We continue our Monday/Saturday recollections of Vatican II.
On October 30, 1963, the Council took a preliminary vote on its work on de Ecclesia, "On the Church." Five propositions were put forward for reworking for the final draft. The bishops, or most of them, believed that there was something of an air of finality on this vote, which went as follows (1) That the episcopacy be defined as the highest degree of Holy Orders, agreed 2123-34; (2) that every bishop is a member of the episcopal body--a vote for collegiality, actuality--agreed 2049-104; (3) that the college of bishops is successor to the college of Apostles, and in communion with--and never without--the holy father, and enjoys a supreme and plenary authority over the universal Church--agreed 1808-336; (4) that the bishops' authority is united to the pope's by reason of divine right--agreed 1717-408; and finally, did the Council Fathers endorse the restoration of the permanent diaconate--agreed 1588-525. The voting trend here is fairly clear; while the vast majority endorsed the sacramental dignity and status of bishops, as the individual consequences of such episcopal authority increased with each ballot, a noticeable minority did increase in oppositional ballot strength, though the minority never approached 25%.
For this reason the bishops were somewhat relaxed as they undertook a traditional Italian long weekend to observe the feasts of All Saints and All Souls. But as the bishops enjoyed the late fall countryside, back in Rome Paul VI had apparently chided the Curia, specifically its "Theological Commission," for foot dragging. Chastened and angered, the body met over the holiday, and speaking of the five-fold vote just taken the week before, Cardinal "Always the Same" Ottaviani announced that the vote results were merely "directive," indicating that he and his commission would not accept the will of the majority. Naturally, word of this reached the bishops, and to add gasoline to the fire, the floor debate resumed on November 5, 1963 to debate bishops and their relationship to the Curia. For professional theologians, the inclusion of this topic was nothing short of theater of the absurd. The very existence of the Curia was not biblical, but it had become a practical necessary in the Middle Ages when the papacy served as something of a supreme court, listening to cases from throughout Christendom. That a church document was actually discussing bishops and curialists as somewhat equal entities with protocols of rights and duties is something rather hard to imagine today, at least from a theological standpoint.
But for the cardinals and bishops with sees or dioceses to govern, relations with the Curia were everything, and in fact bishops often found their hands tied by decisions of the Curia and its various extensions, such as papal nuncios, who made the final recommendation of nominations of bishops in all countries to the Holy See. In fact even today bishops here in the U.S. must get permission before selling church property over a certain market value. The Curia oversaw seminaries, theology professors and their writings, annulments (as Pope Francis has recently reminded us), and sundry other matters, including the Vatican Bank. As it turned out, by 1963 the tide of episcopal sentiment toward the Curia was running out. This was an administrative and, as it turned out, highly personal matter for many bishops. Having just voted the previous week on the sacramental dignity of the office of bishop, the Council fathers found a collective distaste in this debate, after years of highhanded treatment from a bureaucracy that as often as not did not represent the accurate views of the reigning pontiff.
It did not help the Curial cause that the first speakers were in fact Curial officials defending the efficiency of their offices. Perhaps the best example of faulty pre-game scouting reports was the argument of Cardinal Marcella who, noting the great advances in global communications, stated "It is a fact that the Roman Curia has precise and accurate knowledge of each diocese." One can only wonder what even the traditionalist Cardinal Spellman thought about that. At the very least, the Curialist position overlooked a widely endorsed principle emerging on the Council floor, that of "subsidiary" which held that problems should be solved locally with the least necessary intervention of authority. (A close relative of Ockham's Razor, I guess you could say.) But worse, the Curialist stance was personally offensive to bishops, making them sound like ecclesiastical office boys. But who would say this publicly?
The day was Friday, November 8, and the man was Cardinal Frings of Cologne. He was a biblical scholar, graduate of the Pontifical Institute, a mountain climber (literally, not ecclesiastically) until at 76 his health failed him. He was known for dry wit, so what he would stand to say would shock just about everyone in the assembly. First, he chastised the Curia for its belittling of the October 30 "five votes." But then he went on: "We must not confuse administrative roles with legislative ones. This also goes for the Holy Office [headed by Ottaviani] whose methods and behaviors do not conform at all to the modern era, and are a cause of scandal to the world. No one should be judged and condemned without having been heard, without knowing what he is accused of, and without having the opportunity to repair what he can reasonably be reproached with." Frings went on to condemn the excessive bureaucracy of the Curia and the practice of naming its administrators bishops, and even went so far as to recommend the employment of laymen in curial offices. He called for a board of bishops to supercede the Curia and work in consultation with the pope. (It took 40 years for this last proposal to be implemented by, you know who, Pope Francis.) After a moment of understandable shock, the majority of Council Fathers engaged in a long and enthusiastic applause.
According to Xavier Rynne, Pope Paul VI called Frings to congratulate him on his intervention. It is also reported that Ottaviani went to see the pope that afternoon, but as Rynne reports, he did not receive an endorsement from Paul VI and was so upset that he threatened to resign. However, these private interventions by the pope were not generally known, and in truth the Council fathers had no real sense of what the fallout might be from l'affaire Frings-Ottaviani. If anything, tensions were heightened throughout the balance of the Second Session.
As if to underscore the surreal nature of Friday, November 8, 1963, the Holy Office was scheduled to provide an evening of entertainment for the Council Fathers, with Ottaviani as official host. In 1962 his office had provided a viewing of the film "The trial of Jeanne d'Arc." On this memorable night, the film chosen in advance was the American offering, "The Cardinal." If you don't remember it, there is a good reason--one reviewer summed it up as "stupid and in questionable taste."