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Book cover
What Happened at Vatican IIby By John W. O’Malley, S.J.Belknap/Harvard Univ. Press. 400p $29.95

The church historian John O’Malley does not reach the opening session of the Second Vatican Council until the third chapter of this relatively short book, but there is hardly a wasted word in his lengthy mise-en-scène. O’Malley uses this prologue to set the council in the context not only of Trent, as one might expect from an expert on that subject, but also within the wider framework of the other 19 ecumenical councils. In addition to delineating the conciliar background, he is especially good at sketching the ecclesial dimensions of the “long nineteenth century” that extended from the French Revolution to the eve of the council and had such a profound influence in shaping the thinking of the council fathers both negatively and positively.

Virtually every analysis of the council today is based on the now familiar categories of aggiornamento and ressourcement. O’Malley adds a third category, development, more exactly the development of doctrine, which John Courtney Murray, S.J., called “the issue under all the issues at the council.” O’Malley notes that all three terms overlap in meaning and in an institution resistant to change often serve as “soft synonyms” for change and reform. For O’Malley, development and ressourcement are indispensable because they are crucial elements in shaping the corporate memory of the church and thus establishing its identity.


Like many other commentators on Vatican II, O’Malley notes the disproportionately large role played by the Belgians, both prelates and theological experts(think Cardinal Leon-Joseph Suenens and Bishop Josef DeSmedt, Gérard Philips and Albert Prignon), which led more than one wag to say that the council should have been called Louvain I, not Vatican II. O’Malley also calls attention to the contribution of the 16 Melkite bishops from the Middle East, headed by the irrepressible Maximus IV Saigh, the Melkite patriarch of Antioch and clearly one of O’Malley’s favorites, who always addressed the council in French, not Latin. Unlike the Westerners, the Melkites had no need for ressourcement, says O’Malley, because they had never lost contact with the patristic tradition.

Fortunately this is not history smothered by analysis. Once O’Malley reaches the opening of the council, he adopts a chronological approach and offers an often riveting account of the interplay between the majority and minority, labels that he prefers to progressive and conservative. Unlike the Alberigo-Komonchak five-volume History of Vatican II, however, O’Malley gives relatively little attention to the maneuvering that occurred during the three inter-sessions of the council, which Alberigo called “the invisible council.” But Alberigo had 10 times as much space at his disposal as O’Malley.

Two of the fundamental flaws in the operation of the council were inadequate regulations and overlapping levels of leadership. The classical Roman genius for organization was not much in evidence at Vatican II. By contrast, says O’Malley, a child could have understood the clear rules of procedure at Trent. Except on one important occasion, Pope John XXIII gave the council a free hand, but Paul VI intervened frequently; and the murky procedural arrangements resulted in a constant stream of petitioners to the papal apartments. Uncomfortable with the concept of episcopal collegiality, by the fourth session, if not earlier, the fidgety and apprehensive pontiff was as anxious to send the bishops home as Louis XVI had once been to dismiss the Estates General before they morphed into the National Constituent Assembly.

At that point the bishops themselves were eager to go home, after listening to over 2,000 speeches. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that they talked too much. The wonder is that despite so many obstacles, the bishops achieved as much as they did, especially at the fourth and final session, when they sometimes spent weeks doing nothing but voting. O’Malley lists those achievements in such detail that no one can doubt that the council was the most important event in the history of the church in the 20th century.

O’Malley summarizes the deeper significance of the council by identifying three “issues-under-the-issues.” The first was how the church was to cope with change. The second was collegiality, or what the relationship was to be between the center and the periphery. The third was the elusive but critically important issue of the “style” with which the church was to operate and address the world. The Roman Synod of 1960, considered by many as a dress rehearsal for the council, issued 755 canons; five years later Vatican II issued none, opting for dialogue and persuasion rather than coercion and condemnation.

The highest accolade that the late John Tracy Ellis could pay a historian was to say that he had written a “rich” book. There is little doubt that he would have been ready to pronounce that judgment on this book because of O’Malley’s thorough research, lucid presentation, balanced judgments, shrewd insights and elegant style. If you want to know what happened at Vatican II, begin with O’Malley for an appetizer and go on to Alberigo-Komonchak for a hefty entrée. The chances are that you will be happy to return to O’Malley for a satisfying dessert and digestif that bring it all together.

Listen to an interview with John W. OMalley, S.J.

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Leonard Villa
10 years 6 months ago
The Alberigo-Komonchak history of Vatican II, which Fr. Shelley mentions, is not the only view of what happened at the Council. In fact this history is called "the Bologna school" history of the Council which reflects the thinking of Fr. Giuseppe Dossetti. Fr. Giuseppe Dossetti (1913-1996),was the trusted expert consultant of cardinal Giacomo Lercaro, one of the four cardinal “moderators” who presided over the assembly. In an interview published posthumously in 2003, Dossetti went so far as to say that he was convinced of having “reversed the fortunes of the Council itself,” thanks to his ability to manipulate the assembly which he had developed at a young age, when he was a political figure. The thrust of this school is that the Council´s prime elements are not the texts it produced and promulgated. Priority, in fact, is given to the event itself. The true Council is found in her "spirit". It is not reducible to, but rather, vastly superior to the "letter" of the Council´s texts. Since Fr. Shelley links this school to Fr.O'Malley's text as main course to desert, it would seem that Fr. O'Malley is part of this school as well, at least according Fr. Shelley. Another critique of the Alberigo-Komanchak-O'Malley(?)history of Vatican II is that it follows a hermaneutic of discontinuity rather than the continuity of pre and post Council. For those who read Italian ( I don't know if it's been translated)a well-argued critique surfaced upon the release of Alberigo´s history. It was that of Marco Vergottini, appearing in the March 1997 issue of "Teologia" - the Milan´s Faculty of Theology academic journal. A different history of the Council which also critiques the Bologna school history of the Council is the book by Agostino Marchetto, “Il Concilio Ecumenico Vaticano II. Contrappunto per la sua storia [The Ecumenical Council of Vatican II: A Counterpoint to Its History],” Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Vatican City, 2005, pp. 410, euro 35.00.


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