A continuation of our Monday/Saturday look at the sessions of Vatican II, 1962-1965
By December 1962 the First Session of the Council was drawing to a close. The very fact that another Session was called by Pope John for the Fall of 1963 was a message to friend and foe alike that there was a majority determination to see this venture through, though no one saw a repeat of the Council of Trent in the offing (1545-63). Statistically speaking, the First Session found the Council rather far from Pope John’s goal line: of sixteen schema or documents up for discussion and approval, only one of the “big four” were completed in this session: the major Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy on December 4, and the somewhat minor Decree on Social Media, of moderate importance at best. On the other hand, discussion on other issues such as the nature of the Church, Church Unity and Ecumenism were underway. And, from a legislative standpoint, one of the most important decisions of the Church fathers was to hold in abeyance the bitter and prolonged debate on Sacred Revelation for a future session. John himself had his fingers in this, believing—rightly so—that a Council whose reforming building blocks were the truths of the Sacred Scripture in the modern world could hardly be taken seriously if seventeenth century principles of scholarship were still the order of the day—and second to Church Tradition at that, a belief among many in the old guard.
Session One had been a true learning experience for all involved. Pope John absorbed how deeply the reactionary forces of the Curia were entrenched against him. The bishops themselves, on the whole, were adjusting to an event none of them expected to see in their lifetime. Those of us who have attended large conventions or gatherings can appreciate how much in the dark these churchmen from around the world must have felt, given that there was no real official in-house news organ to keep them up to speed on trends and dynamics. The official Vatican newspaper L’osservatoire Romano was a mouthpiece of the Curia, and for the first session copies of Xavier Rynne’s New Yorker magazine accounts were probably the only major informational ombudsman. As the Council progressed into future sessions, the thousands of international reporters would eventually find an equal number of bishops eager to talk with them. Still, by the end of Session One the bishops were becoming more adept at caucusing and floor management. By December 1962 it was statistically evident that about 75% of the bishops were “progressive,” that is, they had come to reform the Church and were willing to take the chances necessary to do that.
It became clear to perceptive participants, observers and periti that the following Sessions, whatever their number, would be hard. John XXIII was the man of hope and determination; within his imagination the full plot lines of this Council were sketched out. The adulation he enjoyed at the end of 1962 by most bishops and a worldwide audience of Catholics and “those of good will everywhere” breathed a confidence that whatever might happen in 1963 or beyond, the way would be found to that brave new future.
What happened next would indeed shape the Council: Pope John XXIII died on June 3, 1963, four months prior to the opening of Session Two. Although the pope’s worsening stomach cancer was hardly a secret (Xavier Rynne characterized John’s death as “agonizing”) the shock around the world was palpable. Vatican II was thus far Pope John’s Council; the Church was now in the very unusual historical situation of electing a pope during a council. Given that the old procedures of election were still in place—a preponderance of Italian electors, large numbers of Curial cardinals, and no age restrictions—it is surprising that the conclave proceeded as smoothly as it did and elected the Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, Giovanni Montini, to succeed John XXIII. Montini took the name Paul VI. Montini seemed to have been John’s choice to succeed him, as the latter used to refer to him as “our Hamlet” in many of their working meetings prior to Vatican II. In truth Cardinal Montini was excellently positioned for the papal election, and I have seen little literature to suggest that anyone seriously challenged him. The biggest obstacle may have been Montini’s own hesitations, his understanding that both the successful completion of the Council and, probably more difficult, the implementation of the sixteen schemas, would take place on his watch. The old guard Curia did not object to his election because for many years he had been one of them; in fact, he seemed positioned to become secretary of state for Pius XII, but Pius chose to manage international affairs himself.
Thus, Montini was appointed to Milan, where he developed a reputation as something of a progressive who enjoyed mixing with intellectuals of all stripes and who evolved a keen interest in the “social justice” aspect of the Church’s mission. (Living through two world wars rarely leaves a man untouched.) As a close confidant to Pope John, he shared the pope’s enthusiasm to see the Council move forward, and upon his election he embarked on something of a flurry of symbolic gestures not totally unlike the first days of Pope Francis. Interestingly, the new pope studied history in his spare time and enjoyed the TV genre of “westerns,” possibly making him the first pontiff to see a Clint Eastwood movie.
As the story of the Council unfolds, it will become clear that history has not been kind to Paul VI. As a more profound philosopher/historian than John, Paul was perhaps more perceptive regarding the implications of Conciliar decisions. This will be particularly clear in matters of Church authority, the prerogatives of the office of the papacy itself, and matters of marriage and contraception. The most generic criticism of Paul VI, during his lifetime and certainly afterwards, was the one made, ironically in jest, by Pope John himself who described Montini as a “Hamlet.” There is some truth to this: as a trained diplomat Paul VI saw the Council as “consensus building,” troubled that there might be blocks of voters in every ballot very unhappy with majority decisions. Paul spent considerable time and energy in his attempts to bring the dissidents along.
On the other hand, the new pope’s diplomatic style of free discussion and airing of concerns led the more progressive element to embrace more optimism about change than perhaps the time and this pope warranted. Nowhere is this more evident than in Paul’s management of the marriage and birth control discussions in the 1965 Fourth Session. There was a sentiment of betrayal when groundbreaking proposals were pulled back for reasons of ecclesiastical caution.
But this was in the future. Elected in June, Paul VI indicated that the Council would push on with energy, actually moving the next opening date ahead to September 29, 1963. Session Two would have its own drama and surprises.