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What Happened at the Council

John W. O'Malley

ISBN 9780674067608

Publication date: 01/15/2013

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.


  • In Trent: What Happened at the Council, distinguished author John O'Malley disentangles for us the complicated history of one of the most important ecumenical councils ever held, extracting for us the essential issues from the often animated discussions and the technically formulated decrees on doctrine and reform. Written in a lively literary style without recondite terminology, this compendious account of the Council of Trent will be useful not only to students of church history, theology, and canon law, but also to anyone interested in the religious and cultural developments of the early modern Western world.

    —Robert Trisco, Catholic University of America


  • 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

  • Belknap Press

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