One issue that was not discussed in any session of Vatican II was the concept of a married clergy. The closest opportunity came in October, 1965, in the discussion of the schema on “Priestly Life and Ministry.” On October 11 Archbishop Felici read a letter, presumably with the backing of Pope Paul VI, to the point that the Curia was aware of sentiments and proposals from some of the Fathers that clerical celibacy as observed in the Latin Rite be placed on the Council Floor for discussion. The Curia recommended against such a discussion on the grounds that (1) there was too little time remaining in the Council to give serious discussion to such a critical topic, and (2) such a discussion would best take place in private. I can’t help but note the change in Council protocol over three years: remember that the Council fathers had been chastened in the early days for leaking to the press.
The Curial concerns were fair enough, and they were accompanied by the wish that priests renew their zeal for the sacred state. But in the words of the late Paul Harvey, there was certainly “the rest of the story.” There were petitions passed among the bishops for such a discussion at the Council, particular from Latin American prelates. One of the biggest Curial fears was a public display of support for a change in the discipline. Pope Paul, it should be remembered, carried the hope that the Council would be a unifying witness to the Church, and thus priestly celibacy joined artificial birth control as issues too delicate and divisive for public ecclesiastical discussion. It did not help that the press was carrying reports on the numbers of priests desiring to be released from their vows of celibacy. The median press number was 10,000. Rynne notes parenthetically that private discussion about the discipline of celibacy dated back at least to 1900 in the modern era, and that Pius X and others hesitated to seriously address the issue because, intriguingly, many priests were already in “concubinage” and no one wanted to tackle that. (521)
The actual discussion on the state of the priesthood was, in Rynne’s opinion, a time consuming but unproductive conversation that went far beyond its due date. He may be reflecting Cardinal Dopfner’s statement from the floor that the document read more like a “spiritual lecture” than a conciliar document. The Cardinal added one of the few humorous moments—possibly unintentionally but certainly accurately—when he observed that priests back home would be annoyed if they found themselves referred to as “a precious spiritual crown of their bishops.” (523) Looking at the tenor of the debate, I was intrigued that so many speakers expressed concern about priestly morale and the irregularity of clerical life. Rynne pointed out the tendency of the Council fathers to talk around priestly problems without naming them. In retrospect, it is probably fair to say that the so-called “crisis in the priesthood” was not the result of Vatican II; in their own limited way, the Council’s bishops were already acknowledging it.
One of the more intriguing interventions in this discussions came from my hometown Buffalo bishop, the new Auxiliary Bishop Stanley Brzana (no one at home called him anything but Stan). He was following up a lengthy discussion of “fallen” priests by Cardinal Heenan of London. “I have never heard of a priest being scandalized because of mercy shown to a repentant brother.”
Having finally dispatched a difficult topic by a vote of 1507-2-2, the Council moved on to what could have been a proud moment, a statement against Anti-Semitism. It is hard to imagine what debate might come forward, but there was, alas, some scuffling that took the bloom off the rose. The kindest explanation was a fear that such a document represented an endorsement of the State of Israel and an insult to Arab states. But in truth, a conservative element fought—line by line, in some cases—to protect the memory that the Jews had killed Christ. There is a technical term for this concept, deicide. While the word itself was expunged, the sentiment behind it lingered in drafts and even interventions like a snake that just couldn’t be killed. Moreover, the Council was besieged by private and public correspondence from groups we would call today nationalists, neo-Nazis, skinheads and the like, including a public threat to blow up the Council itself. It did not help that a workmen scaffold crashed to the floor during the discussion. More troubling was opposition from Curial and Conciliar participants who objected that such a document either defied Sacred Scripture or fostered religious indifferentism. The vote itself was not unanimous, 1763-250.
October 27, 1965, marked the final day of formal floor discussion. The Council thus progressed into a prolonged “wrapping up” phase of about one month as a number of documents still needed final ratification, which in a few cases developed into floor debates. The last step would be the solemn ratification by Pope Paul. Rynne comments that by the end of October the bishops were in a state of “resigned euphoria.” Many were disappointed at what had not been accomplished—the decree on the priesthood alone was a good example—but as a whole the Council fathers, with the approaching conclusion, began to realize that the Council had changed the Church for the better, in some cases to epic proportions. It was this sense of accomplishment that kept the bishops focused on what proved to be a very complex three week finale.