I am in the midst of Xavier Rynne’s Vatican Council II, an insider’s description of the four sessions of the Council, in the autumnal seasons of 1962-through 1965. There are countless books of analysis of the various documents that came forth from the Council, and in the last decade another raft of books attempting to define Vatican II’s place in history. The view of Benedict XVI would hold that as impressive as it was, Vatican II is just one of twenty-one Councils in the Church’s history and must be seen against the lights of all those councils which preceded it. A second school would hold that Vatican II was a true “game changer;” that the Church can never go back to its ways of governance and thinking, particularly in matters of freedom of conscience, ecumenism, the nature of the Church itself (Ecclesiology), Scripture study, and a multitude of other critical matters regarding the nature of the Church’s relations with the world.
The Council came into being by the call of the newly elected Pope John XXIII, 78, in 1959. Pope John established an opening date as the fall of 1962, but he also decreed that a Synod of the Diocese of Rome be held first. This Roman Synod proved to be useful in several ways: it gave the pope the opportunity to place emphasis on one point he hoped to advance at the Council, the apostolic authority of bishops and dioceses, much of whose powers of actions had gradually been absorbed by the Roman Curia since the Middle Ages. (Vatican II would in fact approve the concept of collegiality, the joint authority of popes and bishops working in tandem.) Second, the Synod was something of a dry run for administrators, since the last Church Council had been held in 1870. But given the concentration of Roman curial officers in this Synod, the pope was able to assess the strength of opposition to an agenda of change and reform, which proved to be formidable.
As one might expect, the amount of preliminary paperwork, such as position papers and rough drafts of schemas or theme presentations on all areas of Church life, was immense. All 2500 of the world’s bishops were permitted to bring a peritus or expert theologian for advice and speech-writing purposes. The advice would be offered in the bishop’s own language, of course, but the speeches had to be drafted and delivered in Latin. This was less a problem for the periti, many of whom were seminary professors and taught in Latin, than it was for bishops such as Cardinal Cushing of Boston, who went home for a time out of sheer frustration during the second session.
And so it was that Father Francis X. Murphy, presently teaching moral theology at Rome’s Redemptorist seminary, was drafted by the Bishop of Monterey-Fresno, California, (a fellow Redemptorist), to serve as his peritus for the duration of the Council. Murphy was a talented man: a fine theologian with a strong sense of history and political operations. And, he was “connected” as the Romans say. In his work before the Council he began to take copious notes of “the intrigues and secretive manipulations by a number of prominent prelates as the agenda for the Council was being formed.” Seeing the great interest of the world’s secular press, not to mention Catholics in the United States, he decided to write a regular update for New Yorker Magazine, a secular publication, under the name of Xavier Rynne, a combination of his middle name and his mother’s maiden name.
Did he break Church rules of secrecy? Participants had been warned that secrecy was expected of them, but apparently no oath was administered as in the election of a pope. Murphy reasoned, quite rightly as it turned out, that the Vatican’s organs of information would be inadequate for the crush of inquiries about the progress of the Council. In the first sessions of the Council the official press release of the day came out at 8 AM, before the day’s session had even begun! Looking back years later, Murphy would write that his first New Yorker report introduced his readers to matters that the Roman Curia hoped would never find its way into print: that is, the operations and identities of the Curial officials themselves, especially their leader, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani. Ottaviani, the leading voice of the Curia, was opposed to the Council from the start. A religious man who considered himself the stalwart of orthodoxy in the Church, Ottaviani was also in a position to use his power as head of the Holy Office to use numerous parliamentary tactics in directing the Council, such as rewriting drafts of schemas coming from the various subcommittees, appointing floor managers, scheduling debates, lobbying, and generally doing all in his power to “kill the clock” till impatient bishops gave up and went home.
It is to Murphy’s great credit that be brought such practices to light—not just for the New Yorker subscribers, but for the bishops themselves, who particularly in the early going of the Council were somewhat unsure of themselves. His reporting was a risky business, and the cry of “Who the hell is Xavier Rynne?” was heard from many sources. But as the Council progressed, more participants felt comfortable enough to grant interviews, and by the end of the Council many bishops were sending weekly or regular reports for their diocesan newspapers. It is hard today to accurately report the incredible interest in such things as what the Council would say about the Jews, for example, or a married diaconate, or national conferences of bishops.
Murphy admits that his reports sometimes included conjecture. That he was personally offended by the tactics of the Curia is a theme that runs through his one volume text. He is not always able to elaborate on the finer points of theological debate due to lack of space. However, I have rarely if ever seen his work and his interpretations contradicted. His reporting deflates a popular misconception by some in the Curia even to this day that Vatican II was “hijacked” by liberal periti from northern Europe. Many of the Council’s most significant reforms did not originate from European prelates. “Freedom of conscience” was an American contribution. The input of Asian and African bishops is much more significant than I could have imagined.
So, for the next few weeks (probably Mondays and Saturdays) we will walk through the Council with Rynne, er, Murphy, an event which has impacted everything we do in Catholic ministry today.