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Trent-What happened at the Council

During the summer the Institute is posting in this space each month a review of a recent book that we commend as a good resource for reading about the Reformations of the 16th century. This first review is by Eric O. Springsted, a member of the Company of Teachers and interim senior pastor at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City.

John W. O’Malley, Trent: What Happened at the Council. Cambridge; Harvard University Press, 2013.

Our knowledge of history can be divided into at least two sorts. In the first place, there is our effective knowledge of history. This is the history that we know and use to weave together a more or less coherent account that makes up the narrative of our place in the world and our commitments. By education, it can accumulate details and subtlety.

It is basically, though, a series of highlights and episodes. In the second place, there is the whole blooming, buzzing confusion of human events, unsorted, and waiting for the historian to press them into service, to confirm, or challenge, or expand the narratives we live with. It is has been my experience that most Protestants have an effective knowledge of religious history that runs something like this: first there was Jesus and the apostles and the early church, and all was right. Then the church went to hell in a handbasket throughout the middle ages, and then there was Luther – and if you are Reformed, Calvin. Then there is us. If you come from a post-Reformation denomination, you might have some knowledge of, say, Wesley, or Menno Simons, or some other figure. A lot of seminary graduates don’t have many more details.

The five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation is going to provide lots of opportunities to fill in the missing details. Some of them will be relatively narrow with respect to their focus. For example, this past winter, three inter-related exhibits in Minneapolis, New York, and Atlanta, were mounted to celebrate Luther. It was wonderfully thorough – on Luther. There wasn’t much that was missing in terms of the physical record or from his publications. In Minneapolis, you could see his beer mug, his study, and the pulpit from which he preached his last sermon. In New York at the Morgan Library, you could see a broadside of the Ninety Five Theses and the Pope’s Bull of Excommunication. Other Reformers, though, hardly merited a mention. If knowledge is to make us any wiser, it has to go beyond these narrow confines. For anybody who wants to go all the way and to know what the Reformation was about and what it wrought as a whole, and what that means for today’s church, here is the imperative to read John W. O’Malley’s Trent.

There is, I suppose, some excuse for Protestants not to know a lot about what went on at the council of Trent. Although it was supposed to deal with Protestantism, it did not begin until 1545. It did not end until 1563, having met three times with several lengthy hiatuses. There were already Protestant churches at its beginning. Protestantism was no longer just an urgent demand for reforming the church; it had its own institutional identity. While there was some idea of having Protestants participate, some hope for reconciliation, there was recognition even before the council was convened that this was not realistic and that the Roman Catholic Church needed to get on with its business. During the second period of the council, some Lutherans were included, but dialogue played little or no role by this time. The biggest doctrinal issue, justification by faith, had already been decided on during the first period, anyhow.

So, it is not surprising that Trent plays little or no role in Protestant thinking. To most Protestants who think about it all, it simply confirms what they are already suspicious about with respect to the sixteenth century Catholic church. That is to say, the council was simply a highly reactionary event of the Roman Catholic church to the Protestant Reformation. It was a council that said “no” to most everything that Luther and the Protestants were trying to say “yes” to – Scripture, church reform, sacraments, justification by faith alone, criticism of papal authority. “Trent” has become a code word for conservative Catholic reaction. Yet, as O’Malley makes clear, there was a lot more to Trent than this. Furthermore, a lot of what followed Trent, but what was not actually decided by Trent, is blamed on the council.

But why should we make the effort to understand this council? There are, I think several reasons. First, is to get a sense of the Catholic reformation. The term is not an oxymoron. What Luther wrought was taken very seriously, and by a lot of different people. Theologians and bishops did deeply consider what the Reformers said about justification. They sought to deal with it; although, as O’Malley correctly observes, there simply were two different ways of thinking here. The Catholics kept thinking in the logical, systematic terms of Scholastic theology, while Luther’s doctrine was largely worked out in reference to experience. The two sides didn’t have to disagree but to come to an agreement they had to understand each other, and that they couldn’t do. It didn’t help, either, that Trent focused almost entirely on Luther, and barely considered Calvin, whose emphasis on sanctification as a necessary next step of justification would have been a much more amenable way of looking at the matter for Catholics. To know that is to know something about how to approach ecumenical dialogue today. Positive marks, too, have to be given to the many people involved at Trent who cared deeply about reforming the Church’s practices, and eliminating abuses. Much of the push to call the council had to do with this, and in the end, it was these issues that the council spent its most time on. For example, the question of whether bishops needed to reside in their dioceses was one of the great questions of the council. Ultimately, it decided that this was essential, and that the real point of being a bishop was the pastoral care of souls. While that may sound obvious now it wasn’t then. The issue also has had repercussions in time forward. The authority of the bishops was a subsequently a great issue at Vatican II, and continues as an issue today.

A third reason is also worth mentioning. There was something very humanly realistic about Trent that has to do with the issues of power and authority. A good student of the Protestant Reformation surely understands that Luther’s protest was effective not because it was so clear and bright that it had an immediate effect on minds. Luther succeeded very much because of the political situation of his time. Had not the German princes been in a struggle with the pope and with the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Luther would surely have lost his life very early on. The same sort of issues of power were in play at Trent, and the players had some surprising roles. The calls for reforming the church largely came from the Emperor. Some of that was a moral commitment, but he was also worried about the effect of the Reformers in the German lands he ruled. He would be weakened if the church didn’t respond. On the other hand, there were also the entrenched interests of the bishops and religious orders. Third, the popes’ interests were paramount – and there were a number of popes over the course of the council. Any change in the established balancing formula would have ripples. So, it is small wonder that it was so difficult to come up with satisfactory positions, and what Trent did do in terms of reform thus needs a fair amount of respect. This is one of those areas where history teaches a lot about our own situations, if we are willing to pay attention.

O’Malley does a wonderfully fine job in laying all this out. The author of what is pretty much the now standard account of Vatican II ( 2008), he writes as clearly as one can write about the ongoing and very intricate events and machinations of a large council that has far reaching consequences. The book is particularly valuable in that O’Malley writes both an introduction and lengthy epilogue highlighting and discussing the most important issues of the council, including the theological and pastoral ones, as well as the issues of authority and power. To read that much is to learn a great deal. The account of the council itself is masterfully and succinctly and clearly done, especially given a subject as complex as this. Indeed, it is complex enough that no one has tried to write such a book in over a generation. So, if this is the current generation’s account, well, then, we have been well served. This book is essential for understanding the Catholic reaction to the Protestant Reformation, as well as the age of Reformation. It is even more essential for approaching any sort of Catholic/Protestant dialogue with real understanding of the mind of the other.

May 2017
Eric O. Springsted
Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church
New York, New York

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