Given a longtime interest in European intellectual history, as well as a Catholic boyhood, I was consequently abashed to realize just how little I knew about the Council of Trent. It had something to do with the Church’s response to the Reformation. It established much modern Catholic doctrine and religious practice until Vatican II. Its rulings were characterized as “Tridentine.” And that was about it.
In his new book, John W. O’Malley, a professor at Georgetown University, succinctly lays out “What Happened at the Council” in fewer than 300 pages. Given that this conclave, held in Trento, Italy (then part of the Holy Roman Empire), took place over 18 years, in three distinct periods — 1545-47, 1551-52 and 1562-63 — and that its protracted and tetchy wrangling makes even last fall’s Congress look Periclean and statesmanlike, that’s quite an achievement. In multiple ways, Trent provided an ideological and political battlefield for three powerful factions: the pope and his advisers (the Curia); the sovereigns of France, the Holy Roman Empire, and a cluster of German duchies and Italian kingdoms; and, not least, the strong-minded and powerful bishops of the Church.
As O’Malley writes, “Luther set the agenda for the council.” Through his apostasy, Martin Luther challenged the Catholic Church in two ways: First, he argued that a person is saved “by ‘faith alone,’ and not by ‘works,’ not by our own striving.” His views could be summarized in the snappy sound bite: “Scripture alone, faith alone, grace alone!” Justification was, ultimately, all in God’s hands. One didn’t need all the sacraments, papal bulls, indulgences and ritual appurtenances of Rome, most of which smacked of Pelagianism, the “you-can-save-yourself-if-you-just-try-hard-enough version of Christianity.” What’s more, and this was his second great provocation, Luther publicized the corruption and failures of the Church’s ecclesiastical offices and practices.
Because of Luther’s theological cogency, supported by his righteous indignation (and the favor of German princelings), an unwilling Church found itself compelled, metaphorically, to sweep the money-changers from the temple. The Council of Trent thus had two goals: “the uprooting of heresies” and “the reform of the clergy and the Christian people.” Religious doctrine needed to be clarified, and the institutional church needed to correct abuses.