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Michael J. WalshOctober 08, 2012

It is a useful rule of thumb—and something you can count on—that popes do not like councils. From time to time they feel obliged seriously to consider calling a gathering of the world’s bishops, only to eschew the thought. We know Pope Pius XI toyed with the idea at the beginning of his pontificate but had rejected it by 1925. In 1948 Pius XII set up a commission to consider whether he ought to convoke an ecumenical council (the suggestion that it might be a good idea had been aired almost a decade earlier at the conclave that elected him), but by 1951 he had put an end to any such radical speculation. Considering the success of the Second Vatican Council just a decade later, it is a relief to us all that he did so. A council during the pontificate of Papa Pacelli would have been a very different animal.

There are many reasons why popes do not like councils. They are a logistical nightmare: where to hold it, who is going to pay. They also demand a mammoth amount of preparatory work: studying precedents, seeking opinions, analyzing responses from bishops. But the biggest worry is who is going to come out on top? The popes have much to lose. Pope John XXIII’s namesake, Pope John XXIII (there were indeed two popes with that name, which rather makes up for the fact that there was never a John XX), fled from the Council of Constance in the early 15th century and had to be dragged back by the Emperor Sigismund.

Canon 338 claims that calling a council and setting its agenda “is the prerogative of the Roman Pontiff.” Yet the assertion flies in the face of the historical evidence. Councils have often been forced upon recalcitrant pontiffs, not least the aforementioned Council of Constance. The fathers at Constance demanded, and Pope Martin V reluctantly agreed, that councils should meet at regular intervals to govern the church. It took many years before popes managed to wriggle out of what still is, to the best of my knowledge, an abiding conciliar decree. But wriggle out of it they did. Papal power was not to be fettered by having to listen to the views of the bishops.

Two Papal Exhibits

Two remarkable exhibitions in Rome this year have vied for attention, each demonstrating a different facet of papal power. In the Capitoline Museums an imposing array of items from the Vatican archives has been on display. They include a 60-meter-long parchment roll containing records from the early 14th-century trials of the Templar Knights, that uncomfortable example of papal chicanery in the midst of the “ages of faith”; and a letter from the bishops and nobles of England begging Pope Clement VII to grant King Henry VIII his divorce, impressively adorned with over 80 seals bearing the arms of the signatories. Most remarkable of all is a fragment of parchment containing the Dictatus Papae, attributed to the 11th-century Gregory VII, with its extraordinary insistence “That the Roman pontiff, if he have been canonically ordained, is undoubtedly made a saint” and the unequivocal assertion “That he who is not at peace with the Roman church shall not be considered catholic.” The exhibition lays bare the pretensions of papal authority.

It is safe to say that far fewer people than climbed the Capitoline steps found their way to the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. As the name suggests, it is some distance away from Rome’s historic center, though easy enough to reach. A metro stop shares the basilica’s name. Accidentally destroyed by fire in the 19th century, St. Paul’s has been majestically restored and contains some particularly splendid medieval works of art that somehow survived the conflagration. It is especially worth visiting at the moment because, interwoven with its permanent display of treasures, are mementos of the Second Vatican Council, and above all, the original text of the speech delivered by Pope John XXIII in which he announced that the council was to be summoned.

No papal pretensions here. For such a momentous occasion the pope’s speech is on a disconcertingly scrappy bit of paper. He scribbled it down in a barely legible hand, with much crossing-out. A great deal has been made of the fact that Papa Roncalli chose to announce the council (together with a Rome diocesan synod and the revision of canon law) in St. Paul’s on Jan. 25, the feast of the conversion of St. Paul. In light of the apparently impromptu nature of the manner in which the council was proclaimed in the basilica, there will need to be revisions, not least by me in the volume of the Cambridge History of Christianity that deals with the modern church. But it does not alter the fact that one of John XXIII’s earliest acts as pope was to call the world’s bishops to Rome. Given all the problems councils can and frequently do bring in their wake, it was an extraordinarily brave thing to do.

Problems were not long in coming. Commissions were established to prepare the agenda and devise the documents to be discussed. These commissions were dominated by old curial hands, determined not to let the proceedings run away from them. Yet when the bishops gathered, the first thing they did was to wrest control from the Curia and take charge themselves. The Curia was humbled, no individual more, perhaps, than Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, then in charge of the Holy Office (the present Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). That must have been another act of bravery on the part of Pope John because, as his recently published diaries reveal, no one had been of greater help to Cardinal Roncalli than Cardinal Ottaviani when the future pope was exiled from Rome in the service of the Vatican’s diplomatic corps. Cardinal Ottaviani seems to have been Cardinal Roncalli’s closest friend in the curia.

Summoning the council, Papa Roncalli did what popes have long feared to do: he allowed open discussion. Everything, or almost everything, was on the table. He seemed at ease with debate, more than his successor Paul VI, who was at times clearly afraid that free speech was going too far.

Not that the council was a parliament of bishops. Debate was prolonged and, as far as the use of Latin allowed, lively; but unlike democratic assemblies, no decisions were made on slender majorities. When votes were taken there were three choices: for, against and in favor but with reservations (juxta modum). Where there was serious division the issue was referred back to the periti, the bishops’ personal theological advisors, to come up with an acceptable solution, which was then further debated in the assembly hall. Though there always remained a few doubters about individual texts—sometimes more than a few, but in the end never a substantial number—consensus was aimed for and achieved, a text ultimately being approved that everyone could sign. Well, almost everyone. After the council was long over, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, frequently an ally of Cardinal Ottaviani in the conciliar debates, finally went his own way into schism.

A Model of Debate

Many people have written in praise of the individual conciliar documents and the impact they made, most of them, on the study of theology outside the Roman Catholic Church as well as within it. I would like to voice praise of the way in which the texts were agreed upon. We should be celebrating not just Vatican II’s theology but its methodology: open debate. It could not be put better than was done in 553 by the fathers of the Second Council of Constantinople, who are quoted on the first page of Norman P. Tanner’s excellent little book The Councils of the Church: A Short History:

The holy fathers, who have gathered at intervals in the four holy councils, have followed the examples of antiquity. They dealt with heresies and current problems by debate in common, since it was established as certain that when the disputed question is set out by each side in communal discussions, the light of truth drives out the shadows of lying. The truth cannot be made clear in any other way when there are debates about the questions of faith, since everyone requires the assistance of his neighbour.

This affirmation of the need for discussion of the sort that occurred at Vatican II is in stark contrast to the denial of it during the most recent two pontificates. In the interregnum after the death of Pope John Paul II, I took part in a phone interview on the BBC World Service television. Also answering viewers’ queries was a distinguished archbishop. One caller wanted to know whether the church was likely to ordain married men. “I’m not entirely sure what I think about this,” said the archbishop with refreshing modesty, “but at least in the next pontificate I hope we will be able to discuss it.” I did not know whether to applaud the prelate’s boldness or to weep at the fact that a person in so prominent a position within the church had felt unable even to discuss with others a matter of such importance for the church’s future.

The archbishop’s hopes have been dashed. Nothing has changed; debate is still not the order of the day. If anything, the situation has deteriorated. A new head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Gerhard Müller, formerly bishop of Regensburg, has recently been appointed. He has been making waves. In a column in The National Catholic Reporter on July 16, John Allen reported that in a recent homily, Archbishop Müller gave a stern warning to the national assembly of German Catholics to be held in Regensburg in 2014. Anti-Roman sentiment won’t fly, he declared, according to Mr. Allen: “Being Catholic means being united with the bishop and the priests. Ravings against the truth of the faith and the unity of the church will not be tolerated.”

It is worth taking time to reflect on the implications of this statement. You cannot disagree with bishops and priests, you can only dissent from church teaching. There is no suggestion that differing opinions might be debated; they are “ravings.” Only by agreeing with (no doubt select) members of the clergy can one be sure of orthodoxy. This arrogant nonsense is reminiscent of Pope Gregory’s Dictatus Papae and Pope Boniface VIII’s 1302 bull Unam Sanctam: only in communion with the pope may one achieve salvation—a view now happily disavowed because of the debates at Vatican II. I suspect, moreover, that if Archbishop Müller added them up, he would find that priests and bishops have led far more schisms than ever have been engendered by laypeople in the pews. “The body of the episcopate was unfaithful to its commission,” John Henry Newman remarked of the Arian controversy in his article “On Consulting the Faithful,” “while the body of the laity was faithful to its baptism.” Pope Benedict XVI beatified Newman, so (by Archbishop Müller’s standards) it must be true.

Pope Benedict has launched a “new evangelization” in an effort to win people back to the practice of their faith. But loss of belief is not, I am convinced, the main reason Catholics no longer turn up to church on Sundays. Rather, it is the feeling that their church has been stolen from them. Through debate at Vatican II, the council fathers asserted their ownership of the church. That was what we used to call collegiality, before it went out of fashion. We need it back—and quickly. And this time around collegiality ought not to be limited just to clerics; it should embrace us all.

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Joe Mcmahon
9 years 7 months ago
The title of this article, "Opening the Windows," appears nowhere in the article.  When I encounter churches that have their windows closed on breezy mornings (and air conditioning blasting away), I think of John XXIII and his suggestion that windows be opened.  However, I cannot find that "Let's open the windows of the church" as a quote from John.  Might someone help me with documentation?  Thanks.
Alan Aversa
9 years 5 months ago
Abp. Lefebvre's Society of St. Pius X is not in schism, especially now that the Holy Father has lifted the bishops' excommunications.

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