Vatican Council II (First Session) Background and Debates
By XAVIER RYNNE
According to Pope John, it was towards the end of 1958, shortly after assuming the papacy, that he engaged the late Cardinal Tardini in a troubled conversation regarding the state of the world and the Church's role in it.
Noting the agitation and anxiety in which the modern world was plunged, and the apparently hopeless repetition of clamourings for peace and justice, he asked his Secretary of State what might be done to give the world an example of peace and concord nerween men and an occasion for new hope, when suddenly there sprang to his own lips the words, "A Council!".
Uncertain of his most intimate aide's reaction to such an idea, and expecting to be deluged with a torrent of objections from this seasoned statesman, the pope was overcome when Cardinal Tardini responded with an immediate and emotion-charged assent: "Si, sil un Conefflo!"
About a month later, the pope received a strikingly different reaction to his inspiration. This occurred on January 25, 1959, and came from a group of close associates, following the celebration of a mass for Church unity in the Benedictine monastery at the basilica of St. Paul's Outside the Walls.
The pope gathered round him the eighteen cardinals present for the occasion and talked to them intimately of the affairs of the Church. He first told them of his intention to hold a local Synod for the diocese of Rome, to renew the Christian way of life in the centre of Christendom.
Then turning his attention to world conditions, he painted a brief and vivid picture of the good and evil influences struggling to control the contemporary world. He pointed to the sanctity and the moral confusion that exist side by side in villages, cities, and nations throughout the world, and to the continual temptation facing modern man to make an idol of scientific progress.
In order to proclaim the truth, he said, and to reanimate the faith of Christians, and thereby to contribute to the well-being of the world here and now, he had decided to call a Council of the Universal Church. Then he turned to the cardinals, and said, simply: "I would like to have your advice." The cardinals to a man sat mute before him. Not a single word of response was uttered.
The pope has candidly recorded his disappointment: "Humanly we could have expected that the cardinals, after hearing our allocution, might have crowded around to express approval and good wishes." Yet he put the kindest and most charitable light on their unanimous failure to show any immediate reaction: "Instead there was a devout and impressive silence. Explanations came on following days ..."
Cardinal Tardini's original response to the pope's inspiration regarding the Council was immediate and sincere; we have Pope John's word for it. It is probable that later the cardinal had serious doubts about the feasibility of so vast an undertaking as an Ecumenical Council and, more particularly, about directing it primarily at the reunion of Christians.
It is believed to be Tardini who first broached the idea of the Roman Synod, perhaps as a delaying tactic. or more likely as a pilot-project to give the pope and the Curia some notion of the complexities involved in organising a worldwide Synod. Little by little, Vatican officials began to face the pontiff with stiff objections to the idea of the Council. its objectives, and the possibility of holding it within a few years. Some serious-minded
counsellors were convinced that ten, even twenty years of preparation were necessary.
The result of these cautions was a maturing decision on the pontiff's part to hold the Council well within the first years of his pontificate. Being a realist, he had the normal fears of a man of his advanced age that his pontificate might not prove a long one. On the very day of his election as pope, his remark on his choice of name echoed this feeling: "Nearly all [the previous pontiffs named John] had a brief pontificate."
In preparing for the Council, Pope John kept an invisible but firm hand on the 800 theologians and experts who were called to Rome to prepare the agenda. In less than three years. they sifted and codified a mountain of facts relating to ecclesiastical • affairs in the modern world, covering everything from the rigid norms of canon law to the price of beeswax in Nigeria.
The pope had announced the goal of the Council as an aggiornamento, or a "bringing up to date." Vatican ultraconservatives hopefully interpreted this as a face-saving device whereby, after a great display of rhetorical debate and ceremonial pageantry, nothing would be changed. On the other hand it was understood by many, if not the majority, of the bishops as a decision in favour of major improvements in the Church's practices.
The pope himself spoke of a renewal that would restore "the simple and pure lines that the face of the Church of Jesus had at its birth." Luther, Calvin and Melanchthon must have started in amazement in their graves to hear such words on the lips of the Pope of Rome. Alfred Loisy's cynical remark, "Jesus founded the Kingdom of God, and what came forth but the Church of Rome." seemed to have lost its bite. Pope John, of course, had no intention of changing any of the basic doctrines of the Church.
In Catholic tradition there is no room for any reversal of position with regard to the articles of the creed or the obligations of the ten commandments. Yet Cardinal Augustin Bea, head of the Secretariat for Christian Unity, stated that while the Church may not reverse dogma, it may clarify it-in other words, reappraisal and reassessment were clearly in order.
l'or the most part, there were only obscure hints in the world press of the pressures from German, Dutch, French, Oriental and other Catholics for a modernisation of the way in which the Church faces its internal problems. Some groups were openly agitating for a reorganisation, if not abolition. of the Roman Curia.
Others wanted changes in the laws and regulations affecting marriage and education. the mass, the sacraments, liturgical ceremonies, the inquisitoril and condemnatory procedures of the Holy Office, clerical dress and the unseemly pomp of prelatial vestiture, and a redefinition of the rights and prerogatives of bishops and laymen in the Church's structure.
In recent years, despite Pope Pius Xll's achievements in bringing the Church's doctrine abreast of the intellectual and moral problems of the age, the tendency toward one-man rule during his reign was carried so far that, in the interregnum, it was ollicially acknowledged that something had to be done "to restore the ecclesiastical organism,"
Exasperated in his later years with the backwardness of many of his Curial colleagues, Pius XII apparently decided to "go it alone" as regards doctrinal and moral teaching. This unfortunately left the Curia in almost complete control of administrative processes and gave rise to many of the evils connected with careerism, both within the Curia itself and externally on the part of bishops who hesitated to decide anything without first considering its possible effect in Rome.
Meanwhile Pius XII continued his brilliant critiques of such complex problems as those connected with advances in genetics, medical. and surgical procedures, discoveries in psychology and psychiatry, and socio economic developments that have had effects in the areas of civil liberty and personal freedom.
While outward adulation always greeted Pius Xll's pronouncements. it was obvious that little serious attention was paid to what he was saying by his more intimate administrative collaborators.
Hence they were not only unprepared to deal with his successor, who had been reading and absorbing these teachings, but were appalled when Pope John began quietly and firmly reducing theories to practice. It is hardly to be wondered at that, three months after his election, the Roman cardinals were stunned by his announcement of a Council.
In the administration of the Church over the course of the last two hundred years and more—at least since the French Revolution--the Congregations of the Roman Curia have achieved a startling supremacy, so much so as evidently to have given many members of these administrative organs the impression that, for all practical purposes, they are the Church. The bishops, priests and faithful were dealt with as a sort of mass appendage to the Vatican.
Many of these officials seem to have felt that they were the active participants in the pope's absolutist power over the clergy and faithful, and that their decisions should not only be law but that their opinions on doctrinal, moral and political matters were the manifestations of papal infallibility.
In the appointment of bishops all over the world, the creation and apportionment of dioceses, the surveillance of faith and morals, the licensing and control of religious orders and congregations, the dispensing of Church funds for missionary enterprises, and the safeguarding of tradition, as well as orthodoxy, in the ceremonial and moral life of Catholics, they gradually came to have the final say.
A network of apostolic nuncios and delegates accredited to the national govern. ments or to the episcopate of various countries, as in the United States, provided them with information concerning the prelates and the religious status generally of the Church throughout the world.
Personal contact with former Roman fellow-students as well as occasional trips to the Americas, to different parts of Europe, and even to Africa and the Far East, which were accomplished with a certain eclat. if not triumph--their local hosts were obviously highly honoured to be entertaining a member of the Roman Curia—gave them a feeling that they understood better than anyone else, including the pope, the needs of the Church in the modern world.
It is not surprising that they became legalistic-minded in the extreme, for the preservation of protocol and the regularity of legal procedures, as they quickly discovered. are simple means for exercising control in an institution as vast as the Catholic Church.
Likewise a sceptical and suspicious attitude toward innovation of any kind, particularly in areas of doctrine, scripture and the moral aspects of psychological research and psychiatric practice also provided weapons in the interests of supreme control.
Finally, the gentle but continual intimidation of bishops by procrastination in granting them the use of special faculties for the administration of the sacraments. the ordination and government of their priests and people, and the close surveillance of what was said and written, particularly by clerics all over the world, guaranteed their undisputed authority in church matters generally.
No reasonable man can deny, of course, the possibility of error in doctrinal matters and the need of caution and prudence in asserting religious truth. Yet a prudent mind is not a closed one, and caution and care are not identical with rigidity of thought and narrowness of view.
What is even more fundamental to an understanding of this problem is the fact that men of a juridical persuasion seem to have made the posses sion of certain religious truths the final end of their religion. There is a saying in Rome that any slip in moral, social, or political fields would even tually be forgiven, but that even a minor doctrinal devia tion was fatal as far as an ecclesiastical career was concerned.
It is precisely this attitude that is being combatted by the theologians from beyond the Alps, who point out that Christ announced that He was not only the Truth, but that He was also the Way and the Life (John 14:6).
A factor in this attitude is certainly the fact that these men were born and brought up as Catholics, and have never really faced other religious experiences except by reading about them, disguised as strawmen types of propositions. to be demolished in a textbook. What is wrong with the Roman Curia is not the personnel as such.
Its members are intelligent, cordial, progressive-minded as regards material advances, and pious. The main difficulty is presented by the four groups in charge of the Holy Office, the Congregation of Studies and Universities, and to a certain extent the Congregations of Rites and of the Sacraments.
Here the old-fashioned, restrictive fears for both the integrity of doctrine and for uniformity of practice have saddled the Church with a backward and frequently ominous outlook on the modern world. These officials were perfectly characterised by Pope John XXIII himself in his opening discourse at Vatican Council II as "prophets of doom".
In the end what seems to have convinced Pope John of the necessity for calling a Council was not only the parochial outlook of most of the men about him in the Vatican, but the backward attitude of so many bishops in the stabilised dioceses of the Old and New World.
Though good men and hardworking administrators of both the spiritual and corporal works of the Church, they knew nothing of the new spirit fermenting in the minds and hearts of many of the clergy, young and old. and made manifest in the writings of the more advanced theologians. lay intellectuals, and church scholars.
The pope decided then to bring the bishops of the whole world together to let them educate each other as to the true status of the Church in a suffering, morally confused world, poverty-stricken in twothirds of its area amidst unprecedented plenty in the rest. living in fear of thermonuclear warfare and total destruction, and seemingly unable to disentangle itself.
In a century which showed forth the reality of evil in the horrors of two world wars. in racist persecutions and genocide on a hitherto unimaginable scale. in the widespread successes of totalitarianism, the communist branch in particu
lar, and in the spread of materialistic atheism, why was the Church not accomplishing more effectively the world-wide mission entrusted to it by Christ?
In such a world. why was the whole family of Christ so disunited?
Were not these internal quarrels and differences unworthy of Christians, and perhaps more emotional than real?
It was time for the Church to go about reclaiming its own lapsed members, converting the modern pagan who hungered after justice, and drawing back into the fold of Christ all the flock, more particularly those separated mainly by historical prejudices and misunderstandings, such as the Eastern Orthodox and the more traditionalist Protestant bodies.
It is against this background that John XXIII, shortly after his election, was inspired to undertake the difficult if not perilous task of summoning an Ecumenical Council, the first such council in almost one hundred years, and only the twenty-first in nearly two thousand years of history. The proportions of this enterprise were staggering, for it meant the questioning of each one of the Church's 2,500 bishops and prelates, the heads of all men's religious orders, and the faculties of Catholic universities (of which there are some thirty-seven in different parts of the world) to discover what they considered the more important problems facing the Church today, and how they should be handled.
A letter signed by Cardinal Tardini, Vatican Secretary of State and, by the pope's appointment, head of the AntePreparatory Commission for the Council. was despatched to the Church's prelates on June 18, 1959, by the Secretary General for the Council, Msgr. Pericle Felici, titular Archbishop of Samosata, and Cardinal Tardini's choice for this all important administrative post, as one of the more intelligent and tougher prelates in the Vatican service.
The bishops were requested to cooperate fully with the preparations for the Council. Close to two thousand answers were received and catalogued in a short time. What gave particular significance to these replies was the fact that no limitations were placed either on the matters to be considered or the manner of dealing with problems or proposals.
The pope made it clear from the start that he wanted to hear the mind of the whole of the Catholic world on the condition of the Church today.
The vast material thus accumulated (it was eventually printed in book form) was examined and arranged in some two thousand files. After an initial analysis, national reports were compiled and synthesised to give, with facts and figures, a bird's-eye view of the situation of the Church in each country. and an overall view of the common problems confronting the majority of bishops in the Church universal.
It was with this material that the Preparatory Commissions created by the pope on the feast of Pentecost (June 5, 1960) were busily engaged. These bodies include a Central Commission that eventually was to pass on and coordinate the work of others.
Behind the scenes at the .Vatican, the Council was looked upon with mixed feelings, ranging from passive acquiescence to outright alarm. It is perhaps understandable that the pope's frequent talk of unity with the separated brethren in Orthodox and Protestant bodies might have given some officials nightmares.
As they saw it, the pope did not understand fully the doctrinal issues involved in these matters; and in their view he was unwittingly encouraging those Catholic theologians and apologists who had been flirting with heterodoxy by miniroiling Catholic truth during the last thirty years or so.
It was feared likewise that a gathering of the bishops of the whole world in Rome could only result in the forcing of issues that some officials felt they themselves alone were truly competent to deal with.
These men acted as if they believed the majority of the bishops throughout the world were not sufficiently informed to know what it was all about.
There was also an uneasiness lest efforts be made to suppress certain powers exercised by Curial officials, or more particularly to reorganise their offices and shuffle their personnel.
They realised further that there was considerable unhappiness among groups of bishops with the whole system of apostolic delegates and nuncios, who are frequently considered as little more than Vatican informers and meddlers.
The Irish and Australian bishops in particular have little use for Italian ecclesiastical diplomats; Cardinal Amleto Cicognani as apostolic delegate in the United States for twentythree years, by way of exception, had the complete respect and affection of the American bishops and laity.
Members of the Holy Office understandably felt that they alone were competent to deal with matters of faith and morals, and to keep a tight hold on the theological traditions • of the Church as expressed in the scholastic terminology of Roman textbooks.
The liturgical movement, so strong in Germany. France. parts of Canada, the midwestern United States and in many mission territories. was flooding the Congregation of Rites with insistent demands that the use of the vernacular languages in the mass and other Church ceremonies be legitimised on a universal scale.
Similarly the Holy Office and certain professors at the Roman universities were convinced that the "new" biblical scholars had sold their scriptural birthright for a mess of Germanic rationalism parading under such formidable and dangerous terms as Form geschichte, Reduktiunsgeschichte and lleilsgeschichte, but by means of admonitions and condemnations these Curialists felt that they could keep the situation in hand.
The gathering of the bishops of the whole world in the Eternal City, pessiniists feared, might precipitate theological differences that could militate against the unity of the Church as controlled from Rome.
The pope, of course, was of an entirely different opinion. He hoped that, by assembling the bishops in Council, they would demonstrate the unity of the Church. assert its awareness of the world about it, and thus pave the way for a reChristianisation of modern man. The pope had announced the Council's goal as an aggior?lament°. or a bringing up to date of the Church.
The story was often repeated that the pope, asked by a visiting cardinal for a simple explanation of the Council. went to the nearest window, opened it wide, and let in the fresh air. A French bishop. on hearing this story, drily observed: "When the pope indicated that we were to open the windows of the Church, he meant the Curia windows." .
Many responsible non-Italian prelates (and not a few Italian ones too) had come to believe that the time was approaching to break the stranglehold on ecclesiastical thought and practices exercised by the selfperpetuating clique in the Curia which dictates Roman Catholic policy and, to a large extent, controls the pope himself.
These men had thus far successfully resisted all but the most innocuous changes dictated by the exigencies of modern life. They had long been conscious not only of dissatisfaction on the part of churchmen outside their circle but of movements in the intellectual and spiritual life of the Church that were opposed to official Curial thought.
They would have been content to continue their forceful course, restraining the thinking of the Church within what they considered its ancient and sacred ways. To these men, the announcement of the new Council came as a severe shock.
As for the majority of bishops, what they feared most was that the new Council would be a mere pageant, run off by the officials in rubber-stamp fashion. They felt that if the Council failed to come to grips with the really basic spiritual ills and moral isues of the day, it would destroy the hope that its proclamation had aroused in the hearts of thinking Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
It was obvious that when the curialists and the bishops met in Council there was bound to , be a reverberating clash.
Although the new Council was the last thing in the world the above officials desired, once they were convinced of the pope's determination to go ahead, they proved themselves not without resources. Enjoying the advantage of being on the spot and in control of Vatican activities. they quickly rallied to dominate the commissions that were to organise the Council.
They made their trusted friends the presidents and the secretaries, inviting at first only "safe" nten from various parts of the world to sit in as experts.
Gradually. as complaints mounted that some of the outstanding theologians of the Church in France, Germany, and Belgium had been excluded, they called these people to Rome. but it was then too late for them to have any effect on the proposals to be placed before the bishops in council. Unable to control the important Central Commission. which had the final say on the agenda and was composed chiefly of cardinals, they did the next best thing and arranged to have the conservative cardinalsOttaviani, Ruflini, Siri, Pizzardo, Marella—lead the discussions.
What was more to the point, they saw to it that the reports of this commission's meetings published in L'Ov.vervutore Romano. the Vatican newspaper, reflected their line of thought. The information contained in these generally dull, perfunctory news releases was for the most part merely a rehash of the doctrinal explanations to be found in the old, stereotyped larger Roman Catechism, buttressed by an appeal to the current code of canon law.
About the only revolutionary proposal that was officially admitted to have been considered was the possibility of the Council's coming out for a stabilised, universal calendar.
It was a poorly kept secret, however, that this commission's meetings were far from harmonious. Several times, resolutions to abolish the Congregation of the Holy Office outright were brought to the floor.
In the sessions that took place in June. 1962, after Cardinal Ottaviani had ordered that the Italian translation of a pastoral letter on the Council written by the Dutch bishops he withdrawn from circulation, the Indian cardinal — vehemently supported by Cardinals Doepfner of Munich; Koenig of Vienna; and Lienart of Lille —came to the aid of Cardinal Alfrink of Utrecht, by informing the representative of the Holy Office that while ecumenical councils usually ended with someone in schism, this time, for once, it would not be the outsiders, because they happened to represent not merely the majority of the Church but the savior pars, and they expressed their disdain for the freemasonry (a nasty word in European ecclesiastical circles) of those Italian prelates who have held the Church in thrall too long.
So pointed did the debate become that the pope eventually sent for the leading figures to calm them down. He did not tell them to abandon their positions. however—a healthy sign of the possibility of the free discussion which was to follow in the Council.
A close look at the Annuarlo Pontificia the official yearbook of the Vatican, reveals a curious fact that is at the heart of the present difficulties within the Church. The twelve Roman Congregations of the Curia, though each is headed by a cardinal, are controlled by an interlocking directorate of bishops and monsignors, all Italian.
The assessor or administrative director of the Holy Office, for example, is Archbishop Pietro Parente, who has the right to investigate any matters dealing with faith or morals in the Church. At the same time, Archbishop Parente is a consultor of the Consistorial Congregation, which is entrusted with the creation of new dioceses, the nomination of bishops, and supervision of their activities.
Ile is a member of the Congregation of the Council, which watches over the discipline of both clergy and laity and has the right to revise acts of national councils. (It also passes on disputes concerning legacies and bequests.) He is a consultor of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, whose competence extends to the mission field. and a member of the Congregation of Rites.
He sits in on the Ponifical Commission for Cinema, Radio, and Television. and has a place in the pope's official Chapel. Finally, he is a member of the Commission for Latin America.
On one occasion. addressing a group of bishops from South America, together with the superiors of various religious orders that have missionaries there. he offended most of his auditors by remarking, "My subject has to do with Paraguay, Uraguay, and all the other gtiai" — the Italian for "troubles".
It is incredible that a man of Archbishop Parente's temperament could he appointed to so sensitive a position as his present post in the Holy Office, for his personal history hardly reflects the stability or civility one expects of Vatican officialdom.
Archbishops Parente and Felici are only two of a host of Italian names that appear on every other page of the part of the Annarin that is devoted to the Roman Curia.
By the peculiar workings of ecclesiastical fate, these same Italian names appear toward the top of the lists of members of the preparatory commissions charged with the responsibility of proposing an agenda for the Council.
Though, in all, some eight hundred bishops and theologians from every corner of the world were brought to Rome for consultation regarding this agenda, certain outstanding Catholic figures were excluded, or only invited as consultors toward the very end of the preparatory period.
Among those excluded or invited late were the American Jesuits John Courtney Murray and John L. McKenzie; the French theologians
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Henri de Lubec, M.-D. Chenu, and Jean Danielou; and Hugo and Karl Rahner, of Innsbruck. These men were apparently considered to hold widely liberal views, and therefore to be dangerous.
To take some of the starch out of possible recalcitrants. the curialists insisted upon the use of Latin as the language of the Council. What was being aimed at, again. was a logical exposition or formulation of doctrine that could be nailed down tight and recorded in a dead tongue. But in actual fact Latin is only the language of the Western, Roman. or Latin Church.
The Greek, Slavic. Coptic, and other Eastern rites each have their own language. And it became ironically clear as the Couhcil sessions began, that Italian prelates were by no means as good Latinists as was commonly believed, and that the stilted style of purified Renaissance Latin used for official documents was not really much more than a cultured doggerel.
When it came to Ciceronian or patristic Latin, many Northern Europeans made the Italians sound like stuttering chickadees.
The leading figure in the group of intransigents or "prophets of doom", to use the Pope's phrase is Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani. Born in 1890 in Rome, with the black dirt of Trastevere (as a local saying goes) beneath his feet, he was ordained a priest in 1916. A teaching career followed in Roman seminaries and universities.
Learned in canon law, he taught this subject for 20 years at the Lateran University. He was made a domestic prelate while working in the Secretariat of State and became Assessor of the Holy Office in 1935, as a protege of Cardinal Canali. In 1953 Pius XII elevated him to the rank of cardinal-deacon, and in the same year he became ProSecretary of the Holy Office.
In 1959 he was appointed Secretary of the Congregation of the Holy Office by John XXIII (who was President of the same body). It was not until 1962. oddly enough, that Cardinal Ottaviani became a bishop for in that year Pope John elevated all the cardinaldeacons to the episcopate.
This brilliant career can be summed up in three words: a Curia man. Cardinal Ottaviani is astute, scholarly. and at times witty.
For years he has run a school within the Vatican grounds, as well as a summer colonia at Frascati, for poor children from the borgate outside the Vatican walls. Like all his fellow-bishops throughout the world, he is a strong opponent of communism. He has published a first-class textbook on the Church and the public law, and in 1961 a book of addresses entitled II BuIttardo ("The Bulwark").
In the last fifteen years. it 15 Cardinal Ottaviani who has taken the lead among these men and their like-minded associates in the role of what might be called twentieth century "hammerers of heretics" In their view, in preserving the great heritage of the Church it is more important to caution and to condemn, than to encourage and to persuade. In an age in which religion has suffered unprecedented losses and depredations, the wisdom of their position is at least open to question.
One fact is clear, however. Their view is not consonant with that of the present Visible Head of the Church, who summoned the Council to proclaim, as he said, not the Church's condemnatory or inquisitorial role, but its ecumenical and pastoral mission.
The pastorates of the more than 2,500 bishops who attended the Council ranged from the smallest that of Msgr. Johann Gunnarson, vicar apostolic in Holar, Iceland, where there are 806 Catholics cared for by one diocesan and eight religious priests, and one seminarian to the largest that of Cardinal Meyer of Chicago, who has 2.119,000 Catholics, three auxiliary bishops, 1.264 diocesan, and 1,549 religious priests under his care.
Side by side with the European and American bishops, whose present status, in spite of all the economic, social and political ills plaguing the western world, is both stable and assured, the vast throngs of African, Asian and Oceanic prelates, both native and missionary, bring with them to the Council an experience and determination rivalling the enthusiasm and drive manifested by the first Apostles and their immediate successors.
It was for this reason that Pope John's optimistic and increasingly positive predictions that the Council would renew the face of the Church were more than justified. As the great day of the solemn assembly's opening approached, he had reason to believe that his Council would indeed restore "the simple and pure lines that the face of the Church of Jesus had at its birth."
Next week: The Council opens.