How Vatican II started
I have vivid memories of Rome in the autumn of 1962. I arrived in September having abruptly dropped my plans for teaching at my congregation’s school of theology in Washington, D.C. I was to replace Father Ed Heston as rector of Collegio di Santa Croce, where I had once lived as a seminarian while studying theology at Gregorian University. Father Heston had been assigned to work at the English press office for the upcoming Second Vatican Council.
My years of study at the Gregorian had left me with many questions about the future of the church. Our professors engaged us in the study of the dogma of the church as defined in the ecumenical councils of the early centuries, when Greek philosophical concepts were used to condemn heresies dividing Christians from one another. My attraction to the newly published Jerusalem Bible had convinced me of the need to rethink the church’s dogma in biblical terms, and led me after ordination to study biblical theology under Sulpician professors at the Catholic Institute in Paris.
I wanted to discover from modern exegetes the historical origin of Israel’s messianic hope. The professors at the Catholic Institute liked my study of the royal psalms, but during the celebration of the approval of my dissertation, one of them, Father Andre Feuillet, took me aside to warn me about publishing what I had written lest I come under sanction from Rome. I could not imagine writing anything important enough to be scrutinized by Vatican officials. I merely wanted to discover truth by my own study of what others had written. As an undergraduate at Notre Dame I had resolved never to let classes get in the way of my education. Truth was something I had to discover and think out for myself. This included truths of the faith, for I saw Jesus himself as an independent thinker. He spoke on his own authority and did not defer to the Scribes and Pharisees.
Rome was filled with excitement as Pope John’s council was about to begin. I had experienced little or nothing of this excitement while teaching dogmatic theology in Washington. Despite the media coverage of Pope John’s fatherly image and homespun wisdom, he seemed devoted to restoring old Vatican ways. There had been his encyclical Veterum Sapientia the previous February, mandating the use of Latin in teaching philosophy and theology at all major seminaries. Like others on our seminary faculty, I followed these guidelines by opening a class with a few Latin phrases before reverting to English. Pope John had also proposed restoring to the cardinals their long red trains, perhaps originally designed to cover the backside of a horse, but now making these grown men at the conclave resemble royal brides dressed in red in a wedding procession. I found such Vatican shenanigans irrelevant and even embarrassing in my efforts to engage the minds of the seminarians in the mystery of salvation both from biblical theology and Thomas’s Summa Theologica.
Soon planeloads of bishops were arriving in Rome, including our own Holy Cross bishops from mission countries. Some bishops from northern Europe were bringing along with them theologians long suspect by the Vatican’s Holy Office, such as Yves Congar, Jean Danielou, Karl Rahner, Henri de Lubac and Edward Schillebeeckx. It was unsettling to hear people saying these great scholars were being brought to Rome to be condemned by the council, for their writings had inspired much of my teaching. It would turn out, however, that they would be the ones needed to write the council documents, since only they were able to say something new about the church and its pastoral mission. Later I had occasion to mention to Karl Rahner that it must have been hard for him to be under suspicion from Rome, and he had said that everything was fine with Rome as long as you said nothing new.
Despite all the suspense as the council opened on Thursday, Oct. 11, I felt bored that morning at the basilica as I stood watching the lengthy parade of prelates enter the church. It all seemed no more than an enlarged version of the typical pompous ceremonies at St. Peter’s that to me were more a matter of theater than humble prayer in God’s presence. Was this what Pope John had meant by saying the council would celebrate the unity of the church? But then the pope himself appeared at the entrance. His sedia halted, and all of us gasped to see his roly-poly figure descend from the chair and walk alone up the long aisle toward the altar. I joined the thunderous applause that filled St. Peter’s, and realized I was part of a great historic event.
Two days later, on Saturday, Oct. 23, the closed meetings of the prelates began, but what took place each day was largely disclosed to us by our loquacious and excited French Canadian superior general, Fr. Germain Lalande. He had made me his official peritus and gave me all the documents as they were being discussed and revised. My initial excitement quickly cooled after reading the preparatory documents known as the schemata. The sections on dogma read like our first-year apologetics textbook by Sebastian Tromp, S.J.—and indeed much later I would learn that he had composed them as secretary on Cardinal Ottaviani’s theological commission. Those on morality were peppered with condemnations, rather than being inspired by the New Law of the Sermon of the Mount beginning with the Beatitudes.
Those of us who knew Father Heston were much amused that he should be given the job of briefing the English press on the council, for he always had taken great delight in revealing Vatican secrets. As the council commenced, however, there was little he could reveal due to the strict rules on secrecy occasioned by the Vatican’s distrust of the press. At best he could mention the general topic being discussed that day, and add that some unnamed prelates had favored the ideas presented and others were opposed. The reporters were frantic to obtain a daily story of who said what, and the very rules made them suspect that something important was being covered up. Even many of the bishops began to feel that way, especially after one European prelate had declared on the council floor that some statements in the original schema on the liturgy officially approved for discussion were missing from the text they had in their hands.
A Contest for Control
It would not be until the following fall that Fr. Heston and the others at the press office came up with a daily bulletin listing the speakers in order and then summaries of what had been said. It did not take rocket science to figure out who said what. We had thought that Fr. Heston would ally himself with the curial minority of conservatives, who were the ones insisting on secrecy, but that autumn he seemed as delighted as anyone by Xavier Rynne’s “Letters From Vatican City” in The New Yorker, which sought to disclose what really was going on. Fr. Heston could sense which way the wind was blowing. Already in the early weeks it became obvious that a great shift had taken place in the minds of the prelates. Many of the bishops and theologians from outside Rome began to see the press as an ally in their task of renewing the church. In addition, those unable to follow the Latin of the speeches—of whom many were from the United States—were able to understand what was being debated at their council. Soon everyone could see that leading curial officials disapproved of having the council, and expected to control its outcome in order quickly to get the bishops out of town.
For the most part, the large American hierarchy had arrived out of duty and with no agenda of their own. Our bishops were used to conforming to the instructions of the Vatican offices, but after receiving the texts for their voting, most recognized the need to go back to school by having leading scholars provide conferences on the issues for which they were suddenly responsible. Soon they began noticing curial maneuvers and subtle violation of the council’s rules, along with what seemed a tactic of deception on the part of leaders of the Roman Curia and some of the Italian hierarchy.
One example of this deception was the way Cardinal Ottaviani had introduced on November 14 the first dogmatic schema to be discussed—that on the Sources of Revelation. He said the pope had approved the text prepared by his own theological commission, and so the bishops should agree to what it said. This speech was not well received by the majority of the prelates, especially after another cardinal rose to point out that the pope approved the work of the theological commission as a basis for discussion by the assembly, but it was not his intention necessarily to approve or mandate its contents as the teaching of the council. The result was a whole week of debate not on the contents of the schema, but whether or not it should be discussed at all.
A growing number of prelates were saying the text was not appropriate for the council Pope John had intended because it was not “pastoral.” In reply, Ottaviani and his followers insisted that correct doctrine was the basis for its pastoral application by the bishops and their priests back home after the council was over. The business of an ecumenical council, he said, was to clarify church teaching by condemning false doctrine as heresy. Other speakers, however, insisted the pope did not want the council to issue any condemnations at all, but rather to present already-defined doctrine in a way to renew the spiritual life of the church and attract modern people to the love of God as revealed by Jesus Christ. As Pope John said in his opening address to the council, doctrine is one thing and the way it is presented is another. From our perspective of 50 years later, we may see this debate still going on, and those opposed to the council sometimes using it as an argument that Vatican II was not a valid ecumenical council because it did not do what councils do, namely, condemn false teaching, especially in the church itself.
A Voice for Change
Then a surprising Midwestern voice spoke up from the American hierarchy: Cardinal Joseph Ritter of St. Louis, who bluntly declared that the schema must be rejected. A shift was occurring in the assumed leadership of the American hierarchy, especially after prelates from Europe had laughed when Cardinal Francis Spellman earlier had proposed keeping the Mass in Latin but translating the breviary into the vernacular. They said the Americans wanted the priests to pray in English but keep the laity praying in Latin. Of course, we did not think of these rites as prayer as much as actions in obedience to the laws of the church.
Most of the prelates agreed with Cardinal Ritter’s call to reject the schema, but they did not see how that could be done. There were no council regulations for rejecting an entire schema once it had been presented for discussion. But the council presidents remembered that during the month-long debate on the liturgy the pope had given them the power to call for a vote to end discussion on a text when speakers were only repeating what already had been said. So at 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday, November 20, the presidents suddenly called for a vote on the question— “Should the discussion be interrupted?” Placet meant yes and non placet meant no. A great confusion resulted because voting placet indicated approving a text and non placet meant rejection. Over the clamor, the instructions had to be repeated from the presidents’ chair a number of times, and then finally Secretary Pericle Felici told the fathers that yes means no, and no means yes. Doubts would always remain whether all the voting prelates got it straight. A clear majority had rejected the schema, 1,568 to 822, but they lacked 105 votes to constitute the required two-thirds majority needed to send the schema back to the theological commission. As a result, Felici announced the debate would continue as scheduled. But the speakers were facing empty seats because the excited prelates had gone down to the coffee bars under the church, one called Bar Abbas and the other Bar Jonah. (At a later session, when a few religious women came as official observers, a third was added called “Bar Nun.”)
Humor was certainly needed at that time, for the prelates saw their council mired in crisis. Sending the schema back to the theological commission for a rewrite would make the conservatives there even more stubborn in their contention that the council must issue condemnations, especially regarding tendencies in Scripture studies following German Protestant scholars like those I had studied in Paris. However, the next morning—Wednesday, Nov. 21—there was a great surprise for everyone, including those in charge of the meeting. After the opening Mass the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Amleto Cicognani, passed an envelope to Felici, who studied it and quickly handed it on to Cardinal Ernesto Rufini, the president that day. Cardinal Rufini took the microphone and declared to the assembly that the pope had ordered the schema on the Sources of Revelation to be withdrawn and the whole matter reconsidered by a special commission combining the theological commission with the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity. The pope said a new schema was to be drafted in accordance with the aims of the Council, avoiding condemnations and having a pastoral approach.
This made it possible for the council to continue, and eventually created a working majority to complete the sixteen documents of Vatican II. It was not until the closing weeks of the council in 1965 that the final version of the revised Constitution of Divine Revelation, called Dei Verbum, would be approved, with the final vote on October 29 and promulgation on November 18. Although some called the document the hinge uniting the entire work of the council in all its sixteen documents, its central importance was overshadowed by the Decree on Religious Liberty and the Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, not to mention the earlier Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium.
Dei Verbum places the reform of the church under the person and message of Jesus Christ, proclaimed to be the object of faith to be nourished by the proclamation of God’s word. Jesus is the divine self-disclosure to the human family, recorded in the sacred scriptures and now presented as the table of the word alongside the table of the Eucharist. Dei Verbum accorded with Lumen gentium’s recognition that membership in the church follows from valid baptism, rather than from communion with papal authority. All those baptized are called to be evangelizers, witnessing by our lives and words to the saving presence of the risen Christ. The ministerial priesthood has as its first responsibility a faithful proclamation of the gospel, even before making available the grace of the sacraments, and the rite of each sacrament is to include a reading of the sacred scriptures, not excluding such traditional para-liturgies as Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Our theology and all instruction in the faith is to be given life by the sacred scriptures, for, as St. Jerome said, to be ignorant of the scriptures is not to know Jesus Christ. All this suggests that the French review Etudes was truly prophetic when it stated that the pope’s intervention at the council on Nov. 21 marked “The End of the Counter-Reformation.”
Robert J. Nogosek, C.S.C., is retired and resides on the campus of the University of Notre Dame.