From the Archives: The End of the Beginning

Pope Paul VI during the Second Vatican Council

This piece first appeared in the November 23, 1962 issue of Commonweal.

IN ROME, for the Canadian and American, there is no way of knowing how the Council is being reported in the North American press or how the various ecclesiastical trends manifesting themselves in public are being understood by the people. In the first days of the Council, reporters feverishly sent their accounts to their newspapers or agencies, hoping that they would not all be saying the same thing. And not knowing how much of their material had been accepted by their American editors, they were never quite certain of what could be taken for granted as common knowledge and what would have to be repeated in a subsequent issue.

The N.Y. Times, Herald Tribune and some other secular papers, such as the Globe and Mail, which we were able to see here, gave the impression of being well-informed and judicious. In contrast, many of the religious publications we saw here did not really convey a meaningful picture of the events of the Council and of the various trends associated with it. Our impression was that the Catholic press in North America largely followed the official news releases of the Vaticanpress office, making no attempt to interpret the news in the light of first-hand information from Rome.

The official press releases have been quite scanty. This is not surprising considering that secrecy has been imposed on the general assembly of the Council. There were, however, other sources of information. The Roman dailies Il Tempo and Il Messagero carried detailed accounts of what happened at the general assemblies, and the average reaction of those who attended the meetings was that the information was, on the whole, reliable. In addition, French papers such as Le Monde and La Croix were also well informed and supplied, along with the news, an interpretation of events.

Despite the official secrecy, the account of what happened must have been made available to the press immediately after each session. Only once did the official news release correct the Italian press. While it had been reported that Cardinal Godfrey of Westminster had suggested to the Council that Latin be "removed" from the liturgy, the official news release emphasized that he had said nothing of the kind. The next day the Italian press apologized: they had mistakenly rendered levare as "removing" instead of "elevating."

It is, of course, extremely diffcult to get a balanced picture from the outside, but I imagine that even from the inside it must be hard to assess the trends of the discussion in the proper light. For one thing, it is not always apparent for how many of his confrères a particular bishop speaks. A vehement address may just express the personal conviction of the speaker. It is, moreover, impossible to know whether the proportion of speeches "for" and "against" a given issue expresses the proportion of the bishops at the Council favoring and opposing it. Nobody will know until the first vote has been cast.

According to the official news releases, the fathers have discussed the schema on the liturgy as a whole and have begun the discussion of various details. Strangely enough, however, the schema as a whole has never been accepted as a basis for discussion by vote. Is it worthwhile to discuss the details of a document when one is not quite certain of whether the document will be accepted at all?

Those who are close to the organizers of the Council claim that, by permitting the details of the schema to be discussed, the presidency has acknowledged, even without the vote of the fathers, the common conviction in favor of the document, From the official news release it appears that even after the discussion of details, such as the vernacular, concelebration, etc., no vote is taken, so that nobody really knows the proportion of bishops in favor of drastic liturgical reform.

As yet the long hours of discussion have not produced any definite results. If they have succeeded in generating a common conviction in the Council, this has been unable to find expression in a definite and definitive way.

It is, moreover, impossible to know whether the proportion of speeches "for" and "against" a given issue expresses the proportion of the bishops at the Council favoring and opposing it. Nobody will know until the first vote has been cast.

MANY OF THOSE in favor of change and reform feel that this delay is a diplomatic move on the part of the Roman Curia. The delay would prevent the good arguments produced by the fathers from creating a consensus of opinion which would be expressed once and for all in a vote. Some, moreover, feel that the organizers of the Council are reluctant to face the fact that a vast number of bishops from all over the world are in favor of renewal and adaptation.

We touch here upon a most delicate issue. The procedure of the Council has never been clearly announced. Canon law and the special regulations which have been published leave a good many issues unsettled. No one knows exactly who determines the agenda of the Council. No one knows who lays down the order of discussion, who determines when the voting is to take place, and how the working commissions are to operate. No one is able to say what will happen next or at what office such information is available. Even the existing legislation of the Council is not regarded as binding: it has already been changed once or twice with the approval of the Pope but without the bishops being asked to cast their vote.

One reason for this vagueness is, no doubt, the need for great flexibility in the procedure. The amount of work to be covered is enormous. Until the end of October only a section of the liturgical schema had been discussed; and if all the schemata––there are over a hundred of them––should be discussed in the same way, the Council would last half a century.

That in such a situation the presidency asks for a flexible procedure is understandable. But it has never been announced that the matters we have mentioned are actually the responsibility of the ten cardinals who make up the presidency of the Council. This obscurity in the procedure leads to annoyance and lack of confidence on the part of the bishops. Everyone speaks about "they": "they" have announced, or "they" have decided; or "they" have not yet made up their mind––and nobody knows who "they" are.

On one occasion––and this went quickly through the world press––the Council asserted its opinion independently of those who are organizing it. When the members of the working commissions were to be elected, the bishops demanded that the elections be postponed and more, time given to get to know one another and to prepare lists of competent men. The request was granted, and the subsequent election four days later produced a truly representative body of bishops.

In connection with these lists something rather significant occurred. The various national hierarchies gathered and discussed whom they would propose for the various commissions. At first this practice was not really approved. It was feared that ecclesiastical positions might become associated with nationalities and that in this way national conflict might be imposed on the Council. This, however, did not happen. On the contrary, the central European nations made it a point to draw up lists which were truly international. They made it clear on this issue, and on several subsequent ones, that there are not, and never must be, national blocs in the Council.

The Italian papers did not fully understand this. They complained that the Germans and the French had created power blocs which had pushed some nations and disfavored others. L'Osservatore Romano, however, defended the election results as being truly representative of the Church universal.

Judging from the statements made by bishops in public, from press interviews and personal conversations reported in newspapers, it seems clear to the outsider that the group of bishops desiring liturgical reform is spread through the whole Church, on every continent and in every country.

THIS EMERGENCE of the bishops' conferences is of considerable significance. It is well known that the episcopal conferences in various countries have no legal status in canon law; they have no power to legislate and no authority to teach. It is normally presumed that they deal only with pastoral matters; their publications are purely hortatory in character. Many authors dealing with the renewal of ecclesiastical government, however, have advocated that bishops' conferences be granted the power which would correspond more truly to the place of bishops in the divine constitution of the Church. It is interesting, therefore, that at the very outset of the Council these national conferencesof bishops emerged as the natural organs through which the universal Church determines its policies.

These episcopal conferences have remained active during the Council. For the greater part, they have set up secretariats in Rome through which meetings are organized at regular intervals. Sometimes the bishops meet to discuss the issues of the Council among themselves, and sometimes they invite theological experts to speak to them on various related topics. All this, it must be added, is free of nationalist tendencies. The conflict among European nations has not so far east a reflection on the Council.

It is worthy of note that, quite apart from the general assemblies, there is a great deal of theological activity in Rome. Most of the better-known European theologians are present at Rome, either as pêriti (experts) appointed by the Holy See or as private theologians of their bishops. In the former ease, they have access to the general assembly; in the latter, they merely have the use of the documents and the right to hear what happened at the assembly. It is unfortunate that many well-known theologians from the English-speaking world are not in Rome. Some of the hierarchies, that of England for instance, have brought along very few theological advisers.

The experts who are present in Rome are invited by various groups of bishops or even whole national hierarchies to lecture on questions related to the Council. Thus men like Cogar, de Lubae, Daniélou, Thils, and many other famous theologians have spoken before large audiences of French-speaking bishops (including here a large part of the Canadian hierarchy), and Rahner, Küng, Ratzinger and other equally familiar names have addressed the German-speaking bishops. Taken together, these theologians represent all the theological and ecclesiastical trends in the Church. Thus it is not surprising to see Monsignor Joseph C. Fenton and Father Jean Daniélou seated near one another in St. Peter's.

Thanks also to press conferences and receptions, even a person who has no access to the documents of the Council is able to detect the various tendencies among the bishops. The ordinary journalists, however, ––especially those who have come to Rome without adequate theological and historical preparation––are almost incapable of understanding the significance of what they hear and see. Without bad will, through sheer ignorance, the most improbable stories get into the press.

But let me return to the emergence of episcopal conferences at the Council. This is a significant development since it has preceded the discussion of the collegial character of the episcopacy in the Council and thus serves as a natural introduction to it.

The English-speaking hierarchies (apart from Canada) have been much slower in getting together for common discussion and theological conferences. Some have only begun quite recently to invite speakers; others have not yet taken any steps in this direction. But for the national episcopacies who have no strong tradition of acting in common, the Council has proved a remarkable occasion for bishops to come together informally and to discuss what is of common concern to them. The climate of ofllcial bishops' conferences is often rather formal and the presence of the higher cardinals does not always encourage free discussion. Here in Rome, however, where freedom of speech in the assembly is said to be complete and unrestricted and where one gets used to hearing cardinals disagreeing vehemently with one another, the bishops live in an atmosphere which invites conversation and the free exchange of ideas.

IT IS WELL known that the schema under discussion now is on the liturgy. Is it possible to make any predictions about the outcome of the present discussions?

Here is a first observation. At one time it was believed that the bishops in favor of change and progress were concentrated in what the Italian press calls Central Europe, that is France, Germany, Holland, Belgium, and Switzerland. This common opinion was reflected in the Time article on the opening of the Council where we read of "a minority of liberal bishops."

In the course of the Council however, it has become evident that the bishops desiring change are by no means confined to a few countries. Judging from the statements made by bishops in public, from press interviews and personal conversations reported in newspapers, it seems clear to the outsider that the group of bishops desiring liturgical reform is spread through the whole Church, on every continent and in every country.

The press reports on the opinion of South American bishops, bishops of India and Africa, bishops of Canada and the U.S. are a surprise to many. The members of the Roman Curia themselves may be surprised. Even if it is true that the reforming bishops are concentrated in central Europe, they are only one group among many, gathered from all parts of the world.

From the Italian press we also learn that even the Italian hierarchy is not united in the support of the members of the Roman Curia who advocate the status quo. The press reported that, at a meeting held shortly after the Council opened, the Italian bishops formed three groups: one conservative, one reformist, and the third a center party, each under the leadership of an Italian cardinal. The report added, however, that the conservative group was by far the largest.

A second observation refers to the position of the Pope John XXIII is a great man with extraordinary personal charm, but from his public declarations it is almost impossible to know precisely where he stands. He seems to alternate between two positions, smiling first in one direction and then in the other.

One is tempted to conclude that it is the Pope's policy to keep a balance between the various trends in the Church by encouraging all of them simultaneously. In a way, this was known long before the Council. The Pope John who had made very outspoken speeches on the universality of the Church, the need for adaptation and the importance of stressing what is common among Christians, was also the Pope who signed the bull Veterum Sapientia which declared the ecclesiastical learning of our day to be wedded to Latin language and culture.

At the start of the Council, the Pope overwhelmed everyone with his opening speech on October 11 in which he aligned himself as never before with the bishops seeking reform and renewal in the Church. He declared that the Council had not met to discuss and re-define Catholic doctrine but to find formulations of this doctrine which would be meaningful to our time and pastorally more effective. The Pope suggested that, in finding this new way of speaking, the bishops should remember the quality of mercy which from now on was to adorn the ecclesiastical magisterium. The emphasis in the Council's elaborations should be on announcing, not on defending, the truth.

These words from Pope John were regarded by many as a criticism of the doctrinal schemata prepared by the theological commission under the presidency of Cardinal Ottaviani. The Pope desired that the stress be pastoral. It is likely that the papal speech greatly helped to have the liturgical document put in the first place on the agenda.

After this strong gesture of the Pope in one direction, many were surprised t)y his choice of members for the working commissions of the Council. It had been announced that the different conciliar working commissions were to be made up of sixteen bishops to be elected by the Council and eight bishops to be named by the Pope himself. Of the election of the sixteen members for the different commissions I have already spoken. Yet when the papal appointments came out everyone was impressed by the large percentage of men connected with the Curia, especially with the Holy Office. The Pope, moreover, appointed nine bishops instead of the eight mentioned in the Constitution. This gesture has forestalled the sixteen members elected by the Council ever gaining a two-thirds majority over the members by Roman appointment.

Pope John, we said, is smiling in both directions. He again made a strong gesture in favor of the reformists when he elevated the Secretariat for Christian Unity, under the presidency of Cardinal Bea, to act as a conciliar commission during the Council-even though its constitution and membership remain as it was in the preceding period of preparation. The practical consequences of this step, which transcends anything provided for by the legislation, is that the Secretariat for Christian Unity is now in a position to submit schemata to the Council, to form mixed subcommittees with other working commissions, and to exert greater infIuence.

It may be mentioned in this connection that Cardinal Bea is one of the most popular figures of the whole assembly of Council fathers. He is admired and respected everywhere, even among those who do not agree with some of his tendencies. His voice carries considerable weight in the Council. Though he has been outspoken on many issues during the last years, his modesty, simplicity, and discretion, and his utter lack of rhetoric or even eloquence profoundly impress the bishops. If he approves of something, many feel, then it cannot be rash or unwarranted.

From these remarks on the alternating ways of Pope John, we may conclude that he is not likely to intervene in the course of the Council in favor of either side. He will back the 'bishops seeking reform and he will encourage the Curia seeking restoration. It must be admitted that in this situation his daring speeches lose some of their power; it is easy to shrug one's shoulders at what the Pope has said, since he is not likely to follow it up with strong action. It is not impossible, therefore, that many of the forward-looking ideas contained in the opening speech will go unheeded just as his constitution on Latin in seminaries will go unheeded during the Council.

The third observation I wish to make deals more directly with what the Council is likely to achieve in liturgical matters. The official press releases do not tellus the precise subjects under discussion or the position taken by the various bishops who speak at the assembly. It has been suggested in the news releases, however, that such questions as the vernacular, concelebration, and Communion in two kinds, have been the subject of debate; and from the well-informed Italian press it appears that the fathers of the Council are deeply divided on these matters.

The same press, however, reports that there is unanimity among the bishops of certain areas. It happens, according to the Italian press, that a bishop will speak for all the bishops, or the majority of bishops of his country, in favor of the changes proposed in the document. It seems to me quite unlikely that such a unanimity of regional hierarchies, whether in mission territories or in the older so-called Christian lands, will be disregarded by the Council. Even if the fathers do not reach agreement on many issues dealing with public worship and therefore are unable to formulate a strong document on the role of the liturgy in the Church, I regard it as unthinkable that even a majority vote in favor of the status quo would crush the unanimous voice of bishops belonging to the same geographical area.

Councils in the Church are not parliaments in which a majority simply overrules the minority group. The Councils of the Church are regarded as holy assemblies in which the Holy Ghost produces unanimity among the fathers; and without this unanimity produced by the Spirit, even with a majority which would carry the day in any parliament, the Council cannot declare its position with confidence.

The voting in a Council does not itself determine the issue. The voting is regarded rather as a test and sign of unanimity among the fathers; and while a sprinkling of opposing voices might not be regarded as breaking the common conviction, opposing voices concentrated in certain areas and expressing the unanimous view of regional hierarchies would certainly destroy the unanimity required for strong declarations.

Thus one may conclude that even if the Council as a whole is unable to make up its mind in favor of a strong liturgical position, it will at least grant the requests of the regional hierarchies possessing a unanimous voice. That means there will be certain areas in the Church where the present liturgical uniformity will be broken and new forms introduced in public worship.

Even a fairly conservative document on the liturgy, which might discourage some who had looked for more, will introduce diversity into ecclesiastical life and liturgical practice. That, in itself, would be a victory for the movement of renewal. For myself, I believe that the movement for reform and renewal has gone so far in the Church that even a moderately conservative Council will further advance it and contribute to its spread among other nations.

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