The “what happened” element of the Council debate is both disturbing and humorous. During the last week of Session III in late November 1964 the schema “Declaration on Religious Liberty” was delivered to the fathers for consideration and vote, with the understanding that its final vote would take place by the end of Session Three. Then, a few days later, Cardinal Tisserant rather suddenly announced that because of major changes in the document, the bishops would need more time. He declared that no vote would be taken during Session Three, and that the bishops should mail their reactions to the office by the end of January, 1965.
After three years even the most back country bishop was wise to Curial chicanery and recognized the maneuver as an attempt to kill the document. In the immediate reaction, a bishop exclaimed, “We are being treated like children!” Xavier Rynne comments (418) that one would have to back to the sixteenth century Council of Trent, when one enraged bishop pulled another’s beard, to find a similar level of agitation [though by chance I have a better example from the Council of Nicaea that I am holding for Wednesday’s blog.] So it is not surprising, then, that a true school lunch room scene emerged. The pope, watching on closed circuit TV, called the floor directors to his office and the Council seems to have gone on without them. Had I the time and the means, I would truly like to see how the official minutes read.
On matters of religious liberty, the United States bishops were recognized as expert, particularly with Father Murray serving as a peritus. Acting as representatives of the Council fathers and bearing an impromptu document of hundreds of signatures calling for immediate vote, Cardinals Meyer of Chicago and Ritter of St. Louis—with Montreal’s Cardinal Leger guiding them through the inner chambers—went directly to the pope. Naturally, their paths would cross on the staircase with the Curia’s Archbishop Felici coming down from the papal chamber. The papal attendants tried to prevent their access, but at their insistence the pope granted Meyer, Ritter, and Leger an immediate meeting. He attempted to “palliate their anger,” as Rynne writes, but he explained that Cardinal Tisserant had operated within the Council’s “Roberts Rules,” so to speak, which specified time frames for study and discussion. Pope Paul did promise a vote in 1965. That night, at a previously scheduled meeting of the Cardinals with the pope, Paul again defended the procedural decision. Cardinal Suenens replied that whatever the procedure, the psychological effect was deplorable.
In retrospect Pope Paul’s attempt to reconcile the Curial minority was probably a costly misreading of the depths of their opposition. Despite the widespread academic and pastoral shifts in thinking regarding matters such as freedom of conscience and respect for other religions, the operative Curial position was truly a medieval one, governed by two deeply held tenets: (1) Error has no rights; and (2) outside the Church there is no salvation. Nor were these beliefs restricted to the Vatican walls. I can recall as a youth when my favorite comedian Ernie Kovacs was killed suddenly in a car wreck. My first reaction was that he must be in hell, for he was not to my knowledge a Catholic. (I might have added that he was in a second marriage to torch singer Edie Adams, but even the Christian Brothers don’t teach Canon Law in the sixth grade.) But as I thought it over, the idea didn’t seem quite right and I stopped worrying about Ernie. That seemed to be how my own Catholic environment handled such matters.
Historically the early Church envisioned itself as a society or community within a bigger world. Jesus himself lived at peace with those outside of his own Jewish faith. He envisioned his primary missionary focus as the Chosen People, but he worked miracles at the request of Gentiles. The communion prayer of the Mass, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof…” is the actual Gospel rendition of a Roman centurion seeking healing for his servant. Jesus’ famous phrase of “rendering unto Caesar” was a commentary on the reality of believers living within a larger non-believing society.
In the fourth century the Roman Emperor Constantine began the process by which the Christian Church would become the official state religion of the empire, and by medieval times the Church’s self-image in both the Roman West and the Orthodox East was that of a synthesis of religion and, speaking a bit anachronistically, state. Kings, princes, dukes—whatever their material worth and practical strength—were defined as servants of order in God’s one kingdom. In the Roman Church the pope held the ultimate hand, with the power to excommunicate being a significant political tool in papal dealings with the political order. The crest of this synthesis is probably the papacy of Innocent III (reigned 1198-1216). In practice, however, it would become harder for the papacy to actually exercise this power, with the coming of the Protestant nations on one hand, and later the “American experiment” of a non-denominational state where all were free to exercise religious choice of conscience. Pius IX would condemn such a model in his Syllabus of Errors of 1864 but by the time of Vatican II the Catholic Church in the United States was living comfortably enough that a Catholic could be elected president in 1960.
The Curial opposition to freedom of religious conscience (and to nations, like the U.S. which protected the right) was a deep seated rejection of the concept that one could choose another way of belief that would lead to heaven. If this were a real possibility, there follows the concession that one religion is as good as another, at least in the traditional thinking paradigm. It is worth noting that at the time of the religious liberty debate the Council had already agreed to more reconciling language regarding the position of Catholicism, that the fullness of the kingdom of God’s revelation subsists in the Catholic Church. The passage or non-passage of the Decree on Religious Liberty, then, became in the minds of some the last bastion of hope in preserving the unique nature of Catholicism in God’s plan of salvation.