If you were catechized before the 1960’s, the term “ecumenical council” probably did not come up in your texts or your classroom discussions. The last one prior to 1962’s Vatican II was, appropriately enough, Vatican I [1868-1870]. Vatican I was the first council conducted in St. Peter’s, and fittingly so, as the fathers in attendance voted for the promulgation of the doctrine of infallibility of the pope when he solemnly teachers on matters of faith and morals. Prior to Vatican I, some ecumenical councils were conducted in St. John of the Lateran Hill Cathedral in Rome, Christianity’s mother church for a millennium until the sixteenth century construction of St. Peter’s and the strengthening of the papacy. But most councils have been held around the known Christian world in Europe as far east as modern-day Istanbul, Turkey. The declaration of pope as final arbiter of matters of faith and morals in 1870 seemed to eliminate the need for future councils of bishops.
An “ecumenical” council is a meeting that includes every bishop of the Church, including the two-dozen Eastern Rite Churches, such as the Melkite and Syriac rites, in communion with Rome. In Catholic practice, the term “ecumenical” [from the Greek oikoumenē, “the inhabited world”] is used somewhat more narrowly than in other Christian Churches. At Vatican II, no Orthodox patriarch or representative of a Protestant Church served as a voting member, though a small contingent of outside observers were permitted to attend. Synods, or regional/national meetings of bishops, were permitted before and after the infallibility decree of Vatican I; the famous 1884 Plenary Council of Baltimore’s decision that every Catholic parish was to have a Catholic school is a prime example. But with the doctrine of papal infallibility now declared, and the central governance of the Church resting with the Roman Curia, most Catholics—and probably most bishops—assumed that ecumenical councils were now unnecessary, a piece of Church tradition that no longer served its consultative purpose.
It is hard for us to appreciate both the odds of another Council ever being called in the twentieth century, and the radical renewal that this Council, Vatican II, attempted to bring forth both into the Church and into society at large. An excellent analysis of Vatican II—how it came to be and what transpired during its four years of meeting—is John W. O’Malley’s What Happened at Vatican II . This is not an easy book—some exposure to Church/European history is probably desirable, though Chapter 2, “The Long Nineteenth Century,” provides as lucid an analysis of the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church as one is likely to find. During our “unexpected sabbatical” this is just the right book with which to orient one’s self to the life of the Church in 2020.
What strikes me about O’Malley in his narration and conclusions is his ability to make sound judgments without lapsing into judgmental excesses. Many commentators have found this balance hard to achieve in their own writings on the Council through the present day. The negative assessment of Vatican II—no doubt enhanced by opponents of the radical reforms of Pope Francis--as progressive European theologians stealing the agenda from the Roman Curia still lingers, particularly on traditional Catholic blog sites. There are Catholics who identify as sedevacanists [from the Latin, “empty seat”] who hold that there has not been an authentic pope since Pius XII died in 1958, such is their distrust and rejection of Pope John XXIII, who announced a council in 1959 and “started all the trouble.” O’Malley does not run away from “prelates behaving badly,” but he provides an insightful overview of how those passions developed.
Chapter 2, “The Long Nineteenth Century,” is an intriguing and balanced account of Church and society in the formation of Vatican II; the author dates this century as extending from the French Revolution (1789) to the eve of Vatican II (1962). The “nineteenth century” was the coming to full bloom of secular modernity; for the Church, there was no hope of turning back the clock to a time before nationalism, democracy, science, and separation of Church and State, the end, as O’Malley phrases it, of the “old marriage of throne and altar.” (p. 54) Given that the modern era posed physical as well as philosophical threats to the Church of Rome--Risorgimento and the end of the papal states, for example--an embattled central church used the tools at its command: a fierce adherence to its past and a resistance to the present. The defensive posture of the Roman Church maintained itself through the election of Pope John XXIII.
Vatican II sprung from the mind of Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, elected to the papacy in 1958 at the age of 78, probably as an interim pope to serve until the Curia could arrive at a long-term consensus. No one was more stunned at the 1959 announcement of a council than the papal curia, which reportedly sat in “icy silence” when John announced his decision to them. O’Malley captures the scope of the Council in terms of size and cost with some wonderment that such an event as Vatican II could have taken place at all. The author does not idolize Pope John; he recognizes that the pope—a keen observer of twentieth century horrors—came to the Throne of Peter with a conviction that the times called for a new conversation between the Church and the world. Pope John could model what he hoped for in his messages and encyclicals, taking the unheard-of measure of addressing his encyclicals to the whole world, not simply the Roman Catholic Church. but O’Malley critiques the unwieldly machinery collected for the drafting of goals, documents, and floor management. Visionary as he was, John XXIII fielded an old guard administration for the Council that admittedly used its many bureaucratic tools to befuddle the proceedings and maintain an administrative control that angered many of the bishops in attendance.
The Curia hoped to engineer a brief council in the mode and format of Vatican I, a tightening of nuts and bolts and additions of new feasts and titles for the Virgin Mary. And yet, O’Malley explains the Curial mind without malice at numerous points in the narrative. If I may jump ahead to a telling episode on the debate over Revelation, Dei Verbum, in October 1965, the floor debate virtually ground to a halt over the language on the relationship of Scripture and Church Tradition as twin sources of Revelation. While a strong majority of the Council fathers endorsed a greater role for the Bible in Church life, the Curia lobbied Pope Paul VI to maintain a definition of Tradition as equal to Scripture. For Cardinal Siri, among others, any hint of diminution of Tradition as an equal revelation source would undermine doctrines of the Virgin Mary, notably the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, neither of which enjoyed a strong Biblical foundation. (p. 278)
O’Malley’s narrative incorporates three impulses driving most Council fathers and their theological advisors: Aggiornamento, Ressourcement, and Development of Doctrine. “Aggiornamento” is a term often applied to Pope John’s “throwing open the windows.” In his addresses, John used the term favorably as a need to openness and change in the face of new challenges throughout the world. Implied, of course, was the critique that the modus operandi of the Church had grown stodgy and academically stale. Aggiornamento was a mood; Ressourcement, on the other hand, was a technical theological term for a contemporary review of the primitive or early practices of the Church. A good example of the Ressourcement method is seen in the Council’s decree on the renewal of religious orders, Perfectae Caritatis. The Council challenged the orders to return to the principles of their founders, the original inspirations of a St. Benedict or a St. Francis of Assisi. “Development” was a theological principle of exploration of existing teachings to consider new applications. A notable example is the American John Courtney Murray’s contribution to the Council’s “Declaration on Religious Liberty,” a defense of freedom of conscience that distanced itself from the older Catholic principle that “error has no rights.”
O’Malley manages to produce a consistent chronology of the floor proceedings despite considerable odds. Among them was uncertainty over just how long the Council would last. That Vatican II extended over four years [generally from September to December] came as a gradual surprise and point of concern for bishops—and certainly to the Curia, which had hoped for a one-session conclave of several weeks. Once the original Curial plan for a pocket council was scuttled, its proceedings were managed by Vatican moderators in a fashion of haphazardness, an unevenness of clock management, and a maddeningly disjointed daily agenda of serious debate interrupted frequently by calls to vote on schemas or portions of schemas on entirely different subjects. Hardly a Roberts Rules convocation. All public sessions were conducted in Latin.
As a result, many bishops from the “third world” and the Eastern rite churches received precious little attention to their pressing concerns by Council’s end. Moreover, some documents were written hastily (on “Social Communications,” for example) so that precious time could be allotted to major doctrinal and pastoral concerns. The author speaks positively of the bishops themselves—their openness to Pope John’s vision, their own theological acumen or their selection of competent advisors, and their willingness to tackle controversial questions from the start: Sacrosanctum Concilium or the “Sacred Constitution on the Liturgy” was the first document promulgated. In total, sixteen documents of varying degrees and importance were promulgated by December 1965. O’Malley summarizes the major documents and the pros and cons of the floor discussions in such a way that the reader can reflect upon the wisdom of conciliar determinations and whether their goals have been satisfactorily achieved in the past half-century.
In his final chapter, “Conclusion,” O’Malley does offer a telling assessment of perhaps the biggest error of the bishops, particular Western bishops: “They assumed an easier transition from ideas of the scholars’ study to the social reality of the church than proved to be the case.” (p. 292) Hence the turmoil when the bishops returned home. Put another way, the cutting edge thinking of the theologians and many bishops did not easily compute to an attainable catechesis. The strong reaction to the recent encyclicals of Pope Francis and charges that he is a socialist reflect that much more study of Vatican II remains to be done.
I dislike using the pedestrian term “useful” to describe fine literature, but John W. O’Malley’s 300-page overview of the Council is the kind of work one buys in hardcover if possible, because it will enjoy a long shelf life. It is the quintessential one-volume history of the Council for catechetics, adult education, the college classroom, and the general adult Catholic readership. It is also worthy of study and review in our present downtime; our Catholic experience will be the richer for it.
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