During the discussion of Revelation in the fall of 1964, the Third Session, work was still in progress on the Collegiality schema, a detailed exposition of the unity of the pope and bishops operating together in the governance of the Church. In his opening remarks to the Third Session, Pope Paul VI had stated that episcopal [bishops’] collegiality “will certainly be what distinguishes this solemn and heroic synod in the memory of future ages.” All the same, there was a small but virulent opposition, a fair amount of it in the Curia that was managing the Council.
The public position of the minority held that a statement on the importance of the college of bishops was “premature,” that it was a very recent concern of some bishops and theologians and would be a great confusion to the faithful. Part of the actual concern of the minority resembled an appeal to Einstein’s rules of physics: if the bishops get more power, the pope will have less; they seem to have overlooked the fact that the pope enjoyed his power precisely as Bishop of Rome in communion with his brethren as Peter did with the body of the Twelve.
Moreover, the minority failed to recall the history of the Church. This error would come back to haunt them in a rather dramatic fashion on the floor. Even Vatican I (1870), which defined the doctrine of papal infallibility, had planned a treatment on the teaching authority of bishops as a whole, but war in Italy had caused Vatican I to disband before its other work had been done. When the full Council of Vatican II discussed the revised collegiality schema on September 21, 1964, the Curia assigned one of its own, Archbishop Pietro Parente, to present the minority position. What was unknown to about everyone at this juncture was that Parente, who had worked with and voted with the Curia through the Council, was now having second thoughts.
When he took the floor, Parente stated that he was now going to speak as a bishop, and not as an officer of the Curia. He admitted that the concept of collegiality had caused “no little terror” [sic] among his colleagues who feared a diminution of papal power, and that many in the Curia had advised Pope John XXIII to avoid discussing collegiality entirely during Vatican II. But it is his theological words that carried the day: “If there is difficulty in explaining the relation between the sacred powers of the pope and those exercised by the bishops, this is not to be wondered at, since we are not dealing with a human society, but with the Church of Christ, a mystery that can only be elucidated by the theological vision of a Saint Augustine and the early Church Fathers, who adhered to the teaching of St. Paul concerning the Church as a mystical body, and thus came much closer to expressing the mind of Christ.”
Parente actually accomplished three things here that shaped the future of the Council. His description of the works of the Curia was the first public verbal description of what many of the Church fathers had feared or suspected, and thus the assembled bishops felt greater confidence for future discussions. Second, Parente called into question the scholastic or systematic ways of doing theology on such matters as powers of popes and bishops. The scholastic method, or scholasticism, had ruled supreme in Catholic institutions and universities between roughly 1100-1700, and was, in fact, the operating theological method of the Curia and some of the venerable seminaries in Rome itself.
Third, Parente employed a newer method of doing theology—with a much greater emphasis upon Scripture, Christology and History. In the 1960’s such a method was popularly called “the new theology” although in a number of European Catholic universities and seminaries this method had been discussed and ultimately accepted as the common method of thought and research since before 1900, though condemned by the Church, possibly to restrain anyone from doing what Archbishop Parente was doing at the Council . In our situation here, Parente was asking the bishops a simple question: do we rest our vote on the internal logic of scholastic propositions, or do we take our cue from the New Testament, the sacramental leadership models of the formative years of the Church, and the writings and leadership models of St. Augustine, for example, Church Father and bishop of Hippo in North Africa. In fairness, the debate was much more detailed, but I simplified here for the sake of clarity.
On a more humorous note, when this schema came up for vote, the ballot was complex. Rynne observes that some bishops were instructed by Curial managers to vote against collegiality. The ballot, however, had about a dozen propositions, so to play it safe some bishops voted no to everything. When the balloting results were announced, it turned out that 90 bishops had voted against the infallibility of the pope, which sent the assembly into uproarious laughter. The main points of the collegiality schema passed easily.
Another issue under serious debate was whether the Third Session of 1964 would be the final session of the Council. The present session was moving at a greater clip than the first two. There was considerable division on the question. For example, the Canadian bishops were in favor of wrapping up, while United States bishops as a rule favored another session in 1965. In the end, there was considerable anxiety that a fair number of schemas had not yet made the floor, most notably those on the Laity and another entitled “The Church in the Modern World.” Eventually the determination was made for a fourth session in 1965, and thus one of the Council’s most famous documents, Gaudium et Spes, “joy and hope,” would see the light of day and world-wide fame on the very last day of the Council.