We continue our Monday/Saturday reflections on Vatican II, which concluded 50 years ago this autumn.
November 1963 was a time of great anxiety in every quarter of the Council. We have discussed earlier the general concern of the Curia, the administrative body of the Church, over the radical nature of some of the working papers making their way to the Council floor, and especially over the growing strength of individual bishops and blocks of delegates. The mood of the Curia was mixed: there were, to be sure, members whose basic fear was loss of place, the idea that, under the new spirit of “collegiality” legislating bodies of bishops would assume decision making with the pope and make many curial positions superfluous.
But in fairness the concerns of most Curialists were less pedestrian and more to the nature of the Church.
Vatican II opened just 98 years after the solemn declaration of the doctrine of papal infallibility, in 1870 at Vatican I. In Church terms this is a very short time, and the idea of an infallible pope still had the commanding power of discovery, as if God had revealed to this generation a bulwark against a modern world that was increasingly secular and spinning out of control. I searched quite a while but I was unable to find the originator of the quote that was popular in my youth. “I wish that every day with my breakfast I would open my paper and discover a new infallible teaching by the pope, and thus I would have one more certainty in my life.” Even the most diehard of defenders of infallibility in the Curia understood such an interpretation as erroneous, but the doctrine itself was one of the crown jewels of the teaching Church, absolutely necessary to keep the Church from dissolving into schism. No one, to my knowledge, ever challenged the teaching from the Council floor, but 1963’s discussions regarding the power of the episcopacy—as individual bishops and particularly in worldwide communion—seemed liked backdoor attempts to diminish the absolute power of the pope.
To this concern was added the very nature of other matters in the air during session two. Cardinal Bea’s work on the concept of ecumenism, for example, and Conciliar discussion on the validity of Baptism in Protestant Churches, not to mention the possibility of redemption among those who had never heard of Christ (what has passed down to us today as Father Karl Rahner’s concept of “Anonymous Christianity”), sent shock waves through the Curia—and, I suspect, through much of the Roman Catholic Church generally—where the principle “outside the Church there is no salvation” was a given. The idea that Roman Catholicism might lose its soul and identity was a genuine fear among Curialists whose delaying tactics must be understood in this light. (There are some concerns about the present Synod of Bishops steering the course of the Church into dangerous waters as I wrote yesterday, Sunday.)
The voting on the Council floor to this point had indicated that at least three-quarters of the bishops favored reform to varying degrees. But now, in the second year, euphoria had given way to hard reality: having the votes, and learning how to deal with the Curia, the responsibility for decision making was truly passing into their hands—certainly for the first time in any of their lives. By November 1963 the glut of issues alone was staggering. A typical voting bishop had to address minimally three different sets of data at the same time: (1) the issue debated in front of him at that moment; (2) rewrites of previous documents from earlier discussions returning to him for analysis and study, and (3) absorb the paperwork of new topics coming up for discussion. And consider: if he planned to make an address to the floor, he had to get a translator to out his words into ecclesiastical Latin.
But along with the pressures of the moment, bishops did share with Curialists the sense that their work would have lasting impact on Christ’s Church for centuries to come. Xavier Rynne observes that a number of bishops would have liked a little more direction from the pope on the boundaries of their projective thinking. This, after all, was the standard operational procedure of the Church for centuries, though the Curia was just as likely to provide that direction with or without the direct knowledge of the pope. In Vatican II, however, both John XXIII and Paul VI were advocating free discussion and generally wanted to hear what the bishops were thinking. (There was one notable exception: Paul removed contraception as a topic for general conciliar debate.) Thus neither pope was a strenuous interventionist: this is particularly true of Paul, who had served much of his life in the Church diplomatic corps and evidently believed that, given, a fair playing field, men of good will could come to prudent decisions.
Bishops, of course, must have had in the back of their minds how their public statements would affect them in future Church life. After all, it was not at all clear just how the Council would unfold in terms of discipline and policy. Conceivably the Curia could come out of the Council stronger than ever, and all of the “collegiality advocates” among the episcopacy would find themselves in bad odor on the shores of the Tiber. This did, in fact, happen, not directly to bishops but to the periti or theological advisors. First and foremost among these was the Swiss Theologian Hans Kung, who continues his battles with the Church to the present day, well into his 80’s.
On November 23, Chinese Bishop Chang-Tso-huan concluded a grueling week with the last speech before the weekend, on the subject of Ecumenism: “As an example for our zeal we can take the ancient Chinese who preached ecumenism many centuries before Confucianism.” After his intervention the bishops scattered among the many restaurants for which Rome is famous. It was in these sorts of settings that many bishops learned for the first time that President John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic U.S. president, had been gunned down in Dallas, Texas. Rynne describes the immense shock and grief that fell upon Rome and the Council. Pope Paul gave permission to Cardinal Spellman of New York to celebrate a Monday memorial Mass on the papal altar.
Hannah Arendt spoke more than she knew in The New York Review of Books: “There is a curious and infinitely sad resemblance between the death of the two greatest men we have lost during this year—the one very old (Pope John XXIII), the other in the prime of life. Both the late Pope and the late President died much too soon in terms of the work they had initiated and left unfinished. The whole world changed and darkened when their voices fell silent. And yet the world will never be as it was before they spoke and acted in it.” (Rynne, 248)