The Changing Historiography of the Council of Trent And Some of Its Real-World Effects

Giuseppe Alberigo’s informative article “The Council of Trent: New Views on Its Fourth Centennary”[1] opens by noting that unlike all previous councils the Council of Trent has remained “an active and operative factor, absolutely decisive in many aspects of the Church’s life.” This entails that Trent was not “a completely historicized event concluded long ago,” and leads us to consider that itshistoriography has gone through several phases which “faithfully mirrored the evolution of the general orientations of the Church.”[2]

“The Controversialist Phase” of Tridentine historiography lasted from the time of the Council’s end (1563) up to the end of the 19th century. Of immense significance to this phase is the fact that all studies and analyses of the Council, whether by Catholics or Protestants, were seriously deficient because the bulk of the primary source material was locked up in the Vatican’s Secret Archives. Imagine what this means for all the militant, fiery polemics issued by all sides for over three hundred years. Not only was the literature “very profuse but of predominately controversial inspiration.”[3] In addition, as all these fundamentally inadequate and unbalanced secondary works accumulated, they created a vast pool of severely prejudiced accounts on both sides from which still other scholars wrote still more prejudiced accounts. No one until the end of the 19th century had any kind of substantial store of firsthand documents available with which to support their studies. Consider what it might mean for the polemics on all sides that, say, while the formal decrees of the Council could be quoted and then analyzed (according to the jaundiced convictions of the particular scholar), nothing significant could be known about how those decrees were arrived at.

“The Critical Phase” of Tridentine historiography began with the opening of the Secret Archives to the worldwide community of scholarship in 1881 by Pope Leo XIII. For several decades scholars worked to collate and analyze the massive amount of primary source material available from Trent. They eventually succeeded in producing a universally-acceptable critical edition in four documentary series: Diaries, Acts, Correspondence, and Tracts. At last, serious, critical scholarly work on the Council of Trent could begin in earnest. This point, by the way, was reached in the year of the Lord’s incarnation 1938, three hundred and seventy-five years after the end of the Council of Trent. Numerous scholarly studies were soon produced. One of the most significant has been, of course, the Catholic scholar Hubert Jedin’s massive History of the Council of Trent, which, as Alberigo has it, “escapes from the legacy of defamation and apologia” and “casts aside superfluous accretions which adversaries and defenders alike had combined to heap on it, falsely making it either a ‘legend’ of decadence, or of ecclesial renewal and inexhaustible fecundity.”[4] Further, thanks to the wealth of Jedin’s analytical scholarship,

…The eighteen years from 1545 to 1563 are animated by an incessant dynamism in the midst of which even the most relevant acts–such as the dogmatic Decree on Justification of 1546 or the disciplinary decrees of 1563–can be seen and appraised as related to a certain time, to specific problems, and to a definite group of men. This fundamental process of historicization has established the decisive premises for an articulate and realistic evaluation of the conciliar decisions.[5]

The new researches have immensely clarified the period of the Council. Related to the fact that the Council made no definitive decrees about the nature of the Church (perhaps a startling observation given the Reformation’s fierce attacks on the Roman system), it has become clear that after the Council’s end Catholics were faced with such a radically changed historical situation (the institutionalized fragmentation of Christian Europe) that the Council’s decrees had to be almost immediately creatively interpreted. In other words, the Council’s decisions could not be thought of as static timeless truths, but had to be, for a while, applied as almost ad hoc “stopgap” operations, to preserve what could be preserved in a rapidly changing world.[6]

Eventually, though, the Council came to be seen as constitutive for the faith of the Catholic Church. “…[I]nstead of undergoing a process of decantation through the assimilation of its decisions into the Church’s tradition, Trent has been elevated to the status of that very tradition after forming and integrating it into the life of the Church.”[7] From this staticizing view on the Council came a rigid (and very defensive) “societal” reading of Catholic ecclesiology–an attempt, essentially, at maintaining the old Medieval “vertical” system which the Reformation had seemed to successfully destroy: “the exigencies of canonical structure and the defense of the traditional faith by means of controversy and repression gradually became the rule.”[8]

Dogma began to focus predominately on “analytic sacramental theology,” which, in combination with the “uncertainty of the place of Sacred Scripture in Christian life,” generated anemic preaching, imposing mystical speculations, and profoundly individualistic lay piety.[9]

Sociologically, thanks to the over-stressing of the hierarchical and the downplaying of the communal aspects of ecclesiology, the papacy became more powerful and the episcopacy less: “the guidance of the Church was assumed in an increasingly exclusive and direct fashion by the bishop of Rome through a series of structural reforms effectuated or brought to completion in the decades immediately following the close of the council.” The notion of reform “took the shape of a search for good ecclesiastical order.”[10] This deep concern with order, and its accompanying themes of papal jurisdiction and sovereignty, would only increase as the chasm between Christians grew and the secularization of the world continued to threaten the traditional cultural dominion of Christianity.[11]

Alberigo concludes his article with the tantalizing suggestion (at least, it seems tantalizing to me) that this old, static, Tridentine-inspired understanding of Catholicism has reached its end and is being replaced by something better. Thanks to the immense scholarly labors of several generations, the Council of Trent and its whole associated conception of Catholicism as outlined above has experienced a “complete and definitive historicization.” It is no longer thought of as “the norm of action,” but now as one more great “fundamental stage in the history of the Church.” Whereas “between the second half of the 16th century and the first half of the 20th century the Church’s contact with Christian tradition was ruled and screened by Trent,” from now on “the knowledge and influence of Trent will depend upon its assimilation into the Christian conscience.”[12]


  1. Concilium Vol. 7: Historical Problems of Church Renewal [Glen Rock, NJ: Paulist Press, 1965], pp. 69-87
  2. Pp. 69-70.
  3. Ibid, pg. 71
  4. Ibid., pg. 73.
  5. Pg. 74.
  6. Pp. 75-77.
  7. Pg. 81.
  8. Pg. 83, 85.
  9. “The general piety, unable to follow the singular mystical flights of a few elect individuals, nourished itself especially on the cult of the Blessed Virgin and the saints, accentuation the individualistic wave already manifested by Protestantism.”[Pg. 84]
  10. Pp. 85-86.
  11. This point is not found in Alberigo’s article; I am interpolating it from other articles I have read, some of which I have written about in On Nineteenth Century “Liberalism” As An Enemy of Faith.
  12. Pg. 87. This sort of remark seems to be an instance of a theme I am seeing all over materials from the Vatican II era–namely, the theme announced by Pope John XXIII himself, and subsequently taken up by Catholic scholars in all fields, that there is very often a great difference between eternal verities and particular historical forms in which those verities may be for a time expressed. The task of the post-Vatican II Catholic scholar appears to be learning to distinguish between these rather than merely, with naive “conservatism” clinging to what changing circumstances have truly revealed to be once-but-not-now legitimate expressions of the eternal verities. It’s a very intriguing theme, and to me it makes most Catholic-Protestant discussions in both print and on the Internet seem to be characterized by an action-reaction dialectic of mutual immoderate rigidity.
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