Session Three of Vatican II began on September 14, 1964, a month earlier than the first two sessions. Xavier Rynne commented on the opening Mass of the Holy Spirit as a study in contrasts. Pope Paul VI was carried into the assembly on his throne, an enduring medieval vestige that would gradually be discontinued. When he arrived at the altar, however, he was joined by two dozen vested bishops prepared for the first public concelebration of Mass, i.e., multiple clergy offering the Mass together. The Mass was simplified along the guidelines of the liturgical schema just approved, with the inclusion of the ancient “prayer of the faithful.” The pope’s desire to concelebrate with a representation of residential bishops (those governing dioceses) was joined to his opening remarks which expressed his complete endorsement of the principle of collegiality or shared authority.
Time was becoming a factor. A number of major issues had not yet made the floor by 1964, and it was immediately evident to participants that for both ideological and practical purposes the Curia had adopted new guidelines for floor management which ranged from requiring a five-day advanced notice for permission to speak, to reduced hours at the coffee bars. The first matter on the floor was the completion of the schema on The Church, which included such matters as the end times, the bulky process of canonizations, and the role of the Virgin Mary. One cannot help but smile at one housekeeping intervention, namely that all participants would be provided accident insurance during the Council. One major breakthrough was passage of Chapter Two of “The Church,” which redefined the Church as the biblical People of God and dropped the scholastic perfect society paradigm.
Two major discussions involved “The Pastoral Office of Bishops” and “Religious Liberty.” The discussion on bishops is an interesting timepiece today, for a matter of considerable concern at the Council was the interference from civil governments in the decisions of local bishops, notably in “Catholic” countries. The best intervention in the episcopal discussion came from the remarkable Cardinal Leger of Montreal, who spoke eloquently about the pastoral attitude necessary for the office, including an appreciation of the critical modern mind and its approach to obedience. He advocated a strong unity of bishop, clergy, and laity, along with the need for bishops to live in the spirit and reality of Gospel poverty, ideas embraced and enhanced by Pope Francis today.
On the matter of Religious Liberty, the idea that God created man with enough freedom to exercise his conscience in matters of religion and value, and might not punish him for choosing a variant option, was possibly the biggest psychological hurdle in the Council for some. For a philosopher like Cardinal Leger, or American bishops who lived in precisely such a society, the matter induced little existential stress. For others, notably Cardinal Ruffini, religious liberty was a contradiction in terms. Ruffini, as first speaker, was even unhappy with the title of this schema, which he proposed to change to “On Religious Tolerance.” Ruffini stated that the Catholic Church was the one true Church and this fact should be recognized by all governments. While he did not advocate coercive conversion, he was confident that God willed the Catholic Church to prevail. Ruffini’s position had followers, to be sure, but the more tempered opposition raised concerns that the schema would foster religious indifferentism or even religious irrelevance. It is a matter still debated today in a variety of forms.
However, in this debate one could revive the World War I slogan that “The Americans have arrived.” The schema as proposed had much of the same thought as the colonial framers of American government in matters of exercise of religion, freedom of conscience, and church and state. The Catholic experience in the U.S. had hardly been blissful, in part because until World War II many Catholics were poor immigrants, in many cases objects of derision and, worse, class warfare in a society that was predominantly white and Protestant. But for all of that, the white and Protestant presidents of the United States never gave a thought about the creation of immense Catholic school system begun in the 1880’s. Catholicism was still a highly recognizable ethnic ensemble in 1964, but by the time of the Council many of these diverse members held college diplomas, in great part due to the “G.I. Bill” which permitted returning World War II veterans (such as my own father) to attend college, which would otherwise have been economically impossible. And, of course, an American Catholic had succeeded to the White House in 1960.
The discussion of freedom of conscience played to the strengths of American bishops, who perhaps as well as any national bishops’ conference understood Cardinal Leger’s earlier thoughts on the modern critical mind. Cardinals Ritter and Meyer made compelling presentations, and a new voice, Archbishop Alter of Cincinnati, made an excellent impression. But this discussion marked the first intervention from Boston’s storied Cardinal Cushing. Rynne notes that the Council fathers were rather “expectant” when Cushing took the floor. There was something of an air of mystery about Cushing and the Council until now. He had been, for want of a better word, “cranky” about the language barrier and apparently had offered to buy a U.N. style simulcast translation system for the fathers, but was rebuffed by the Curia for fear that the bishops might actually listen to each other. Cushing boycotted much of Session Two and of course was intimately affected by John Kennedy’s assassination.
Cushing’s Latin was flawless, as it turned out, tainted only by his brogue, and his listeners were able to hear him well when he declared his joy that the Council was finally coming around to safeguard “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.” He concluded with a quote from Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris that moved the assembly to give him warm and prolonged applause. It did not hurt Cushing or other American churchmen that one of the greatest of the periti or Council theologians hailed from the United States. Father John Courtney Murray, S.J., was an eminent theologian, author and professor whose work We Hold These Truths was a seminal and much respected treatment on the nature of church and state, to the point that he appeared on the cover of Time Magazine. When Vatican II opened in 1962, Murray was officially silenced by the Vatican, but Cardinal Spellman brought him to Rome as his peritus where the scholar made considerable contributions as well as the friendship of the future John Paul II. Though the results of the discussion would not be voted upon until later, clearly the united efforts of American bishops had carried the debate.
[As an aside, is anyone old enough to remember how Cardinal Cushing came to retire in 1968? I found one or two decent references to back up my fuzzy memory, this one from the Harvard Crimson. The Cardinal defended Jackie Kennedy’s right to marry Aristotle Onassis despite the latter’s previous marriage. Cushing became a target of outrage in Boston (much of it, I believe, actually directed toward Jackie and the dismemberment of the “Camelot Myth.”) The Cardinal offered his resignation in 1968, two years prematurely. I am surprised no enterprising reporter has brought this up during the current Synod on the Family.]