The best visual image of this work is a picture of Xavier Rynne collecting all of the major characters, issues, places and documents into a closet much too small for the purpose. Then we, the readers, come along years later, open the door, and find ourselves in an avalanche of Cardinal Ottaviani, Gaudium et Spes, the Bar Jonah Coffee Shop, scholastic theology, non placets, Cardinal Frings, modernism, Protestant observers, and everything else that made the Council Vatican II (1962-1965) a truly human experience of the Church.
In the present time there are a number of fine analytical works on Vatican II written to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the close of the Council. I call particular attention to Massimo Faggioli’s impressive writings over the past decade. Xavier Rynne’s work was first published in 1968, just three years after the Council’s completion, when the question of “what happened?” was just as common as “what happens next?”
The identity of Xavier Rynne is itself intriguing. Rynne was, in actually, the Redemptorist moral theologian Father Francis X. Murphy, a professor in Rome and very familiar with “Vatican ways.” Murphy, a peritus or theological expert for the Council, intuited that there would be great world-wide interest in the Council and that the Roman Curia would do all in its power to embargo the substance of debate from the media. Judging that the Council belonged to the entire Church, Murphy contracted with the New Yorker magazine for regular accounts of the proceedings with analyses of personalities, strategies, and internal dynamics. In this 1990 edition, Father Murphy describes his “close calls” with the Curia as well as the good efforts many Council fathers to cover his back.
Murphy/Rynne would go on to write four volumes on the Council, one for each session. This book is a compilation of all four sessions. It is not exactly a seamless garment, in content or literary style, reading more like a classy summary of countless pads of thoughtful and at times witty handwritten notes. In his defense, Vatican II was in no way a seamless event, either, with debates interrupted by submissions of earlier documents introduced for second review and peculiar Curial floor managing to produce home court outcomes.
Make no mistake, Vatican II was a serious business. It was precisely for this reason that Rynne labored at some considerable risk to make its deliberations public. The Council was summoned by Pope John XXIII in 1959 as a response to the sins of the twentieth century: two world wars, the Holocaust, the atomic arms race. (The Cuban missile crisis erupted in the very early days of the Council.) A number of the Church’s bishops came to the Council to make the Church a more credible and effective agent of the good of mankind, with an eye toward ecumenical union in that cause. Other bishops came to Rome to strengthen the Church that they knew—the power of the papacy, the supremacy of the Catholic Church as the guarantor of truth in a very troubled age. And, in truth, a number of bishops were simply in over their heads. Rynne treats bishops of all persuasions with respect of conscience, though he does not always suffer fools gladly nor does he hide the duplicity and self-interests of a deeply entrenched Church bureaucracy.
Some reviewers on Amazon have accused this work of portraying a “liberal fantasy” of the Council. One Amazon reviewer describes the narrative as “the Curia wear the black hats; people with German and French accents wear the white hats.” Rynne is indeed critical of the Curia—the papal/Vatican bureaucracy—whom he accuses of manipulating the proceedings to maintain power and place next to the pope, or at times in opposition to the pope. Here is where fifty years has served the author; no one has produced a credible, peer-reviewed text to refute Rynne’s essential construction of the dynamics, and the memoirs of participants over the years have not deviated greatly from the author’s description of the Council dynamic.
Rynne’s sense of humor is what keeps this account from drifting into discouragement over recurring Council bouts of timidity and Curial obstructionism. For all the gravity of the Council, the author never succumbs to dark apocalyptic. He is certainly disappointed to see the subtle strains of anti-Semitism among some speakers and documents, for example, but perhaps for himself as well as his readers he reiterates that while at times resembling the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, the Council as a whole was indeed putting the Church in a much healthier position. When times are glum, he tells us about the two Curial officers who call a taxi and ask to be taken to the Council. The cabbie proceeds north on the road to Trent.
An interesting comparison of Rynne’s eyewitness account and impression can be made with another first person witness, that of Hans Kung in his “My Struggle for Freedom.” Kung, more intense than Rynne and probably a much better historian of the conciliar process, worried in his own books that councils have been known to fail in the past, and Kung realized the potential of success and the seriousness of failure more than Rynne. But it is equally clear that Rynne has more faith in the wisdom of a number of Church fathers who distinguished themselves over the four-year haul, coming to appreciate Cardinal Bea and his passion for a new ecumenism, as well as Cardinals Leger, Alfrink, Suenens, Frieg, and the Americans Ritter and Meyer. He admires John XXIII but was perplexed by Paul VI and portrays him in a “Hamlet” sort of way.
While a student of theology and Church history will treasure the accounts here, any interested reader will soon decipher both the theology and the politics of the narrative. Again, keep in mind that this account dates back to the event itself—and today’s reader will be in much better position to assess contemporary assessments of the Council.