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Trent: the first multilateral negotiation

Published on 15 March 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

Records of an international relations system go back to the mid-fourteenth century BC.[1] 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 the whole, the Council accomplished its task. Bishops approved a set of unifying Canons for Papal endorsement: the texts covered both doctrine and reform. The Council, however, did not succeed in reconciling Catholicism with the Reformation. In addition, the Council failed to treat a number of core reform issues. This silence allowed later orthodoxies to fill the void. How did the assembly go about organizing its work? Specialists in multilateral relations will observe the emergence of familiar procedures. At the beginning, there was little more than an inchoate expression of political will. Many centers of power expressed more or less articulated ideas of what the Council should treat. De facto, Martin Luther, who never set foot in the Council’s rooms, set the agenda. A (hardly representative) group of Bishops under the direction of Papal Legates met in the Council. The Powers were officially present: their ambassadors worked on the agenda through Bishops from their lands. The Council soon structured its work on a binary track. There would be “joint” decrees on doctrine and reform. The presiding Legates, whom the Pope had appointed, set out their content at the outset. In their presiding work, however, they had to respect the wishes of the Bishops and the Powers. The balancing task proved taxing on them. A committee structure soon emerged to facilitate discussion.[2] 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.

[1] Raymond COHEN – Raymond WESTBROOK (Eds.) (2000): Amarna diplomacy. The beginnings of international relations. Johns Hopkins, Baltimore.
[2] I am following here John W. O’MALLEY (2013): Trent. What happened at the Council. Belknap, Harvard University Press, Cambridge)

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