As the Third Session of Vatican II drew to a close in late November, 1964, it became clear that written agreement on a number of critical issues would remain elusive. Pope Paul VI, in a quest for unity, found himself torn between a majority of bishops generally favorable to the direction of reform, on the one hand, and a determined minority—which included his own curial household—on the other, the latter motivated by the human sentiment of loss of place and a genuine concern that core Catholic teaching was being frittered away. While the last half century of commentators—including Xavier Rynne, our “in house” source here on this blog—has tended to cast the Curia as the Darth Vader brigade of the Council, in fairness it should be noted that the bishops, individually and as a whole, had seen their own scope of power and authority considerably enhanced. Would they have been as gracious if the tables were turned?
In a now familiar pattern, the last days of Session III were behind schedule, interrupted by new discussions on drafts in final stage, and outside surprises. On the next to last day of general discussion, for example, Archbishop Felici of the Curia interrupted with an odd and questionable procedural maneuver in which the fathers would be forced to vote on a final draft of the schema on Ecumenism without having seen nineteen emendations evidently approved by the pope, changes with “a definite anti-Protestant slant,” to quote Rynne (423), who also reports that the Council’s Protestant observers in the assembly were aggrieved by the parliamentary strong-arming as much as by the written content.
The last ballots of Session III were cast for the final schema on the “Declaration on non-Christian Religions.” This particular schema, crafted laboriously by Cardinal Bea and his committee, had seen long and fierce battles over a number of theological points—whether, for example, salvation was possible outside of the Christian umbrella. Complicating matters were objections from bishops in Arab nations who complained that the schema’s treatment of Judaism endorsed the legitimacy of the political state of Israel. This document passed 1651-99 with 242 “placet juxta modem” (“it is not entirely pleasing.”) The schema for the Decree on Ecumenism was passed, albeit under the cloud described above, as was the Schema on Oriental Churches (the several dozen Eastern rite Catholic Churches in union with Rome.) Rynne adds: “Characteristically, or perhaps prophetically, the lights in St. Peter’s went out momentarily, about an hour before the end of Friday’s congregation, owing to a power failure.” (424)
The solemn closing of Session III on November 21, 1964, was, in Rynne’s recollection, a strained and gloomy affair. He describes the bishops as “stony faced” while Paul VI himself appeared “glum and tense.” While every observer’s opinion of an event is subjective, it is true that the world press—when newspapers ruled the day—was beginning to take a highly personal and critical assessment of Paul VI as a man whose passion for universal agreement caused him to create confusion and disappointment among the many to satisfy the cries of a loud but small minority. We will look at the reaction to Session III next Saturday, but at least to Rynne, there were obvious signs that all was not right between the Council fathers and the Pope.
What may have disturbed many of the Church fathers, too, was the content of the Pope’s closing address. The pontiff had tipped his hand at his Wednesday audience a few days before. During a sermon that ostensibly would have been a summary of the achievements of the Council’s Session III, and there were many, Paul chose to reverse a previously approved statement on the role of Mary in the Church. He declared his intention to confer the title “Mother of the Church” on Mary. This action was widely seen as a rebuke to the commission which had written Chapter VIII of the Constitution of the Church, which had pointedly not used this language. Moreover, the Decrees on Ecumenism and the Oriental Churches was ignored, and the Pope concluded with reference to the “monarchical and hierarchical nature of the Church.”
A worst case reading of the close of Session III might lead one to conclude that the bishops were somehow in revolt (which they were not, aside from some grumbling), or that the Pope was repudiating the spirit of Vatican II (which he was not). My own thought from Rynne’s description is that Paul himself was thoroughly exhausted at the end of Session III. As we saw today—and certainly in earlier postings—is that Paul spent much of Session III cleaning up messes. It is common to read historians use the term “Hamlet” in describing Paul VI, and brilliant man that he was, he thought through the implications of the Council—at least as he could envision them--to a degree that a lesser man could not do, or a Pope John XXIII would dismiss with a prayer to the Holy Spirit.
Session III, entirely under Paul’s watch, had changed the Church’s direction in ways hardly imaginable. Among other things, it reversed the Church’s position on Jews—no longer “perfidious,” they were reinstated as our brothers in God’s unfolding Revelation. It conceded that outside the Church there actually might be a chance of salvation for those of good will and charitable deeds. It acknowledged what many churchmen and scholars had quietly been thinking for a century or more, that devotional and doctrinal energies on behalf of Mary might be crowding out the more fundamental tenets of Catholic belief: the mysteries of the Incarnation and the Redemption. At the end of Session III, perhaps he felt a need to preserve the place of Mary in the Church, and not so incidentally, the place of papal primacy in the working of things. It took the Church decades to learn of and implement the ways set forth by Vatican II. Popes may be infallible, but they have learning curves, too.
As I avoid pirates in the Caribbean, I’ve posted something you might find useful: links to five book publishers you might want to browse for your thoughtful friends or yourself. While most of them are known to you, I included Yale University’s press catalogue, from which I have made some excellent purchases over the years. The others are Paulist Press, Liturgical Press, Ave Maria Press, and lastly Catholic University Press for the more adventurous reader. Have fun.
Looking forward to returning to our study of Vatican II on December 21. Which reminds me, if you want to buy yourself a gift, how about Xavier Rynne's 500-page history of the Council, which has been a very helpful source for me. I see it is available with Amazon Prime. A great stocking stuffer if you have really big feet.
One of the more critical documents in vetting during November, 1964, was the statement on Religious Liberty. For those who would like a fuller understanding of this issue, as well as the man who helped conceptualize the stated principle, I refer you to the American Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray (1904-1967) and his works, notably We Hold These Truths.
The “what happened” element of the Council debate is both disturbing and humorous. During the last week of Session III in late November 1964 the schema “Declaration on Religious Liberty” was delivered to the fathers for consideration and vote, with the understanding that its final vote would take place by the end of Session Three. Then, a few days later, Cardinal Tisserant rather suddenly announced that because of major changes in the document, the bishops would need more time. He declared that no vote would be taken during Session Three, and that the bishops should mail their reactions to the office by the end of January, 1965.
After three years even the most back country bishop was wise to Curial chicanery and recognized the maneuver as an attempt to kill the document. In the immediate reaction, a bishop exclaimed, “We are being treated like children!” Xavier Rynne comments (418) that one would have to back to the sixteenth century Council of Trent, when one enraged bishop pulled another’s beard, to find a similar level of agitation [though by chance I have a better example from the Council of Nicaea that I am holding for Wednesday’s blog.] So it is not surprising, then, that a true school lunch room scene emerged. The pope, watching on closed circuit TV, called the floor directors to his office and the Council seems to have gone on without them. Had I the time and the means, I would truly like to see how the official minutes read.
On matters of religious liberty, the United States bishops were recognized as expert, particularly with Father Murray serving as a peritus. Acting as representatives of the Council fathers and bearing an impromptu document of hundreds of signatures calling for immediate vote, Cardinals Meyer of Chicago and Ritter of St. Louis—with Montreal’s Cardinal Leger guiding them through the inner chambers—went directly to the pope. Naturally, their paths would cross on the staircase with the Curia’s Archbishop Felici coming down from the papal chamber. The papal attendants tried to prevent their access, but at their insistence the pope granted Meyer, Ritter, and Leger an immediate meeting. He attempted to “palliate their anger,” as Rynne writes, but he explained that Cardinal Tisserant had operated within the Council’s “Roberts Rules,” so to speak, which specified time frames for study and discussion. Pope Paul did promise a vote in 1965. That night, at a previously scheduled meeting of the Cardinals with the pope, Paul again defended the procedural decision. Cardinal Suenens replied that whatever the procedure, the psychological effect was deplorable.
In retrospect Pope Paul’s attempt to reconcile the Curial minority was probably a costly misreading of the depths of their opposition. Despite the widespread academic and pastoral shifts in thinking regarding matters such as freedom of conscience and respect for other religions, the operative Curial position was truly a medieval one, governed by two deeply held tenets: (1) Error has no rights; and (2) outside the Church there is no salvation. Nor were these beliefs restricted to the Vatican walls. I can recall as a youth when my favorite comedian Ernie Kovacs was killed suddenly in a car wreck. My first reaction was that he must be in hell, for he was not to my knowledge a Catholic. (I might have added that he was in a second marriage to torch singer Edie Adams, but even the Christian Brothers don’t teach Canon Law in the sixth grade.) But as I thought it over, the idea didn’t seem quite right and I stopped worrying about Ernie. That seemed to be how my own Catholic environment handled such matters.
Historically the early Church envisioned itself as a society or community within a bigger world. Jesus himself lived at peace with those outside of his own Jewish faith. He envisioned his primary missionary focus as the Chosen People, but he worked miracles at the request of Gentiles. The communion prayer of the Mass, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof…” is the actual Gospel rendition of a Roman centurion seeking healing for his servant. Jesus’ famous phrase of “rendering unto Caesar” was a commentary on the reality of believers living within a larger non-believing society.
In the fourth century the Roman Emperor Constantine began the process by which the Christian Church would become the official state religion of the empire, and by medieval times the Church’s self-image in both the Roman West and the Orthodox East was that of a synthesis of religion and, speaking a bit anachronistically, state. Kings, princes, dukes—whatever their material worth and practical strength—were defined as servants of order in God’s one kingdom. In the Roman Church the pope held the ultimate hand, with the power to excommunicate being a significant political tool in papal dealings with the political order. The crest of this synthesis is probably the papacy of Innocent III (reigned 1198-1216). In practice, however, it would become harder for the papacy to actually exercise this power, with the coming of the Protestant nations on one hand, and later the “American experiment” of a non-denominational state where all were free to exercise religious choice of conscience. Pius IX would condemn such a model in his Syllabus of Errors of 1864 but by the time of Vatican II the Catholic Church in the United States was living comfortably enough that a Catholic could be elected president in 1960.
The Curial opposition to freedom of religious conscience (and to nations, like the U.S. which protected the right) was a deep seated rejection of the concept that one could choose another way of belief that would lead to heaven. If this were a real possibility, there follows the concession that one religion is as good as another, at least in the traditional thinking paradigm. It is worth noting that at the time of the religious liberty debate the Council had already agreed to more reconciling language regarding the position of Catholicism, that the fullness of the kingdom of God’s revelation subsists in the Catholic Church. The passage or non-passage of the Decree on Religious Liberty, then, became in the minds of some the last bastion of hope in preserving the unique nature of Catholicism in God’s plan of salvation.