What's in a Word?

Trent and All Thatby John W. O'MalleyHarvard Univ. Press. 240p $24.95

Reformation? Counter-Reformation? Tridentine Age? Age of Confessionalization? Some of the above? All of the above?

John W. O’Malley, S.J., professor of church history at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass., argues that no one label is sufficient to embrace all the aspects of this most complex period. Thanks to Protestant dominance in historiography during the 18th and 19th centuries, however, the term Counter-Reformation came to be the accepted term for the Catholic effort at reform. But unfortunately for Catholics, it tended to convey the Protestant claim that theirs was the only true Reformation and the Catholic response a mere repressive effort by a decadent church. With an impressive display of erudition, O’Malley traces the major twists and turns in this great four-century-long battle of the books.


The German historians were the principal purveyors of the term Counter-Reformation and they used it with the concerns and prejudices consistent with their peculiar religious and political history(especially) as a battle axe against Catholics in the Kulturkampf. The term was also picked up most enthusiastically by the anti-clericals, especially those of the Risorgimento in Italy, who blamed the repressive Counter-Reformation for Italy’s cultural and political decline in the 16th century.

A counterattack by the great German Catholic historians Johannes Janssen and Ludwig von Pastor failed to dislodge the negative term Counter-Reformation. Janssen launched a bomb that labelled the Protestant movement a revolution; but it turned out to be, in O’Malley’s words, a historiographical dud. In fact, as noted above, the failure of Catholics in the 19th century to revise the pro-Protestant terminology highlights the marginal role Catholics played in the world of learning at that time.

But the picture changed in the mid-20th century, when Hubert Jedin arrived with his masterful three-volume history based on unrivalled archival research in the Vatican. Repeating Janssen’s view that the Protestant movement was a revolution, he accepted the variation Counter-Reform because it was so deeply embedded in the culture. But he put a positive spin on the term. He divided the Catholic movement of the 16th century into two aspectsreform and counter-reform. The Catholic Reform, he maintained, was a positive effort of the church to discover its true nature, while the Counter-Reform was its legitimate defense of this nature against those who aimed to destroy it.

Jedin’s impressive learning influenced the debate in Italy, where the anti-clericals still fought the issues of the present in terms of the controversies of the past. Delio Cantimore, who had already distanced himself from the purely repressive view of the Counter-Reformation, engaged in respectful dialogue with Jedin at the first congress of Italian church historians in 1958. This irenic spirit continued and characterized the international commemorative congress at Trent in September 1963.

The battle of the books broke out again, however, with the issuance of the six-volume critical edition of the minutes from the inquisitorial process against Cardinal Morone, a leading figure of the Council of Trent. In 1988 one of the most ardent polemicists, Paolo Simoncelli, blasted Jedin’s views. There was no Catholic Reform,’ Simoncelli insisted, only a Counter-Reformation that turned the church into a repressive, regressive, and retrograde institution.

Are we back where we started, O’Malley asks? Not so. He notes that a way out of the stale controversy was proposed by the Catholic Paolo Prodi, who asked scholars to move beyond the categories of Catholic Reform and the rest. Instead, Prodi called for exploration of the dynamic interaction between ecclesiastical organization, religious practice, spirituality and theology. In other words, he wanted social history. Taking up this quest, Don Giuseppe De Luca aimed to tell the history of pietà (the loved presence of God in human life) by use of hagiography, liturgical texts, poetry, painting and architecture, pilgrimage sites, superstitions and folkloric practices. Unable to complete this work before his death in 1963, it was left to a younger colleague, Gabriele De Rosa, whose work Vescovi, Popolo e Magia nel Sud was the first work in Italy to approach Catholic Reform as social history. Since then this approach has continued to gain momentum with a large number of impressive studies.

In France social history had already begun in earnest with the founding of the journal Annales d’Histoire Économique et Sociale in 1929. This approach enabled such Catholic scholars as Gabriel Le Bras and Jean Delumeau to bypass the whole Reformation versus Counter-Reformation terminology. Delumeau’s book Catholicisme Entre Luther et Voltaire situated the debate in a greatly enlarged framework. He saw the forces at work in the Catholic and Protestant split as only intensifications of similar realities already operative in the Middle Ages.

In Germany the Catholic scholar Ernst Walter Sadden and his students Wolfing Reinhard and Heinz Schilling added a new label to the social history of the reformation periodConfessionalization or Confessional Formationmeaning the way both Catholics and Protestants actually engaged in the similar task of erecting stable structures with their own doctrines, constitutions and religious and moral styles. This process is seen as the creative responses of rival siblings to the radical and wide-ranging changes in European civilization during the early modern period. O’Malley considers the introduction of this perspective an extraordinarily important historiographical event.

Returning to the question raised at the beginning, the answer for O’Malley is all of the above: Reformation, Counter-Reformation (understood in a positive sense), Tridentine Age, Confessionalization. Father O’Malley believes that each of these terms conveys an important aspect of the era and, in fact, are the terms now most in use by scholars of the period. However, he also pleads for use of another term, Early Modern Catholicism, which he thinks is more amenable to history from belowthe perspective that includes the doings of ordinary Catholics, men and women, lay and religious, and speaks of new realities in the Catholicism of that era.

A rose may smell as sweet by whatever name, but Father O’Malley’s book shows that when it comes to Reformation history a word may indeed make a world of difference. In making this point O’Malley has accomplished a remarkable featcutting a path through four centuries of heated controversy over events central to our religion and culture.

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