Originally, the purpose of the council was to secure peace in Europe, beat the Turks, and resolve the religious question. When it finally did meet, the goals had settled into clarifying Catholic doctrine, reforming the church and reuniting Christians. To the amazement of many, it was successful at the first two goals, but not the third. At this most expansive moment in Christian history, no voices from the new territories in Latin America or Asia were present, and issues significant for the global church did not come onto the agenda.
By the time the council met, dialogue between the reformers and the bishops loyal to Rome had become impossible. There were voices throughout the council calling for direct dialogue with the reformers. However, when some were present in the second session (1551-1552), polarization was so pronounced that true dialogue was not possible. Nevertheless, the council wisely couched its condemnations carefully so as to focus on excluded doctrines and not condemnation of persons or schools of thought. This has made ecumenical resolution of some of the issues easier in recent decades.
Many things are attributed to Trent that were really developments in the following decades. The doctrinal and reform decrees were implemented after, through new liturgical reforms, reordering of the church, the catechism and the practical examples of reforming bishops. The fact that contentious debates were able to be concluded (or avoided!) successfully is indeed remarkable, given the polarization among the bishops and princes loyal to conciliar and papal unity.
Some attribute 20th-century papal centralization and the uniformity of Western Latin liturgy to the acts of the council. However, both Pope Paul III, who opened the council, and Pope Pius IV, under whom it was brought to a conclusion, were assiduous in seeing that the theological relationship between bishops, councils and the papacy were not allowed to come to the floor, since there was clearly no consensus on the ecclesiological constitution of the church. This work would be left to Vatican Councils I, II and continued discussion in the modern ecumenical movement.
This is an extraordinary story of faith and fidelity, of conflict and compromise, and of the consolidation and innovation in worship, biblical preaching, institutional reordering and interdependence in the midst of conflict. It is surely a testimony to the Spirit’s activity in the church, laying the groundwork for the developments in liturgy, ecclesiology and understanding the faith which have emerged from Vatican II.
As we look back at what the church has accomplished in history, we are grateful for scholars like O’Malley who apply the critical tools, so fruitful in our view of the Scriptures, to the authoritative teachings from this contentious and seminal assembly.
Few Catholics can imagine a church without seminaries and seminary-trained clergy, where dioceses and wealthy parishes went for decades without resident leadership, with styles of worship without an international touchstone of global interdependence in Western Catholic liturgy, or where biblical preaching was an anomaly in parish life. While much more is attributed to the Council of Trent than was factually enacted there, the irreversible and positive impact of what was done remains a hallmark of the continual vitality, change and development of the Christian life and community.
Br. Gros, a member of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, is resident scholar in Catholic studies at Lewis University in Romeoville, Ill.