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History’s view of Vatican II

The who, what, where, when, and why of the Council, which opened sixty years ago this month.

Pope John XXIII leads the opening session of the Second Vatican Council in St. Peter's Basilica Oct. 11, 1962. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)

The famous black-and-white photograph of the Second Vatican Council in session, taken from a high balcony at the back of Saint Peter’s Basilica, shows more than 2,000 Council Fathers standing at their places in slanted stalls that line the nave, with more than a dozen rows on either side. It resembles nothing so much as a gargantuan monastic choir—unless it puts you in mind of the British Parliament with the dimensions quadrupled.

Contemporary perceptions of the Council varied widely, partly because of the extensive media coverage.  Although it promulgated a dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, Vatican II was not a “constitutional convention.” An ecumenical council can teach about the Church but cannot modify a divine institution, any more than a pope can invent a new doctrine or change one of the Ten Commandments.

In his latest book, The Second Vatican Council: An Unwritten Story (Loreto Publications, 2012), Roberto de Mattei, a historian in Rome, writes: “[Ecumenical] Councils exercise, under and with the Pope, a solemn teaching authority in matters of faith and morals and set themselves up as supreme judges and legislators, insofar as Church law is concerned. The Second Vatican Council did not issue laws, and it did not even deliberate definitively on questions of faith and morals. The lack of dogmatic definitions inevitably started a discussion about the nature of its documents and about how to apply them in the so-called ‘postconciliar period.’”

Professor de Mattei outlines the two main schools of thought in that discussion. The first and more theological approach presupposes an “uninterrupted ecclesial Tradition” and therefore expects the documents of Vatican II to be interpreted in a way consistent with authoritative Church teaching in the past. This is the “hermeneutic of continuity” emphasized by Benedict XVI, who was a theological expert at the Council.

A second, more historical approach advocated by Professor Giuseppe Alberigo and the “School of Bologna” maintains that the Council “was in the first place an historical ‘event’ which, as such, meant an undeniable discontinuity with the past: it raised hopes, started polemics and debates, and in the final analysis inaugurated a new era.” The “event-dimension” of the Council is Exhibit A in making the case for the elusive “spirit of Vatican II” that looks beyond the actual words of the conciliar documents to the momentum that they supposedly generated.

Professor de Mattei counters such tendentiousness by making a clear distinction: “The theologian reads and discusses the documents in their doctrinal import. The historian reconstructs the events…understands occurrences in their cultural and ideological roots and consequences… so as to arrive at an ‘integral’ understanding of the events.”

Drawing on the work of two Catholic historians and the director of a Catholic news service, this article highlights features in the historical background to the Second Vatican Council by asking the basic questions of journalism: who, what, where, when and why.

Who: John XXIII

Although several were soon to become world famous, none of the 2,381 prelates in the stalls at St. Peter’s on October 11, 1962, and no combination of them, could have initiated an ecumenical council; that was the sole prerogative of the Supreme Pontiff. At that moment, the bishop of Rome was the former Cardinal Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, who, when elected pope in 1958, had taken the name John XXIII.

The media image of “Good Pope John,” the unpretentious, grandfatherly pontiff, had its basis in fact. Roncalli was gracious and optimistic by nature, and studiously avoided taking sides in the theological disputes that increasingly divided the Catholic Church. Yet a full portrait is more complex, as we read in Pope John and His Revolution, by the Catholic British historian E. E. Y. Hales.

Roncalli did have “peasant roots”—his parents were sharecroppers—but he was also descended from the impoverished branch of a noble family. His diary shows that he had pursued sanctity since his seminary days, yet he excelled in history rather than theology. His priestly ministry was spent almost entirely in chancery, seminary, and diplomatic positions (with the exception of a few years as an army chaplain during World War I); it is ironic that the ecumenical council he convened as pope should proclaim itself to be “pastoral”.

Hales’ specialty is 19th-century Church history, a politically tumultuous era when Catholic social doctrine began to be formulated officially. “John was as anxious as any previous pope to reaffirm some continuity in papal teaching; but in fact, in his brief reign, he changed both its spirit and its content.… The novelty of Pope John consisted in his embracing, with enthusiasm, novel ideas about world unity, colonialism, aid to underdeveloped countries, social security, and the rest, which belonged mainly to such recent times as the period since the Second World War; it consisted in his accepting these new ideas, saying they were good, and urging the world to pursue them.”

The 1961 encyclical Mater et Magistra, “On Christianity and Social Progress,” brings Catholic social teaching “right into the world of the Welfare State,” according to Hales. “The Pope…is embracing what many would call socialism, and he is acknowledging that a new concept of the duties of the State is involved.”

Another characteristic of the Roncalli papacy identified by Hales is its “universal quality.” “Addressing himself to ‘all men of good will,’ he went out of his way to make friendly contact not only with the separated brethren but also with those who professed a philosophy hostile to Christianity.” The 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris, “On Establishing Universal Peace,” transcends the interests of the Church, or even of Christendom, and “looks steadily at the world as a whole.” Pope John XXIII took his role as Universal Pastor literally: “He was not directly trying to get the world ‘back in’ [to the Church]. He was going out into the world, to help the world. … [H]e was thinking of all men as sons of God and therefore of himself as their spiritual father on earth.”

Pope John’s contribution to the writing of the Vatican II documents may have been minimal, yet his view of his own pastoral ministry and of the Church’s role in the modern world had a momentous effect during the Council and in the years that followed.

What: Theological Currents

The question, “What was Vatican II about?” is objectively answered by reading the titles of the documents that the Council approved. From a broader perspective, it is often noted that in some respects the Council completed the work of Vatican I, which had defined precisely the powers of the papacy but had been adjourned before it could discuss episcopal authority in the Church.

Roberto de Mattei sees the remote causes of Vatican II in the early 20th-century Modernist crisis. Although Pope Pius X peremptorily clamped down on a wide range of philosophical and theological errors, many of them “went underground” in the academic world and in certain provinces of religious orders. The real need for reform in the Church continued, but it was not being addressed by erudite and antiquarian studies or fantastic speculation. (Recall that Teilhard de Chardin, SJ had many enthusiasts in the Council hall.)

Besides Modernism, de Mattei examines various 20th-century movements within the Church: biblical, philosophical, liturgical, ecumenical. He depicts a fruitful theological pluralism which in places was bursting the seams of the neo-Thomistic system that was still prevalent, especially in the Roman Curia. Through the participation of theological experts at Vatican II, the best of that scholarship contributed significantly to the conciliar documents. But the journals of several “periti”—scholarly experts—that have been published in recent years confirm that neo-Modernism was a real force and that some advisors arrived with scores to settle and strategies for refighting old battles.

Where: Spotlight on the “European Alliance”

An ecumenical council by definition is a gathering of prelates representing the Universal Church, and since Vatican I the Catholic hierarchy had become thoroughly international. During the preparatory phase of Vatican II every effort was made to consult the bishops worldwide and to distill from their input outlines on topics to be addressed during the council sessions. Professor de Mattei writes:

During the summer of 1959…the “vota” or recommendations from the bishops, the superiors of religious orders, and the Catholic universities arrived [in Rome]. The compilation of this enormous quantity of material began in September and concluded in late January of 1960. The approximately three thousand letters that were sent in fill eight volumes…

When the Council first met on October 13, 1962, “the day’s agenda provided that the assembly would elect its representatives (sixteen out of twenty-four) on each of the ten Commissions that were delegated to examine the schemas drawn up by the Preparatory Commission.” All Council Fathers were eligible, unless they already had been appointed to the commissions. Ballots were distributed with a separate page listing the names of those who already had expertise in certain areas because of their work on the related preparatory commissions.

In a planned preemptive strike, Cardinal Achille Liénart of Lille, France, grabbed the microphone out of turn, complained that “it is really impossible to vote this way, without knowing anything about the most qualified candidates,” and recommended that the Council Fathers defer the vote until they could consult with their national bishops’ conferences. His illegal “motion” was seconded by Cardinal Frings of Cologne, and Cardinal Tisserant moved to adjourn. De Mattei points out that “one immediate consequence” of Cardinal Liénart’s unsettling “solution” was “the introduction of a new organizational form…the episcopal conferences into the conciliar dynamics.”

“The Central-European conferences were the first to play the new role assigned to them,” according to de Mattei. The bishops’ conferences of the Rhineland nations—France, Germany, and the Low Countries—had a disproportionate share of the Church’s wealth, universities, publishing houses, and news services, so it was no surprise that most of the candidates whom they proposed were elected to the Conciliar Commissions. The “European Alliance,” as it was nicknamed, then used its position of dominance to discard many of the schemas that had been drawn up by the preparatory commissions, and to start over with texts drafted by the progressive periti.

These two shifts had momentous consequences during the four sessions of the Council and in the postconciliar period: (1) authority was displaced from individual bishops and Curial officials (who held authority delegated directly by the Pope) to ad hoc geographical gatherings of prelates that were usually run by a few movers and shakers, and to theologians who were simple priests; (2) the Council strangely became less “ecumenical” and more Eurocentric—an ominous trend, in hindsight. This influx of Central European and “democratic” ideas into the workings of the Roman Church was captured by Father Ralph M. Wilgten, SVD, editor of the Divine Word News Service, in the title of his classic book, The Rhine Flows into the Tiber.

When: Cold War politics

Political unrest interrupted Vatican I: King Victor Emmanuel of Italy captured and annexed the city of Rome, and French armies could no longer vouch for the Council Fathers’ safety. Less than 100 years later, Vatican II conducted its sessions during the Cold War, with Europe divided, the Soviet sphere of influence expanding, and an uneasy peace maintained by a policy of mutual assured destruction.

Father Wiltgen, in his week-by-week eyewitness account of Vatican II, notes that a significant percentage of the vota from the world’s bishops had recommended that the ecumenical council explicitly condemn Marxist socialism. During the third session, on October 23, 1964, Archbishop Paul Yu Pin of Nanking, China, speaking on behalf of 70 Council Fathers, asked that a new chapter on atheistic communism be added to the schema on “The Church in the Modern World.” “It had to be discussed in order to satisfy the expectations of our peoples…especially those who groan under the yoke of communism and are forced to endure indescribable sorrows unjustly.”

Despite this intervention and others like it, when the fourth session of the Council opened, the revised schema still made no explicit reference to communism. A petition asking for a reiteration of the Church’s teaching against communism was drawn up by the International Group of Fathers, headed by Archbishop Sigaud of Diamantina, Brazil, and Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, and signed by 450 Council Fathers. Although it was submitted in due form and in a timely fashion, a French prelate in the Curia shelved it, so that the intervention never reached the commission to which it was submitted.

Some Council Fathers had warned that the Council’s silence about the errors of communism would be viewed by history as cowardice and a dereliction of duty. The progressives at the Council argued that a condemnation would jeopardize negotiations with communist governments. Was a crucial teaching moment missed?

Why: Light to the Nations

Those who wonder why the Church held its 21st ecumenical council at all might have to wait until the next life to learn the full answer. Still, the stated purposes of Vatican II should be our starting point. Professor de Mattei notes that in October 1962 the Council Fathers informally issued a “Message to the World.” In it they proclaimed: “In conducting our work, we will give major consideration to all that pertains to the dignity of man and contributes to true brotherhood among peoples.” Good Pope John was apparently persuaded that a war-torn world was finally ready to listen again to the age-old wisdom of Holy Mother Church—a truly international society—and that the institutional Church had to gear itself up for this new dialogue with contemporary man.

This rapid, journalistic survey of Vatican II focused not on what it taught in its documents but rather on several important circumstances of the “event,” some of the opportunities and obstacles that helped shape the Council. As the Church observes the 60th anniversary of the beginning of the Second Vatican Council, the conciliar teachings should be understood against the contrasting background of historical facts, without being reduced to an “epiphenomenon” determined by those facts.

(Editor’s note: This essay was posted originally on October 12, 2012.)

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About Michael J. Miller 127 Articles
Michael J. Miller Michael J. Miller translated Priesthood and Diaconate by Gerhard Ludwig Müller for Ignatius Press and Eucharist and Divorce: A Change in Doctrine? for the Pontifical John Paul II Institute.

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