Trent cannot take all the credit for reform, says David J. Levy
Trent and All That: Renaming Catholicism in the Early Modern Era by John O'Malley, Harvard University Press £1 650
JOHN O'MALLEY teaches church history at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in the United States and is the author of a work on the early history of the Jesuits. His new work is a brief but remarkably thorough overview of how historians have sought to make sense of the way the Catholic Church responded to one of the most complex periods of her history. Taking as his starting point Hubert Jedin's 'bur volume history of the Council of Trent, O'Malley brings together a vast amount of scholarship to show how the Church reacted not simply to the Protestant Reformation, but also to the other new challenges she faced in an age that witnessed both the rise of the nation state and the creation of vast imperial structures that, by way of conquest, carried the message of Christianity throughout the world.
O'Malley's book also helps us to understand the way the identity of the modern
Catholic Church was formed in an era in which the history of Europe became, for the first time, the formative motor of the history of the world. As such, it helps us to make better sense of the world we know today. For the same period that saw the supremacy of the Catholic Church challenged in its Western European homeland also witnessed the beginning of that process of globalisation that allowed the message of faith to attain, potentially at least, the universality to which it had always theoretically aspired.
It was out of this paradoxical situation that the character of modern Catholicism emerged. And thus, though only professional historians will be familiar with the historical literature with which O'Malley deals, many of the substantive questions he raises will be of interest to anyone concerned with the present state of the Church.
Hubert Jedin conceptualised 16th-century Catholicism in terms of the twin ideas of "Counter-Reformation" and "Catholic Reform", and saw both as legacies of the Council of Trent. The first refers to the ways in which the Church counteracted the external assault of the Protestant reformers and the second to the manner in which, through internal renewal. she endeavoured to remedy the abuses that first laid her open to the permanent disruption that Luther precipitated.
0 14 ALL.F,Y acknowledges that Jedin's monumental work remains an essential reference point. However, by focussing on a council concerned above all with matters of Church discipline, it overestimated the changes that the conciliar decrees brought to the papacy and the structure of the Church. It also undervalued the independent contribution that new orders such as the Jesuits made to the renewal of Catholic life.
The more recent literature that O'Malley reviews has focussed attention both on the vitality of Catholic spiritual life before the council and on the contribution that the new orders made to the reinvigoration of missionary work and education, areas in which the council took little interest.
Looked at in this light, the Council of Trent, significant though it was, becomes only one among a number of factors that formed the identity of the Church in the early modern age; and post-Tridentine Catholicism emerges as at once more complex and less rigidly subject to centralised control, as well as more continuous with its past, than either Catholic or Protestant historians have tended to assume.
O'Malley argues that "Counter-Reformation", "Catholic Reform" and the more recent "Confessional Catholicism" all fail to capture the era's diversity; he prefers "Early Modem Catholicism". I leave it to his fellow historians to judge how useful this is. His book's achievement is to show that Catholicism's capacity for renewal has always been more prone to unexpected turns than its friends or enemies have realised.