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My impressions on “Trent: What Happened at the Council”

Omalleytrent93I just finished reading an interesting book that is very relevant to working in Colombia: Trent: What Happened at the Council by John O’Malley, a Catholic scholar from Georgetown University.

My previous exposure to Trent was the occasional look at its doctrinal affirmations in preparation for teaching on various topics, like justification by faith for example. I really had no idea about the history of the Council. This books gave me a helpful understanding of the context of the council and its major debates. For example, why did the Council start in 1545 and not conclude until 1563? Or, why did the Council meet over the course of three periods (1545-47, 1551-52, 1559-63)? The author explains the political and religious reasons for this curious distribution of the Council.

I’m not going to do a formal review this book, but I did want to mention a few impressions that struck me from this book.

First, this book is another reminder that the Roman Catholic Church has not been as monolithic as many would have us believe. I had previously thought that Trent was a unified reaction against the Protestant Reformation, but O’Malley shows that the Council was actually the result of a three-way conversation (might I say struggle?) between the popes (a different one in each period), the bishops, and the monarchs. In the debates about almost every topic, these three players pushed and pulled for the position that would most benefit them. Charles V wanted reform of the moral aspects of the papacy, whereas the popes pushed for decrees on the doctrinal aspects.The popes tended to fear the power of a free council, so they controlled the agenda through the official legates they sent. These legates were the only ones who could propose items for the agenda.

Another interesting factor was that the attendance varied greatly over the course of the Council. This was in part due to the difficulties of traveling to Trent, located in the north of Italy, and to the tedium of attending a council that would last for more than a year at a time. The result of this varied attendance led to a rehashing of many issues over the course of the 18 years. At times, clergy from a given country could not attend certain sessions due to political reasons (the French for example). This again points up the eclectic nature of the different sessions.

The Council of Trent focused on two main issues: doctrinal and moral. These two issues were tackled in tandem. A given doctrinal point was determined and its practical outworking in the moral sphere was discussed at the same time. The main doctrinal points discussed were justification and the sacraments. The main moral issues were the abuses in the administration of bishoprics and parishes and the moral failure of many of the clergy. Many bishops had various bishoprics under their care and became rich as a result. The same happened with the priests and their parishes. Trent encouraged them to live in their region of pastoral care and dedicate themselves to their people. The issue of the marriage of clergy also came up. As others have mentioned, Luther’s teaching and example challenged the Roman Catholic Church’s position on celibacy as much as on the doctrinal issues. Sadly, the Council did not offer any reform towards the possibility of a married clergy, in spite of the desire of a number of bishops who attended. It’s no wonder that the RCC continues to struggle with moral failure on the part of their clergy.

I was also interested in the varied care that was given to various topics. For example, O’Malley says that the bishops took seven months to determine their position on justification. In contrast, they only spent several days on some of the last articles that dealt with marriage, veneration of the saints, and purgatory. These sessions were rushed because the pope wanted the Council closed by the end of the year. This fact left me wondering again about the pragmatism of the Council.

The book also offered a few historical tidbits that I found fascinating. For example, in the debate on the Apocrypha, the bishops were in disagreement. Some wanted to affirm the Apocrypha, while others didn’t. In the final decree, the Apocrypha was affirmed but no justification for its inclusion was given. Another interesting historical detail came as result of the Council’s discussion on the need to revise the Vulgate. Pope Sixtus finally had the Vulgate revised in 1590, but because of the poor quality of the work, Pope Clement VIII had another revision published in 1592 after Sixtus’s death. Since Sixtus had declared that his version could not be altered, Clement had Sixtus’s name placed on the cover page!

If you are interested in a review of this book, see Reformation21.



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