Sunday, April 27, 2014

Back to Trent with John W. O'Malley, SJ

The  Second Vatican Council has been much in the news, Catholic and mainstream, occasioned by the canonization of the pope who called the Council and the pope who really implemented the Council (John XXIII and John Paul II). When George Weigel wrote on First Things about the canonization of those popes, he commented on the difficulties of implementing the Second Vatican Council;

As everyone who lived through the post-Vatican II years knows, John XXIII’s Council created a lot of turbulence of its own. One reason why, I’m convinced, is that Vatican II, unlike previous ecumenical councils, did not provide authoritative keys to its own proper interpretation. It defined no dogma. It condemned no heresy or heretic(s). It legislated no new canons for the Church’s law, it wrote no creed, it commissioned no catechism. These were the ways previous councils had told the Church, “This is what we mean.” Vatican II did none of that.

The Council of Trent did all all that. From that "Counter-Reformation" Council a new catechism, new statements for reform, decrees on the Sacraments, the crucial doctrine of Justification, etc, gave direction to the Catholic Church for centuries--well, until the Second Vatican Council! In fact, if you compare and contrast the two councils, the usual commentary is that Trent was doctrinal and Vatican II was pastoral. 

John W. O'Malley might disagree about that comment re: Trent: it was both doctrinal and pastoral as it was called both to combat the errors of Luther (and later Calvin) and to reform the Church of abuses and scandals, particularly to improve the care of souls. Thus the three sessions of the Council of Trent focused on both the definition of those doctrines most threatened by Lutherans ideas and the reform of the Church, especially the actions of bishops and parish priests. 

As Harvard University Press describes this 2013 book:

The Council of Trent (1545–1563), the Catholic Church’s attempt to put its house in order in response to the Protestant Reformation, has long been praised and blamed for things it never did. Now, in this first full one-volume history in modern times, John W. O’Malley brings to life the volatile issues that pushed several Holy Roman emperors, kings and queens of France, and five popes—and all of Europe with them—repeatedly to the brink of disaster.

During the council’s eighteen years, war and threat of war among the key players, as well as the Ottoman Turks’ onslaught against Christendom, turned the council into a perilous enterprise. Its leaders declined to make a pronouncement on war against infidels, but Trent’s most glaring and ironic silence was on the authority of the papacy itself. The popes, who reigned as Italian monarchs while serving as pastors, did everything in their power to keep papal reform out of the council’s hands—and their power was considerable. O’Malley shows how the council pursued its contentious parallel agenda of reforming the Church while simultaneously asserting Catholic doctrine.

Like What Happened at Vatican II, O’Malley’s Trent: What Happened at the Council strips mythology from historical truth while providing a clear, concise, and fascinating account of a pivotal episode in Church history. In celebration of the 450th anniversary of the council’s closing, it sets the record straight about the much misunderstood failures and achievements of this critical moment in European history.

O'Malley masterfully narrates the struggle to convene the Council, blocked by papal concerns about conciliarism and the efforts of Francis I of France to thwart the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, who urgently wanted the Church to launch a council for the sake of unity throughout his Empire. Francis I, Henry VIII, and the Schmalkaldic League of Lutheran princes wanted the Holy Roman Empire to be weakened from within by religious disunity. Throughout the following chapters that cover the three sessions of Trent, O'Malley keeps the narrative of events and his analysis of the decisions reached/documents issued in balance, providing details about personalities, the different factions, and the results of the theologians's discussions and the bishops' decisions.

I have not read his book about the Second Vatican Council--perhaps I'll look it up too. I checked this book out from the Wichita Public Library. I've read and reviewed his Trent and All That, and I read his Four Cultures of the West (might need to re-read it soon).

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