Impulsive and undisciplined as I am, I have several books in several mediums open at any one time. I don’t quite remember how I connected last week with Xavier Rynne and his history of Vatican II, first published in 1968 and reissued in 1999 with a captivating new introduction by Rynne’s alter ego, Father Francis X. Murphy, a noted mortal theologian of the Redemptorist Order teaching at his order’s seminary in Rome. (By coincidence, today is the Feast of St. Alphonsus Ligouri, founder of the Redemptorists and declared patron saint of moral theologians by Pope Pius XII in 1950). Father Murphy was drafted to serve on one of the many committees preparing working papers for the first session of the Council in the fall of 1962. He had an eye for the human dynamics of the major players, and he was early to see that a significant battle was shaping up for the first session in 1962, where he would be present as a peritus or expert.
Father Murphy took copious notes and compiled his first article, but without a publisher. As luck would have it, he connected Robert Giroux, senior editor of Farrar, Strauss and Cudahy (later Giroux.) Giroux himself was a major player in Catholic publishing, long remembered for his years of work with the famous Trappist monk Thomas Merton. Father Murphy was firm with Giroux that his series be placed in New Yorker Magazine, a decidedly secular publication. Giroux demurred, observing that “I think there’s too much religion for the New Yorker.” But in fact New Yorker attracted precisely the audience Murphy was looking to serve—the thoughtful Catholic, the college graduates of the GI Bill era, the libraries of every university and (surreptitiously in most cases) the reading rooms of rectories and seminaries.
New Yorker raised with the author the need for a nom de plume or pseudonym. The Council’s rules called for secrecy, though not to the same degree as the election of the pope. The bigger worry would be detection of the author’s identity by the Curia, which hoped to manage (and spin) the Council’s deliberations. Such were the times, Murphy would later recall, that the American Catholic journal Triumph would carry a letter from a reader in 1967: “The efforts of ‘Xavier Rynne,’ I’m afraid, must be condemned, derided and dismissed by any well-informed reader. Besides, the books…are a positive danger to the soul. I have seen very many learned and pious Christians led into mortal sin by them.”
Thus, the first installment went forward from New Yorker under the name of Xavier Rynne, the author’s real middle name and his mother’s maiden name. Today this collection, now edited into a single and eminently readable narrative (as well as four more detailed volumes), stands as the template for the processes that produced the blueprint of Catholicism for the last half-century. While there are thousands of books analyzing and interpreting the documents themselves, Rynne describes the men and the processes by which the work got done. He introduces the reader to the giants of the worldwide episcopacy, including bishops from six continents and wide degrees of affluence and poverty. Some of the bishop speakers sound remarkably like Pope Francis in their moral assessments of the economic status quo.
Rynne’s assessment of the politics of the event should ease the concerns of those who have read or come to believe that Vatican II was a “liberal vs. conservative” affair. It is true that there were sharp divisions on the philosophical question of whether the Church should shore up its recent tradition of centralized authority to a greater extent, or whether the Church should give serious examination to its present modus operandi and “open up the windows” in Pope John’s memorable phrase. But another, possibly equal, division was that of recent popes from their curias. (Those who observe the present day exertions of Pope Francis to reform the Curia will appreciate the problems of Pius XII and John XXIII.) Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) was an advocate of greater scripture study, liturgical renewal, and general theological scholarship; yet countless scholars were censured or silenced by the Holy Office, often quite independently of the popes. Moreover, the paternal attitude of many Vatican departments had alienated many of the sitting bishops, leading to a definitive backlash in the first session (1962).
Rynne noted all of this for his many readers in the United States and elsewhere. Americans became familiar with giants in the worldwide body of bishops, and equally so with the theologians who served as periti. While few American bishops produced lasting impressions on the Council floor, several worked behind the scenes, most notably Cardinal Spellman of New York. He invited the Curia-silenced Jesuit John Courtney Murray to his staff, and may possibly have pulled the author’s chestnuts from the fire as well. Spellman and others had come to suspect that Francis Murphy was the true Xavier Rynne and hinted as much to him, indicating that he (the Cardinal) would have his back. (xi.)
Murphy was eventually summoned to the Holy Office under pain of excommunication and ordered to take a “blind oath,” the equivalent of a blank check which the Holy Office would no doubt complete to its satisfaction. He was ordered to kneel before Archbishop Pietro Parente to take the oath. Murphy evaded Parente’s questions until Parente produced an article from New Yorker reporting that Parente himself had been thrown out of Rome by Pius XI two decades earlier. By now red faced, Parente exclaimed, “Listen, you understand that Pius XI was a little sick in the head.” Murphy turned to the recording secretaries and said, “Write that down!” Parente stormed off and no future confrontations followed. (xii.)
Twenty years after the Council Murphy finally made public that he was indeed the mysterious Xavier Rynne. He admitted this to the American Apostolic Nuncio, Pio Laghi, who asked why Murphy was “coming out of the catacombs.” He replied “If I died tomorrow the Jesuits would claim him (Rynne) and the Redemptorists would be delighted to be rid of him.” (x.)