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What Happened at the Council

John W. O'Malley

ISBN 9780674066977

Publication date: 01/15/2013

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Winner of the John Gilmary Shea Prize

The Council of Trent (1545–1563), the Catholic Church’s attempt to put its house in order in response to the Protestant Reformation, has long been praised and blamed for things it never did. Now, in this first full one-volume history in modern times, John W. O’Malley brings to life the volatile issues that pushed several Holy Roman emperors, kings and queens of France, and five popes—and all of Europe with them—repeatedly to the brink of disaster.

During the council’s eighteen years, war and threat of war among the key players, as well as the Ottoman Turks’ onslaught against Christendom, turned the council into a perilous enterprise. Its leaders declined to make a pronouncement on war against infidels, but Trent’s most glaring and ironic silence was on the authority of the papacy itself. The popes, who reigned as Italian monarchs while serving as pastors, did everything in their power to keep papal reform out of the council’s hands—and their power was considerable. O’Malley shows how the council pursued its contentious parallel agenda of reforming the Church while simultaneously asserting Catholic doctrine.

Like What Happened at Vatican II, O’Malley’s Trent: What Happened at the Council strips mythology from historical truth while providing a clear, concise, and fascinating account of a pivotal episode in Church history. In celebration of the 450th anniversary of the council’s closing, it sets the record straight about the much misunderstood failures and achievements of this critical moment in European history.


  • John O’Malley is the doyen of historians of the Catholic reformation… His new history of Trent sets out to bring the cold light of historical scrutiny to bear on the legends that surround the council itself and its achievements. There is, astonishingly, no modern study of the Council of Trent in English…[so] O’Malley’s lively one-volume survey is to be welcomed on that score alone. But his scrupulously researched and balanced book is also an intervention in fraught and sometimes acrimonious controversies within the modern Roman Catholic Church… His concern is to deconstruct the myth of Trent and ‘Tridentinism’ as a timeless encapsulation of the unchanging continuities of a Catholicism immune to history. Trent, in his view, was no monolith but a straggling historical event, stretched out over two decades and often at the mercy of the European politics that had delayed its convening until all realistic hope of a reconciliation with Protestantism had passed.

    —Eamon Duffy, New York Review of Books


  • 2015, Winner of the Philip Schaff Prize
  • 2014, Winner of the John Gilmary Shea Prize


  • John W. O’Malley was University Professor in the Department of Theology at Georgetown University and the author of many books, including Four Cultures of the West, Trent, Vatican I, What Happened at Vatican II, and The First Jesuits (all from Harvard); The First Jesuits has been translated into twelve languages. He was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the American Philosophical Society, and a recipient of the Harvard Centennial Medal as well as Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Society for Italian Historical Studies, the Renaissance Society of America, and the American Catholic Historical Association. O’Malley was a member of the Society of Jesus and a Roman Catholic priest.

Book Details

  • 352 pages
  • 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
  • Belknap Press

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