History, Reviews.

Trent: Too little, too late

Book Book Review, Title Trent, Author John W. Malley, Rating 3.0,


John W. Malley

Book Review

Trent: What Happened at the Council, is a well-researched and well-told history of the Council of Trent, the mid-sixteenth-century Counter-Reformation centerpiece which produced the Catholic Church's response to the Protestant Reformation. This acount is carefully grounded in the complex politics of its times, placing the history of the Council in the balance- of-power tug-of-war, not just between reform movements within and without (Protestants) the Church, but among the nascent Ottoman Empire, the English Reformation, the Holy Roman Empire, the Papal States and the French monarchy.

Much of the maneuverings around the convocation of the Council was secular or driven by internal Church politics.  The Papacy did not want to relinquish power to the Council, and several popes repeatedly delayed the start; their recalcitrance was rivaled by many of the German nobility and the French monarchy.  By the time the Council finally met in 1545, nearly thirty years had past since Luther’s challenges to the Church, and the die had been cast in Europe, with Protestantism firmly established as much on political lines as from religious differences.

The Council made little effort to consider the more radical Protestant doctrinal changes, and feeble efforts to include Protestant leaders in their discussions.  The outcome of Trent did produce some belated reform of the Catholic Church, and set doctrinal guidelines that have persisted into contemporary times, but failed utterly in bringing about any reconciliation of Protestants and the Catholic Church.

The author is particularly good in describing perhaps the central figure in this drama, the Holy Roman Emperor, Habsburg Charles V, who made repeated attempts to hold together his fractious Empire and his Church, against finally impossible odds.  Charles genuinely wanted to effect a reconciliation between the religious factions, for both religious and secular reasons, but he was nearly alone in that desire.  Among his many challenges, Protestantism had proved to be immediately and permanently useful for many of Charles’ vassals in reducing his dominion over them and their territories under the Holy Roman Empire.

I read much of the book, but must confess that the some of the intricate details of doctrinal issues and internal Church political wrangling in the first and second meetings were just too Catholic for me, and I skimmed some of those sections. That being said, the author’s historical analysis was quite thorough and balanced, from both a religious and a secular perspective, and well worth the read.

Thanks to my nephew, Thomas, who gave me this book last Christmas. I put it to good use: Thomas, who is a history teacher, let me lead a discussion on the Reformation in his AP Western Civilization class.

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