As I posted on Saturday, October 28, 1965 began the process of final promulgation of a large number of documents. There were several among them that I did not treat in our running log but which do deserve some mention here, because the American bishops were significantly involved in the discussions. The Decree on Priestly Formation (seminaries), while speaking highly of St. Thomas Aquinas, did not command strict adherence to his philosophy or his structure of teaching. This allowed seminary curriculums to focus upon the theological advances of the twentieth century and the great thinkers of this era. The document called for seminarians to gain greater understanding of the churches and theologies not in communion with Rome (i.e., Protestants), in order to promote greater possibilities of Church unity. “Such a ruling would have been unthinkable had it not been for the Council,” Xavier Rynne observed. (534)
In terms of governance, national conferences of bishops were charged with exercising more control over their seminaries, instead of the Curial oversight then in practice. This charge concerned some American bishops; Rynne points out that the United States Conference had a very poor track record of joint action. Each diocese (and particularly its bishop) cherished its own seminary, which tended to create something of an unhealthy academic hothouse effect. Diocesan seminaries were not known, as a rule, for global academic excellence, and some dioceses sent their candidates to Catholic University in Washington or to the major religious orders who had formed consortium graduate schools in Washington, Chicago, and Berkeley. I myself am a graduate of the Washington Theological Union, which closed, alas, in 2015. [Fellow alumni: you can pick up your transcripts at St. Bonaventure University in Olean, New York.]
Another topic close to the hearts of American bishops was the Declaration on Christian Education. Cardinal Spellman was prominent among many U.S. bishops who lobbied for inclusion of a statement on the obligation of the state to pay for Catholic schools. This did not happen. Moreover, the document softened the requirement of parents to send their children to Catholic schools due to the wide range of conditions and resources around the world. Rynne reports that such language did not sit well with the Americans, who were currently administering the largest private system in the world. (535)
That the American Catholic school system rested upon the labors and poverty of religious orders—a majority of them women—should have brought a keener attention to the spiritual and personal morale in the religious life. Unfortunately, the document Decree on the Religious Life is remembered as one of the worst documents to come out of the Council in terms of closing the barn door after the horses had fled. It did not help matters that the Curia refused to allow a single woman religious to address the Council as their very lives were under discussion. The Roman Offices tended to view all distresses in religious life as matters of disobedience.
I have a close kinship with this document, Perfectae Caritatis in Latin. Three years after its promulgation I took the habit and entered the Franciscan novitiate, a 366-day intensive immersion into religious life and a break from formal college studies. We did have classes—how to use a breviary, for example—but the two courses I remember best were the History of the Franciscan Order and Perfectae Caritatis. (Blogger Amy Troolin has a good summary of Perfectae Caritatis here.) The primary theme of PC that was drilled into us was the need to “return to the sources” or the founder’s original vision. For Franciscans this was complex: the unique charism of Francis, it may be recalled, was his idea that the Gospel itself could serve as a religious rule. He was counseled to accept the Rule of Benedict or Augustine until Pope Innocent III approved his unique way of life. I can remember the staff advising us that when we left novitiate and entered regular friar communities, we might not see as much of Perfectae Caritatis as we might like. There was an understatement.
The big outstanding hurdle for the Council was the critical document Divine Revelation, where the redrafting of the text was taking on the precision of nuclear physics. Rynne helpfully breaks down the three doctrinal questions in play: (1) the relation of the Scripture to Church Tradition, known popularly as the “two-source” definition; (2) the inerrancy of the Bible or “truth” of Scripture; and (3) the historical nature of the Gospels.
The Orthodox Church and Protestantism in general has questioned the Catholic power to expand doctrinal definition and practice. The protest is a matter of degree: all Christians hold to the validity of the pronouncements of the Christological Councils of the fourth and fifth centuries regarding the Trinity and the identity of Christ and the Holy Spirit as put forward in the Nicene Creed we proclaim at Sunday Mass. The turn in the road came about as Eastern Christianity objected to claims of the primacy of the Roman see and its bishop, the emerging papacy. The Roman Church has held throughout history that by virtue of Jesus’ commissioning of Peter as the rock, and of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the organic Church that followed would enjoy the authority to articulate aspects of the Divine Revelation in a fashion that binds the faith of believers.
This power to teach existentially through history, so to speak, is known as Church Tradition. Such matters as the formal definition of sacraments, indulgences, the infallibility of the papacy, and the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary cannot be found literally in the Scriptures. The Catholic Church maintains that many of its teachings are intended in the Scriptures or implied there, and that through the ongoing power of the Holy Spirit the Church cannot err in its Biblical discernment process. Such teaching fall into the body of Tradition; every catechism you ever owned states that we know our faith through Scripture and Tradition.
The Council was laboring (as I just did) to put forth a definition of Tradition that would preserve its authority without verbally and theologically overreaching, and would better explain the relation of Scripture and Tradition. Of course, one thing leads to another; if Tradition rests on Scripture, how are we to approach Scripture—literally, metaphorically, analytically? Hence the discussion points on the Scripture points itself.
It would be impossible to calculate how many man-hours of work went into the work on Divine Revelation. With luck, I will summarize it all on Saturday.