History overflows with conflicts, treaties, personalities, religious and political ­controversies and all sorts of paradigm-shifting events that are, for many of us, just names. What happened at the Battle of Manzikert? Why do we care about the Edict of Nantes — and its Revocation? How does a Whig differ from a Tory? What is Pelagianism? Who was Michael Bakunin?

Yes, we can now type in these names and Wikipedia will supply us with quick answers. Yet once, people worked hard to possess the past, to absorb the main currents and facts of history: Such knowledge provided a ground to understanding the present. No more. These days we don’t bother to remember that “old stuff,” i.e., everything that took place before our own birth: Our search engines will do that for us.

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.

’Trent: What Happened at the Council’ by John W. O'Malley (Belknap/Harvard Univ. 335 pp. $27.95). (Belknap Press)

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.

But this wouldn’t be easy. Trent’s changing mix of bishops and theologians, papal legates and political envoys served not only the Lord but also His representatives on Earth, including the pope in his secular role as a power-player on the world stage. The political ambitions of Emperor Charles V and his son Philip II of Spain, the nationalism of France’s King Francis I and England’s Henry VIII, the rivalries of Italian city-states, the ongoing threat of Turkish invasion — provided a backdrop to the council’s intellectual activities.

Moreover, the Vatican openly feared general councils, if only because they opened up the dangerous question of whether conciliar authority, chiefly consisting of bishops, was greater than papal authority. Do bishops receive their power from Christ directly or from him through the pope, the successor of Peter? In the past, councils had deposed popes. Disagreements between councils and Rome could even lead to schism. Complicating the matter further, the chief Tridentine obsession, returned to again and again, was widespread Church malfeasance.

Many bishops, if not most, didn’t reside in their assigned diocese — and many lived lavishly on the income from several appointments at once. All too often, they did little for the glory of God and all too much for the glory of themselves. Thus from the beginning, “episcopal residence” became “the lightning-rod issue of the council and the defining element in its pastoral reform.” On the humbler clerical level, the council debated, and eventually tabled, the issue of whether priests should be allowed to marry. In many places, they already lived openly with a mistress or wife. But what about the popes? During the 16th century, forceful Italian aristocrats connived to be elected to the chair of Peter, made cardinals out of teenage nephews, and fathered children by concubines before and during their papacies. Reform was needed, root and branch, no matter how dire the financial consequences.

Ultimately, the council took up questions of dogma and ecclesiastical reform in alternation. Nothing was easy. For example, how much weight should be ascribed to the traditions of the Church and its supposedly unbroken continuity with the apostles? There were, in fact, almost too many traditions to consider:

“Doctrinal traditions. Disciplinary traditions. Ecclesiastical traditions. Apostolic traditions. Traditions with an obvious basis in Scripture. Traditions with seemingly little or no such basis. Fasting on Friday? Infant baptism? The sign of the cross? The observance of Sunday? Auricular confession? Christ’s descent into hell, which was an article of the Creed but not easily or at all found in the New Testament? Communion under both forms, bread and wine, an early apostolic tradition no longer observed? Are the decisions of previous councils traditions? What about the writings of the Fathers?”

Some of these matters were addressed at Trent; many were skirted; and others, seemingly minor, took up enormous amounts of time. Catholic Communion was administered through the host alone, but what was the status of the Eucharistic cup? Should the Bible be available in the vernacular — or was that simply encouraging heresy? One of the most far-reaching, if easily overlooked, Tridentine accomplishments lay in establishing seminaries, which resulted in a better-educated and more responsible clergy.

In the last days of its third session, the council rushed through decisions about all sorts of key issues, including the existence of purgatory and the veneration of saints. Gradually, however, the Church did begin to change its ways. Still, as O’Malley stresses, the austere example of prominent contemporary bishops, such as the saintly Carlo Borromeo, was of almost equal importance in regaining respect, obedience and love.

“Trent: What Happened at the Council” is written with the clarity and learning one expects of a Jesuit scholar. Its introduction and epilogue are especially cogent expositions of the basic accomplishments of Trent, which I have hardly done more than touch on. The bulk of the book, however, comes across as both fascinating and somewhat disillusioning, as we observe the constant tug of earthly powers in the formulation of spiritual doctrine. There are no angelic doctors, as Thomas Aquinas was called, among the council’s deeply savvy leaders. The dark ascendancy of party politics must, I suspect, be counted one further consequence of Original Sin.

Dirda reviews every Thursday in The Washington Post.


What Happened at the Council

By John W. O’Malley

Belknap/Harvard Univ. 335 pp. $27.95