We continue our Monday and Saturday flashbacks to Vatican II, which concluded fifty years ago this fall.
In the First Session of the Council in 1962, the schema “Divine Revelation” had caused a major crisis on the floor, leading Pope John XXIII to pull in back from consideration for an exhaustive rewrite by a newly formed commission. After two years of work the commission returned with a new draft, represented by the ubiquitous Cardinal Bea, who had also worked exhaustively on the Decree on Ecumenism. The discussion that followed was long and arduous, a clash between traditional theological methods and the post-Enlightenment approach to knowledge and science.
Xavier Rynne summarizes the new schema is this fashion: “What the new decree did was to acknowledge that there was no absolute way in which Scripture was to be interpreted; that in each age, the Church, under the inspiration of the Spirit and in keeping with the intellectual process of mankind, could achieve a more meaningful appreciation of the mysteries of divine revelation in relation to the facts of salvation as lived by Christ in His birth, death, and resurrection.” (306) Thus, the proposal here was acknowledging that there were multiple styles of scrutinizing and interpreting the Bible, and that knowledge of Revelation actually progressed with study and experience over the centuries. And, if this were true, what was the implication for key Church doctrines that depended heavily upon Scripture texts? Consider Christ’s words in the Synoptic Gospels: “Take and eat, for this is my body….” If the new schema was allowing for other methods of Scripture study besides a purely historical, factual approach, then what might happen to “timeless truth” and the ultimate teaching authority of the Church itself (Tradition)?
In truth, a literal historical interpretation of the Bible was never the only method of Scripture study. Symbolism was a critical key as well. The early desert monk John Cassian (d. 435) described the four senses of literary Scripture interpretation: (1) the historical or literal; (2) the allegorical or Christological sense; (3) the tropological or moral or anthropological sense, and (4) the anagogical or eschatological sense—i.e., interpretation with an eye toward “the end times.” Christians—at least those who never drifted into heresy—never disputed that the Gospels, for example, were historically inspired. In fact, St. Matthew’s Gospel was known as “the Gospel of the Church” at least in part because of its length and detail. All the same, there were contradictions between the Gospels that troubled even the earliest churchmen and led them to suspect that there was more than met the eye.
Perhaps more to the point, even during the New Testament era itself, the sacred authors made use of multiple literary forms in writing sacred texts. In references to Jesus as the “New Moses” we have John Cassian’s second type, the allegorical/Christological. In references to the Son of Man coming in glory on the last day, we have the fourth or eschatological interpretive sense. For much of Christian history these types or models of Biblical study, in various forms, were well known and openly used. In the Middle Ages St. Thomas Aquinas, among others, freely adopted John Cassian’s four-fold methodology.
The difficulties at Vatican II stem from the fact that immediately after the Reformation, to shore up doctrinal challenges, the Church after the Council of Trent (1547-1565) reverted to John Cassian’s first principle at the expense of the rest, in order to shore up defense of propositional Church teachings, many of which rested upon key Scriptural texts. Scripture study in the Catholic Church went into eclipse for nearly four centuries until Pope Pius XII (1943), in his Divino Afflante Spiritu, allowed Catholic biblical scholars to take advantage of advances in method of Scripture study enjoyed by other Christian scholars over the past two centuries. However, Pope Pius’ approval did not have impact upon the Curia, as the floor debate at Vatican II would show.
The first exchange of fire would set the tone of the battle. As was now becoming a habit, Cardinal Ruffini opened with the argument that “faith must be stated in intellectual concepts.” Ruffini was here defending the concept of an unchanging body of truths authentically arrived at and preserved by the Church as the official translator of the Bible, unchanging and unchangeable for all eternity. Technically, he was referring to Church Tradition, a body of inspired and interpretative wisdom that over time had come to be seen as a separate but equal source of Divine Revelation. So, when Protestant attackers
during and after the Reformation would attack the Church as teaching an “unbiblical” doctrine, the Church could point to its tradition of Revelation and respond that the Holy Spirit had inspired the Church to comprehend the issue in contention in this particular fashion.
Again, as in earlier debates, the scholarly and updated fathers took the floor to both refute an exaggerated sense of Church Tradition and to introduce the Biblical theology that had emerged from the nineteenth and twentieth century. Cardinal Meyer of Chicago is remembered for his response, “Faith should not be described in such a way as to make it too intellectualistic, as this would be contrary to the spirit and general approach of St. Paul.” Meyer represented a clear majority of the Council fathers that the modern inroads into Scripture study should hold sway, but the stakes were so significant that as might be imagined speakers on both sides of the issue demanded time to express passion. Ruffini returned, for example, to decry the power and influence now being passed to Catholic Biblical intellectuals. Ruffini had a point, but he may not have fully appreciated the university model of peer evaluation.
By October 6 the discussion had finally exhausted itself, but in now tried and true method of the Council, the schema was held over until the next year (1965!) for a final redrafting and vote. Rynne comments that the final schema was received even more favorably than the 1964 version.
One final point here: the 1964 Third Session would be the final one for Cardinal Meyer of Chicago. Tragically, he died of brain cancer early in 1965; this year is the fiftieth anniversary of his death. The Chicago Catholic newspaper has a fine biography here. When the Cardinal attended the Council, a great shadow of sadness followed him. Just two weeks after his installation as Archbishop of Chicago in 1959, a massive fire destroyed one of his schools, Holy Angels, killing 92 children and three religious sisters. Cardinal Spellman flew to Chicago to assist Archbishop Meyer, who nearly collapsed at the diocesan memorial. The most detailed account of the fire is To Sleep with the Angels: The Story of a Fire (1998).
Continuing our Monday and Saturday retrospective of Vatican II
Session Three of Vatican II began on September 14, 1964, a month earlier than the first two sessions. Xavier Rynne commented on the opening Mass of the Holy Spirit as a study in contrasts. Pope Paul VI was carried into the assembly on his throne, an enduring medieval vestige that would gradually be discontinued. When he arrived at the altar, however, he was joined by two dozen vested bishops prepared for the first public concelebration of Mass, i.e., multiple clergy offering the Mass together. The Mass was simplified along the guidelines of the liturgical schema just approved, with the inclusion of the ancient “prayer of the faithful.” The pope’s desire to concelebrate with a representation of residential bishops (those governing dioceses) was joined to his opening remarks which expressed his complete endorsement of the principle of collegiality or shared authority.
Time was becoming a factor. A number of major issues had not yet made the floor by 1964, and it was immediately evident to participants that for both ideological and practical purposes the Curia had adopted new guidelines for floor management which ranged from requiring a five-day advanced notice for permission to speak, to reduced hours at the coffee bars. The first matter on the floor was the completion of the schema on The Church, which included such matters as the end times, the bulky process of canonizations, and the role of the Virgin Mary. One cannot help but smile at one housekeeping intervention, namely that all participants would be provided accident insurance during the Council. One major breakthrough was passage of Chapter Two of “The Church,” which redefined the Church as the biblical People of God and dropped the scholastic perfect society paradigm.
Two major discussions involved “The Pastoral Office of Bishops” and “Religious Liberty.” The discussion on bishops is an interesting timepiece today, for a matter of considerable concern at the Council was the interference from civil governments in the decisions of local bishops, notably in “Catholic” countries. The best intervention in the episcopal discussion came from the remarkable Cardinal Leger of Montreal, who spoke eloquently about the pastoral attitude necessary for the office, including an appreciation of the critical modern mind and its approach to obedience. He advocated a strong unity of bishop, clergy, and laity, along with the need for bishops to live in the spirit and reality of Gospel poverty, ideas embraced and enhanced by Pope Francis today.
On the matter of Religious Liberty, the idea that God created man with enough freedom to exercise his conscience in matters of religion and value, and might not punish him for choosing a variant option, was possibly the biggest psychological hurdle in the Council for some. For a philosopher like Cardinal Leger, or American bishops who lived in precisely such a society, the matter induced little existential stress. For others, notably Cardinal Ruffini, religious liberty was a contradiction in terms. Ruffini, as first speaker, was even unhappy with the title of this schema, which he proposed to change to “On Religious Tolerance.” Ruffini stated that the Catholic Church was the one true Church and this fact should be recognized by all governments. While he did not advocate coercive conversion, he was confident that God willed the Catholic Church to prevail. Ruffini’s position had followers, to be sure, but the more tempered opposition raised concerns that the schema would foster religious indifferentism or even religious irrelevance. It is a matter still debated today in a variety of forms.
However, in this debate one could revive the World War I slogan that “The Americans have arrived.” The schema as proposed had much of the same thought as the colonial framers of American government in matters of exercise of religion, freedom of conscience, and church and state. The Catholic experience in the U.S. had hardly been blissful, in part because until World War II many Catholics were poor immigrants, in many cases objects of derision and, worse, class warfare in a society that was predominantly white and Protestant. But for all of that, the white and Protestant presidents of the United States never gave a thought about the creation of immense Catholic school system begun in the 1880’s. Catholicism was still a highly recognizable ethnic ensemble in 1964, but by the time of the Council many of these diverse members held college diplomas, in great part due to the “G.I. Bill” which permitted returning World War II veterans (such as my own father) to attend college, which would otherwise have been economically impossible. And, of course, an American Catholic had succeeded to the White House in 1960.
The discussion of freedom of conscience played to the strengths of American bishops, who perhaps as well as any national bishops’ conference understood Cardinal Leger’s earlier thoughts on the modern critical mind. Cardinals Ritter and Meyer made compelling presentations, and a new voice, Archbishop Alter of Cincinnati, made an excellent impression. But this discussion marked the first intervention from Boston’s storied Cardinal Cushing. Rynne notes that the Council fathers were rather “expectant” when Cushing took the floor. There was something of an air of mystery about Cushing and the Council until now. He had been, for want of a better word, “cranky” about the language barrier and apparently had offered to buy a U.N. style simulcast translation system for the fathers, but was rebuffed by the Curia for fear that the bishops might actually listen to each other. Cushing boycotted much of Session Two and of course was intimately affected by John Kennedy’s assassination.
Cushing’s Latin was flawless, as it turned out, tainted only by his brogue, and his listeners were able to hear him well when he declared his joy that the Council was finally coming around to safeguard “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.” He concluded with a quote from Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris that moved the assembly to give him warm and prolonged applause. It did not hurt Cushing or other American churchmen that one of the greatest of the periti or Council theologians hailed from the United States. Father John Courtney Murray, S.J., was an eminent theologian, author and professor whose work We Hold These Truths was a seminal and much respected treatment on the nature of church and state, to the point that he appeared on the cover of Time Magazine. When Vatican II opened in 1962, Murray was officially silenced by the Vatican, but Cardinal Spellman brought him to Rome as his peritus where the scholar made considerable contributions as well as the friendship of the future John Paul II. Though the results of the discussion would not be voted upon until later, clearly the united efforts of American bishops had carried the debate.
[As an aside, is anyone old enough to remember how Cardinal Cushing came to retire in 1968? I found one or two decent references to back up my fuzzy memory, this one from the Harvard Crimson. The Cardinal defended Jackie Kennedy’s right to marry Aristotle Onassis despite the latter’s previous marriage. Cushing became a target of outrage in Boston (much of it, I believe, actually directed toward Jackie and the dismemberment of the “Camelot Myth.”) The Cardinal offered his resignation in 1968, two years prematurely. I am surprised no enterprising reporter has brought this up during the current Synod on the Family.]
Monday and Saturday of this week will be devoted to our discussion of Vatican II. Tuesday will address next Sunday’s Gospel. Wednesday is still undetermined. Thursday will examine the Catechism Paragraph 23. Friday will address morality and/or spirituality, still undetermined today.
After two years of Vatican II no one was quite sure how to gauge precisely what was happening. Xavier Rynne describes Pope Paul’s closing remarks of the Second Session in December 1963 as “an anxious attempt to draw up a faithful balance sheet” (Vatican II, 265) to address critics in the French press, for example, who described 1963 as a meeting “with more debits than credits.” (265) In retrospect what may have been misunderstood was the reality that the Council was an event, not a spreadsheet. Shakespeare had written centuries earlier that “knowledge maketh a bloody entrance,” and I suspect that after two grinding sessions there was a recognition throughout the Church—favorable or grudging-- that Vatican II was, in word and deed, a kind of school of the future; things were being discussed and approved that would impact upon every Catholic. I believe it was Pope Benedict himself, who as a Council peritus Joseph Ratzinger would write after the Council that “the men who left the Council were not the same men who entered it.” (In some cases, this was literally true: the Bishop of Buffalo died during the Council, the first actual casualty of Vatican II. He had gone to the Council, so I have heard, to argue for red corporals or altar cloths. The shock of the debates must have killed him.)
I attempted to reach back into my own memories of the Council. The Council opened in October, 1962. I left home as a high school freshman to enter the seminary in September, 1962. Unless my memory has failed me—and we have to leave room for that possibility—I can recall no mention or discussion of the Council in my Catholic elementary school as the event was drawing closer. I was very close to my parish priests, and they never talked about it. Likewise for my family (and my extended family included a priest and two religious sisters). There were several pre-existent factors in play, of course: in the first instance, no one knew what a Council was (let alone an “Ecumenical Council,” the official title); there was no living memory of such a thing.
Second, one of the prime tenets of Catholic life was the unchanging or immutable nature of the Church. In truth, there were changes in the decade prior to the Council. Pope Pius XII had moved the Holy Week Services to the evening, but he was viewed as correcting an error and/or making greater participation possible for working folks, as when he gave permission for evening Masses on Holy Days and changed the communion fast. But popes had the power to do that. Christ had given this power to Peter, and that would never change. I have had a little respectful fun with the Curia’s most conservative member, but in truth Catholics of my recollection all had their “inner Ottaviani,” whose coat of arms read “Always the Same.” And finally, the Catholicism of my youth was very local, very parochial. The parish was our world in terms of everyday life; in fact, I never saw my own bishop, to tell the truth; a visiting missionary bishop confirmed me.
In an infinite number of ways the unfolding Council was just beginning to penetrate the consciousness of both the immediate participants and the Catholic world at large, as diverse as the Church is. There were small indications even in my seminary, very conservative as were most, that somehow things were different. Somewhere around 1964 or 1965 our own Cardinal Ottaviani, the Rector of the Seminary, allowed for a collation or “after school snack” to be served at 3 PM. In 1964 the seminary’s history club was allowed to make a field trip to the New York World’s Fair. In 1965—wonder of wonders—the seminarians were allowed to return home for a week’s vacation during Easter week. All of this, mind you, happened under the old guard or the ancien regime of my Order. Years later, as a priest myself, I had drinks with my old rector and I asked him about the changes during my time. “There was a feeling among all of the rectors at the time,” he explained, that “maybe we should stop being such g.d. tight ---es about everything.” In vino veritas.
So despite the trench warfare of Sessions One and Two, the message was out that “things” would be different. Pope Paul made this manifestly clear when he announced at the end of Session Two that he would soon be visiting the Holy Land. Today this kind of excursion would be noteworthy but not earthshaking. In late 1963 the world was stunned. There was considerable history to draw from, and it is safe to say that the prevailing wisdom of the day held that papal travel was a bad thing. No pope had left Rome in centuries. In fact, the term “prisoner of the Vatican” was often applied to the pope. If you have ever seen the walls around Vatican City, the term will make better sense. If a pope left Rome, it was usually because barbarians like the Lombards or the Huns under Attila were within plain sight on the horizon. Or, a pope might leave for more sinister reasons. In the early 1300’s a new pope traveled to Avignon in France and with his successors stayed for about 70 years under the control of French interests. It is only since Paul VI that the concept of a traveling pope entered modern Catholic consciousness.
But it was the contents of the visit as much as the fact of the trip that “blew everyone’s minds,” to use the phrase coming its own in American culture in the mid-1960’s. I have not discussed this in the previous blog entries on the Council, but during the debate on Ecumenism in Session Two Arab Christian bishops had very strong feelings about the schema’s terminology regarding Catholic relations with Jews (or more specifically, the Jewish state of Israel.) The 1967 Arab-Israeli War was just a few years down the road. The Arab problem was one reason the Pope let the Ecumenism question succumb to exhaustion in December, for he knew privately that he still had a major card to play shortly. The pope’s appearance in the Middle East, albeit for strictly spiritual purposes, was in fact a major statement to Church fathers that the Catholic hand in the region would be substantial and fair.
But beyond that, by secret arrangement a meeting was set for Pope Paul with the Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople, father of the Orthodox Church. The Holy Land was the perfect site for such a meeting, the holy grounds of Jesus and the Apostles. Athenagoras himself welcomed the opportunity, though Rynne notes that some of his bishops were resolutely opposed. The meeting was extraordinarily well planned and orchestrated for its sign value. The pope and the patriarch exchanged visits at their respective legations. The two men embraced. Paul presented Athenagoras with an exquisite chalice; later the patriarch presented the pope with the cross worn by Orthodox bishops. Amazingly, Pope Paul quickly had the cross placed around his neck along with his own stole.
Rynne makes an excellent point in his account (266-73) that Pope Paul was making a clear statement to the Council father and the Church: it would be deeds as well as documents that would reform the Church. When the Council would again meet in the fall of 1964 and the discussion on Ecumenism presumably renewed, the ball field would be considerably altered by the memory of the Pope’s embrace of Athenagoras.
We continue our Monday/Saturday reflections on Vatican II, which concluded 50 years ago this autumn.
November 1963 was a time of great anxiety in every quarter of the Council. We have discussed earlier the general concern of the Curia, the administrative body of the Church, over the radical nature of some of the working papers making their way to the Council floor, and especially over the growing strength of individual bishops and blocks of delegates. The mood of the Curia was mixed: there were, to be sure, members whose basic fear was loss of place, the idea that, under the new spirit of “collegiality” legislating bodies of bishops would assume decision making with the pope and make many curial positions superfluous.
But in fairness the concerns of most Curialists were less pedestrian and more to the nature of the Church.
Vatican II opened just 98 years after the solemn declaration of the doctrine of papal infallibility, in 1870 at Vatican I. In Church terms this is a very short time, and the idea of an infallible pope still had the commanding power of discovery, as if God had revealed to this generation a bulwark against a modern world that was increasingly secular and spinning out of control. I searched quite a while but I was unable to find the originator of the quote that was popular in my youth. “I wish that every day with my breakfast I would open my paper and discover a new infallible teaching by the pope, and thus I would have one more certainty in my life.” Even the most diehard of defenders of infallibility in the Curia understood such an interpretation as erroneous, but the doctrine itself was one of the crown jewels of the teaching Church, absolutely necessary to keep the Church from dissolving into schism. No one, to my knowledge, ever challenged the teaching from the Council floor, but 1963’s discussions regarding the power of the episcopacy—as individual bishops and particularly in worldwide communion—seemed liked backdoor attempts to diminish the absolute power of the pope.
To this concern was added the very nature of other matters in the air during session two. Cardinal Bea’s work on the concept of ecumenism, for example, and Conciliar discussion on the validity of Baptism in Protestant Churches, not to mention the possibility of redemption among those who had never heard of Christ (what has passed down to us today as Father Karl Rahner’s concept of “Anonymous Christianity”), sent shock waves through the Curia—and, I suspect, through much of the Roman Catholic Church generally—where the principle “outside the Church there is no salvation” was a given. The idea that Roman Catholicism might lose its soul and identity was a genuine fear among Curialists whose delaying tactics must be understood in this light. (There are some concerns about the present Synod of Bishops steering the course of the Church into dangerous waters as I wrote yesterday, Sunday.)
The voting on the Council floor to this point had indicated that at least three-quarters of the bishops favored reform to varying degrees. But now, in the second year, euphoria had given way to hard reality: having the votes, and learning how to deal with the Curia, the responsibility for decision making was truly passing into their hands—certainly for the first time in any of their lives. By November 1963 the glut of issues alone was staggering. A typical voting bishop had to address minimally three different sets of data at the same time: (1) the issue debated in front of him at that moment; (2) rewrites of previous documents from earlier discussions returning to him for analysis and study, and (3) absorb the paperwork of new topics coming up for discussion. And consider: if he planned to make an address to the floor, he had to get a translator to out his words into ecclesiastical Latin.
But along with the pressures of the moment, bishops did share with Curialists the sense that their work would have lasting impact on Christ’s Church for centuries to come. Xavier Rynne observes that a number of bishops would have liked a little more direction from the pope on the boundaries of their projective thinking. This, after all, was the standard operational procedure of the Church for centuries, though the Curia was just as likely to provide that direction with or without the direct knowledge of the pope. In Vatican II, however, both John XXIII and Paul VI were advocating free discussion and generally wanted to hear what the bishops were thinking. (There was one notable exception: Paul removed contraception as a topic for general conciliar debate.) Thus neither pope was a strenuous interventionist: this is particularly true of Paul, who had served much of his life in the Church diplomatic corps and evidently believed that, given, a fair playing field, men of good will could come to prudent decisions.
Bishops, of course, must have had in the back of their minds how their public statements would affect them in future Church life. After all, it was not at all clear just how the Council would unfold in terms of discipline and policy. Conceivably the Curia could come out of the Council stronger than ever, and all of the “collegiality advocates” among the episcopacy would find themselves in bad odor on the shores of the Tiber. This did, in fact, happen, not directly to bishops but to the periti or theological advisors. First and foremost among these was the Swiss Theologian Hans Kung, who continues his battles with the Church to the present day, well into his 80’s.
On November 23, Chinese Bishop Chang-Tso-huan concluded a grueling week with the last speech before the weekend, on the subject of Ecumenism: “As an example for our zeal we can take the ancient Chinese who preached ecumenism many centuries before Confucianism.” After his intervention the bishops scattered among the many restaurants for which Rome is famous. It was in these sorts of settings that many bishops learned for the first time that President John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic U.S. president, had been gunned down in Dallas, Texas. Rynne describes the immense shock and grief that fell upon Rome and the Council. Pope Paul gave permission to Cardinal Spellman of New York to celebrate a Monday memorial Mass on the papal altar.
Hannah Arendt spoke more than she knew in The New York Review of Books: “There is a curious and infinitely sad resemblance between the death of the two greatest men we have lost during this year—the one very old (Pope John XXIII), the other in the prime of life. Both the late Pope and the late President died much too soon in terms of the work they had initiated and left unfinished. The whole world changed and darkened when their voices fell silent. And yet the world will never be as it was before they spoke and acted in it.” (Rynne, 248)