On Saturday (January 23) we looked at the schema of Gaudium et Spes, (AKA The Church in the Modern World.) I scanned it again this morning and was surprised at its length and the ambitious extent of its discussions about the problems and possibilities facing mankind, and the Church’s place in this new world (100 pages, single-spaced.) For today, however, I am going to replace my “ecclesiology” hat with my “moral theology” hat to discuss the impact of one portion of GS on the pastoral life of the Church.
Paragraph 47 of the document opens a section called “Marriage and Family in the Modern World.” Given that issues of marriage were generally treated in Canon Law and moral manuals, GS discusses marriage with almost poetic license by comparison. In a church where married life was still regarded as “runner up” to the preferred way of priesthood and/or the consecrated virginity of religious life, the description of marital conjugal love in GS was itself a remarkable change. In floor discussion of the conjugal realities expressed in the document, the majority of bishops expressed considerable enthusiasm.
Make no mistake, GS expresses a significant shift in Christian anthropology. Sexual intercourse in marriage had been defined since Augustine as ordered for the procreation of children. GS, without prejudice to the importance of creation, argues that sexual expression enjoys equal status for its unifying power in the life of a husband and wife. Paragraph 48 put it this way: Thus a man and a woman, who by their compact of conjugal love "are no longer two, but one flesh" (Matt. 19: ff), render mutual help and service to each other through an intimate union of their persons and of their actions. Through this union they experience the meaning of their oneness and attain to it with growing perfection day by day. As a mutual gift of two persons, this intimate union and the good of the children impose total fidelity on the spouses and argue for an unbreakable oneness between them.
GS, as a statement of ideals, could not deal with some very practical questions of everyday life. In our discussion here, subsequent post-council discussion among moralists focused upon whether the mutual goals of sexual intercourse were required in each sexual act. In other words, was every intercourse event required to include the intention of conceiving a child, or could a couple engage in sex for the unitive joy of the event (or as a sacramental theologian might put it, as a powerful foretaste of the joys of heaven?) Curiously, in 1978 modern medicine raised questions about the reverse side of the question: could a child be conceived outside of the act of intercourse, as was the case with Louise Brown, the first “test-tube baby,” alive and well as of this writing.
If in fact a couple could morally engage in sexual intercourse for its unifying grace, was it licit to take steps to avoid conception? In 1965 the Church forbade artificial birth control methods—barrier devices, to be sure, but now the newly invented pill. The Church did permit periodic sexual abstinence during the days most likely for conception, a method popularly known as the “rhythm method,” based upon an address of Pope Pius XI in 1930, Casti Conubii.
The Council fathers were also under advisement that both John XXIII and Pope Paul VI had appointed a committee of about 80 clergy, experts, and laity to study the question of artificial contraception and report to him directly. Paul instructed the Council that he was reserving the birth control decision to himself and not to the Council, and thus it was not directly discussed on the floor. Rumors did reach the press that the special committee, by roughly a 3-1 vote, had endorsed a change in the Church’s teaching on artificial birth control.
Immediately after the Council the majority of moral theologians concurred with the “two ends of marriage” emphasis of GS, the unitive aspect and the procreational aspect. Entwined with this was a strong feeling that the Church teaching on artificial birth control would be altered. Moralists after the Council brought the GS definitions of marital love into writings and course curriculums, and in 1967, as a college sophomore seminarian, I can recall a personal conference with my theology professor who took two hours to walk me through the Church’s development on the subject.
The next summer, 1968, I was newly arrived at the Franciscan novitiate, and on July 25 learned with the rest of the world that Pope Paul VI had indeed ruled on the question in his encyclical Humanae Vitae (“On Human Life.”) Paul elected not to change the Church’s teaching. The document, for all the controversy it caused then and even in the present day, was pastoral in tone and highly sensitive to couples who experienced great difficulty with his teaching. Commentators over the years have speculated that the pope did not want to contradict the teachings of recent papal predecessors, or to cast the Church’s teaching tradition in a bad light.
There are a number of Catholic observers who believe that Humanae Vitae constituted something of a last straw for many regarding the moral teaching authority of the Church. When I arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1969 to finish my philosophy and theology studies, Catholic University was ground zero for the protest of the academic community, in part because one of its moral theologians, Father Charles Curran, had been refused tenure over his dissent from Church teaching on contraception. A student strike led to his reinstatement and full tenure, though years later the Vatican intervened and Curran has since taught for many years at Southern Methodist University, though he remains a priest in good standing.
Even before Humanae Vitae, I had come to the conclusion that there was no meaningful difference between medical means and abstinence means of contraception. My seminary professors in grad school drew heavily from the theology of Gaudium et Spes; I did not have any who forced us student to hold the Humanae Vitae position. The general tenor was to avoid unnecessary conflict in the confessional or marriage counseling.
Thus prepared, I was ordained and I planned to walk gingerly through marital matters. But in twenty years as a priest I honestly can’t recall—in pastoral work—very many cases where birth control was addressed to me as a problem, and I began to assume that this was a case where adult consciences were (and are) carrying the day. The areas of stress occurred (and on rare occasions, still occur) when I was teaching in an official Church capacity, notably in the training of catechists.
Teaching and speaking in the name of the Church involves, among other things, corporate loyalty. I have learned over the years that if I expect my students to take me seriously, I cannot behave like a cherry picker. Thus, I do state the official teaching on contraception, but I do so as Pope Paul VI did, with full recognition of its difficulty and the exhortation to seek spiritual counsel in the confessional. Privately, I wish our Catechism and our sexual morality would reflect the fact and the sentiment of Gaudium et Spes.
The first discussion in Session IV was the explosive schema of the Declaration on Religious Liberty. This was an extensively and exhaustively reworked document. In play were a number of critical historical teachings of the Church. The schema on the floor of the Council had four parts: (1) a declaration of principles; (2) proofs from reason; (3) “roots” of the idea in Scripture, with a caveat that strictly speaking the concept of religious liberty could not be proved from Scripture, and (4) a conclusion. The moderator noted in his remarks that a number of Council fathers had wanted inclusion of a treatment on the rights of Catholics within the Church, but indicated that such matters were beyond the limit and competence of the authors.
It is not surprising that several of the opening floor interventions came from American bishops. Cardinal Spellman of New York and particularly Cardinal Cushing of Boston, who decried government coercion in matters of religion. The suppression of Catholic churches in communist and totalitarian governments was a matter of great concern, and in my own childhood I recall learning in school of the brutal 1949 trial of Cardinal Mindszenty in communist Hungary. (Mindszenty was, during the Council and until 1971, a political refugee in the U.S. Embassy in Hungary.)
Cardinal Ritter of St. Louis seconded his confreres, but he added a new twist, the rights of Christians in Catholic countries. England’s Cardinal Heenan admitted that “it was the custom of both sides to burn heretics.” As the discussion progressed, there seemed to be some dissatisfaction with the grounding of religious rights solely in the realm of natural reason; to a number of fathers it seemed a fitting exercise to find this right in the corpus of revealed truth. Cardinal Urbani of Venice stated on the floor that this teaching could in fact be derived from the teachings of popes from Leo XIII to John XXIII. Urbani, of course, set off multiple alarms in some quarters, arguing in effect that the principle of religious liberty was part and parcel of Catholic moral teaching and that this teaching had developed over time.
I cannot speak for Urbani, but it is true that American bishops were impacted by the writings of the Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, a moral theologian whose writings were widely disseminated in the United States. Despite the fact that Murray was still under a Vatican-ordered silencing when Vatican II opened, he was brought to the Council as a peritus by Cardinal Spellman himself, where he played a major role in helping the American caucus formulate its arguments on the religious liberty discussion. Murray’s writings established a template for the rights and duties of religion in democratic societies as they emerged throughout the world in the twentieth century in the pattern of “the American experiment.”
Murray’s thinking and writing was troubling to Rome because, even at the time of Vatican II, the old guard Vatican—but not Popes John and Paul--still held to the model of “the confessional state,” where Catholic faith and thought would shape and guide the formation and execution of civil government. This was an easy concept to defend after the Reformation when Protestant states—England a good example—emerged as clear cut enemies of Catholic states such as Spain and pre-Revolution France. Democracy, however, was a true wild card: a state of no religious confession where, on the contrary, all would be free to worship (or not worship!) by the dictates of conscience.
To give the right to “not worship” or “believe heretically” was a hard pill to swallow for some, and this sentiment was voiced in the conciliar debate by, among others, the Curia’s Cardinal Siri, who voiced opposition to freedom to deviate from truth. As Siri put it, “We cannot defend what God only tolerates.” Siri was referring to a then-current theological train of thought that a pope, God’s vicar,” could “tolerate” the reality of a non-confessional or heretical state till a more fortunate time came about, but by the 1960’s this line of thinking was becoming philosophical apocalyptic.
Another fear—not necessarily far-fetched in the thinking of the day—was a fear that freedom of religion would open the doors to proselytism. The Spanish bishops were particularly forceful about this danger. This line of defensiveness perhaps reflected a silent sentiment of concern in many quarters that the “Catholic brand” was not as strong in many parts of the world as many would have liked to believe. After the Council, and up through the present day, Evangelicals—to cite one significant religious force—have made significant inroads into many Catholic nations, notably in Central and South America. However, it is farfetched to think that suppression of evangelicalism by strong Catholic monarchs or dictators would have been tolerated by the rest of the Catholic world, with or without a schema on religious liberty.
Again, it is useful to recall that in 1965 the major threats to Catholic belief and practice were perceived to be the godless communist and totalitarian states, and the discussion of “rights” took place within that understanding. There was less time to reflect upon the exercise of power in democratic or constitutional states and nations where the governments were constituted more or less by the will of the citizenry. Session IV of the Council could not see further down the road to times when democracies would initiate or endorse policies at odds with formal Roman Catholic teaching. Consider just a few such circumstances in the United States: the absence of legal sanctions against the sale and prescription of birth control pills, the Roe V. Wade 1973 Supreme Court Decision on abortion, the ACA controversy with the Little Sisters of the Poor, and the June 2015 Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage.
Such concerns, of course, would gather momentum after the Council. The balance of the week-long Religious Liberty debate pitted traditionalists—who argued that the document undercut the teachings of previous popes—against bishops in the actual line of fire from hostile governments, including the future John Paul II of Krakow, Poland. Again, the Curial floor masters attempted to pull the document back from discussion, but on Tuesday, September 21, 1965, Pope Paul ordered the schema to be put to a floor test, with the resulting vote 1997-224-1 in favor of the draft. Xavier Rynne adds an interesting point: Pope Paul had determined privately that he was not going to speak to the United Nations in 1966 without such a declaration of liberty on the record. (p. 466)
In his introduction to the fourth and final session of Vatican II, Xavier Rynne provides something of the state of the union regarding the impact and expectations of the Council. By the fall of 1965 several truths were coming into clearer focus, and maybe the best phrase to describe them all is “tiger by the tail.” The Council had taken the Church to a place beyond where its supporters had hoped and its opponents feared. As a result of both the documents themselves-- and particularly the interworking of the men who approved them—the Council was not an administrative or liturgical updating, but a change in the way that Catholics thought about themselves, or in the words or an English abbot, “a fundamental reappraisal of Catholicism.”
Given the nature of this brave new world, it became very clear to the bishops and observers that the necessary formal work to keep up with heightened expectations could never be accomplished in one more three-month session, and by 1965 it was clear that there would be only one more session of the Council. Looking back a half-century, today’s reader may well ask, “Well, why not extend it a decade and settle everything that needed to be settled?” Rynne anticipated this question five decades ago and explains why an open-ended Council was not a real option.
In the first place, the Council declarations on collegiality and the authority of the college of bishops had set the framework for a regular, on-going structure to continue the post-conciliar renewal, specifically the restoration of the ancient practice of synods. These would be periodic working meetings chaired by the pope and attended by an invited or elected representation of the world’s bishops. On paper, the functioning of synods held promise—and in fact synods have been a part of our church life through the present day. Pope Francis’ Synod on the Family (2014 and 2015) and Pope John Paul II’s 1985 Synod—where the writing of the Catechism of the Catholic Church was first commissioned—are just two examples in recent memory.
However, the possibility of a post-Council body of synods putting flesh on the bones of Vatican II’s inspirations was remote. The strongest supporters of Vatican II were diocesan bishops, and definitely not the Curia. But it would be the Curia—in concert with the pope—that would select matters for discussion and control the invitation list for these future synods. There were not enough prescient voices, and voices with clout, to raise the obvious: if the Curia had successfully floor-managed a once-in-a-century meeting of the world’s bishops with adroit insider administrative vigor, thwarting the wishes of large majorities, managing future smaller synods of bishops would obviously be quite easy.
Moreover, the bishops had come to appreciate that Vatican II, in its operational structure, was not really a “debate.” A typical work day was a series of speeches, with floor time requested several days in advance. Bishops did not talk to each other but delivered ten minute speeches—in Latin, no less. Little wonder Cardinal Cushing of Boston boycotted the second session. Equally troubling, little or no floor time was permitted Scripture scholars or other theological experts, nor to Christians of other faith traditions, nor to laity, and certainly none to women. Multiple historians attest to the report that the critical debates were undertaken nightly by the bishops in the recreation rooms of the many seminaries in Rome, and Father Andrew Greeley recalls these debates accompanied by “voluminous consumption of the creature.” By Session Four, it was painfully obvious that the floor mechanics of the Council would not be improved by adding more years to this archaic arrangement.
Another reason for ending the Council in 1965 was Paul VI himself. As Rynne observes, no pope since 1870 (Council Vatican I, which declared the doctrine of infallibility) had been subject to as much public criticism. The term often applied to him then (in a negative tilt) was “honest broker.” While it was obvious to observers that the Curia’s position of reforms was negative and intractable, Paul maintained the near Quixotic hope that he could reconcile all parties. What this meant in practice was that the Curia would continue its cease and desist tactics till the day when all the bishops went home and the store could be run properly again.
On top of everything else was the question of authority. The bishops had already approved with the pope a number of critical reforms, particularly in matters of liturgy. The pope himself strongly endorsed the concept that participants at Mass should be doers and not observers, but specific changes in sacramental rites were normally promulgated through the Curia, and no official texts were yet approved or in circulation. (In fairness, there had been very little time to do this work, given that the Council was still in progress.) Consequently, liturgical reforms—certainly in the United States—appeared in the grass roots, fueled by the news and teachings of the Council. In my memory, I recall innovation as early as 1964 in the seminary, though there was serious division among priests on my faculty about the legitimacy and the obedience of, say, offering Mass in English before a formal permission had come from Rome.
Paul VI, interestingly, was eager to implement liturgical change himself. He announced that he would offer Masses in Italian at churches throughout the Diocese of Rome during Lent. At the same time, Paul exhorted preachers to use pastoral sensitivity in their sermons about changes in the sacred liturgy and the religious habits of a lifetime. The irony, of course, is that the formalized approved Missal of the Roman Missal did not appear until five years later, meaning that a great deal of improvising was already underway.
I should add here that the new missal, released in 1970, had eliminated the washing of the priest’s hands during the offertory rite (the Lavabo.) My professor told me that Pope Paul, reviewing the proposed texts, wrote the washing ritual back into the draft with a blue pencil, and of course the hand washing is part of our present day ritual. One of the challenges of Session IV and of the Church in general is that by 1965 a lot of folks, from the pope to the CCD teacher, were carrying blue pencils in their ministerial tool boxes.