As the Third Session of Vatican II drew to a close in late November, 1964, it became clear that written agreement on a number of critical issues would remain elusive. Pope Paul VI, in a quest for unity, found himself torn between a majority of bishops generally favorable to the direction of reform, on the one hand, and a determined minority—which included his own curial household—on the other, the latter motivated by the human sentiment of loss of place and a genuine concern that core Catholic teaching was being frittered away. While the last half century of commentators—including Xavier Rynne, our “in house” source here on this blog—has tended to cast the Curia as the Darth Vader brigade of the Council, in fairness it should be noted that the bishops, individually and as a whole, had seen their own scope of power and authority considerably enhanced. Would they have been as gracious if the tables were turned?
In a now familiar pattern, the last days of Session III were behind schedule, interrupted by new discussions on drafts in final stage, and outside surprises. On the next to last day of general discussion, for example, Archbishop Felici of the Curia interrupted with an odd and questionable procedural maneuver in which the fathers would be forced to vote on a final draft of the schema on Ecumenism without having seen nineteen emendations evidently approved by the pope, changes with “a definite anti-Protestant slant,” to quote Rynne (423), who also reports that the Council’s Protestant observers in the assembly were aggrieved by the parliamentary strong-arming as much as by the written content.
The last ballots of Session III were cast for the final schema on the “Declaration on non-Christian Religions.” This particular schema, crafted laboriously by Cardinal Bea and his committee, had seen long and fierce battles over a number of theological points—whether, for example, salvation was possible outside of the Christian umbrella. Complicating matters were objections from bishops in Arab nations who complained that the schema’s treatment of Judaism endorsed the legitimacy of the political state of Israel. This document passed 1651-99 with 242 “placet juxta modem” (“it is not entirely pleasing.”) The schema for the Decree on Ecumenism was passed, albeit under the cloud described above, as was the Schema on Oriental Churches (the several dozen Eastern rite Catholic Churches in union with Rome.) Rynne adds: “Characteristically, or perhaps prophetically, the lights in St. Peter’s went out momentarily, about an hour before the end of Friday’s congregation, owing to a power failure.” (424)
The solemn closing of Session III on November 21, 1964, was, in Rynne’s recollection, a strained and gloomy affair. He describes the bishops as “stony faced” while Paul VI himself appeared “glum and tense.” While every observer’s opinion of an event is subjective, it is true that the world press—when newspapers ruled the day—was beginning to take a highly personal and critical assessment of Paul VI as a man whose passion for universal agreement caused him to create confusion and disappointment among the many to satisfy the cries of a loud but small minority. We will look at the reaction to Session III next Saturday, but at least to Rynne, there were obvious signs that all was not right between the Council fathers and the Pope.
What may have disturbed many of the Church fathers, too, was the content of the Pope’s closing address. The pontiff had tipped his hand at his Wednesday audience a few days before. During a sermon that ostensibly would have been a summary of the achievements of the Council’s Session III, and there were many, Paul chose to reverse a previously approved statement on the role of Mary in the Church. He declared his intention to confer the title “Mother of the Church” on Mary. This action was widely seen as a rebuke to the commission which had written Chapter VIII of the Constitution of the Church, which had pointedly not used this language. Moreover, the Decrees on Ecumenism and the Oriental Churches was ignored, and the Pope concluded with reference to the “monarchical and hierarchical nature of the Church.”
A worst case reading of the close of Session III might lead one to conclude that the bishops were somehow in revolt (which they were not, aside from some grumbling), or that the Pope was repudiating the spirit of Vatican II (which he was not). My own thought from Rynne’s description is that Paul himself was thoroughly exhausted at the end of Session III. As we saw today—and certainly in earlier postings—is that Paul spent much of Session III cleaning up messes. It is common to read historians use the term “Hamlet” in describing Paul VI, and brilliant man that he was, he thought through the implications of the Council—at least as he could envision them--to a degree that a lesser man could not do, or a Pope John XXIII would dismiss with a prayer to the Holy Spirit.
Session III, entirely under Paul’s watch, had changed the Church’s direction in ways hardly imaginable. Among other things, it reversed the Church’s position on Jews—no longer “perfidious,” they were reinstated as our brothers in God’s unfolding Revelation. It conceded that outside the Church there actually might be a chance of salvation for those of good will and charitable deeds. It acknowledged what many churchmen and scholars had quietly been thinking for a century or more, that devotional and doctrinal energies on behalf of Mary might be crowding out the more fundamental tenets of Catholic belief: the mysteries of the Incarnation and the Redemption. At the end of Session III, perhaps he felt a need to preserve the place of Mary in the Church, and not so incidentally, the place of papal primacy in the working of things. It took the Church decades to learn of and implement the ways set forth by Vatican II. Popes may be infallible, but they have learning curves, too.