Vatican II: Early Appraisal: From March 9, 1963

Any attempt to evaluate all the accomplishments of the Second Vatican Councils first session would be not only presumptuous but also premature. Some things, however, may be profitably noted.

In the address with which he closed the first session, the Pope expressed satisfaction with the Councils achievements. Although there were no conciliar decrees to give to the Church or to the world, he felt that there had been sufficient gains to justify the convocation. An educative process had been set in motion. The prelates not only became aware of the Church as a truly universal extension of the Body of Christ, but also found it necessary to dig into the deeper significance of theology, a theology whose primary purpose is to confront and inform consciences in the concrete circumstances of modern life.

Taking note of the divergent views expressed by many of the Fathers of the Council on important questions, the Pope said, in effect, that this was a healthy sign. It meant that the Council was alive and that the prelates of the Church were seriously concerned with their obligations to place before all men the good and comforting news that is the message of the Christian gospel. Questioned on this point, the Holy Father is said to have asked: "What did you expect the bishops to do? Behave like a group of monks reciting the Divine Office in choir?"

In fact, Pope John indicated some disappointment that there had not been a more direct exchange on the Council floor, more assertion and denial in face-to-face debate. The discussion was conducted, instead, by means of prepared statements on various aspects of a given schema or topic, with a cardinal or bishop making only occasional direct reference to the ideas or proposals of the men who had spoken before him. In the last analysis, this was probably the only possible way to satisfy the rule of free speech within a gathering of three thousand men, most of whom are accustomed to speak rather than listen, to give advice rather than be recipients of information.

What seemed to please the Holy Father immensely, however, was the attention the Council received from the outside world. There is now hardly a section of the globe where the reading public does not realize that there is room for freedom of conscience within the Catholic Church. It was this liberty that first impressed the non-Catholic observers who were given such favorable treatment at the Council. It also demonstrated once and for all that, although the Church has the structure of a monarchical society, it is not, like our modern totalitarian states, a monolithic monster bent on controlling both the thought and action of its members.

The debate on the use of Latin in the liturgy of the "Western" Church provided, in large measure, a good opportunity to discuss a far more profound question. The prelates deeper concern was to determine the function and responsibility of bishops as successors of the apostles and associates of the Holy Father in the governance of the whole Church as well as of their individual dioceses.

In theological literature of recent years, this is referred to as a return to the concept of episcopal collegiality. It is a thesis that in no way tries to lessen the Popes authority over all Catholics everywhere, nor does it derogate from a bishops complete control of his own diocese. It looks, rather, to the filling out of the magisterium (teaching office) of the Church, a function that is individually and collectively shared by the Pope and bishops. It sees the Church as a mystery that is much more complicated in its constitutive elements than a merely human society.

Furthermore, this approach attempts to put the mutual relationships between Pope and bishops on a wider plane than that envisaged by current concepts codified in canon law. It emphasizes the fact that Christ instituted the college of apostles before He gave the primacy to Peter, and that He sent all the apostles "into the world [to] preach the gospel to every creature" (Mk. 16: 16), telling them they would be wit: nesses for Him "to the very ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).

What is, in a sense, new in this consideration is the emphasis placed on the biblical record regarding the investiture of Peter with special graces to confirm the faith of his fellow apostles (Lk. 22:32), and Christ’s triple command to Peter to "feed His lambs and HIS sheep" (Jn. 21:15-16)-a testimony of Peters love for the divine Shepherd. Here there is no thought of diminishing the force of the commission given to the prince of the apostles as the rock upon which the Church was founded (Mt. 16:18). But new emphasis is placed on the bishops, and even on the Popes, function as pastor and teacher rather than ruler. This is certainly Pope Johns concept of his own and his fellow bishops episcopal office. In the schema on the Church, now being prepared for the next session of the Council, the formal aspects of this collegiality will have to be clearly elaborated as a complement to the doctrine of papal infallibility.

While the Fathers were discussing the adaptation of the sacred liturgy to the needs of 20th-century mans divergent cultural circumstances, it became clear that a gathering of bishops from a particular nation or region could accomplish the work most effectively.

An example had been the organization, in 1955, of the Council of Bishops of South America (CELAM). Msgr. Antonio Samore, who was a principal source of inspiration in the development of CELAM, is now head of the Office for Extraordinary Affairs in the Vatican Secretariat of State. Immediately upon arriving in Rome for the Council, the bishops of Africa and the patriarchs and prelates of the Oriental rites saw the need for similar organizations. Finally, the Italian bishops, many of whom had never before even seen each other, were drawn together into a co-ordinating association.

What precipitated this move was the delay in voting suggested by Cardinals Lienart and Frings at the first general session of the Council. They felt that the prelates should be given a chance to know the 160 prospective members of the ten conciliar commissions before voting for them. The problem was to disseminate this information quickly. It was solved in the only way possible, through meetings of various episcopal groups.

It was for this reason, moreover, that certain cautions delivered to arriving Dutch and American Bishops about publicizing episcopal conferences were withdrawn. Both groups had planned to hold their annual conferences in the Eternal City. In the early days of the Council, however, some members of the Curia felt that regional or national meetings of bishops would give rise to nationalistic blocs or overemphasize the tendency toward independence from the Holy See, a tendency that had plagued the Church in previous centuries-for example, at the time of Gallicanism in France and Josephinism in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

As events showed, such fears were baseless. Most of the 47 episcopal conferences met each week during the Council to discuss the schema under debate and to prepare for the next weeks sessions. They invited various experts to give them the theological information they needed on aspects of the liturgy, on the points at issue in the chapters of the schema concerning divine revelation, and on the true attitude of the Protestants and Orthodox Christians, toward whom the unitary aspects of the schema on the Church were being aimed.

Finally, with the hope of reducing the number of individual speeches at the sessions of the Council, these groups attempted to select spokesmen who would represent the various tendencies and opinions of each group as a whole. Despite their general agreement regarding the adaptation of the liturgy to modern needs and the reformulation of the truths of faith in a modern idiom (according to the Popes instruction in his opening address), there were considerable differences of opinion, even among the bishops of a particular nation or region, about the manner of accomplishing these reforms.

The conciliar debate immediately established the existence of a keen sense of absolute agreement on the essentials of the faith and on the loyalty of all the prelates to the Holy See in the person of the Supreme Pontiff. This impressed the non-Catholic observers and led Oscar Cullman, well-known Protestant professor of theology at Paris and Basel, to state in a press conference that there was almost complete agreement between Catholics and Protestants of the old tradition on most of the positive truths based on the Bible. What separated the two was their understanding of unity: the "more" in Catholicism (which, from the Protestant viewpoint, is "too much") and the "less" in Protestantism (which, from the Catholic viewpoint, is "too little").

An important problem presented itself in the debate on the liturgy and in later sessions, namely, the Churchs need to prove itself the refuge of the poor and of sinners. Many bishops from Africa, South America and the mission territories had demanded a radical change in the vestments worn by bishops in ecclesiastical ceremonies. But they went much further in saying that the Church must be identified once more, as it was in apostolic times, with those crying in the wilderness for social, racial and economic justice at all levels of society. They were fully supported by Cardinals Gerlier of France and Lercaro of Italy, Patriarch Maximos IV and numerous other prelates.

The bishops fully agreed with those passages of Mater et Magistra, repeated by the Pope in his opening discourse, which maintain that the Church has an active interest in modern material progress, since it is a sign of Gods continued providence in the world. Instead of ignoring or castigating such progress, the Church should actively encourage and utilize it to help her children achieve their temporal as well as eternal destiny. She must show the world how to recapture the spiritual values which will enable true progress to bring peace into this world and facilitate mans passage to the next.

A recent issue of Osservatore Romano explains the conduct of some curial officials who seemed to be out of sympathy with papal directives calling for the forward march of the Church. If an attempt was made by some to keep the liturgy, and theology generally, tied to the static formulas of the past, Osservatore Rorruzno explains that some had to act as defenders of the faith or devils advocates. The fact is, of course, that the conduct of such prelates needs no defense. As Fathers of the Council, they enjoy the same "holy liberty" as all other bishops and are certainly entitled to their own opinions regarding the manner in which Catholic theology should be expressed and defended.

Nevertheless, the apology offered by the Osse1"Vatore suffers from a double defect. First, it fails to note the strict distinction Pope John made between the Curia and the Council when he said on June 9, 1959: "The Ecumenical Council has its own structure and organization.... The distinction is therefore precise: the ordinary government of the Church, with which the Roman Curia is concerned, is one thing, and the Council is another." This is only another way of saying what is already defined in canon 228 of the code of canon law: "An ecumenical council enjoys supreme power in the Church."

Second, the Osservatores explanation fails to deal explicitly with the problem of reconciling certain strongly "conservative" attitudes with the Popes call for an aggiornamento, that is, for a turning away from the pessimistic attitudes of what he referred to as "the prophets of doom" and a searching for new ways of saying and doing things that will put the spiritual reality of the Church before modern man as an unavoidable challenge. It is clear that the "conservative" ideas of some prelates about what should constitute pastoral theology, in contrast to doctrinal or polemical theology, differed greatly from those of others. Many judged them to be also out of harmony with the Popes own desires.

To the outside world, at least, it was a sign of remarkable forbearance on the part of the Holy Father that he should allow some of the men who are his "right arm" in the administration of the Church, and who even seem to feel, occasionally, that they are the guardians of the Popes infallibility, to give the impression that they were in opposition to his policy in regard to the Council. But it is also a proof of the magnanimity of the "man sent by God" called John, as well as an earnest of his sincerity in guaranteeing a "holy liberty" to all in the Church.

In the end, the Holy Father had to intervene in the Council, first to prevent an unseemly impasse in the debate on the nature of revelation; then, later, in the closing sessions, to guarantee a reappraisal and renewal in accordance with his wishes. While he attempted a compromise by remanding the schema on revelation to a committee made up of members of the Theological Commission and the Secretariat for Unity, his second intervention was more definitive. In the new commission, appointed under the chairmanship of the Secretary of State, little consideration was given to the so-called conservative side.

This new commission has the task of supervising the reduction of the 70 schemata submitted by the preparatory commissions to a manageable 20, making sure that they are brief and irenic in tone. The same commission is to see to it that committees dealing with cognate matters co-operate fully with one another to avoid repetition and produce coordinated documents. Many of these qualities were lacking in the majority of the original schemata, probably because the preparatory theological commission did not co-operate with any of the other commissions.

Time chose Pope John as its "Man of the Year," stating that "by convening the Ecumenical Council called Vatican II, he set in motion ideas and forces that will affect not merely Roman Catholics, not only Christians, but the whole worlds ever-expanding population." The Council was covered daily by all the greater newspapers in the larger cities throughout the free world. Even the Russian press agreed that it was an epoch-making event.

A dynamic renewal of the Church is to be worked out in draft form during the nine-month interval between the first and second sessions of Vatican II. Pope John has described this task as an effective, if silent, continuation of the good work already begun. In view of his recent illness, the whole world is praying fervently that Divine Providence will spare Pope John XXIII. But, as he himself has indicated, whether it had been his own doing or that of another Pope, the fact of the Council and its achievements are irreversible.

The Church is now moving in a new direction. For having brought this about, Pope John will surely go down in history not merely as Man of the Year but Pope of the Millennium.

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10 years 5 months ago
Fr. Murphy wrote, "It [the Council] also demonstrated once and for all that, although the Church has the structure of a monarchical society, it is not, like our modern totalitarian states, a monolithic monster bent on controlling both the thought and action of its members." "Once and for all?" Events since 1978 have gone in the other direction. In 2009 the Church seems more politicized by a party-line ideology, politics and theology than even.
10 years 5 months ago
Hey will you guys also talk about the blasphemous anti-Catholic forged "prayer for the Jews" that was published in the January 1965 issue of Commentary Magazine.
10 years 5 months ago
Hey will you guys also talk about the blasphemous anti-Catholic forged "prayer for the Jews" that was published in the January 1965 issue of Commentary Magazine.


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