Resolution After the Storm

Author: Father John W. O'Malley

Resolution After the Storm

John W. O'Malley

Hubert Jedin and the history of a difficult council

History told like a novel. The following are excerpts from the introduction to the book Trent: What Happened at the Council (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press) by the historian John W. O'Malley, a Jesuit priest from the United States of America.

In 1975 Hubert Jedin (1900-1980), emeritus professor of church history at the University of Bonn and perhaps the most distinguished Catholic church historian of the 20th century, published the fourth and final volume of his history of the Council of Trent. It was the fruit of a lifetime of research and writing dedicated to the subject. Jedin's Geschichte des Konzils von Trient put our understanding of the council on a newly comprehensive and solid basis. It continues to be the first point of reference for all scholarship related to the council.

Strange though it may seem, we were until Jedin still caught in the grips of two incompatible classics from the 17th century, both written by Catholic priests. Paolo Sarpi's Istoria del Concilio Tridentino interpreted Trent as a tragic story of failure of true reform to carry the day and triumph of papal abuse of power. Although Sarpi was a Venetian, he published the book pseudonymously in London in 1619 to avoid censorship. Not until almost 40 years later did the Jesuit Sforza Pallavicino undertake a papally encouraged rejoinder in his two-volume Istoria del Concilio di Trento. Important though Pallavicino's works is, it lacks the verve and brilliance of Sarpi's. The two trajectories launched by these two publications continue to influence scholarship, but Jedin's history was a giant step in moving us beyond that impasse.

Few are those, however, who have made their way through Jedin's four formidable volumes. The first two were translated into English in 1957 and 1961. They aroused considerable interest because they appeared just as Vatican Council II (1962-1965) was about to get under way. Many people wanted to know the relationship between these two councils, especially once Vatican II began to be dubbed "the end of the Counter Reformation", just as Trent was considered its embodiment.

But then interest flagged, and Jedin's final two volumes, not published in German until 1970 and 1975, respectively, were never translated into English. In the meantime scholars from Western Europe continued to write books an[d] articles about the council intended for specialists. Among the most important is Alain Tallon's La France et le Concile de Trente (1518-1563), published in 1997. It attempts to balance a French perspective with a historiography on the council dominated by Germans, who according to Tallon were little comprehending of French policy vis-à-vis the council and unsympathetic to it.

Partly because of the excellence of Jedin's Geschichte and his many other writings on the council, scholarship especially in Italy has increasingly turned away from the council itself to its implementation and aftermath. The best of this scholarship makes a clear distinction between Trent and Tridentinismo ("Tridentinism"), that is, between what the council actually enacted and how its enactments were afterward interpreted. The distinction clarifies how the council grew into a myth beyond the reality of the event itself. If Jedin moved us beyond one impasse, this more recent scholarship, little of which is available in English, has raised further questions about the impact and meaning of "Trent".

My intention is simple: to provide an introduction to the council that will be accessible to the general reader and perhaps helpful even to the professional historian and theologian. In it I hope to put to rest a few of the myths and misunderstandings that abound about the Council of Trent. I lay out the context in which the council took place, the problems it faced, the solutions it adopted. I provide a framework for understanding the council as a single, though extraordinarily complex, event. The council had an internal logic of sorts that configured its seemingly scatte[re]d and uncoordinated elements. Once that logic is grasped, the many and seemingly discrete decisions the council took can be seen to fit into a generally coherent pattern.

I am, like everybody today who writes about the Council of Trent, deeply indebted to Jedin. He was the master who led the way. In the course of the many decades that have elapsed since the 1930s, when Jedin first began writing on the council, his work, not surprisingly, has shown its limitations. Still, it has in the main withstood the test of time remarkably well. Without him, I could not possibly have written this book.

The reform of the papacy was an abiding concern of the council that during the third period burst into a major and prolonged crisis. The concern included the traditional grievances about the luxurious lifestyle of the papal court and the loose morals of some of its members. On a deeper level it extended to curbing or eliminating the financial exactions that the popes laid on clergy and laity for ostensibly pious purposes. Resentment over such exactions in their different forms had simmered for generations. Luther posted his "Ninety-Five Theses" as a reaction to one of them, the "selling" of indulgences, and he capitalized on it in his "Appeal to the Nobility".

The sticking point at Trent, however, was the not unrelated practice of the papal court of giving dispensations from the canons that required bishops to reside in their dioceses and pastors in the parishes, and that stipulated one bishop per diocese, one pastor per parish. The dispensations fostered the widespread abuses of nonresidence and the holding of multiple benefices, at which reforming bishops at Trent took aim. If the heart of the Tridentine reform was to get bishops and pastors back home to do their job, papal practice was the loophole that threatened to make the council's legislation a dead letter. But to deal with the problem meant the council had to deal with the untouchable issue of "the authority of the Apostolic See". The conflict over this issue is a focal point in the drama of the Council of Trent.

Drama? The popular image of Trent is just the opposite of drama. Both admirers and detractors of the council have tended to imagine it as a monolithic and single-minded gathering, untroubled by rancor, confidently poised to take the steps necessary to put the Catholic house in order. The reality was anything but that. 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.

L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
24 January 2014, page 9

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