Treatment of the document Gaudium et Spes was proving to be the discussion that would not die, containing as it did so many controversial points. One of these was atheism, and perhaps this should not be surprising. The Church had never, in previous councils, been forced to face this issue in its raw form. Previous controversies had always, in some way, shape, or form always reverted to a mistaken or misunderstood aspect of revelation. Never before had a council faced a condition of worldwide rejection of the very idea of God. Very quickly the Council fathers were learning that atheism was a multi-headed monster.
Xavier Rynne quotes a remarkably open passage from Paul VI’s encyclical Ecclesiam Suam (1964): “[Atheists] are scandalized by a mediocre, selfish Christianity which, relying on riches and arms, defends its own interests. If we had lived and preached the gospel of brotherhood, we would have defeated world atheistic communism.” Historians note the pope’s endorsement, in the same encyclical, of priests’ immersing themselves into the plight of blue collar workers, a redemption of the famous French Worker-Priest experiment of the 1950’s suppressed by Pope Pius XII.
Many Council fathers were quite sympathetic to Pope Paul’s analysis, able to discern that much of atheism was dissatisfaction with organized religion, notably Roman Catholicism’s paralysis during two world wars and the holocaust. However, there were other factors in play as well. Of great concern to the Church was the suppression of freedom to worship in Communist totalitarian nations, where atheism was the state religion, so to speak. But even beyond the Iron Curtain, atheistic Marxist philosophy was influencing intellectuals around the world, including the United States, with its vision of the future as a climax of equality and just distribution of goods, when the world would be classless.
This eschatological or futuristic view stood in marked contrast to Christian eschatology, which defined the end time as the return of Christ as the climax of the human experience, a time of glory and judgment, the “Second Coming.” In the 1960’s, however, this Christian vision of the end times seemed pale in comparison with an earthly future in which the lot of mankind could be improved by present day efforts. One did not need to be a card carrying communist to embrace a more activist effort to erase social injustice.
The Council did not wish to abandon the vision of the future to atheistic Communism. The majority of fathers realized that there was much to learn about atheism, and that teachings on the Church’s identity and works must better embrace the concrete injustices of the present world. Archbishop Wojtyla (the future John Paul II) called for moderation and study. (According to Andrew Greeley, when Cardinal Wojtyla entered the papal conclave to elect a successor to John Paul I in 1978, he brought a Marxist philosophy journal and read it during the proceedings, at least until his own growing vote tally began to disturb him.)
Discussion continued on schemas of “Church and Culture,” “Economic Social Life;” “the Community of Nations and Peace.” The latter was probably the most useful to the degree that it prompted theologians after the Council to examine questions of “just war” and “nuclear deterrence.” I can recall in the 1980’s that my bishop asked me to serve on his advisory board regarding the morality of war; we had Saturday morning breakfasts with the brass from nearby Patrick Air Base, who argued diligently about their ability to fight a limited nuclear war. I was dubious.
The Council addressed the schema on “Missionary Activity.” Again, here was a topic where twentieth century theologians raised concerns about the one-dimensional nature of the Church’s missionary vision, which was essentially to bring everyone to Roman Catholic baptism. A number of Council fathers wondered about the propriety of this approach. Rynne observes that “missiology” was going through its own identity crisis. (513) After World War II a highly controversial work appeared in France: France, Pays de Mission? (Is France a Mission Country?) Regrettably, the book has never been published in English. The gist of the book’s argument is that a mighty Catholic country like France, which bore the title “Daughter of the Church,” was itself in need of missionary endeavor. In a sense, the word “mission” became entwined with “revitalization,” and I suspect there is a strong blood line between this critical post-War insight and the “new evangelization” we hear so much about in contemporary Catholicism. The underlying question, of course, was whether the Church was in good enough shape to enjoy credibility in its mission to the unbaptized or the non-Catholic Christian.
The mission discussion also embraced ecumenical concerns. Under Pius XII the official Catholic Church position toward Christians of other churches had been the position of Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War: “Unconditional Surrender.” Many in the Curia still adhered to this. But the experience of World War II, where American Catholic soldiers fought German and Japanese to the death with Protestants as comrades in arms—a dramatic example of what was being played out around the world in countless episodes of life—was making the old guard position harder to accept. On another front, there were thoughtful churchmen who questioned the propriety of upsetting centuries of cultural practices and imposing Latin rites. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, religious order missionaries in China became embroiled in the Chinese and Malabar Rites Controversies. The Chinese difficulty involving long-standing rituals of honoring deceased ancestors. Clement XI banned celebration of the rites by Chinese converts in 1704. Documents already approved by the Council implied the need for more respect of indigenous peoples.
It was becoming clear that this final Session IV of the Council was revealing a need for serious and prolonged discussion of older, long-standing understandings of Church practices, and equally raising new points of study that could hardly be processed in the six weeks remaining. One can easily imagine how theologians envisioned years of work ahead of them, much of which continues to this day.
I neglected to recommend an excellent book on the worker-priests of France, Priests in Working Class Blue. (1986) The book is a bit pricey and may require more than the usual browsing.
One of the longest and most expansive of all the Vatican II documents of Vatican II is Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope). This document, debated on the heels of the Religious Liberty text in 1965, is a true invention of the Council fathers, as it was not on the agenda when the first calendar was drawn in 1962. There are a number of reasons that sentiment for such a flavored statement made it nearly irresistible. In the first instance, John XXIII had understood the worldwide need for a proclamation of good news to the entire world living in the shadow of nuclear Armageddon and glaring injustices in the economic struggle for survival. His own encyclical on world peace, Pacem in Terris (1963), had been addressed to the entire community of man, not just the members of the Roman Catholic Church.
Secondly, there was strong sentiment that the Church owed something to the world, that Christ had established the Church “not to be served but to serve,” and that a statement of intention—along with ways and means—was an act of faith in the Church and the world at large. Good will alone, of course, would not complete the task, though the shift in attitude itself, after centuries of a siege mentality in the post-Reformation Catholic Church, would become one of GS’s endearing legacies.
Practically speaking, this schema would truly go where no church had gone before, into an active engagement with the world and its perplexing problems. The Council would define a philosophical/theological Christian anthropology of the nature of man, draw from its treasury of history and experience, and address the opportunities of a better world by following the lights of mankind’s better angels. One of the major criticisms of GS was its over-optimism, but in truth the Church had never attempted anything like this before. I have no idea if the current pop music hit of the day, “All You Need Is Love,” by the Beatles, was played for the patrons of the smoky Bar Jonah, but good bishops are not immune to the pulse of the times.
Given its unique nature as a worldwide exhortation, the schema of Gaudium et Spes and the finished product would be written in a universal language, French. The Curia’s Archbishop Felici, who opposed the project from the beginning, would later tell anyone who would listen that the only official text was the Latin one. During the writing phase, though, Felici did raise pertinent questions on both the authority of the document and its uses. As to its dignity and authority, GS would eventually be defined as a Constitution or highest rank—along with the Constitutions on the Liturgy and the Church already passed. (As a rule of thumb, “constitutions” address matters of faith, while “decrees” address matters of practice.) Xavier Rynne quotes Paul VI’s declaration that the finished document would become “the crown of the Council’s work.”
GS was an enormously ambitious document, touching upon the very nature of man to an analysis of society, freedom, human dignity, the need to eliminate all forms of discrimination, the importance of scientific research and admission of the Church’s previously poor attitude toward its findings and practitioners. Theologically speaking, GS stressed the goodness of creation and the central role of Christ in this connection. It defined the Church as the sacrament of unity of all mankind and Jesus Christ, whom Paul VI referred to as “the focal point of the desires of history and civilization.” As Rynne put it, “Mankind was destined to reform the world. Therefore, the Church…must “historicize itself,” insert itself in history, in order to promote the renewal of the world for which it exists.” (467)
The floor discussion is intriguing. While the reaction in general was highly favorable, the concerns have considerable merit. I noted the “overly optimistic” criticism earlier, but there was good historical precedent for this concern. Many segments of nineteenth century Protestant thought had tended toward a theology of Christ without the Cross, the age of “Jesus the Social Worker.” This naïve and optimistic theology had buttressed colonialism and a paternal attitude toward native subjects. Social Gospel Protestantism crashed and burned with the writings of Albert Schweitzer, new forms of Biblical research, and most of all World War I. It was replaced by the radical evangelical theology we are familiar with today, propounded majestically by the twentieth century minister and theologian Karl Barth.
Other bishops expressed concern that the document was trying to do too much and risked becoming “a panacea” for all the world’s ills. (468) If I may digress here for a moment, Pope Francis’ Laudato Si, whatever one thinks of the document, is focused upon one major problem—global weather change--which has been identified in similar ways by most of the scientific community, the United States CIA and the insurance industries around the world. Our present day pope is observing the principles of openness to competent modern day science, as spelled out in GS.
Another objection—very much to the point—was the document’s frequent use of the term “Modern World.” Bishops from three continents were quick to point out that GS was a “western oriented” document where the term modern might have some significance, but for much of the planet, where drinking water and other basics were daily concerns, the term “modern” was an almost cruel ignorance of actual suffering. Another point of concern was the perception that in a subtle way the Church was telling the world what it should do, and was very nebulous about what the Church itself planned to change and/or inaugurate to address the planet’s ills.
Rynne notes that American participation in the discussion was almost nil. He speculates that the reluctance in part may have been due to strong anti-communist groups in the United States allied to the Catholic Right, which would have constitutionally opposed worldwide collusion of action. I myself suspect that in matters of world justice, the American Bishops were finding themselves in a growing moral quandary over the Viet Nam War; the Gulf of Tonkin resolution enlarging the American war effort had been passed in Congress just a year before.
Within Gaudium et Spes are three paragraphs (48-50) that would have profound impact upon we seminarians, our professors, and our priestly ministries. I will discuss some very practical and personal experiences of Gaudium et Spes on Monday.
This week marks the first anniversary of our daily blog. For my impressions of the first year and plans for 2016, click here at your leisure.
Preparations for the Fourth and final session of Vatican II continued through much of 1965. On the eve of the Council a number of final drafts were provided to the bishops around the world. These included final schemas on Religious Liberty, the Missions, Priestly Life, and the Apostolate of the Laity, along with the text on Divine Revelation. A number of others were held back till the Council actually began, including the Office of Bishops, Religious Life, Seminaries, and Non-Christian religions. Hotly contested issues applied to several documents, notably Religious Liberty and Non-Christian religions. There would be a lot to digest and approve in Session IV.
In the months leading up to Session IV, Pope Paul VI spoke repeatedly of his desire for unity in the final session. In addition, he implemented a number of actions to assuage or encourage both the progressive and the conservative leaders of the Church. For example, on June 10, 1965, on a visit to Pisa, the pope exhorted the faithful “to imitate the faith of Galileo, Dante and Michelangelo.” His remarks were interpreted—correctly, it seems—as a gentle rehabilitation of Galileo, whose difficulties with his astronomy and the Inquisition are quite well-known. (Pope John Paul II formally and forcefully acknowledged regret over the Church’s handling of the Galileo affair on October 31, 1992, though plans for a promised statue of the scientist on Vatican grounds have been placed on hold since 2008.)
On the other hand, on the eve of the Council Paul issued the encyclical Mysterium Fidei on the Eucharist. The timing of the document attracted as much attention as its content. Mysterium Fidei was interpreted as a warning to Dutch theologians in particular, and many western theologians in general, that the “new theology” of the Vatican II era must be pursued with caution and would not be permitted to endanger traditional teachings of the Church on major issues of faith. It is noteworthy, though, that the encyclical gives us clues of the kinds of liturgical experimentation already under way. Paul, for example, attacks writers who disparage the practice of priests offering private masses—a clue, certainly, that the practice of concelebrated Mass, where two or more priests offer Mass together, was already in widespread use despite no formal approval or ritual.
The final Session IV opened on September 14, 1965. Pope Paul presided over the opening Mass with a graceful simplicity—a noticeable number of late medieval practices had evidently been put aside—and his sermon/opening address was noteworthy for its emphasis upon fraternal charity. None of the theological disputes were raised. The pope revealed two surprises in his words: his intention to address the United Nations in New York in 1966 to make an appeal for peace, and his intent to establish the practice of conducting Synods of the Bishops, a long-awaited announcement by the majority. After a somewhat anxious nine months, Pope Paul did much to restore at least a measure of hope and good will for the final stress.
The first working session addressed the concept of the synod of bishops as a regular function in the workings of the Church. The pope himself attended this meeting. Regional synods were a regular feature of church life for centuries, though their frequency and importance declined with the strengthening of papal authority. A twentieth-century Catholic would only know the term from the lives of the saints. What Pope Paul had proposed here was a standing body of bishops and others from around the world. In the final configuration, it was agreed upon that national conferences of bishops would elect its representatives (1 for every 25 dioceses), to which the pope would appoint as many as 15% more as he saw fit. Religious orders would also have representation.
The synod would generally have advisory or consultative functions, but the provisions did allow for deliberative capacity. In other words, the Synodal meetings would most often allow the pope to hear a wide range of considered positions from his representative bishops and experts from around the world. On some occasions the pope could actually authorize a vote on a particular issue, a decision which he, of course, reserved the right to approve or dissent. What was less clear was the matter of agenda, which in practice has been set forth by the pope.
A point to note, however, is that the establishment of a triennial synod was not established as a doctrine nor as a new binding facet of the constitution of the Church. One of the fathers in Session IV was the Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wotyla. Elected thirteen years later as John Paul II, he would oversee the 1983 Code of Canon Law and tighten up the provisions on synods in Canons 342-348, which do make fascinating reading. There was at least one effort in my memory where a regional body of bishops attempted to propose an agenda from the grass roots; Indonesian bishops attempted to initiate a synod discussion on priestly celibacy, but this offer was not accepted by the Vatican. A future pope could hypothetically cease the practice of regular synods altogether, but Pope Francis has certainly shown no inclination to do so.
The Curia was nervous about the use of the word “Synod,” which in church history was a powerful exercise of episcopal (bishops’) authority. Nonetheless, in remarks to the press, the Curial line was a willingness to work with the 160 bishops constituting the future first synod. (Cardinal Marella’s claim that he would be only “too happy” to work with the Synodal bishops was a transparent stretch, though.)
But all things considered, the fourth session had begun remarkably well. It was a good thing, too, for the first regular agenda item on the table was the issue that had tied the Council in knots during its first go around, the matter of Religious Liberty.
The Third Session of Vatican II ended in November, 1964, in something of an agitated state, with consternation among the bishops about the stage management of the final days on the final schemas on Ecumenism and Religious Liberty. A number of participants, upon return home, chose to emphasize the achievements of Session Three, of which there were many. Probably no one went to greater efforts in this regard than the 83-year-old Cardinal Bea, who in February, 1965, addressed the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland. His visit in itself was groundbreaking, and he addressed the body on Session Three, attempting in the process to soothe the troubled waters of the final days when the Ecumenical document suffered some unseemly moments with administrative scissors. Acknowledging the hope of Christian reunion, one of the delegates at Geneva coined the memorable phrase, that reunion was “the only hope for a united world, but we must not expect the millennium to be delivered with the morning milk.”
Back in Rome, the Italian weekly L’Expresso summarized its editorial judgment that Paul VI was “not a popular pope.” Xavier Rynne considered this judgment unfair, but he does acknowledge that the circumstances of the end of Session Three led to considerable international discussion about the pope’s personal manner and style of leadership. Rynne observes that Paul contrasted with the effusive warmth of John XXIII or the awe of Pius XII; as something of an introvert, and certainly an intellectual, Paul VI found himself in circumstances where his many gifts were, in fact, something of a detriment. In truth, the Council was attempting to undertake long-overdue repairs of centuries-old policies and attitudes, but forced to do so in very short time and without the help of a cooperative management team. Paul was a smarter man than John in many ways, and I have no doubt that he gave considerable thought to the implications of each reform put forward by the Council. John, by contrast, would have been more inclined to leave concerns for the future to the Holy Spirit and address present-day issues with gusto.
Paul’s greatest personal agony, according to Rynne, was his fear for the papacy itself. In Rynne’s words, “It was as if he were tortured by the thought that the world might forget who the pope really was, at a time when the world has never known better.” (429) It is easy to forget that the concept of the papacy, the pope as Vicar of Christ, was one of the pillars of Catholic belief, and in a curious way a guarantee of all doctrines, in the mind of a 1950’s Catholic.
What Pope Paul was not prepared for was the backlash against his use of what he deemed as appropriate exercise of his office in the final days of Session Three. Reaction of much of the world press was strongly negative and in some quarters intensely so, to a degree not previously experienced. Paul himself expressed his pain to journalists over the “low level of tone” in reporting on Session Three. Archbishop Felici, less helpfully, compared newsmen to “parasites and fungi.” (431) Unfortunately, in Rynne’s opinion, the Curial mindset was not disposed to analyze criticism, to see what seeds of truth the day’s harvest of bad news might include. And, in respect to the pope’s vision of the papacy, the Curia would never admit a mistake.
An encouraging or discouraging sign of continuing stress was a letter written by the Curia’s Cardinal Cicognani, to the entire Curia, at the pope’s order. The Curia was reminded of the widespread criticisms of its actions in Session Three. Its members were told to “show docility to the reforms which will be decreed in the future.” The Curia was also ordered to stop squabbling with the bishops over the work of the Council. If you were a “glass half-full” kind of person, there was the hope in that the pope was telling his household to get with the program. For the “glass half-empty” folks, the very need for such a letter spelled trouble down the road.