November 19, 1964 is remembered as “Black Thursday” in the Third Session of Vatican II. This would also be the day that the fathers discussed revisions of Canon Law regarding celebration of the sacrament of marriage, which would lead to a number of pastoral changes we take for granted today, such as the celebration of “mixed marriages” with full solemnity in Catholic Churches. The emotion of the day, however, was focused on a vote from the previously discussed matter, the authority of bishops, or “collegiality.”
When the revised schema was issued to the bishops for review a few days earlier, there was attached to it a “note.” While never explicitly stated by the moderators, the general consensus identified the author as the pope himself, Paul VI. As Xavier Rynne observes (p. 407ff) the most troubling aspect of the note was the ambiguity of the pope’s stance: he wanted his message on the floor but he hoped to slide it through, so to speak, in the normal curial flow of council data.
So what was the content of the Note? It was a suggestion, a request, a subtle command, that the Council fathers revisit certain texts regarding the authority of bishops as a whole or college. The Note contained four points: (1) the term “college” [of bishops] was not to be understood legally or judicially in any way implying a position of equality with the pope, but rather a looser terminology should be adopted in referring to bishops as a whole, such as “a body.” (2) A clear distinction must be made between the powers inherent to a bishop by virtue of Holy Orders and the exercise of those powers under the authority of the pope. (3) It must be clear that the pope by right may exercise authority individually or collegially. (4) The authority of the college of bishops has always existed, but its acts have been valid only when exercised in full union with the pope.
There is a lot to digest here. The fourth point is clearly a reference to the Council of Constance (1414-1418) which deposed three competing claimants to the Throne of Peter and reestablished the apostolic line. Constance was something of the Church’s dark secret, at least in Roman circles, the true elephant in the living room whenever discussions of the offices of pope and bishop take place. The first three points make more sense in the light of Constance, the eternal fear of a runaway episcopacy. The conservative Catholic press suggested this danger just two months ago at the synod of bishops on the family, that a politicized selection of bishops under a well-intentioned but erring pope might change marriage doctrine dating back to St. Matthew’s Gospel.
If the Note came directly from the pope, what were his intentions here? The clear majority of the fathers had approved a preliminary draft; Paul seemed to be going against the grain. In truth, he reflected the deep fears of the Curia of the “runaway train” and of the diminishment of papal authority. And again, if the pope himself harbored such fears, why not address the Council himself? Rynne proposes two factors: (1) that the pope did not want to usurp the delicate workings of the Council, which in his own way was an endorsement of procedural conciliar exercise, at least; and (2) that the pope held out a passionate—if quixotic—dream that the Council fathers and the Curia might find room for reconciliation and compromise.
It may be helpful here to pause a moment and consider the style and personality of Pope Paul VI. Unless you are 50 or older Paul VI is as distant a figure as Leo XIII. He died in 1978 just as I arrived here in Orlando to assume my new duties, and I met many of my new pastor colleagues for the first time at a memorial Mass in our cathedral. Pope Paul was sometimes referred to as “Hamlet,” a man who anguished over decisions. Some of this image, I think, comes from contrasts with Pope John XXIII, who seemed to the public to enjoy the papacy and his meals with great gusto. Both are caricatures, to be sure, but it is a fact that what John proposed, Paul had to dispose. A number of critical documents were starting to pile up on his desk. To his credit, Paul was the kind of man to think through the consequences of his actions. The repeated criticism of his papacy was a belief that he took too long to think, anguished excessively over consequences, and in the end made his decisions alone. The birth control encyclical Humanae Vitae of 1968 is a memorable example of his modus operandi. (Two years ago I visited his burial site, which sits on the flow of traffic to John Paul II’s site.)
The contents of the Note were eventually worked into the final proclamation of the principle of episcopal collegiality. Rynne reports general disappointment with this segment on the Constitution of the Church, but notes that the Council had at least corrected a popular belief of the time that all authority emanates from the pope, and that bishops were mere vicars of Vatican administration. The dignity and office of sacramental orders had been enhanced by this corrective.
Given this controversy, it is easy to overlook a major achievement at this juncture, the Council’s recommendations on Church marriage law. The fathers recommended less rigid legal procedures for mixed marriages, in the spirit of ecumenical good ill embraced earlier in the proceedings. Thus today a Catholic and a Protestant (both free to marry) may celebrate their marriage with the full liturgical rites of the sacrament, with the permission of the local bishop, which is granted routinely. In my youth a “mixed-marriage” couple was married outside the communion rail; prior to that, such marriages might take place in the parish office, as a sign of official displeasure. Bishops were also granted the power to dispense from the Catholic rite of marriage itself if the bride, for example, was Lutheran and wished to have her wedding in her family’s Church. The marriage is recognized as sacramental if performed by a minister with the local bishop’s permission. In my years in the ministry it was not uncommon for a Catholic priest to stand in the sanctuary, at the welcome of the minister and request of the Catholic’s family. I think I even preached at a few Protestant wedding services. (It was a kinder, gentler time.) Hopefully, if I broke any procedural Church laws, the statute of limitations is up.