Behind the Scenes at Vatican II

The first volume of Henri de Lubac’s "Vatican Council Notebooks" (Ignatius Press, 2015) is filled with detailed and often surprising accounts of conversations, disputes, and key figures at the Council

On January 29, 1959, Pope John XXIII shocked the Church and the world with his announcement at the Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls in Rome that he was convoking the first ecumenical council in nearly a century.  In fifth grade, Sister Regina Rose began to inform us of the impending council, noting that we would be living through a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  With that in mind, she also assigned us the task of compiling a scrapbook of newspaper clippings about the Council—which project I dutifully fulfilled until the completion of the Second Vatican Council during my sophomore year of high school (unfortunately, that relic was lost in a family move).  From 1962 to 1965, the first item on the evening news was the day’s proceedings at the Council, with the NBC reporter signing off with his signature line: “Reporting from St. Peter’s, Irving R Levine, Rome!”

It was with such historical reminiscences that I picked up the notes of Henri de Lubac, the Jesuit peritus at Vatican II who lived under a cloud prior to the Council and eventually was named a cardinal by Pope John Paul II.  At the same time that I was reading this work, I was also moving through Father Louis Bouyer’s memoirs, tracing his life from infancy through his stellar theological career (with a strong emphasis on the lead-up to Vatican II and its aftermath).  I link the two for two reasons: First, the amazing capacity of both men to recall in astonishing detail (with no tape recorders or other such devices) word-for-word conversations.  Second, because both men had reputations (rightly or wrongly) before Vatican II as rather “progressive”—with both becoming totally disillusioned with the post-conciliar life of the Church.

This first volume out covers the preparatory work of the Council, the first session, and the period between the first and second sessions.  De Lubac must have had a recessive gene for stenography, given the nearly verbatim citations from private and official meetings, as well as interventions from the hundreds of Council Fathers, with direct quotations from their Latin presentations and de Lubac’s vernacular commentary on them.  From time to time, his recollections of speeches fail (amazingly few times, however), but the editor does a superb job of correcting those errors and of giving background information on every bishop cited.

The documents debated during the first session included those on the Sacred Liturgy, the Church, Divine Revelation, and Social Communications.  From the outset, it is clear that there were: mutually exclusive theologies vying for the ascendancy; lobbies of every kind; appeals to secrecy; cloak and dagger maneuvers.  Indeed, the title of Father Ralph Wiltgen’s “post mortem” on the Council got it right: The Rhine certainly flowed into the Tiber.  The bête noir of the “progressives” was Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, and de Lubac identifies with those opponents in no uncertain terms.  There is no doubt that Ottaviani was heavy-handed in his planning of the Council and in the proceedings themselves, however, there is likewise no doubt that his intuitions about heterodoxy were on-target.  Interestingly, although de Lubac had a strong animus against Ottaviani, he also expressed concern about danger signs: “a path of ‘progress’ that is dubious and dangerous”; that further development of episcopal conferences would foster nationalism; Cardinal Siri being observed on more than one occasion “weeping, feeling the Church endangered.” 

De Lubac mentions a lecture tour of Hans Küng encompassing Notre Dame University, Boston and Chicago during which he “launched a sort of radical program of reforms.” De Lubac had previously referred to the Swiss theologian as exhibiting “a juvenile audacity.”  He commented that the Canadian Gregory Baum (who eventually left the priesthood but who has been lauded by Father Thomas Rosica of Canada’s “Salt and Light” network as his personal inspiration) “seems to have little personality.”   In contrast, he describes Joseph Ratzinger (although aligned with the Rhine contingent) as a “theologian as peaceable and kindly as he is competent.”  He has similarly positive thoughts about the young bishop from Poland, Karol Wojtyla.  Interestingly, he indicates that Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre more than once suggested that the Council documents be presented in two forms: strictly doctrinal for theologians and bishops and more “pastoral” ones for the average Catholic in the pew.  In hindsight, that suggestion could have saved a lot of grief as popes, bishops, theologians and commentators have tried to negotiate the tight-rope between the doctrinal and pastoral poles of the sixteen final documents.

De Lubac recounts several amusing anecdotes like one attributed to Ottaviani, who allegedly told confidants he wanted to die before the end of the Council.  When asked why, he said it was so that he could die a Catholic!  He recalls edifying scenes like bishops lining up to go to confession and making visits to the Blessed Sacrament or the Pietà.  At the same time, we repeatedly hear of bishops who naively believed that the world was waiting with bated breath for some message from the Council.  Not surprisingly, we also hear of the general theological incompetency of so many bishops, as well as the fact that questionable theologies were already well ensconced in many seminaries around the world. 

The infamous Annibale Bugnini surfaces on more than one occasion, usually in rather neutral terms (although his manipulative tendencies are mentioned).  Interestingly, Bouyer could not restrain himself in his memoirs from speaking of Bugnini as “a man as bereft of culture as he was of basic honesty.”

Very oddly, de Lubac seems to have been obsessed with salvaging the reputation of Teilhard de Chardin, lobbying on his behalf with bishops and Jesuit superiors, even devoting theological seminars on Chardin for Council Fathers, who just wanted insight into the affairs of the synod.

What do these Council notes tell us about their recorder?  He was a brilliant and thoroughly orthodox theologian but somewhat given to supporting those to his left, undoubtedly due to a kind of knee-jerk reaction to his unfair treatment by Roman authorities prior to the Council.  He was quite perceptive in his evaluation of various personalities.  Ultimately, his instincts prevailed, so that he came to see how serious those early warning signs really were.

Reading de Lubac’s “minutes” of the Council in the light of the Synods of 2014 and 2015 demonstrates that gathering bishops is always an action fraught with difficulties.  Which is why Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman cautioned, in anticipation of Vatican I:

This is certainly a most anxious time of suspense … Councils have ever been times of great trial—and this seems likely to be no exception. It was always held that the conduct of individuals who composed them was no measure of the authority of their result. We are sure, as in the case of the administration of the Sacraments, that the holiness of actors in them is not a necessary condition of God’s working by means of them. Nothing can be worse than the conduct of many in and out of the Council who are taking the side which is likely to prevail.

And who could forget the slap across the face Arius the heretic got at Nicea from none other than Saint Nicholas—Santa Claus!

Vatican Council Notebooks (Volume I)
by Henri de Lubac.
San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2015.
Paperback, 557 pp.

About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 26 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas is the editor of the The Catholic Response, and the author of over 500 articles for numerous Catholic publications, as well as several books, including The Catholic Church and the Bible and Understanding the Sacraments.