We continue our look backward on Vatican II, 1962-1965
Tuesday, October 20, 1964, is described by Xavier Rynne as “red letter day in the history of the Council.” (342) The long and anxiously awaited schema thirteen, “The Church in the Modern World,” came to the floor, a treatise on the Church’s self-understanding and its place in the parade of mankind (a Freudian analysis, albeit self-administered.) Pope Paul VI himself, as Cardinal Montini, had worked closely with Pope John XXIII and Cardinal Suenens in laying the groundwork for such a document, an implication that at the very least the role of the Church in the world was matter of discussion. This was not 1302, when Boniface VIII issued Unam Sanctam, claiming more power for Church and Pope than anyone else before or since.
The significant difficulty encountered during the debate was the wide umbrella of the document’s reach. Put another way, the fathers were attempting to define in concrete language what was in large part mystery. Cardinal Meyer of Chicago, in his critique of the schema, pointed out that “13” as written seemed fearful of contagion by the world. Drawing from his Scriptural expertise the Cardinal argued for a return to St. Paul’s theology, that man’s work in the temporal order was part of the transformation that God planned for the world. Realizing that there was necessity to clearly define “church” and “world” before describing their symbiosis, several fathers recommended a closer reading of contemporary atheism, a system of meaning built entirely on worldly (or material) reality.
Day Three of the debate saw a major attack on the original schema, and in truth its voice, Archbishop Heenan of Westminster, England, put his finger on what could best be called the sociological dynamic of the entire Council. Heenan complained that the schema sounded like a platter of sermons and ideas; there were many of all persuasions who felt that way. But Heenan went on to penetrating analysis of the pastoral dangers of vague documents. In so many words the Cardinal described Schema 13 as a Rorschach Test, with any person able to take away from 13 the sentiments and justifications of the subject’s persuasion.
An Ecumenical Council was a new event in the lifetimes of everyone participating in Vatican II. The previous Council, Vatican I in 1870, operated under a different self-understanding of the Church; this Council decreed papal infallibility. Heenan, looking at the schema on the floor, observed that the text called upon the aid and interpretation of “experts” in the future implementation of the schema. This alarmed him: “I fear specialists when they are left to explain what the bishops meant.” He went on to deeply criticize the “specialists” [theologians] working in the Council at that time. The acrimony between the Curia and the periti or advising theologians was intense; many theologians were refused use of large Church facilities for public lectures to bishops, seminarians and the general public. A fair number were currently under investigation by the Curia as they labored away; Father Hans Kung and Father John Courtney Murray come immediately to mind. A sidebar: in his presentation Cardinal Heenan made reference to the “pill,” noting that every types were currently being tested and administered.
What Cardinal Heenan had overlooked or forgotten was the contributions of famous theologians and Fathers of the Church in Church Councils and Synods, dating from Nicaea in 325 to Constance in 1415. In the latter example, this Council faced the specter of three men claiming to be pope. Under the lead of the University of Paris and other schools, the theological integrity of Councils was upheld—a good thing, because all three pretenders needed to be removed and a legitimate pontiff elected to the See of Peter. It turned out that the object of Heenan’s rage was the Redemptorist moral theologian Father Bernard Haring.
Heenan and Haring would soon make up, but the English churchman’s speech did require some skillful footwork to get the Council back to the philosophical questions of “13.” The discussion turned to the thought of Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit paleontologist and poet who died in 1955. Chardin’s efforts to describe creation and renewal in novel and provocative images and terms led to severe censure by the Church; in 1964, however, and for some years after, appreciation of his thought made his works quite popular in my generation. Archbishop Hurley of Durban, South Africa, quoted Chardin extensively in his assessment of the greatest theological challenge to the Church, establishing the value of the natural order in its relation to man’s supernatural end. Other fathers cited Cardinal (now saint) John Henry Newman who, in the spirit of Chardin, had written in the nineteenth century that “a power of development is proof of life.”
The thread of consistency in the schema 13 discussion was the admission (grudging or non-existent among some fathers) that the adjective “unchanging” could no longer be applied to the Church without qualifiers. In its best light “13” was an indication of the Church’s willingness to adopt a better language in its discourses with the modern world, where in fact most Catholics live. There was considerable agreement that the best language was service to the world and its neediest souls. Based upon the work done to date, Schema 13--those portions discussed on the floor—were approved for final redrafting on October 23 by a vote of 1579-296. It was also announced at this juncture that Pope Paul would reserve to himself, and not to the Council, a decision on the morality of artificial birth control. The Pope had previously established a committee of about 120 clerics, experts, and laity to advise him on the subject. This matter would not be formally determined until 1968, or three years after the close of the Council.
For those who would like to see or peruse the final approved document on the Church in the Modern World, known simply today as ‘Gaudium et Spes’ (joy and hope), I have a link to the Vatican documents site here.