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Trent: What Happened at the Council by John W. O’Malley (review)

From: The Catholic Historical Review
Volume 99, Number 4, October 2013
pp. 749-764 | 10.1353/cat.2013.0208

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Introduction by Nelson H. Minnich (The Catholic University of America)

John W. O’Malley, who has distinguished himself as the preeminent historian of Catholicism in the early-modern period, has turned his attention to the most important event of that period, the Council of Trent (1545–63). Far from being a boring assembly of like-minded prelates and theologians who confidently reaffirmed traditional teachings and put order into a Church shaken by the challenge of Protestantism,

The council, extraordinarily difficult to convoke, was even more difficult to hold on course. During it, animosities and substantive differences surfaced that brought the council again and again to the brink of disaster. At the end the council was able to arrive at a considerable measure of resolution, but only after navigating hazardous waters and surviving hurricane-strength storms.

(p. 22)

O’Malley has striven to produce an accessible introduction to the council for the general reader, making “no big claims” (p. 11); to dispel the myths surrounding it; and to distinguish the Council of Trent from postconciliar phenomena that were closely related to it but not grounded in the council itself and tagged as components of “Tridentinism” (pp. 11, 275). His account is a delight to read—full of drama, analyses of the hopes and fears of leading protagonists and of the limiting political context in which they moved, insightful character sketches, pithy quotes from participants, balanced but sympathetic presentations of Protestant positions, contemporary Catholic teachings and practice and their antecedents, identification of the key issues at stake, the use of silence as a typical method of compromise, the content of the decrees and the material not included, the decrees’ claims to apostolic origins, the interpretation of the council’s chapters and canons, and the implementation of Trent. His study is based primarily on the documents of the council with reference to relevant secondary literature. It is a remarkable synthesis of the best of previous historians of the council: the drama and wit of Paolo Sarpi’s Istoria del Concilio Tridentino (1619), the meticulous documentation of Pietro Sforza Pallavicino’s three-volume Istoria del Concilio di Trento (1656–64), and the prodigious scholarship of Hubert Jedin’s four-volume Geschichte des Konzil von Trient (1949–75)—and all this in less than 300 very readable pages, enriched by appendices that provide a chronology of the council’s twenty-five sessions and a translation of the Tridentine Profession of Faith, plus thirty-four pages of notes. O’Malley is the masterful storyteller. What follows is a summary of his historical narrative and of the major themes of each chapter.

He begins his account with a description of the city of Trent (technically located in the German Nation, but on the Italian side of the Alps, under the jurisdiction of a prince-bishop and with a majority Italian-speaking population) and the three periods of the council in Trent (1545–47, 1551–52, 1562–63—it relocated to Bologna during 1547–49). He provides an overview of those who came to the council such as their numbers (varying from fifteen to 280 prelates per session) and their nationalities (mostly Italian, but with a sizable Spanish contingent, a small but significant German presence during the second period, a notable French presence during the third period, and a few representatives from other nations who were living in exile). He describes how the council was financed (at times claiming 18 percent of the papal budget) and how it was meant to address problems (clarifying Catholic doctrine and practice, and eliminating abuses). Its doctrinal decrees were often divided into chapters that provided a positive statement of church teachings and into canons (concise statements ending with an anathema) that condemned the saying and doing of things considered inconsistent with the Church’s beliefs and practice, not the thinking about them. The council did not condemn anyone by name. It sought to strengthen episcopal authority and was Eurocentric in its focus, ignoring the missionary Church. The councils of the previous century often dealt with the contentious question of the relationship between pope and council in the Church and failed to produce needed reform in the areas of pastoral care and religious...

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