A peritus remembers Vatican II

Fr. Don Dietz, OMI shares his memories about the dramatic events—and colorful characters—of Vatican II.

Father Don Dietz, OMI was a peritus (consulting theologian) at the Second Vatican Council, assisting Bishop of Stockholm John Taylor, OMI. He spoke recently with Dawn Eden about his experiences at the council.

Dawn Eden: How did you come to be chosen to be a peritus at the Second Vatican Council?

Father Don Dietz: I was teaching Church history at Our Lady of the Snows, our theology-philosophy school in Pass Christian, Mississippi, during the first two sessions of the Council, in 1962 and 1963, so I was extra interested in what was taking place at Vatican II. Then I was sent to Sweden in August 1964, and the following month the bishop of Stockholm took me as his theologian to the Council for the third and fourth sessions.

Eden: What was daily life like at the Council?

Father Dietz: I was at the Oblate general house, and we probably had some 30 Oblate bishops from different countries in Africa, Asia, Latin and North America. Our superior general also was a member of the Council, as a lot of superior generals were, and he was on the commission for mission. And we had one cardinal, from Ceylon—Sri Lanka now—and some archbishops.

We would have two buses; you could take whichever bus you chose. So the bishops would get onto the bus, along with a few of us who were theologians, and also some of our men who worked in the Curia and were involved with various documents.

So we would get to St. Peter’s, and all the many buses would be parked all over the square. We would walk up to the entrance of St. Peter’s and we would need our pass. For me, it would say that I was a peritus, a Council theologian, and it had my photo. I still have my pass. So the Swiss Guard would look you over. After a while, they got to know you.

So, you would enter, and the bishops would be lined up in the two rows on the sides facing each other in the cascading rows of seats, and there were two overhead places for the theologians in what was called tribunes. There was one toward the front, on the right-hand side, and one on the left, toward the back, and that was where I went. You could go wherever you liked. But I would go there because the one in front was more political; they were always talking. So I went to the back, and usually Bernhard Häring was on one side of me, and he was often critical of Pope Paul, and on the other side was a very prayerful man, a huge priest from St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, Msgr. Rudolph Bandas, and he would say the Rosary. So I would have Bernhard Häring on one side, making caustic remarks about Pope Paul, and the other man was saying Hail Marys. It was hilarious.

There would be a Mass first, and then there followed the enthronement of the Gospels. Pope John XXIII wanted the Gospels open every day to John 1: “And the Word was made flesh.” The sense was that Jesus was presiding over the Council through the Gospels. And at the back, there was the beautiful window of the Holy Spirit, usually illumined by a bright sheen.

Then the bishops would start the discussion. The cardinals had the right of precedence, so you would have a few cardinals on each side of the discussion, and some influential archbishops after that. They would set the tone for what was going to happen. So each would comment on the document they were discussing, what he approved and disapproved. Often they were in opposite camps. After the cardinals and archbishops got done, most of the bishops would get up and go to the coffee bar. Bishops continued speaking to the assembly, but few were listening.

Eden: When you say they would go to the coffee bar, do you mean they would leave St. Peter’s?

Father Dietz: No, the coffee bar was right there.

Eden: There was a coffee bar in St. Peter’s?

Father Dietz: Two of them.

Eden: Where were they set up?

Father Dietz: They were positioned behind where the bishops sat. So the bishops would be continuing to talk things over, and if you were a theologian, you could look down and see who was listening and who wasn’t, who was there and who was gone to the coffee bar. I liked to watch Bishop Sheen, because he stayed all the time to work. I don’t think he ever went to the coffee bar. Of course, a lot of the missionary bishops wanted money from him, because he was in charge of Propaganda [Fidei] and he was bringing in big funds.

The first speaker would always be Archbishop Felici. He was the secretary of the Council, so he would announce the agenda for the day, and if there were any messages from the Holy Father or from the presidents or moderators, he would give us that information. He was kind of a master of ceremonies.

The one that really impressed me was Henri de Lubac. He was so kind, even if you were a nobody, which I was. And he would be so gentle in giving his views.

A couple of others who were interesting, Roger Schütz and Max Thurian from Taize. Both of them later became Catholic. They were always interested in talking to everyone. People would walk around and talk as the discussions were going on; they knew the discussions would be available to them in the records.

There was a guy from Chicago, [Father] Cliff Bergin, and he was a really nice guy. I would talk to him and ask, “Are you the cardinal’s theologian?” “No,” he would always say, “I’m the chauffeur. I drive him here and drive him home.” I never knew if he was a theologian; he was so humble.

The session would last all morning, and then we would get in the bus to go home. Then, early in the afternoon, we had what they called the press panel. I always went to that, because it was interesting. The panels were in different languages; I went to the English one. And so they would have different people commenting. There was a guy there named Kenneth Woodward; he was Newsweek’s reporter. I was surprised at first that he was such an influential reporter, because he looked so young. And then there was the reporter from Time. So you would get a sense of what people around the country were thinking.

Later in the afternoon, you had what they called theology conferences. Rahner would give a conference, or Ratzinger, and bishops and theologians from different countries would come. There was no charge. That was really interesting. I could see firsthand what these people were like whose books I had read.

Besides that, they would have what they called bishops’ meetings. In Sweden, our bishop was the president of what they called the Nordic Bishops, which was the Scandinavian bishops plus Finland. So you had Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland. They would meet and give their view on this or that.

The bishop of Stockholm was from the United States, and so he could go to the American and also to the German bishops’ meeting, and he would hear how they were discussing something.

At these bishops’ meetings, they would take stands on different issues. Sometimes you would get a bishop who would say, “I’m speaking for 30 bishops from Brazil,” or “I’m speaking for all the bishops from Argentina.”

Then, in the evening, the theologians and bishops could study the texts for discussion. So then I would read the texts and study them in case the bishops would ask me something, because most of them were out of the loop on theology, especially our bishops, who were missionary bishops. So with all these more nuanced discussions, they would wonder what this was all about.

Eden: How was the bishops’ Latin?

Father Dietz: All the talking at the Council was done in Latin. Only one guy didn’t speak in Latin, and that was Melkite Rite Patriarch Maximos IV. He spoke in French, and he did it deliberately, because he thought it was an affront that the Eastern bishops had to speak Latin. So Maximos was somewhat fun to listen to.

Cardinal Cushing had a real accent. The American bishops were especially concerned about religious liberty and the declaration about the Jewish people. So he got up, and he would shout out in Latin. Probably somebody wrote it for him, but he screamed it out. At that time, I was in that other tribune [the front-right section of seats], the one that was political, and I remember some of the Boston guys said, “Well, he’ll get a lot of money from the Jewish bankers.” That’s why I left that tribune.

Eden: It says something about the minds of some of the people there.

Father Dietz: You had people of all different points of view. After a while you would realize what the guy next to you thought.

One of our [OMI] bishops from Canada asked me once, “You’re a theologian. I want you to explain how the Holy Spirit operates in this. I sit next to a bishop and he goes out to the coffee bar, and there’s voting. He says, ‘Vote for me,’ and I say, ‘Which way should I vote?’ And he says, ‘I don’t care.’” Because they voted by pressing buttons, you know.

Eden: That was very high-tech for the time.

Father Dietz: It was. At the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception [where OMIs served and continue to serve], the acoustics were always a problem. Our bishops said, “We should get some of these Italians over at the National Shrine.” For the acoustics in St. Peter’s, which is huge, were actually very good. What you would hear, you could follow.

Anyhow, I studied the texts. That was really a learning experience for me. They were all in Latin. It was beautiful to read those documents and then to have the nuanced discussions. So then, you were prepared, in case the bishop said, “What are we talking about today?” That is, in case they wanted to know it. You didn’t offer; if they wanted it, they asked.

So that was what ordinary theologians did at the Council. You studied the texts, and you were ready to be consulted if they wanted. But if you were one of the stars, you wrote the documents—which I didn’t. You had some influence, like when your bishop’s group would make a decision that they were going to push this or that.

I remember we discussed indulgences one time among the Nordic bishops, and this one bishop from Norway said, “I’m for scrapping them.” He said, “It’s just too much of a problem with these Lutherans. Let’s get rid of them.”

So you would have all kinds of views. It was a very human thing. Someone said there are three moments in the Council. There is the moment of the people, there is the moment of the devil, and there is the moment of the Holy Spirit.

Eden: Were there times when you were in awe seeing how situations were turned in such a way that it had to be the Holy Spirit’s influence?

Father Dietz: Yes. I remember at the end of the third session—that was probably the biggest crisis of the whole Council. It was over the vote on religious liberty. They wanted to have a vote before the third session ended and Pope Paul said no, that it would be remanded and re-prepared, and would appear as the first thing at the fourth session.

Well, there was a Belgian bishop that got up, and then, in that front tribune, there were some Chicago and Boston theologians, and they were very political. The bishop gave a talk saying that they had to have that vote. And they had raucous applause; it was almost like an open rebellion. I went to the press conference and John Courtney Murray got up and said the pope wouldn’t dare postpone that vote; the vote would take place.

Well, the pope did. He stood up to the Council. All told, he did four things then that I remember. This was shortly before he promulgated Lumen Gentium and Unitatis Redintegratio, when he added the nota previa; he insisted that it would have to be part of the Council document for chapter 3 of Lumen Gentium. It clarifies collegiality. Then he introduced 19 changes in the decree on ecumenism. He put them in on his own, and the Council had to vote placet or non placet, up or down, accepting his changes, and the same with the nota previa.

Besides, he kept that vote from taking place on religious liberty. What I think people understood better afterward was that the decree wasn’t yet mature enough and with a large non placet vote would have sent a mixed message. It was better that they didn’t vote on it. But it was so political.

The Council did not want to call Mary the Mother of the Church in chapter 8 of Lumen Gentium, and the pope, when he promulgated the document on the Church, proclaimed her Mother of the Church.

So, in answer to your question: no vote on religious liberty, the nota previa on Lumen Gentium, the 19 changes on ecumenism, and then naming Mary Mother of the Church, and, in that same talk, at the end, he said, “This next session will be the last.” Because things were getting out of hand! It was getting pretty wild. Pope Paul was so humble, but he could be firm.

Eden: Do you remember any particular points that you advised upon that were adopted by the Council?

Father Dietz: There were those who were against collegiality. That didn’t seem right to me. There were the 12 apostles, and one apostle was the head, but there were nonetheless the 12. It was hard to see why you would say no to collegiality, unless you would interpret it as a threat to the primacy of the pope. That was a big issue in the third session, probably the biggest issue.

Eden: So you advised on collegiality.

Father Dietz: Yes, right. But I wanted to protect the primacy of the pope. And that was the aim of the nota previa. I wanted to make sure that that was clear, that the pope was able to decide as head of the bishops, and in consultation with them.

Among the examples that they always used were Pius IX and Pius XII, when they defined the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption on their own, but they consulted all the bishops. There is a record of this. They asked all bishops two questions: Is this revealed by God? And is it opportune to define it solemnly? And you had, overwhelmingly, the Church say “Yes,” through all the bishops. It wasn’t that it was independent of the bishops.

Eden: Was part of the opposition to naming Mary Mother of the Church from the fear that an ecclesiotypical Mariology might diminish the faithful’s appreciation of Mary’s privilege?

Father Dietz: It was kind of funny. I remember one of the guys saying, “Mother of the Church? Why don’t we say ‘Grandmother of the Church’? That was on the Council floor.

Pope Paul was the bishop of Milan before he was pope, and I think St. Ambrose approached Mary as Mother of the Church. So he had a patristic basis for what he said. But it turned out to be right, you know, and in some ways it summarized the Council. It’s strange; in the postconciliar Church, at first, she was seen as more of a problem in ecumenism. But gradually she has brought people together. They take up things that Luther had said and see it differently now. There’s an evolution on all sides, I think.

Eden: When you look back at that time of your life when you were advising at the Council, what kind of emotions come up? Do you see it as a time of joy?

Father Dietz: It was joyful. I prayed a lot. I remember when that crisis came, I prayed for the pope and for the unity of the Church. I was surprised that John Courtney Murray, though he was certainly loyal, said, ‘The pope wouldn’t dare…” And of course, the pope dared.

People wonder what it was like at the Council. A lot of the bishops were happy to get back to their dioceses! And then others were enjoying their vacation. It was very human; the theologians and the bishops were just human. That’s why you needed the Holy Spirit, like at the end of the Council of Jerusalem, Acts 15: “The Holy Spirit and we declare…” So you’re saying, “I’m glad the Holy Spirit’s around!”

Eden: I would like to throw out a few more names at you in case any memories come up. Jean Daniélou?

Father Dietz: He was very influential. There was a Swedish woman—she was very liberal—Gunnel Vallquist, who was there for the whole Council. She worked for a Swedish newspaper and wrote a daybook in Swedish. She had become a convert, largely through the French Jesuits, and Daniélou was her hero.

Eden: Are there any other figures from the Council who come to mind?

Father Dietz: Yves Congar. When I taught theology before I went to the Council, I would sometimes use Congar and de Lubac, and I always liked Congar and I wasn’t keen on de Lubac. After I met them, I liked de Lubac! Congar could be somewhat mean, kind of arrogant, and de Lubac was so gentle and sweet. I thought to myself, “I have to revise my opinion!”

Eden: How about Rahner?

Father Dietz: He was kind of a holy man. Later on at Catholic University, I saw him at a conference, and he would say the Rosary. There was a traditional side to him.

Eden: Do you have any particular memories of Ratzinger?

Father Dietz: Well, he was considered the expert “teenage theologian,” because he was really young. He and Rahner worked together sometimes, but Ratzinger was more balanced than Rahner. He was considered a bright light; people would talk about him. And some of the German bishops that were more liberal would say, “I don’t know about this…I think he’s pulling away from Rahner!”

Eden: Thank you so much for sharing your memories of the Council.

Father Dietz: It’s just my personal recollection, but there is a human side that people don’t realize. When you would get up, you were hoping for a certain outcome that day. You knew who was coming on the speaker list. Cardinals could jump the line. And then suddenly you’d say to yourself, “How come he’s speaking today? So he had something up his sleeve!” So there would be groups of bishops who didn’t want this, or wanted this, or said, “Change this word,” or, “this is too strong,” or, “this is too weak.”

Eden: So there was a sense of intrigue!

Father Dietz: Oh, yes! You weren’t sure how things were coming out, because they were voting.

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About Dawn Eden 1 Article
Dawn Eden is the author of three books, Remembering God's Mercy, My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints, and The Thrill of the Chaste. She received her pontifical licentiate in sacred theology from the Dominican House of Studies in 2014 and is currently completing a doctorate at the University of St. Mary of the Lake.