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The opening session of the Second Vatican Council in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Oct. 11, 1962. (CNS photo/Giancarlo Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo), with the original sketch of Pope John XXIII superimposed on the right.The opening session of the Second Vatican Council in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Oct. 11, 1962. (CNS photo/Giancarlo Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo), with a sketch of Pope John XXIII, published with this original America article in 1962, superimposed on the right. (Composite: Shawn Tripoli /America Media)

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in America on Oct. 20,1962, titled “The Council Opens.”

Francis X. Murphy, a Redemptorist priest, wrote regularly for America
during and after the Second Vatican Council, including this article to mark the Council’s opening on Oct. 11, 1962. He was also the author of “Letters from Vatican City,” a regular column in The New Yorker during the Council, under the pseudonym Xavier Rynne. In 1998, Father Murphy finally confessed that he and Rynne were one and the same, saying “I was afraid that if I went to my grave without making it known, the damned Jesuits would have claimed it was one of theirs and the Redemptorists would have been just as happy.”

No one knows just what will be accomplished by the Second Vatican Council, nor is there any way of obtaining authentic information about the thinking of the men who will strongly influence or control its deliberations. If reports on the activity of the Central Preparatory Commission, published in the Osservatore Romano, are to be taken at face value, there is little indication of vast changes in the Church’s way of expressing its dogmatic and moral teachings. Most of this preliminary material is a faithful restatement of the doctrinal content of the large Roman Catechism and the Code of Canon Law. One might almost say that these bulletins have been long on statistics—Cardinals, bishops, theologians participating, and the number of booklets and projects prepared for the conciliar fathers—and short on substantive information. In an abstract prepared by the Theological Commission, for example, the proposed topics deal with the founts of revelation, the moral order, the deposit of faith, chastity and family, the Church, and Mary, the Mother of God. These subjects are comprehensive enough to include every and any aspect of theological interest. But the conscientious spectator is asking: Where are the indications that the Council is going to dig into matters truly causing concern to well-intentioned churchmen and critics?

Pope John’s program calls for an aggiornamento, a bringing up to date of Catholic thought and practice.

Pope John’s program calls for an aggiornamento, a bringing up to date of Catholic thought and practice. More recently, the Pope clarified his intention by speaking of a “renewal of the simple and pure lines that the face of the Church of Jesus had at its inception.” He has frequently insisted that he desires a sort of theological housecleaning, so that the Church will be able to face the outside world with its best features exposed and emphasized. Only then will it be able to extend a meaningful invitation to its separated brethren to return to their Father’s house. In keeping with this call for a change of attitude, and even of procedures, many thoughtful churchmen, particularly among the German and French theologians, have proposed measures that run all the way from the use of the vernacular in the liturgy to a rethinking of the Church’s stand on such vital problems as overpopulation and regulation of births, pluralism and the drive for unity in human society, and better use of a laity distinguished by its progress in mature, independent thinking.It would be simply unrealistic not to acknowledge from the start that sincere differences of opinion exist within the Church on even fundamental problems in theology. The history of the Church from the beginning—Paul withstanding Peter to the face on the crucial question of Judaic observance—as well as the experience of former ecumenical councils, indicates that there are various degrees of conformity to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit; or even, perhaps, that God, in the multiplicity of His goodness, allows diversification of talent and experience, and that this occasions strong disagreement among theologians intent on discovering His will for a particular age.

It must be recognized, likewise, that theologians generally have not been noted for tolerance of the opinions of others, as St. Gregory Nazianzen pointed out in “Theological Discourses” in the fourth century; and that the tendency toward erecting one’s own opinion (backed, of course, by one’s favorite theological authors) into the mind of the Church is a constant temptation. It will do little good, however, to overemphasize the mistakes of the past along these lines; or to be too obsequious in apologizing for the hardheartedness of many polemical theologians in their dealings with heretics and people removed from the Church’s communion.

Pope John’s insistence on prayer for the success of the Council surely has in mind the intention that the assembled prelates and theologians exercise supreme forbearance in the debates and disagreements to come. Unlike most of its predecessors, the present Council has not been convoked to deal with heretical movements within the Church, even though some have been openly asserting that it is high time the Holy See did something about certain currents of thought in both the scriptural and the moral sphere. But this attitude certainly seems foreign to the spirit of the Holy Father.

It would be simply unrealistic not to acknowledge from the start that sincere differences of opinion exist within the Church on even fundamental problems in theology.

It must be truthfully stated, however, that on several major questions divergent opinions are being held and taught by outstanding churchmen. One such matter is the interpretation of the Scriptures; another is the method of teaching theology; a third includes definite theses in ecclesiology; a fourth is suggested by the liturgical movement; and there is great diversity of opinion in regard to relations between the Church and modern states or societies. Finally, Mariology might furnish matter for debate, though it is unlikely that it will become a major topic for discussion, since devotion to the Mother of God is admitted by all as a necessary part of internal Catholic life.

There is bound to be a clash on the biblical question. It is difficult to see how the discussion of so fundamental a matter as the correct interpretation of the sources of divine revelation can be avoided, for two opposing schools of thought now hold the field, and they are dealing with basic issues in Scripture and tradition. What would seem to be the best solution to look for at the present time is a frank but mutually respectful airing of the principles involved on both sides, a detailing of some specific problems, and a discussion of the dangers inherent in a too fundamentalist, as well as a too revolutionary, approach to the revealed word of God—all this to be capped by a solemn agreement on both sides to refrain from heresy-hunting and recrimination, and a tabling of the matter until the next ecumenical council. Certainly the method employed by Msgr. Antonio Romeo in an article in Divinitas, two years ago, in which he attempted to bring this question to a head by a direct attack on the Biblical Institute in Rome, was not the proper way to conduct a theological discussion.

The tendency of some new biblical scholars to shock the older generation by a revolutionary interpretation of individual passages, and by insisting on a new direction to the whole science of biblical exegesis has been unfortunate. It has merely rendered many of the men in responsible positions in the Church adamant in their refusal to consider the new evidence. It is an open secret that some important figures associated with the Roman Curia are greatly disturbed by the new current of scriptural study, and that they are determined to force the biblical exegetes back into traditional modes of thought as represented by such ancient commentators as Cornely and Knabenbauer.

The tendency of some new biblical scholars to shock the older generation by a revolutionary interpretation of individual passages, and by insisting on a new direction to the whole science of biblical exegesis has been unfortunate.

This seems to be a hopelessly obscurantist attitude, but it will make its weight felt at the Council. There can be no doubt that a new approach to the whole scriptural question was indicated by the letter of the then secretary of the Biblical Commission, Rev. J. M. Vosté, O.P., written to Cardinal Suhard in 1943, and was buttressed by Pius Xll’s Divino Afflante Spiritu. But a balance must be struck between new and old ways, in keeping with the cautions of Humani Generis, which cut both ways. That encyclical encouraged scientific scholarship to utilize data made available by discoveries and advances in the historical and auxiliary branches of humanistic knowledge; but at the same time it stressed respect for philosophical and theological principles that have the backing of the Church’s magisterium.

The opposing groups clash on two essential issues. The so-called “Roman theologians” feel that any reversal in the interpretation of a scriptural passage immediately endangers the infallible teaching power of the Church. To say, for example, that the story of the Magi is for the most part a midrash (a homiletic application and amplification) would seem to imply that for 1,800 years the Church has been wrong in its explanation of this divinely inspired truth, announcing as a historical happening what was only a literary device to dramatize the universality of the salvific coming of the Saviour. What the conservative theologians are concerned over is the possible introduction of relativity into the teaching of theology: the notion that fundamental truths can at different times and places be understood differently by the faithful. This, they maintain, would betray the very notion of infallibility in the Church—an infallibility not confined to the Roman Pontiff teaching ex cathedra, but possessed by the Church as a whole, teaching and believing.

The newer Scripture men, on the other hand, maintain that it is their function, by using the tools and discoveries of modern scholarship, to get back to the original, basic meaning of the biblical texts, as they were understood by the contemporaries of the inspired writers. They thus make a fundamental distinction between biblical theology, and the elaboration of speculative and positive theology, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the guidance of the magisterium of the Church. They believe they are now in a position to discover just what was the understanding on the part of the apostles and primitive Christians, for example, of the words and deeds of Christ. They are quick to add, however, that such discoveries in no way interfere with the infallible teaching power of the Church as it has presided over the development of doctrinal concepts down through the centuries.

What the conservative theologians are concerned over is the possible introduction of relativity into the teaching of theology.

The history of the dogma of the Incarnation is a good example of what is involved in the Church’s elaboration of a divinely revealed doctrine. After various heretical attempts to deny either the divinity or the humanity of Christ, the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon made it clear that in the God-man there were two distinct natures united in the Person of the Word. But inquiring minds forced further clarifications. It was necessary to state that there were two wills and two energies in Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word. More recently, controversy has broken out about the nature of the “I” or the consciousness of personality in Christ. That the Church of the second century had not formulated all the answers about the Person of the Saviour does not mean that it did not possess the totality of divine revelation regarding this truth, or that its understanding of Christ as God and man was merely a relative appreciation. Theology simply had not progressed to a point where these matters required attention and definition.

In like manner, as regards the primitive papacy, the historical record leaves many lacunae concerning the consciousness of papal power on the part of the earliest Popes. This is not to say that the immediate successors of St. Peter did not possess that power, or that they did not exercise it. But an honest reading of such evidence as we now possess leaves many questions along this line unanswered.

It is easy to see why men trained in a legalistic tradition, accustomed to the absolutes of a textbook theology, are worried about the new directions being followed by the biblical theologians and by the historians of positive theology. They can see quite properly that it requires on their part some re-evaluation of the function of the magisterium and more particularly of the decisions of the Roman congregations, which consider themselves an extension of the teaching authority of the reigning Pontiff, enjoying, as a consequence, some measure of infallibility.

It is, finally, an indication that in each age a renovation of the manner of expressing theological thought is incumbent upon theologians.

This subject touches directly on another serious matter—the manner in which theology is taught in the seminaries and universities. The Roman approach puts great stress on memory, and, as a consequence, on the use of textbooks, whether they be the Summa of St. Thomas or more modern manuals. It is but natural that this method leads to the consecration of certain formulae and opinions of older theologians into all but divinely revealed truths. Abstracting from the words of Christ, decisions of the ecumenical councils and infallible pronouncements of the Roman Pontiffs, however, very few purely theological formulae deserve such reverence. This is all the more a fact since in many instances the older theologians depended upon faulty readings of patristic texts for some of their conclusions, or postulated a widespread and lengthy tradition for particular theological opinions that a more thorough searching of the historical evidence indicates were neither widely extended nor immemorial. But it is precisely here that the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff plays an essential role in supervising the magisterium of the Church, to safeguard the deposit of faith from both the accidents of literary history and the power-plays of determined groups of theologians.

It is here likewise that the modern theologian, employing methods of scientific scholarship, feels that it is his function to dig back into the tradition of the Church, particularly as it was captured and elucidated by the early Fathers and elaborated by the medieval theologians. This is not done from a desire to return theology or the Church to the position it held in the fourth or the 14th century. Rather it is both a method and a means of deepening the student’s understanding of divine truth by demonstrating the vicissitudes of human error through which it had to pass before even a divinely guided Church was able to bring it clearly into proper focus. It is also a demonstration of the need of prayerful meditation, patience and hard intellectual endeavor required of the theologian. It is, finally, an indication that in each age a renovation of the manner of expressing theological thought is incumbent upon theologians, who are to seek direction and inspiration in their work by returning to the sources.

It was by embodying many of the philosophical and scientific notions current in the Hellenic culture in which they were educated that the Fathers of the early centuries were able to elucidate for their world the truths of the scriptural revelation. The Stoic anthropology played a large part in understanding the nature of the soul, the freedom of the will and the realm of spiritual reality that are taken for granted in the New Testament. The use of Aristotelian categories aided both the earlier churchmen and the scholastics to develop the Church’s teaching on the Trinity and the Incarnation.

As good theologians, they will be impelled to get to the heart of the principal problems bothering Catholics and nonCatholics alike in the modern world.

In their day, these philosophical considerations were considered dangerous innovations, so much so that several teachings of St. Thomas himself were condemned at Paris by Archbishop Tempier, and at Oxford by both Robert Kilwardby and his successor, John Peckham. The lesson to be learned by delving into the history of theological disputes and debates is this: It is only by the challenge of opposition and disagreement that human minds come to a proper understanding of divinely revealed truths, wringing from the deposit of faith, by hard and consistent labor, a deeper appreciation of the mysteries of divine revelation.

Despite the Holy Father’s frequent allusion to the fact that many sections of canon law are in need of revision, little attention in the current literature on the Council has been paid to what seems to be a fundamental factor in the Pope’s thinking. The 754 articles of the recent Roman Synod have been looked upon by many legalistic-minded theologians as little more than a collection of pious wishes. In actual fact, however, the spirit and the substance of the Synod represent the thinking of Pope John XXIII. He seems to feel that, in many instances, the usefulness of a legalistic approach to the truths and obligations of the Christian way of life is outmoded. He intended the directives of the Synod to be a vade mecum of Catholic life, a series of exhortations for the clergy and laity in the pursuit of virtues and holiness. His recent declaration that the new Council would neither define new dogmas nor bring forth any new formulae would seem to be another indication of his seriousness in announcing that the Council aims to restore “the simple, pure lines that the face of the Church of Jesus had at its start.”

Since the prelates and bishops attending the Council have 118 booklets containing the suggestions and propositions of the preparatory commissions, they will find themselves faced with the necessity of simplifying drastically the agenda placed before them. As good theologians, they will be impelled to get to the heart of the principal problems bothering Catholics and nonCatholics alike in the modern world. It may be that in an age of increasing complexity the Holy Spirit is urging the Church to insist on the fundamental facts of divine revelation, leaving the intricacies of disputed theories to some future, calmer generation and putting a cloak of charity over the disagreements of the present day. Should such be its function, the Second Vatican Council will prove to be the incredible blessing that Pope John intends it to be.

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