On Wednesday, November 14, 1962, the Church Fathers at Vatican II turned to a second schema or document, which would eventually become “The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation.” This is a highly complicated debate, focused as it was on how we know God is speaking to us and who within the Church should ultimately make this determination. Thus, among the questions to be resolved were (1) what role does the Scripture play in the Church; (2) what to make of the modern post-Enlightenment scholarship which, when applied to Sacred Scripture, was beginning to reevaluate some critical support texts in traditional Church doctrine, and (3) what was the extent of the term “Tradition.” If you are old enough, you remember that we were taught the two track theory of Revelation, Scripture and Tradition.
Not surprisingly, Cardinal Ottaviani was first to the starting line, The initial battle lines formed very quickly: the Curialists and supporting bishops opposed the schema strongly, with the argument that the purpose of the Council was primarily to emphasize and defend the doctrines of the Catholic Church; new studies in Scripture would cast doubt upon the deposit of faith and make it appear that the official doctrines proclaimed in the past were in some ways erroneous. However, several of the academic and pastoral giants raised significant counterpoints. Cardinal Lienart stated that the expression “Scripture and Tradition” essentially made no sense. Scripture came first, and to speak of a Scripture/Tradition as two complimentary sources was contrary to the intent of Scripture. Rynne describes Lienart’s presentation in great detail: The Cardinal pointed out that there is only one font of salvation—the Word of God, the good news announced by the prophets and revealed in Christ. (Privately I do not believe Lienart was denying the need of a teaching Church, but rather was addressing the sometimes extreme claims made of Church Tradition.)
Our old friend Cardinal Frings of Cologne went at it again with Ottaviani, this time quoting Thomas Aquinas and many other historical sources to the effect that the term “Tradition” was used only recently in Church history and by implication still a developing concept. Frings knew where to aim his bow: Curialists feared and disdained a historical approach to theology, for want of a better term, precisely because of the skeletons that might tumble out into the street. Two other emerging churchmen in the Council made timely interventions: Paul Leger of Montreal made a plea for Catholic theologians to enjoy academic freedom and scholarship, particularly Biblical scholars. Cardinal Konig of Vienna joined forces with Cardinal Alfrink in reminding the assembly that John XXIII had expressly wished for a new emphasis upon preaching and teaching the Bible to an unbelieving world, and added that the present schema was hardly distinguishable from any traditional theology textbook then in use.
Cardinal Leo Suenens of Belgium observed that with all the discussion of this schema on Revelation, Vatican II was on a pace to last longer than the Council of Trent (1545-1563). He recommended full rejection and a rewrite of this schema. While debate did not stop on a dime, its intensity diminished as the members realized that a new document would be forthcoming down the road. Meanwhile, in the midst of this debate the results of the voting on the first schema, on the Sacred Liturgy, was presented to the fathers. The vote was 2162 placet, 46 non placet, and 7 abstentions. The vote was widely covered by the press, and the various liturgical movements around the world took this vote as a green light to push forward with liturgical experimentations. Anyone who lived and worshipped in the U.S. will remember the following decade as a period of very uneven liturgical implementation. Much of this was due to the fact that bishops, after this vote, still had three years to go in Council and were unable to gather themselves in national conferences to debate implementation of the liturgical reform. In fact, an official Roman Missal for the reformed rite of the Eucharist was not promulgated till six years after the 1963 vote!
On November 16 the general assembly discussed the problem of world-wide media coverage. Cardinal Santos of the Philippines even complained that reports from the Council were causing his seminarians to be “spiritually disturbed.” This concern had validity: with just one schema passed (and many, many more to come) Catholics who had been raised on the premise that “the Church never changes” were reading in secular papers (and no doubt The New Yorker, thanks to Xavier Rynne) of things they were assured would never happen—Mass in English, drinking from the cup, etc. Some Catholics were indeed “spiritually disturbed.” Others became overly enthusiastic, particularly regarding an issue of pressing interest and concern, “the pill,” when Council discussions turned to that issue down the road. There was not a great deal to be done about this by the Council fathers in session. The Vatican’s official policy was one of secrecy or minimalism in the press office. Finally—and I am not sure exactly when—bishops and periti began holding interpretive press conferences to put the Council’s activity in context and answer theoretical or pastoral questions.
As to the outcome of the debate on Divine Revelation, several more days revealed how seriously the Council was embattled on this issue. Finally, on November 20, a confusing ballot was put forth in which the fathers were given an option to table the schema for a rewrite or continue the debate. The results were inconclusive and the debate was continued, but much to the surprise of all, Pope John pulled the schema off the table and appointed a new body to undertake a rewrite.
On Friday November 23 the Council addressed a lower voltage schema, Modern Means of Communication. Although an interesting and no doubt important subject, the final product has been relegated to historical interest by a half-century of development in Church evangelization and the complexities of technology and the changing methodologies of news reporting.