If what I read and hear is correct, there are a fair number of Catholics who believe that Vatican II was a dangerous mistake that has led the Church down a bad road in the past half century. It is amazing to attempt to count the number of websites devoted to “undoing the Council” by recreating the Church of an earlier day (1950? 1900? The Council of Trent?). Even Benedict XVI, a Conciliar peritus in his youth, was known to say from time to time that Vatican II was one of over twenty councils in the history of the Church, not the only one. As I wrote last week, a very close friend expressed to me the question of assessing the overall impact of the Council in light of its implementation.
Thus I felt it might be a good idea to devote at least one entry to the troubles of the post-Conciliar Church, followed by another on its successes next Monday. A good place to begin is with the term “Council.” When John XXIII announced the convocation of the world’s bishops in 1962, only historians understood with any degree of precision exactly what a “council” was. The last council, Vatican I, took place during the Grant Administration in the United States. There was no living memory of such a thing, and in truth Vatican I’s definition of papal infallibility in 1870 made councils seem superfluous anyway.
The understanding of the genuine need for a Council of reform was not easily understood by Catholics. John XXIII, taking the long view, understood that the Church as a whole had been morally impotent to predict and forestall two world wars and the Holocaust. French bishops after World War II could see Catholic workingmen abandoning the Church for socialist-communist sympathies to their plight (so much so that France’s “worker priests” began to work side by side with blue collar laborers in factories and on docks to show Church solidarity and understanding.) The Catholic European academic community outside of Rome itself well understood the creakiness of the Catholic scholastic system then imposed in seminaries and other Church institutions. The crises were mounting and their roots were deep, but they would not have been evident to most Catholics in the pews.
Many Catholics in the United States had the benefits of an elementary school education, but the state of higher Catholic education for bishops, priests, teaching sisters. and laity was poor. In 1955 the American Catholic historian Father John Tracy Ellis essentially called out the American Church in a still-famous 40-page essay on Church intellectual life. The major issues proposed by the Council would not have registered in Catholic pulpits or classrooms. Remember that when Xavier Rynne began his reports from within the Council, his agent recommended New Yorker magazine as the place where intellectuals would most likely follow his commentary. Grassroots interest as there was in the Council most typically centered on practical matters of English Mass and simpler habits for nuns—changes that were hardly universally welcomed in the 1960’s, and still fuel thousands of blog debates today.
Vatican II extended throughout my high school years—in the seminary, no less—and I cannot recall a single reference to the Council in class or in prayers. Some students—upper classmen—were following the Council through the New York Times or informal discussion with informed friars, and in my junior year the spiritual director held a “Bible Vigil” or what we would call today a Liturgy of the Word in English. That same year a young friar delivered a Sunday sermon on the civil rights demonstration in Selma, Alabama, calling for us to join in through spiritual solidarity. That was unusual for our seminary. In my first year of college my French professor brought in issues of Paris Match to show photos of “experimental Masses” conducted by Dutch churchmen and to condemn the “blasphemy” in no uncertain terms.
Looking back, I think that was how a lot of Americans eventually came to frame Vatican II and its meaning—somewhat helter-skelter, piecemeal, from churchmen who themselves were deeply divided on the outcome of the Council. The term “Spirit of Vatican II” (sometimes capitalized, sometimes not) emerged as a kind of shorthand for many forms of experimentation and change, along the lines of “well, if the Council had just gone a few more rounds, it would have approved this, too” or “the Council is more than its documents.” In truth, there was a stated “Spirit of the Council” proclaimed by Pope John—a call for renewal of the heart, for more profound living of the Gospel, for more justice, for inclusion, and for internal reform of the Church’s machinery, specifically the Curia. Four years of a laborious and at times contentious Council tended to mute the trumpet.
Despite the fact that the documents of Vatican II run to about one thousand pages single-spaced, or maybe because of that, the Council adjourned without having imparted an official unity of purpose and direction, and there was a “no-man’s land” until each sacramental rite and text could be composed and disseminated (in the case of Canon Law, it was eighteen years.) It would be five years, for example, before the official rite of the Mass, the Novus Ordo, was promulgated (this rite in turn was reformed in 2011). In the interim, Rome issued a series of “hybrids” incorporating new elements with the older Tridentine Rite. I can recall that as a sacristan in the late 1960’s I would have to keep in mind the liturgical sensitivities of all the priests, some of whom insisted on all the older style vestments including the maniple.
In the years immediately following the Council, there was an absence of direction which admittedly led to excesses. Authority was a particularly dirty word, as a superior might be “quenching the Holy Spirit” by imposing limits on behaviors and policies, some of which were questionable at best. A very good example of this is religious education. Catholic schools were beginning to shutter as early as 1970 and on the whole there was a reluctance to shore up the system on the supposed grounds that CCD programs would be equally as good as Catholic school education. Recently I did read “To Teach as Jesus Did,” the United States Bishops’ 1972 statement on Catholic education, and it is a true monument to both utopian hopes and fear of taking a stand.
I have said little so far about the life of priests and religious in the post-Vatican II era, and here I can only say that it was a difficult time. The freedom brought about by the elimination of archaic structures revealed that a fair number were unable to live productively in a relatively unfettered religious setting. I will address that in more detail on Monday.
One can fairly ask if indeed Vatican II was worth all this trouble. To answer that, we would need to ask what would have happened if John XXIII had never called a council. And that we will look at on Monday.
In the protracted debate on the Constitution on Divine Revelation at the end Session IV of the Council, we saw that the main focus of contention was the Bible itself. Monday’s (February 8) post was devoted to the Church’s power to interpret Scripture in the post-Apostolic era, with the body of such interpretations called the Church’s Tradition. After a great amount of behind-the-scenes work in which the pope was personally involved, a formula was finally arrived it in which the Scripture was recognized, naturally, as the Word of God, while describing the work of the Church as handing on the Word in ways that make it fully known. The promulgated text would read that “it is not from the Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed.” It may have helped future generations if the sentence had said “literal Scripture alone” instead of “Scripture alone;” The Council would close with the often misunderstood “Two Source” sense of Revelation which remains a problem for theologians to the present day.
One of the difficulties in the discussion above was the changing nature of Scripture study itself, which had evolved enormously since about 1800. In this debate the lines of division were a little clearer to follow. The Curial old guard saw great danger in recognizing the advances of modern Bible study, which inevitably found historical and linguistic errors in existing texts. Several critical Church doctrines rested upon literal historical understanding of Bible texts: the doctrine of original sin and the origins of the human soul rested upon the facticity of the second creation account of Genesis, the Adam and Eve narrative. By the 1960’s biblical scholars were in fair agreement that the Adam and Eve narrative was written relatively late in Jewish history as a philosophical work to explain evil and human nature.
Thus there was considerable minority resistance to any statement on Biblical revelation that failed to establish historical certainly of the events described. In the United States we would term the conservative alternative “fundamentalism.” The final document crafted a subtle formulation which stated that the “books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation.” The quest of the bible reader, then, is the inspired intent of the sacred writer in passing on God’s truth in the totality of the book. It is the intent which is inspired, not the literal rendering. Such an understanding of inspiration and texts does not damage Church doctrine (the Adam and Eve narrative is still an expression of the basic truth that man, even in his first instance, was prone to sin and needed redemption, even if the narrative is the philosophical fruit of an inspired thinker just several centuries before Christ.)
The Gospels, in this regard, came under closer scrutiny in Council discussion. It was one thing to say that the factual historical nature of Adam and Eve might not be absolutely essential to the Christian body of belief. But the entire meaning of history rested upon the divine Son of God entering human history once for all. The four evangelists were thus treated with special profound care at the Council.
Throughout the Christian era there were debates about the nature of Jesus. It is often forgotten that toward the end of his life Thomas Jefferson created a life of Jesus which eliminated all references to his divinity. But within the mainstream of Christian belief no one to my knowledge ever proposed that the accounts of Jesus in the Gospels were contrived or created from whole cloth. But it was true that as early as the Church Fathers there was concern about the texts. St. Jerome, for example, retired to Bethlehem from Rome to pen a Latin translation (the Vulgate) which he believed to be an improvement of the Greek translations then in circulation.
Linguistic issues were the lesser of the Church’s concern throughout history. The major issue was disagreement of the texts themselves. Today the differences between Mark, Matthew, and Luke, are considered valuable insights into the theology of each evangelist, and even in 1965 the study of the Synoptic Gospels in parallel text lines (books referred to as ‘synopses” or “parallels”) was standard fare in seminaries, including my own. A synopsis was sitting on my desk when I entered grad school in 1971. Here was a case where Biblical study, even in Catholic academia, was running far ahead of the main office, so to speak.
Again a carefully worded formula was passed by the majority of the fathers. “Holy Mother the Church has firmly and with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold, that the four Gospels just named, whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus, the Son of God, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation until the day he was taken up into heaven…the sacred writers wrote the four Gospels …always in such fashion that they told us the honest truth about Jesus.
This formulation pleased most fathers and Catholic scholars. Again, a distinction is made between the intent of the Sacred Authors and the factual basis of everything reported. For example, the report of St. Mark (and only Mark) that Jesus cast demons into a hundred swine who then rushed headlong into the sea can be interpreted in light of Mark’s entire message that Jesus had come to expel demons as a sign of the Kingdom of God on earth. On the other hand, this text deeply upset conservatives, to the point that Xavier Rynne reported some tinkering with the text to be brought up for final voting. As he observes, “Vigilance was more than ever the order of the day.” (544).
As the calendar ticked down, there were efforts to treat of new subjects not specifically addressed in the Council deliberations. One reason suggested by Rynne is that Paul VI was gathering topics for future Synods of Bishops, meetings mandated by the Council. The topics included indulgences, canonizations of Pope Pius XII and John XXIII, reform of the Curia or Holy Office, nuclear warfare. But the calendar was the final arbiter, and after promulgating all of the approved documents of the Council, Pope Paul led the closing Eucharist on December 8, 1965. I will summarize Xavier Rynne’s concluding observations, and a few of my own, next week, before we move on to the issues of Catholic moral theology.
One issue that was not discussed in any session of Vatican II was the concept of a married clergy. The closest opportunity came in October, 1965, in the discussion of the schema on “Priestly Life and Ministry.” On October 11 Archbishop Felici read a letter, presumably with the backing of Pope Paul VI, to the point that the Curia was aware of sentiments and proposals from some of the Fathers that clerical celibacy as observed in the Latin Rite be placed on the Council Floor for discussion. The Curia recommended against such a discussion on the grounds that (1) there was too little time remaining in the Council to give serious discussion to such a critical topic, and (2) such a discussion would best take place in private. I can’t help but note the change in Council protocol over three years: remember that the Council fathers had been chastened in the early days for leaking to the press.
The Curial concerns were fair enough, and they were accompanied by the wish that priests renew their zeal for the sacred state. But in the words of the late Paul Harvey, there was certainly “the rest of the story.” There were petitions passed among the bishops for such a discussion at the Council, particular from Latin American prelates. One of the biggest Curial fears was a public display of support for a change in the discipline. Pope Paul, it should be remembered, carried the hope that the Council would be a unifying witness to the Church, and thus priestly celibacy joined artificial birth control as issues too delicate and divisive for public ecclesiastical discussion. It did not help that the press was carrying reports on the numbers of priests desiring to be released from their vows of celibacy. The median press number was 10,000. Rynne notes parenthetically that private discussion about the discipline of celibacy dated back at least to 1900 in the modern era, and that Pius X and others hesitated to seriously address the issue because, intriguingly, many priests were already in “concubinage” and no one wanted to tackle that. (521)
The actual discussion on the state of the priesthood was, in Rynne’s opinion, a time consuming but unproductive conversation that went far beyond its due date. He may be reflecting Cardinal Dopfner’s statement from the floor that the document read more like a “spiritual lecture” than a conciliar document. The Cardinal added one of the few humorous moments—possibly unintentionally but certainly accurately—when he observed that priests back home would be annoyed if they found themselves referred to as “a precious spiritual crown of their bishops.” (523) Looking at the tenor of the debate, I was intrigued that so many speakers expressed concern about priestly morale and the irregularity of clerical life. Rynne pointed out the tendency of the Council fathers to talk around priestly problems without naming them. In retrospect, it is probably fair to say that the so-called “crisis in the priesthood” was not the result of Vatican II; in their own limited way, the Council’s bishops were already acknowledging it.
One of the more intriguing interventions in this discussions came from my hometown Buffalo bishop, the new Auxiliary Bishop Stanley Brzana (no one at home called him anything but Stan). He was following up a lengthy discussion of “fallen” priests by Cardinal Heenan of London. “I have never heard of a priest being scandalized because of mercy shown to a repentant brother.”
Having finally dispatched a difficult topic by a vote of 1507-2-2, the Council moved on to what could have been a proud moment, a statement against Anti-Semitism. It is hard to imagine what debate might come forward, but there was, alas, some scuffling that took the bloom off the rose. The kindest explanation was a fear that such a document represented an endorsement of the State of Israel and an insult to Arab states. But in truth, a conservative element fought—line by line, in some cases—to protect the memory that the Jews had killed Christ. There is a technical term for this concept, deicide. While the word itself was expunged, the sentiment behind it lingered in drafts and even interventions like a snake that just couldn’t be killed. Moreover, the Council was besieged by private and public correspondence from groups we would call today nationalists, neo-Nazis, skinheads and the like, including a public threat to blow up the Council itself. It did not help that a workmen scaffold crashed to the floor during the discussion. More troubling was opposition from Curial and Conciliar participants who objected that such a document either defied Sacred Scripture or fostered religious indifferentism. The vote itself was not unanimous, 1763-250.
October 27, 1965, marked the final day of formal floor discussion. The Council thus progressed into a prolonged “wrapping up” phase of about one month as a number of documents still needed final ratification, which in a few cases developed into floor debates. The last step would be the solemn ratification by Pope Paul. Rynne comments that by the end of October the bishops were in a state of “resigned euphoria.” Many were disappointed at what had not been accomplished—the decree on the priesthood alone was a good example—but as a whole the Council fathers, with the approaching conclusion, began to realize that the Council had changed the Church for the better, in some cases to epic proportions. It was this sense of accomplishment that kept the bishops focused on what proved to be a very complex three week finale.