For the next several Mondays and Saturdays I will take you on a walk through the actual floor proceedings of Vatican II. October 2015 is the 50th anniversary of the opening of the final session of Vatican II. Xavier Rynne’s history is my primary source though I am interjecting others as well.
Even the most avowed atheist is familiar with the significance of the white smoke/black smoke that emanates from the exhaust of the Sistine Chapel at the moment of election of a new pope. However, in the days leading up to the opening of the Council Vatican II in 1962, Pope John XXIII was more concerned about tobacco smoke. A half century ago many if not most of the clergy were Marlboro Men, and the 2500 bishops soon to gather in session were no exception. The pope considered the problem, according to the ubiquitous Xavier Rynne, and established what we would call today an ecclesiastical Starbuck’s—two, actually—in a sacristy and an interior vestibule. The two facilities came to be known as Bar Jonah and Bar Rabbas, (yes, those are plays on words) where bishops, curia and periti could obtain coffee, snacks, bathroom facilities, and of course cigarettes. As John resignedly remarked, “If we don’t let them smoke somewhere, they’ll be hiding their cigarettes under their miters.”
John had more serious problems troubling him. He was well aware that the Roman Curia, the Vatican bureaucracy, was seriously opposed to the idea of a council. When the pope announced his conciliar plan to eighteen cardinals at a private Mass on January 25, 1959, they sat mute. When he asked for their thoughts, they sat in stony silence. Opposition of the Roman bureaucracy to a sitting pope is rather common in modern history. Pius XII’s directives on reform of the Liturgy were not well received. When Pius X set the age of First Communion at seven in 1910, there was nearly in-house revolt. The Cardinals who listened to John XXIII’s plans for a council were sage enough to realize that one of the reforms of such a council would indeed be a reform of the Curia itself. That this would be a challenge is indicated by the fact that the College of Cardinals who elected Pope Francis in 2013, fifty-some years later, signaled a call for a reform of the Curia, which Francis is laboriously undertaking as of this writing.
The Curia, then and today, is not an evil empire. As a rule its members see their vocation as protecting the “Tradition” of the Church, or its official understanding of God’s will as prescribed by Sacred Scripture. Xavier Rynne’s description of the 1960 Curia underscored two of its major problems. First, its style of governance and absence of mechanisms of appeal—acting in the name of the pope when this was not always the case—was building up a strong resentment among many bishops, religious orders, and theological institutions. Secondly, the Curia depended upon formulations of theological principles from centuries earlier that were sorely out of date. This was particularly true in Sacred Scripture, where some speakers on the Council floor argued for a literal fundamental interpretation of the Bible, much to the dismay of more educated Churchmen like Cardinal Albert Meyer, Archbishop of Chicago, a former scholar and seminary rector.
In truth, one of Pope John’s greatest hopes of the Council was the restoration of the teaching and governing authority of the world’s body of bishops, individually and as a body in communion with their supreme leader, the Bishop of Rome. Put another way, John understood that the centralization of governing apparatus in the Vatican stood at odds with the Scriptural and historical role of bishops. It is a fact that when a papal election takes place, the white smoke indicates that the Church fathers have elected a Bishop of Rome. There is no fourth tier of Holy Orders beyond deacon, priest and bishop. The pope’s authority is derived from his installation as successor of Peter, first bishop of the Mother See Rome, Mother of the Church, if you will. John understood this well (hence the Synod of the Diocese of Rome prior to the Council) and with the challenge of a global, universal Church he wished his bishops to enjoy freedom of judgment in the exercise of their ministries in Asia, Africa, the Americas. Implied in this vision is the principle of subsidiarity: that problems be solved at the lowest level of authority necessary.
Such a vision of the episcopacy and its implications were new but not necessarily unwelcomed by bishops in the United States, for example, such ideas were already actively promoted elsewhere, but to the Curia the idea of a stronger episcopacy ran numerous risks, ranging from local heresy to full-blown efforts of the bishops to usurp the supreme authority of the Successor or Peter. It is impossible, of course, to ignore the entrenched inertia of a long-standing bureaucracy, many of whose members were now working through their third or fourth papacy. One might ask, of course, if the pope wished for a renewed governance model, why didn’t he just mandate it?
The main reason, I believe, is that such an arbitrary move—certainly within his competence—would be contrary to the very model he was promoting. The pope sincerely wished to see all bishops participate to the fullest, to gain the wisdom of their insights, to assist them in working in national or regional groups. Perhaps he understood at some level that the world’s bishops needed to reclaim their rightful authority in the crucible of battle. Thus, fighting his own instincts, he was reticent in the planning stages to a point. In retrospect, he probably made two tactical errors. First, he underestimated the extreme depth of resistance of his in-house staff to any semblance of change. Secondly, he maintained the existing bureaucracy in positions of writing the talking points, and later, in floor management of the Council itself. As we will see, this arrangement would lead to acrimonious exchanges in nearly every issue discussed.
Strange as it may seem, no one knew exactly how long the Council would last. For obvious reasons the Curia hoped for a quick, one session, three month meeting. Ironically, Pope John also envisioned a brief council, colored by fears of his own age (82 in 1962) and worsening health. I see nothing so far from Rynne indicating that anyone was thinking four sessions over four years. However, when the very first schema or talking point, on the Liturgy, lasted till mid-November, it became evident that many cigarettes would be smoked at the Bar Jonah.