It's about 5 AM and I am packing up to hit the road for a day-long presentation on moral theology for catechists in my diocese. I spent yesterday preparing, which is why I had no post for Friday. As I will be away all day today, I am bringing in another pinch hitter from the right side of the plate.
Last Sunday the New York Times religion editor Ross Douthat created quite a stir with his essay, "The Plot to Hijack the Catholic Church." As luck would have it, Ross was scheduled to speak last Tuesday for a lecture series sponsored by the conservative Catholic blog site/journal "First Things." His presentation was "The Crisis of Conservative Catholicism." First Things is somewhat more conservative than I am, but many of its ventures are intriguing and enlightening. Ross's 30-minute presentation is fascinating and his recommendations I found highly useful for the entire Church, touching as they do the heart of theological adult education.
So, if you have time today, pour a cup of coffee and kick back to enjoy Mr. Douthat's thoughtful and focused presentation. I will see you tomorrow unless my cable is down.
We continue our Monday and Saturday flashbacks to Vatican II, concluded fifty years ago this autumn.
On September 28, 1964 the Council took up discussion again on the Declaration on the Jews. The management of this document was poorly handled and caused considerable scandal, particularly in the United States, and while the product was satisfactory, the process was one of the more troubling stories within the Council. The majority of bishops clearly endorsed Cardinal Bea’s schema as presented on this date. But Bea had sailed rough waters behind the scene to get the document this far. There was opposition to the document in Arab countries and even among some bishops in Arab lands. The political scene of the Middle East, baffling then as it is today, brought extra media scrutiny to this particular discussion within the Vatican and the Council.
In the first instance, there was considerable mystery as to why this document had been postponed from discussion in the previous session of 1963. Xavier Rynne’s hypothesis that Pope Paul’s unannounced upcoming visit to Jerusalem may have been a determining factor in holding back the discussion is probably as good a reason as any. No one could really say how the Pope would be received in Israel or Jordan immediately after release of a conciliar document written expressly to enhance Catholic and Jewish relations. But there was considerable concern in the Curia about the content of the draft aside from the matter of the pope’s trip.
Like many other conciliar working papers, the Declaration on the Jews represented a significant reversal in both popular devotion and traditional theology. I went to my daily Mass missal (copyright, 1956) and looked up the Good Friday “Great Intercessions,” a solemn rendering of we know today as the Prayer of the Faithful. I found the petition I was looking for: “Let us pray also for the perfidious Jews: that our Lord and God would remove the veil from their hearts: that they may also acknowledge our Lord Jesus Christ.” This formula, used for centuries, was still an official part of the Church’s liturgy as the fathers worked through Vatican II. The new Roman Missal or Sacramentary would not appear till 1970, though provisional texts amended the Good Friday rite prior to the release of the new missal.
It may seem hard to believe today that in the post-Holocaust era my local church (and every other in communion with Rome) worshipped in those words without flinching. In fact, I have to admit that anti-Semitism was a “given” in the culture of my youth and even to some degree in the seminary. Among Catholic theologians and bishops at the Council the dispute took a form. The traditional theology of the time had put great emphasis upon Matthew 27:25, where the Jews cry out to Pontius Pilate, “Let his blood be upon us and our children.” This text of ownership of the crucifixion came to receive a technical theological term, deicide, or the killing of God.
On the Council floor, a determined minority sought to stop the majority from eliminating the word deicide from Catholic parlance. The public argument went something like this: if the Church discontinues the concept and teaching of deicide, it is calling into question the historicity and accuracy of its revered evangelist Matthew, and for that matter, the historical dependability of the entire Bible. Rynne correctly observes that in listening to the debate, it was not hard to distinguish between bishops who were conversant with developments in scripture study, and those who clung to Trent’s outdated definition of the nature of Biblical revelation. Some years earlier (1943) Pope Pius XII had permitted Catholic scholars to take advantage of new concepts of Scripture study, including what we know today as redaction criticism, the principle that evangelists, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, rearranged earlier texts like Mark’s or created teaching moments within their narratives for the sake of their theological overview. (Matthew 27:25 may be an editorial insert.) Such a modern approach would be anathema to the old school.
Consequently, most contemporary scholars and theologians at the Council had personally discarded a literal understanding of Jewish guilt on the matter of deicide. But before the schema reached the floor of the Council, rumors were reaching the press that the Jewish statement would call for wholesale conversion to Catholicism. In fact, the draft had been changed in that direction during the summer of 1964 by the Curia, but the deed was discovered by no less than Cardinal Ritter of St. Louis. With the tactic discovered, the Curia realized the game was up, but there would be noise on the Council floor nonetheless. Cardinal Ruffini, now the chief spokesman for the Curial old guard, argued that a favorable statement toward the Jews would endanger Christians living in the region as it would be received as an affront to Moslems. Ruffini was rebuffed by the heavyweight progressives Ritter, Meyer, Cushing, and Montreal’s Leger.
Ruffini was not finished, and he proceeded with another argument that pushes casuistry to a new dimension. He announced that he was in favor of striking the word deicide because, in his words, “no one can kill God.” He then put forward a series of quid pro quo arrangements, among them were acknowledgement (from the Jews?) that “we” had saved many from the Nazis, that Jews be expected to love Christians, that anti-Christian passages be expunged from the Talmud, and in a convoluted way seemed to demand that Jews disengage from Masonry, which he blamed for European anticlericalism.
The remainder of the speakers endorsed Cardinal Bea’s schema. One speaker made a point that many had been thinking privately: a brotherly document toward the Jews might salvage the reputation of Pius XII’s wartime record. In 1963 a play entitled The Deputy was gaining considerable attention for its portrayal of Pius XII’s alleged insensitivity toward Nazi crimes against the Jews. (There is a massive volume of research on this point that continues to be published to the present day.) In 1964, however, the Cardinal Bea schema, which would be voted upon later after another rewrite, is one of the key theological and pastoral statements to come from the Council.
Session Three of the Council Vatican II took place in the fall of 1964. I had hoped to add a second eyewitness source from the Council periti or theological counselors for our retrospective here, but I inadvertently left Hans Kung’s autobiography at the school where I was working last week, 40 miles from home. I was looking for a second source because my primary one, Xavier Rynne, is beginning to show some battle fatigue as we march into the third round. In fact, he begins this section of his book with a summary of the session before, and he sounds tired and discouraged.
Looking at the numbers, the third session accomplished more work than the previous two combined. The Council took up fourteen schemas in 1964, compared to eight in the previous two years, including the promulgation of de ecclesia, The Church, which had bedeviled the fathers to no end in previous efforts. Rynne observes, however, that the “mood” of the Council, in the sense that anyone can accurately gauge such things, by the end of the third session was sour. World press began to look to the personality of Pope Paul. John XXIII had been something of a cheerful, riverboat gambler, pardon the vernacular. Paul, by contrast, was more intelligent, introverted, diplomatic, and something of a worrier. The force of John’s personality had initiated the Council and energized it through its early, dangerous days. Paul, on the other hand, realized that he would be responsible for the implementation of the Council policies, a sober (and prescient) thought.
In terms of the pontiff’s policies, Rynne reports that a number of observers wondered about Pope Paul’s comfort with the Council’s heavy emphasis upon the power of the college of bishops, or collegiality. If the pope has power, and the bishops have collective and even individual power, was the Church heading back to the Age of Conciliarism, that period when multiple men claimed the throne of Peter. This schism was eventually ended by the Council of Constance (1414-1418), which declared that a General Church Council was superior to the pope. This declaration lost force soon afterward. It goes without saying that legitimate popes after Constance convoked Councils only under dire circumstances (for example, the Reformation, and in that case years too late.) Pope Paul favored progress—he would visit the United States to address the United Nations, “No More War!”—but he believed in the primacy of a strong papacy and the need to balance Church reforms with respect for his office. This was one of his concerns in the birth control encyclical, Humanae Vitae, in 1968; he did not wish to sanction a change in a moral teaching that his predecessors had upheld.
Because of his reflective and concerned nature, Paul attempted to walk a middle road in what the majority of fathers perceived as a reform Council. The Economist, a British publication, picked up on the Pope’s habit of adding qualifiers to his public statements and addresses, and began referring to him as “The Pope of Buts.” With more respect and direct evidence, Rynne provides several telling examples of inner papal turmoil and episcopal injured feelings. For example, after charging the bishops in his opening remarks of Session Three to finalize their critical work on the collegiality of bishops, he simultaneously issued an encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam, in which he wrote: “We [the papacy] reserve to ourselves the choice of the proper moment and manner of expressing our judgment, most happy if we can present it in perfect accord with that of the Council Fathers.” In a strict sense this papal prerogative was the status quo pretty much since the Council of Constance. But it was a far cry from the sentiment of the majority expressed on the Council floor, when bishops believed that their consecration had sacramentally joined them into a ministerial union with the Bishop of Rome.
Rynne, based in Rome, may not have had an opportunity to gauge the effects of the first two sessions (1962 and 1963) on the Catholic mind outside of St. Peter’s, as in the United States. Most of the works about the early effects of the Council—and the later books, for that matter—tend to be negative, with emphasis upon doctrinal confusion, liturgical abuse, and dissent from authority. In fact, “dissent” or “dissenter” is still the catch-all epitaph of very traditional or right-inclined Catholics toward those perceived to be in disagreement with the Church (though Pope Francis has certainly clouded that alignment.) My recollections and development are shaped by my native city (Buffalo) and my life in a Franciscan boarding seminary. I can still vividly remember that despite living in the Catskills I would come home for summer and serve Mass where my parents lived in the Buffalo suburbs.
By the end of Session Two of the Council the Decree on the Sacred Liturgy had been promulgated, though no permission was as yet given for any changes in the Mass or other Church ceremonials. In truth, Germany and Holland had been experimenting with changes in sacramental rites before the Council began. In my corner of the world, with the Council’s call to “simplify” rites, vestments, and environment—but without legal mandate, meaning Cardinal Ottaviani’s approval--the first thing to go was the priest’s maniple, that vestment worn over the left wrist, which in actuality was a vestige of a Roman handkerchief (pictured here.) Many priests, particularly the younger ones, never waited for the memo, which in fact had not been issued, and stopped wearing maniples at Mass. One day I was assisting one of my parish priests in vesting for Mass, and he took up the maniple and held it up in front of me. “Some priests here have stopped wearing maniples,” he groused. “There’s no official permission to stop. What they’re doing, Tommy, is disobedient! Pure disobedience!” In my rare exercise of adolescent discretion, I did not tell him that most of my seminary professors had given up maniples a long time ago.
Rynne raises another issue about the Third Session, that it might in fact be the last of Vatican II. Could the pope have continued the Council till, say, 1970? (The Council of Trent extended seventeen years.) Legally Pope Paul would have had this right, of course, but there were two obstacles: (1) attendance, as many bishops were already chafing at the exhaustive and extensive amount of time they were absent from their sees, and (2) the idea of Collegiality implied that bishops, probably in a representative body like a synod, would be meeting with the pope on a regular basis. However, in Rynne’s assessment the speed of the proceedings of the Third Session, coupled with the Pope’s reluctance to disturb the Curia, seemed to be interpreted as a sign that 1964’s meeting would be the last, and that the present Curia would remain to “implement” the works of the Fathers, a constellation that few found consoling.
But fewer church fathers were wearing their maniples.
Our Monday/Saturday walks through Vatican II continue. This is the fiftieth anniversary of the closing year of the Council.
The Second Session of Vatican II returned to work on November 25, 1963, the day of President Kennedy’s burial. After some distracting fuss about passing the relatively minor schema on “Communications Media,” a topic which might be much more profitably explored in a Synod in this decade, if it is not too late already, the Council turned to the major schema on Ecumenism. This was one of the most intense debates of the Council, with positions among the fathers ranging from broad inclusion of all who regard Christ as savior (or even “anonymous Christianity”) to the other extreme of “outside the [Catholic] Church there is no salvation.” (See Wikipedia’s excellent discussion of this maxim here.)
My guess is that most Catholics have given this issue some thought, especially parents whose adult children have embraced wholeheartedly anonymous Christianity, whether they know it or not. The term, by the way, is attributed to the Catholic theological giant Father Karl Rahner, though I have not been able to track down the original literary source. The term “anonymous Christian” was and is not universally accepted; another famous Catholic theologian, Hans Kung, makes an interesting case that the term is demeaning to members of non-Christian religions. If I may paraphrase him, “How many Catholics would be comfortable termed ‘Anonymous Buddhists’ or ‘Anonymous Muslims?’”
The Council’s discussion on Ecumenism has significant influence on life in the Church today, in ways we can hardly enumerate. Part of the problem at the Council was the various levels at which the matter was discussed. Cardinal Ritter of St. Louis, now becoming the leading U.S. voice at the Council, began the discussion on precisely this point: there were pastoral, doctrinal, and ecumenical considerations all coming to bear in one schema. I am taking the liberty here of using a not uncommon problem at the time to demonstrate the perplexity of the debate. The example is a very sad and thus very personal issue for many in the Church.
Catholic Doctrine at the time of Vatican II—and for most of its history—had taught that membership in the Church was necessary for salvation. But as has happened often throughout history, there are instances where an infant dies in childbirth or immediately afterward without the benefit of baptism, for any number of reasons. A strict reading of Catholic doctrine would hold that since the child was never baptized, he or she never joined the Church by receiving the necessary water cleansing of original sin.
However, from the pastoral side of the Church, this bedrock teaching was frequently mitigated in countless number of ways. We find in third century documents that pagans, witnessing the martyrdoms of faithful Christians, were so moved as to join them spontaneously in death, and the term “baptism of blood” worked its way into Christian tradition, along with “baptism of desire.” The medieval theologians of the Church helpfully introduced the concept of Limbo, a state of natural happiness for unbaptized infants. Limbo was never defined doctrinally. The term does not appear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and Pope Benedict gave it proper burial in 2007. Today’s official Church documentation extends God’s saving mercy to these helpless souls.
But in 1963 there was a third leg along with the doctrinal and the pastoral to consider in the debate: the validity of sacramental acts by Christian ministers not in the Roman Catholic Church. The Church allows for the contingency that anyone can baptize in danger of death (Catechism para. 1256). Thus a hospital chaplain of the Methodist tradition may validly baptize an individual into the Roman Catholic Church, all things being equal. In theory, at least, this was true even before Vatican II, but now the Ecumenism schema discussion forced the Church fathers to look at the nature and efficacy of sacraments (or ordinances) celebrated in churches professing faith in Jesus Christ. Were such congregations “real churches” from the Catholic perspective? Were their ministers validly ordained or commissioned in some way by the Holy Spirit? This proceeded to open further and further debate on very basic questions: when we talk about “Church Unity,” do we understand this to mean that all other Christian Churches must fold up operations and prostrate themselves for forgiveness to Rome? Or did Christ intend Christianity to look something like a botanical garden consisting of multitudes of theological and pastoral hybrids? (The answer is a generic no to both options, but that leaves an awful lot of space in between.)
Now to further cloud the picture, consider this. The Council was working on multiple documents simultaneously, and one of these was the schema de ecclesia, or “On the Church.” This committee was working on the language of how to define the nature of the Church. Around 1900 a Catholic scholar named Alfred Loisy was excommunicated for his modern ideas, but he left a phrase that can be interpreted as an eternal truth or the mother of all parodies. "Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom, and what arrived was the Church." Today the term is used mostly in historical parody, but it does get to the heart of the question of what the Church is in relationship to God’s intent and other Christian assemblies, not to mention the billions in other world religions.
The challenge was to find a terminology that would put the Catholic Church at the center of God’s redemptive plan while respecting and even interacting with other Christian assemblies of faith, including the Eastern Orthodox. The key, it turned out, was the introduction of the Latin phrase, subsistit in or in English “subsists.” So instead of saying that the Church founded by Christ is the Catholic Church, the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium (para. 8) would eventually read that Christ’s Church subsists in the Roman Catholic Church. It may sound like a very minor adjustment, but the majority of Church fathers eventually signed off on a definition that identified the Catholic Church as possessor of the fullness of everything Christ expected from his followers without denying the (partial) validity and dignity of faith and ministry in other Christian churches.
This theological breakthrough, was still some way off as the Second Session continued heated debate over Ecumenism; it appeared that the pope was satisfied to let the clock run down to the closing date of December 4, 1963. Xavier Rynne observed a sense of great discouragement among the bishops that they would be sent home without as much as a straw vote on the matter they had labored over so intensely, ecumenism. The final day’s ceremonies included the promulgation or official release of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, along with a strict warning from Cardinal Ottaviani that no individual or diocese was to jump the gun, so to speak, on liturgical change without official approval from his Holy Office. He might have saved his breath; when I returned to my seminary in September 1964 just nine months later, our new English language hymnals with innovated services and Bible vigils were waiting for us.