Trent: the first multilateral negotiation
Updated on 06 December 2023
Records of an international relations system go back to the mid-fourteenth century BC. At that time already, treaties were signed. Brides were exchanged. Relations between extractive elites focused on the balance of “vital interests” – power relations. International relations today are not so much about power relations as about common goals: mitigating climate change, protecting cultural goods, public health, whatever. Nations come together in negotiations to compare their ambitions and hammer out a program of action. When has this form of international cooperation begun? I suspect that the Council of Trent (1545-1563) was the first instance of such a gathering. The Pope’s representatives, many Bishops, and representatives of the greatest rulers (France. Holy Roman Empire, Spain, as well as Italian states) met to hammer out a common program of doctrine and reform for the Catholic faith. The laity hardly had its own voice during the gathering. The duality of the program papered over a basic disagreement. The Papacy wanted to clarify doctrine so as to condemn Protestantism while reserving reform to itself as head of a hierarchical Church. The political powers, who wanted political stability and religious peace, hoped for accommodation in the doctrinal sphere and concrete steps for the reform of a Church which, in many aspects, gave scandal to the laity. The Bishops, the prime actors in the Council, wanted to clarify and strengthen their role. On matters of doctrine, an informal group of theologians extracted questionable or heretical statements. Congregations of Theologians disputed them. Bishops may or may not attend. Bishops had their say later, in the General Congregations, which prepared the ground for Draft Decrees established by a Drafting Group. After reworking, the Decree a formal Session gave approval to them. Voting was partly secret, partly by open ballot. While earlier Councils took heretics head on, condemning them to the stake, here the indirect approach of “if statements” helped in the cooling of passions: “If someone should say… he will be excommunicated”. In the OECD, we used this exact approach to deal with violations of the Code of Conduct for Multinational Companies. This avoided inquisitorial procedures and provided quick interpretation of controversial Articles. On matters of reform, simpler and also more variable (if more chaotic) procedures prevailed. A drafting group headed by a Legate drew up the Draft Decree, which was then discussed in General Congregation. The Legates convened informal groups (what we would call “green room meetings”) as needed. The Legates resorted to well-known delaying tactics –the provided texts at the last moment. The Pope switched the venue to Bologna in the second period of the Council in order to suit his political purposes At the end the Legates spread the word of the impending death of the Pope to secure superficial treatment of many crucial issues in a rush to come to a close. Many matters of principle were swept under the rug. The Council is notable for what it did not as much as for what it did decide. Convened in part at least to reform the Church, the Council failed to issue a definition of the Church. Its piecemeal decisions attest to a hierarchical institution, but left the relations between the head and the substructures vague. Life moved on. After the Council closed people lived through the experience of implementing its mandates. Many took it as inspiration. St. Charles Borromeo was exemplary in this regard, even though he had an inordinate fondness for rule setting. Others took a minimalist line. The reform of the “head” – the Papacy – took centuries, and one may argue that it is still on the agenda. It is telling that the scrutiny and publication of the acts began in 1786 and ended in 2001. The myth of the Tridentine Council arose on this silence. Beyond the specifics, I’m impressed about the ease with which Legates and Bishops evolved procedural rules and tactics. We observe declination of the rules and procedures in action today – in only slightly changed form. Structures have a way to self-organize themselves and impose their inner logic on those who want to use them.