Trent: What Happened at the Council 
by John O’Malley.
Harvard, 335 pp., £20, January 2013, 978 0 674 06697 7
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‘I wonder if a single thought that has helped forward the human spirit has ever been conceived or written down in an enormous room.’ It’s one of the great historical putdowns: the patrician Whig punchline to Kenneth Clark’s scrutiny of Counter-Reformation art and architecture in his incomparable TV series Civilisation, before he turns from the camera and walks away down the considerable length of the Map Room in the Vatican, an Englishman abroad. His stroll is accompanied by a splendid Monteverdi setting of ‘As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be’. Well endowed with a sense of irony, Clark would have enjoyed letting that music make its own comment: the Venetian grandees who enjoyed Monteverdi’s Vespers were proud of being good Catholics, but like many good Catholics before or since, they had no time for the pope.

Counter-Reformation Rome had plenty of enormous rooms, its skyline punctuated by brand new palaces built by cardinals who sailed through the reforms of the Council of Trent serenely unreformed. ‘As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be’ seemed to be true of them. But one enormous room had made a world of difference to the medieval Western Church of the Latin Rite, not least that section which remained loyal to the bishop of Rome. John O’Malley illustrates the room in his superb new history of the Council of Trent: the nave of the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Trent, a bishopric in the foothills of the Dolomites. In that grand setting, seated on an amphitheatre specially erected for the delegates, the episcopal Fathers of the Council completed the work of an assembly two decades in the planning and nearly two more in its deliberations, punctuated by noises off: fears of plague, continent-wide war, assassination, torrential rains, not to mention Protestantism.

Santa Maria Maggiore was the last and best prepared of a sequence of stately chambers that formed the backdrop for ill-tempered and frequently aimless debates between 1545 and 1563 in the city of Trent. The bishops and their attendant theologians were not above exchanging open abuse. During one argument about justification by faith, the Bishop of La Cava wrenched at the beard of the Cretan Bishop of Chironissa and Melopotamos, who had said that he was either a knave or a fool for sounding a bit like Martin Luther on justification. It is amazing that anything got done at all, and indeed more than once the whole event nearly ended in disarray. For some of the period covered by the council’s gestation and deliberations, the pope was formally at war with Europe’s other most senior Catholic, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, or with Charles’s son Philip II of Spain. Pierluigi Farnese, the eldest son of one pope during this time, was widely accused of raping a 24-year-old bishop, hastening the unfortunate young man’s death (Farnese was later murdered by subordinates of Charles V), while another Holy Father, a former principal papal legate at the council, made his teenage rentboy lover a cardinal. It might seem appropriate that the council’s official physician, Girolamo Fracastoro, named and was the first to provide a detailed diagnosis for syphilis; contemporary churchmen would have provided him with plenty of case-studies for his epic poem on the subject (starring a shepherd boy called Syphilus).

The late medieval and Tridentine Catholic Church is a soft target for satire, but this book allows us to climb out of the confessional slit-trenches which made the story of Trent seem one-dimensional. I remember how dull I found the history of the Counter-Reformation as a student: the formal decisions reached at the various sessions of the council, the rise of the Jesuits, the formation of a new and more efficient papal bureaucracy, the rapid hardening of lines of division with the Protestant world. It was dull because it was only a fraction of the truth. Over the last twenty years we have been given a much more exciting picture: a story of near-misses, might-have-beens, characters with much theological baggage to hide (the early Jesuits prominent among them). Massimo Firpo and other historians have introduced us to an Italy that was much closer to turning Protestant than anyone thought, as well as to a wild Mediterranean proto-Protestantism which owed much to secret Spanish Judaism, fled persecution by the Spanish Inquisition, then fascinated some of the best minds in Catholic Italy (Michelangelo included) before taking refuge on the Protestant plains of eastern Europe. Thanks to John O’Malley, a veteran Jesuit historian of the Counter-Reformation, we also now have a beautifully clear and honest reappraisal of the tangled story of Trent, in all its complexity, paradox, achievement and lost opportunity. It is the first time that English-speaking readers have had this privilege, for all other accounts of Trent have been either too short, or too long for non-specialists: the four-volume German account by Hubert Jedin (in innumerable ways admirable) proved too exhausting after two volumes for Anglophone publishers to translate the rest.

The difference the Council of Trent made to the history and ethos of the Catholic Church can be gauged by the successive and overlapping careers of three 16th-century Scottish clergymen called William Chisholm. All three in turn exercised episcopal jurisdiction in the diocese of Dunblane; no need to ask if they were by any chance related. They were Scottish noblemen, and that’s what medieval Scottish noblemen did: pass on large quantities of church property and offices down the family line. In 1527 the first William succeeded his half-brother James as bishop of Dunblane, having already acted as James’s coadjutor (assistant bishop): this William fathered a brood of children, necessarily illegitimate, though that would not have concerned him greatly, any more than it would have done any of the other family men among the medieval Scottish episcopate. His nephew William in turn became his coadjutor, succeeding him as bishop in 1564 amid the maelstrom of the Scottish Reformation, which eventually in 1569 forced this younger William into exile, to become bishop in Vaison-la-Romaine, a sunny hilltop town in Provence.

The second Bishop William Chisholm had hesitated in breaking totally with an established Scottish Church which was now firmly Reformed Protestant; he had a brief period of renewed recognition as bishop of Dunblane under the Protestant James VI, before ending his days as a Carthusian, the most austere variety of monk possible. The third William, nephew to the second, and originally his coadjutor at Dunblane, spent time at one of the brand-new colleges set up in Rome to give proper Catholic theological training to high-flyers in the Church. As bishop of Vaison, he was a model exponent of the Counter-Reformation, enthusiastic about his duties and very generous to his French cathedral. He remembered another exiled Scottish priest there in his will, a century after the first William had succeeded to Dunblane.*

This reverse Rake’s Progress is instructive: from medieval clerical worldliness through the doubts and confusions of mid-century, to the discovery of a new seriousness, informed theological awareness and commitment, far from home in the case of William Chisholm III, but safe in the bosom of Mother Church. It reminds us that not only Protestants were constructing new identities in the 16th century; it is the story of the Counter-Reformation. As individuals, Roman Catholics were transformed by what happened, and collectively their church, for all its claims of continuity with the medieval Western Church, changed almost as radically as the new European churches whose adherents had rejected papal obedience. Purely in terms of clerical structure and church discipline, the Tridentine Church was more reformed than the Reformed Protestant Church of England. For instance, Trent aimed to institute seminaries, specialist training colleges for all clergy, in every diocese; it was a scheme pioneered by Cardinal Reginald Pole for Mary Tudor’s revived Catholic Church in England, but instantly abandoned by the Protestant Elizabeth I, and not taken up by Protestants until the 19th century.

Granted, there was much more to the innovations in Counter-Reformation Catholicism than Trent ever got round to discussing: you would not know from its decrees, for instance, that it was in this age, thanks to its missionaries in America, Africa and Asia, that Christianity became the first world-encompassing religion, and in Roman Catholic form. The council did little to regulate the orders of monks and friars, and its effort to enclose all female religious figures in nunneries away from the world was creatively frustrated by ingenious female founders of new societies and bishops sympathetic to them. Trent did not seek to reform the confraternities or guilds, those associations of laypeople who were the backbone of activism in the Roman Catholic Church over the next centuries. In all these three instances, it didn’t try to mend things which weren’t broke. What it eventually provided was a sense of renewed purpose and recovered morale, necessary to let the faithful flourish in ways which could be worked out to suit particular situations.

The legislation Trent did pass mostly dealt with clergy and church structures, but in one vital respect, its decree Tametsi altered the life of every Roman Catholic. Christians (particularly when making categorical statements about Christian marriage) forget that there was no such thing as a church wedding in the first millennium of church history. In a remarkable development, not in accordance with early church tradition, since the approval of Tametsi by the Council of Trent in 1563, the Church of Rome has not recognised marriage between Catholics as valid unless performed by a priest, even though, untidily, the marriage itself is still created by an act of consent between the couple. Protestant churches, as worried as Tridentine churchmen about a breakdown of society, followed suit over the next couple of centuries.

That’s just one example of how Christians who think of doctrine as ‘As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be’ don’t know their history. It would be easy to think that the big issue at Trent was how to differentiate and protect the Catholic Church from Protestants. O’Malley points out that German Protestants actually attended some sessions of the council and were allowed to speak: unfortunately, these sessions happened at a moment of peculiar futility in the council’s proceedings, in 1547-48, when intra-Catholic squabbles ruined any chance of progress, and the Protestants left. When they were invited back, in 1561, both Protestants and Catholics had become far more confrontational. In terms of the issues which agitate modern Christians (usually, what people do with their genitals), it may come as a disappointment to learn that although Tametsi took up quite a bit of the council’s time in its last session, the aggro at Trent concerned an utterly different issue, which now sounds as if there really isn’t anything to argue about: whether or not bishops should reside in their dioceses. In fact the council nearly imploded over this question. That might seem all the more surprising because in 1552 the council had pronounced, logically enough, that bishops should indeed reside in their dioceses.

So what was the problem? It lay in the very fact of scrutinising what a bishop was – had the office of bishop been constituted by Christ, or by the church in its early development? If the latter, it implied that the authority of bishops came from the pope, successor of Peter, chosen by Christ to be the rock on which he built his church (Matthew 16.18), rather than that every bishop directly represented Christ’s authority. Prince-bishops in the Holy Roman Empire were not the only prominent members of the episcopate to feel unenthusiastic about an affirmation of the pope’s exclusive authority: virtually every Spanish bishop felt the same way. They believed it was a matter of ‘divine law’ (ius divinum) for bishops to reside in their dioceses, which meant that the pope had no business dispensing bishops to be non-resident, as was clearly still the case ten years after the 1552 decree, when 113 bishops of the Western Church were living in Rome. And that phrase ius divinum had some very sinister overtones for the papacy: Henry VIII had used it to justify his deeply self-righteous claim that he had never married a lady called Katherine of Aragon, and that God was very angry with him, both for having mistakenly thought that he had done so, and for allowing the pope to provide a dispensation for the marriage to take place, against ius divinum.

Non-residence was thus fatally linked to the question of whether the pope was supreme in Christ’s church militant here on earth, or just a rather special bishop among bishops. The question was too explosive to resolve at Trent, and it took some masterly drafting to create a formula which would not definitively place exclusive divine authority in either the papacy or the general body of the episcopate. In presenting the real significance of that dispute, at first sight so esoteric, O’Malley makes clear an extraordinarily valuable feature of his careful and rather neutrally presented narrative: it has urgent relevance to the present-day travails of the Roman Catholic Church. There were two further councils, Vatican I (1869-70) and Vatican II (1962-65), after Trent. The first Vatican Council aggressively answered questions which Trent, in order to achieve anything by 1563, had avoided: it concentrated authority in the papal monarchy, just when all other monarchs in Europe were beginning to concede power to electorates which in the end would consist of every citizen of the state. In this concentration of power, Vatican I ignored (and assumed that it had consigned to oblivion) centuries of Catholic thought about the independent role of councils in the Church. The Second Vatican Council met in a Western Europe which had now decisively adopted democracy, and to the huge surprise and alarm of the central Vatican bureaucracy, Pope John XXIII himself opened up discussions about authority which threatened to reverse the decisions of Vatican I, and give (restore?) power not merely to bishops but to the entire faithful. The outcome of those discussions is still fiercely contested. In the minds of the last two popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, they never really happened, and nothing much has changed.

O’Malley is of the generation that found Vatican II a liberation and a new programme for the future. Indeed, he points out while discussing a particularly fraught stage of the debate about bishops in 1563 that the unruly Spanish bishops demanded a statement which ‘was close to that ratified in Vatican Council II in the mid-20th century’. In previous books, echoed here, he has spoken eloquently of the scholasticism which unhelpfully dominated the thinking of theologians and bishops at Trent and contrasted it with the different mood at Vatican II, at which a humanistic culture of poetry and rhetoric flourished, sensitive to the worlds beyond Christian dogma, to produce a council which in contrast to Trent, ‘defined nothing’, as he wrote in Four Cultures of the West. In the eyes of John Paul II and Benedict, scholasticism is still the means by which the Catholic Church analyses the world. Perhaps O’Malley is being unfair to Trent in saying that its lack of openness to Renaissance humanist scholarship was the reason that its grasp of church history was so poor: try seeing what 16th-century humanist scholars both Catholic and Protestant made of early church history – they really don’t do much better.

The great impression left by this excellent book is that Trent settled much less than people think. On clerical marriage and the use of the vernacular in liturgy, its statements were distinctly guarded and undogmatic: that was not because Trent wanted to please Protestants, whom Rome had written off by the time of the third council session in the 1560s, but to act as a gentle lure to the Orthodox, who cherished both clerical marriage and vernacular liturgy. That strategy was triumphantly successful in the next two centuries, as swathes of Orthodox Christians in eastern Europe and significant numbers in the Middle East became reconciled to Roman obedience; but it has borne new fruit in the modern age in relation to worship, and clerical marriage will no doubt be next. Trent left open the question of where power in the Church would lie in future; it was not the fault of the Tridentine delegates that in default of any independent body to keep a brief on developing its work, the papacy and its officials in the Curia stepped in to take the next initiatives, such as providing a universal catechism, a worldwide norm in liturgy and a revised edition of Saint Jerome’s Latin Bible. The same seizure of the reins happened after Vatican II, though O’Malley is too tactful to point that out here. I would much relish hearing his comments on his fellow Jesuit, Pope Francis. Every move that Francis has made in the opening months of his papacy has represented a confrontation (albeit one characterised by tact, eloquence and grace) with the mentality of the counter-revolutionaries in the Curia. Meanwhile, two grouches: O’Malley doesn’t provide enough year-dates in the text, so you forget whether some row or decree happened in May 1545 or May 1546, and have to flip back pages to work it out. And it’s a pity that American English has decided to amalgamate two useful but distinct words, ‘episcopacy’ (government by bishops) and the ‘episcopate’ (a whole group of individual bishops, or the term of office of a bishop). ‘Episcopacy’ shouldn’t be doing the work for both. To those who say it can, let them be anathema.

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Vol. 35 No. 12 · 20 June 2013

Diarmaid MacCulloch writes that ‘in one vital respect’ the Council of Trent ‘altered the life of every Roman Catholic’: ‘there was no such thing as a church wedding in the first millennium of church history’ (LRB, 9 May). In the East, however, Justinian legislated in 538 that, while ordinary people could constitute their marriage by intent alone, without matrimonial contracts, grandees who wished to marry without such contracts had to present themselves at a house of worship and have a marriage certificate made out, witnessed by at least three clerics.

David Miller

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