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When Bishops Meet: A Review

                                                                                                                                                                                          John W. O’Malley, When Bishops Meet: An Essay Comparing Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II (Cambridge, MA, Belknap, Harvard U. P., 2019), 240 pp., $33.95.

Having just finished reading this wonderful little book, I can hardly praise it enough or recommend it too highly. Having read this Jesuit historian’s previous books on Vatican II and on Trent (though not on Vatican I), there was not a lot that was new, and yet, at the same time, it was all new. The book is unique.

As O’Malley says in the Introduction, “No book like it exists in any language regarding these councils, not does any book like it exist in any language regarding other councils” (p. 4). This is a whole new way of looking at the councils and studying them – together rather than in sequence.

Clearly structured and simply written, the book’s three parts deal first, with the issues, then with the participants, and finally with their impact and the possibility of future councils.

Sometimes the author corrects false impressions: “Contrary to what is commonly thought, Pope Paul III did not convoke the council [of Trent] to condemn Luther.” (p. 20) Rather it was to try to find a way to reconcile with the reformers. What O’Malley does best, however, is to provide the cultural setting for each of the councils.

It was the Emperor Constantine who convoked the first church-wide council, that of Nicaea, in 325, which set patterns for the future. To it he invited all the bishops of the empire (the bishop of Rome did not attend but sent two priests to represent him).

Pope Gregory (who ruled from 1073 to 1085) established a Great Reform to counter the imperial and regal claims to authority, and to decide the question of who has final authority in the church.

Shortly after this reform, a new category of ecclesiastical dignity known as cardinals, was created, to whom was confided the right to elect the pope. Their role at the Council of Trent was marginal, however, in comparison with Vatican I and II.

The town of Trent, hundreds of miles north of Rome, was chosen because it was in German lands where the Lutherans who came to it could feel safe. Both Paul III and Pius IV excused themselves from attending because of old age or poor health, and were represented by legates drawn from cardinals of the curia.

Luther had already been excommunicated in 1521, and by the time the first session of the council convened in 1545, positions on both sides had hardened, making reconciliation impossible. Luther’s “Appeal to the German Nobility” (1520) had aligned Protestant princes against both the emperor and the pope, and so, on one level, the council failed at both political and religious reconciliation.

On another level, it initiated reforms that were desperately needed. Forcing bishops to reside in one diocese (rather than collect revenue from two or more dioceses while residing in some other) provoked a crisis which took months to resolve.

Bishops were also required to hold annual synods to implement the decrees of the council. In 1588, Pope Sixtus V completely reorganized the Roman curia into fifteen congregations or departments. “He thus created one of the first modern bureaucracies” (p 178).

“The first step for understanding Vatican I is that it met in the Vatican” (p 90). Before Trent five earlier councils had met at the popes’ cathedral of Saint John Lateran in Rome. In the intervening centuries, the church became divided over who is ultimately in charge, the bishops or the pope, and many if not most bishops would have resisted holding a council in Rome.

The French Revolution (1789) later led to the captivity and death in France of Pope Pius VI (in 1799), and it was only the opposition of his successor, Pius VII (who excommunicated Napoleon), that eventually gave rise to greater prestige for the papacy and led, in western Europe, to the “ultramontane” movement, with its desire for a strong papal authority “beyond the Alps,” safely in Rome.

By the time Vatican I opened in 1869, under Pius IX, three revolutions (the French Revolution, the Scientific Revolution, and the the Industrial Revolution) had drastically changed the culture of the modern world.

Liberalism became the term that summed up a number of things: “rationalism, atheism, democracy, disrespect for authority, disdain for tradition, contempt for religion, and the radical secularization of society” (p 158). The decree on the primacy of the pope also included a chapter on infallibility. It was passed with a number of bishops leaving early rather than cast a negative vote, and the council itself was cut short by war.

Vatican I seemed to put an end to the need for further councils, and an end to the pope’s collegial governance with the bishops.

“In this context, Pope John XXIII’s announcement on January 25, 1959, that he intended to convoke a council came as a shock” (p 77). Eventually, the council document “On the Hierarchical Constitution of the Church” (Lumen Gentium), made it clear that the bishops, together with the pope, govern the Church.

Pope John died in 1963. In 1965, during the final period of the council, his successor, Paul VI, on his own initiative, exercised his primacy to establish the Synod of Bishops, thus making collegial governance operative in the church.

Councils by definition are meetings of bishops, but how are they to attend when they live all over the world? Trent opened with only twenty-nine bishops present, or only five percent of an episcopacy of 600 (at its peak Trent numbered about 200).

Vatican I opened with 700 bishops out of 1,050, while 2,400 bishops attended the first session of Vatican II, or 90 percent of the episcopacy. Methods of travel made a huge difference in the councils’ numbers.

The ten commissions established by John XXIII to prepare the documents were controlled by curial cardinals. The suspicion, “all too often substantiated” (p 98), was that a small group of them was trying to frustrate the direction the council was taking. Eventually the majority of the bishops won out.

Besides bishops (who alone could vote) there were many lay people, in the form of crowned heads of state, at the Council of Trent, while no princes were at Vatican I. At Trent theologians were also present as advisors (Francis I, king of France, sent twelve, while Pope Paul III sent only two).

Vatican II, however, opened with an official list of 228 theologians, canon lawyers, and other specialists. By the last phase of the council, the list had grown to 480.

What is especially striking about Vatican II was Pope John’s “cordial invitation to the faithful of the separated communities to participate with us in this quest for unity and grace” (p 161), who were urged to send observers. During the council, between fifty and a hundred observers were present from the Orthodox and Protestant churches.

On 7 December 1965, a joint declaration of Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athanagoras of Istanbul lifted the excommunications of 1054, and three days earlier the pope presided at an ecumenical prayer service for observers, held at the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls.

Unlike Vatican I, which opposed the modern world, Vatican II made every effort to engage with it. On Oct. 4, 1965, during the council’s final period, Pope Paul VI addressed the United Nations; it was the first time a pope had visited the New World.

“His message was simple, direct, and delivered in elegant French. It was about social issues…” and the necessity of cooperation among nations, and ended with the plea, “No more war!” and a call for peace to guide the destiny of humanity.

When we look back we can see how far the Catholic Church and the other Christian churches have come since Trent. No Jews were present at Vatican II, but they followed it closely in anticipation of its final decree on the Church’s relation with non-Christian religions, especially with Judaism.

Though not inexpensive for a book of its size, it is beautifully bound in crimson and gold, and well worth the price. I would urge you to support your local bookstore and purchase it there rather than buy it for $2.07 less on Amazon.