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.