We continue with our Monday and Saturday retrospective looks at Vatican II, which was in session exactly fifty years ago.
To compare the October/November 1963 discussions of Sessions Two as the Gettysburg of the Council may be an exaggeration, but only a slight one. The schema or working paper on the Church was fiercely debated, as the nature and authority of the Church itself were being discussed with an openness that one would have to look back five centuries to see replicated. The event in question was the Ecumenical Council of Constance (1414-1418), whose main agenda was the multiple claim of three men to be valid popes at the same time. Under great pressure by the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, this Council produced two teaching documents: (1) Sacrosancta, which proclaimed that the Council of Constance received its direct teaching authority from Christ, and that Councils were the supreme authority of the Church; and (2) Frequens, which directed that world synods of bishops should meet every three years to discuss reform and eradication of errors and abuses.
Human nature what it is, when the Council banished the three pretenders, the legitimate Bishop of Rome appointed by this Council, Martin V, made a bee line to the strengthening of the papacy versus the world’s bishops, an ongoing tension known among theologians then and today as Conciliarism. After the Council of Constance very few councils were called by successive popes, who saw the specter of collegial (episcopal) power as a threat to the Vicar of Christ and the successor of Peter. I have read history books which argue that the provisions of Frequens and its reforming intent would have prevented the wholesale explosion of the Reformation, but we will never know. It is safe to say that within the Church the role of the papacy continued a steady evolution in legal and spiritual autonomy, highlighted by the declaration of the doctrine of papal Infallibility in 1870. However, the exact reverse was taking place outside of the Church as the pope’s influence in matters of the world continued to wane. This is why the encyclicals of Pope John XXIII, notably Pacem in Terris, addressed to all people of good will, were striking for their times.
When Pope Francis celebrated Mass with the bishops of the United States this week, I did not hear any commentary on the nature of the Canonical legal powers held by the pope vis-à-vis the bishops, nor on their collective authority as U.S. bishops. But this was exactly the debate of Session Two, as many bishops and theologians raised the question of whether the papacy (and by association, the Curia) exercised too much authority in relation to the baptized laity, to be sure, but even more to the point, in relation to fellow consecrated bishops understood in Church Tradition as the “Successors of the Apostles.”
Xavier Rynne describes the October debate on “collegiality” (that is, common governance), as long and tedious, but the stakes were so high that time was extended for every position to be heard. The first question under discussion was whether indeed there was such a thing as a college or corporal body of bishops with legal standing in the Church. This in turn led to a sacramental question: does consecration of a bishop give him a new empowerment, or was appoint of a priest to a vacant see simply a juridical extension of Holy Orders? Pius XII, in line with the majority of Church scholars, had reiterated the first position. This being so, when does a bishop become part of the exercising college of apostolic teachers? I need to point out here that as late as the 1960’s bishops were often named for outstanding service to the Curia, men without specific sees, or “ministers without portfolios.” To tell you the truth, such men were the butt of jokes in seminaries, as my professors often referred to them as “spaghetti bishops.” After the Council the practice was generally halted.
The old Curia hand Cardinal Ruffini stood up and declared that “I still have not been convinced that Christ constituted the apostles as a college,” implying that in terms of governance Christ had focused his teaching and authoritative legacy only with Peter. The majority of fathers did not concur, and there was general (though not total) acceptance that some sort of corporal teaching and governing reality resided in the body of bishops as a whole. Cardinal Siri, another Curialist, pointed out that yes, there was a true sense of collectivity of bishops, and that history—namely all of the previous ecumenical councils—bore witness to that. But he stated that in no way could the bishops as a whole take a position opposite the Holy Father, given the infallibility teaching of 1870.
The American Cardinal Meyer of Chicago, whose background in Scripture study enhanced his respect on the floor, made a brilliant defense of Christ’s intent to trust the Church to the body of the Twelve, and thus rooting the corporate concept in New Testament practice. His argument was addressed by Bishop Martin of Barbastro, Spain, who contended that “if collegiality were of divine law…the pope would be obliged to set up a permanent council of bishops, which is certainly not true.” It escaped Martin and others that a permanent body did in fact already exist, the Curia, and it could claim no roots in New Testament practice.
No votes were yet taken, and under this particular section of the schema was included discussion on a married diaconate. It is worth noting that Cardinal Spellman of New York made his “maiden speech” of the Council on the subject. As it turned out, the Cardinal’s theology and his politics were both faulty—bishops in Latin America in particular were much in favor of the restored diaconate—and when told this by a reporter, Spellman snapped, “Let them say so.” Another topic under this umbrella was the generic role of “the people of God,” the laity, a debate that fell along predictable lines: modern theologians elaborating new and deeper understandings of baptism and its empowerment of lay Catholics in the mission of the Church versus a concern for any hint of diminishment of the ordained priest. In this debate Bishop Wright of Pittsburgh delivered an inspired support for strong recognition of the vocation of the laity. A subset of this debate involved the interplay of the Church, laity, and secular government or Church-state concerns as well as the Catholic layman’s role in combatting racism, in which Bishop Tracy of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, delivered a remarkable intervention connecting discrimination within the Church with racial divides in his home diocese.
Rynne observes at this juncture that the Council was coming to “the first stage of its crisis” when, on October 15th, it was announced that five straw ballots (pre-ballots) would be taken among the Council fathers on the issues discussed above. It was not so much the numerical results as the various reactions and counter plays that would leave the fathers and the world at large wondering if the Council could be saved.