hoped, for the sake of the peace of ‘the empire,’ that is, of Germany, that [the rift] could” be healed between Protestants and Catholics (207).  “A practical man, he sincerely believed that the real problem was reform, and that the unreformed condition of the church had caused the Lutheran crisis.  A reform of the church was therefore the precondition, at least, for resolving it” (209). 

On the other hand, “The pope envisaged the council principally as a response to the doctrinal issues raised by Luther, issues that he and many others interpreted as just some old heresies in a new dress. … The condemnation would probably preclude any possibility of reconciliation with them, but Paul and many in his entourage thought that was a lost cause anyway” (208). 

Thus, all the enactments of the council can be gathered under these two headings: 1) uprooting heresies and 2) reform of clergy and members.  Charles V wanted reform to be dealt with first, while Paul III wanted to first deal with heresies, so the compromise was made: the bishops agreed to “deal with both doctrine and reform alternately: first a decree on doctrine and then a decree on some aspect of reform” (209).  

Simplicity of the Council of Trent: Doctrine and Reform

“The council was far from being as all-encompassing as Vatican Council II tried to be.  Under ‘doctrine,’ the council meant to treat only Protestant teachings. … In this regard Trent had Luther principally in mind” (209).  The reform of the church “meant essentially reform of three offices in the church: the papacy, the episcopacy, and the pastorate” (209).  In other words, the reform was aimed at “institutional church” (210). 

“The council dealt of course with the laity and directed its efforts to the ‘reform of the Christian people,’ but it did so almost exclusively through directives for pastors” (210).  The simplicity of the Tridentine doctrinal and reform agenda easily escapes students because the decrees and canons of the council are always published in chronological order,” thus the decrees seem like “an endless scattershot of rules, regulations, and prohibitions devoid of plan and vision” (210).  “Nonetheless, Trent has, in both its doctrinal and disciplinary enactments, a remarkable and consistently maintained focus”: denouncing protestant doctrine and reforming the “institutional church” (210).  

In our next post, we will continue to explore O’Malley’s understanding of the decrees of the council.

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