The best adjectives to describe this work are basic ones: thoughtful, logical, systematic, detached—the kind of qualities one looks for in a serious study, and particularly in a treatment of Vatican II. The Council (1962-1965) has been acclaimed and derided, quite intensely, in the five decades in the United States. 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, because it will enjoy a long shelf life. It will be the quintessential one-volume history of the Council for catechetics, adult education, the college classroom, and the general adult Catholic readership.
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. The old assessment of Vatican II as progressive European theologians staving off a Machiavellian Roman Curia still lingers, particularly on Catholic blog sites. 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.
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 geographic 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.
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, but O’Malley comments on the unwieldly machinery collected for the drafting of documents and floor management. Visionary as he was, John XXIII fielded an old guard administration.
The efforts of the Curia to engineer a brief Council in the mode and format of Vatican I are well known. But 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 Tradition. 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 the majority of 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. 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. “Perfectae Caritatis,” for example, challenges religious orders to return to the principles of their founders. “Development” too was a theological principle of exploration into existing teachings to consider new applications. A notable example is John Courtney Murray’s contribution to the Council’s “Declaration on Religious Liberty.”
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 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 plan for the Council was scuttled, its proceedings were managed by Curial 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.
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: the “Sacred Constitution on the Liturgy” was the first document promulgated.
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.
John W. O'Malley, What Happened at Vatican II? (2010)
For Folks Who Can't Read Everything