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As the Council neared...

During the period of preparations for the Council (November 1960 Summer 1962), ten commissions drafted texts for the bishops to consider. When finished, they were brought before the Central Commission [CPC], a body that was supposed to have certain supervisory functions and in particular to review the prepared texts, propose amendments to them, and decide whether to recommend to Pope John XXIII that they be placed on the conciliar agenda. That they came to the CPC simply as they were completed, in no particular order, reinforced the impression that no unifying purpose had guided the preparation of the Council. Because most of them were practical and flew very close to the ground, the criticism began to be heard that if these texts were representative of what the Council would do and say, it would greatly disappoint expectations. As for the doctrinal texts prepared by the Theological Commission, they provoked rather lively discussions in the CPC that anticipated the debates of the first session of the Council in 1962. All in all, many people began to ask Hans Kngs question: Can the Council Fail? (His article with that title was translated and published in, 12 (1962) 269-76; if you make use of Questia, it can be foundhere.)Here arepagestaken from my chapterin volume I of theHistory of Vatican II, on the last stages in determining the conciliar agenda and on spreading apprehension about what it might accomplish or fail to accomplish. Cardinal Suenens plan for the Council, drawn up at the direction of Pope John can be foundhere, andhereis the radio address that Pope John gave exactly a month before the Council was to open, a text in which the influence of Suenenss proposal seems evident.

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My takeaway is that we were blessed to have some leaders who rose above the usual parochial/political interests to take risks for the good of the church. It seems that the Council could have been so much less than it turned out.

Interesting that much of the language Pope John is famous for was first in C. Suenens report. When I was in grad school at Catholic U. in the mid-60;s Cardinal Suenens came to talk to the school. What an impressive human being. I thought he looked like Boris Karloff, but in spite of his solemnity he had a beautiful smile and a sense of humor. A story was told about him that he was such an imposing figure that when the Germans went to arrest him at his home during WW II he stood at the top of his stairs, told them to go away, and just stared them down. They didn't dare touch him. I wonder if the story is true, but I can understand why people would believe it.Interesting that the bishops didn't think the Council should try to revise the Code of Canon Law. And interesting that only three lines of the Code were devoted to the laity! Also very interesting: the bishops wanted to reform the Curia, I guess that was just a bit too much to ask.Also of particular note -- Cardinal Montini thought that the place of women in the Church needed to be considered. Was he alone in thinking that? Seems to have been ahead of his time in some ways.

Once upon a time, I heard Archbishop Hunthausen (of Seattle) describe how as a newly named bishop he had to hustle off to Rome with a pile of document he could barely read (in Latin) and barely had time to consider. He reported being rather high up in the bleachers and was deeply impressed with the gathering of so many bishops, most of whom, he believed, couldn't read Latin either. Good thing the council had four sessions so that the documents could be translated (were they?) or the bishops could learn Latin (did they?). Or did the local seminarians produce abstracts in their native tongue?

Cardinal Suenens and the other Belgian bishops and their theologians had a very great influence on the Council as it developed, to the point that some people spoke of Concilium Vaticanum Secundum as "Concilium Lovaniense Primum" (the First Council of Louvain)! As for Suenens himself, Henri de Lubac came away from a conversation with him with the impression of a superficial mind, pretentious and of great fatuousness. He does not seem to me to have a deep understanding of the present situation. He doesnt seem to perceive the invasion of atheism, etc.I don't know how many of the bishops of Vatican II could read the Latin texts easily, but they certainly weren't used to hearing speeches in Latin! I know that an English translation of the first draft on the Church was prepared for their use. The Latin of the texts and the great majority of the speeches was something less than Ciceronian, however. Cardinal Cushing offered to pay for a system of simultaneous translation, but at one point such a technology was turned down on the grounds that transmissions might be picked up outside the council hall, which would compromise the secrecy of the proceedings. Paradoxically (contradictorily?), practical details were explained to the assembled bishops in several modern languages....

Practical details: They did need to know where to find the coffee bar (and other facilities)!De Lubac, etc., Joe, what did you make of the Robin Darling Young revisionist view of De Lubac in Commonweal, but also in After Vatican II: Trajectories and Hermeneutics, ed. Heft and O'Malley?

Hmm. Fascinating that Pope John saw the value of both Suenens and deLubac, but deLubac didn't appreciate Suenens. I wonder whether that tells us something about deLubac's theology, or was it just a conflict of personality or interests?What was it in deLubac's theology of the Church that the Curia objected to so much?

Interesting description of the behind the scenes activity that helped to shape the agenda. Suenens' plan was so positive, and the way he managed to forward his ideas was brilliant. The obstacles to success were enormous, especially that unfortunate start to the process-- and then all the barriers to understanding that must have existed onsite. Of course he had taken the measure of the situation... and the participants. N.B.Never miss Fr. K's footnotes: He thought it unlikely that bishops would be able to form ajudgment on all these things in the few weeks or months they would have to study them.(2)2 "Either they will deliver themselves over to the bishops or consultors who have studied the materialsor they will refrain from judgment or they will cover their eyes and approve everything. Such behavior isnot to be hoped for and will greatly detract from the honor and dignity of the ecumenical council;" ADPII/3 745-46; see also 713, where he feared that Vatican II's documents would prove longer than those of all previous Councils

It wasn't so much de Lubac's ecclesiology that many in Rome had a problem with, but his theology of the supernatural which was thought to compromise the gratuity of our vocation to supernatural life, as well as his theories on the development of doctrine. Suenens was a classic "operator" and did tend to flit from one thing to another. By the end of the Council, de Lubac was convinced that the Church was facing a major crisis of faith and that many "progressive" bishops and theologians were ignoring it in favor of various kinds of "relevamt" passions and movements to which they were often subordinating the Gospel. Remember when "relevance" was the magic word?

"He (Hunthausen) reported being rather high up in the bleachers... ." The reason was that the bishops sat in order in which that had been consecrated (That was the word they used then.). Hunthausen was consecrated on August 30, 1962. What is interesting to me is that a bishop could be seated next to a bishop who was not from the his country. This would give a bishop an personal experience of the Church as "catholic" (universal), as one bishop who attended the Council told me.

Thanks, JAK. I'm confused about deLubac's position among the 20th century theologians. He was initially viewed as one of the "new theologians", was he not? And yet by the end of the Council he wanted to part company with them? Who were they? Is his reversal of position similar to Ratzinger's reversal/backpeddling from the beginning o the Council to post-Council?I really need to learn some contemporary theology! Could you please recommend a good introduction? Or write one? (hee hee)

Ann: You could look at Fergus Kerr's book, "Twentieth-century Catholic theologians." "New theology" was a term of abuse applied to de Lubac et al., by their critics. Neither de Lubac nor Congar admitted that there was such a thing or that they were advocating it. At the Council, there was a progressive phalanx which worked together at the first session in order to get the prepared texts dismissed. Once it was decided that those texts needed radical revision, the question was: "What next?" What kind of texts should be written? And at this point cracks began to appear among the progressive ranks, and I myself think that at this point the differences between more Thomistically oriented and more patristically oriented theological approaches became visible. This particularly affected the writing and the interpretation of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in Today's World. Both de Lubac and Ratzinger denied that they reversed their position. Unfortunately, the issues are often posed simplistically as a division between "progressives" (the good guys, the Cowboys, yeah, yeah!) and the "conservatives" (the bad guys, the Indians, boo! hiss!), and with this sloppy contrast, de Lubac and Ratzinger will be said to have moved from being "progressive" to being "conservative." But, as you know from philosophy, the history and conflict of ideas is much more complex than that.

Thanks for the recommendation. I've ordered it.Could you tell us what were the main differences between the patristic theologians and the Thomistic ones? Were they mainly a matter of method? E.g., concentration on Scripture? Or what?Thomas is sometimes sort of "accused' of being a rationalist, as if reasoning and consistency were necessarily destructive of the intuitive truths of non-rationalists. But anybody who really reads Thomas knows his tremendous respect for the early fathers, Augustine especially. (And Augustine himself certainly relied on reason a great deal.) Given my miniscule understanding of them (I've only read about some of them, not read the originals, except some of Augustine), I just don't see any great basic conflict between them and Thomas, except that some of the fathers seem more willing to overlook contradictions than Thomas would be.

"differences between more Thomistically oriented and more patristically oriented theological approaches"I would love to hear more about this and about how it actually played out in what was produced by the Council."(the good guys, the Cowboys, yeah, yeah!)" and "(the bad guys, the Indians, boo! hiss!)".By the way, it was about the time of Vatican II that a lot of us kids started rooting for the indians when we play Cowboys and Indians.

You can hear an audio recording of retired Abp Hunthausen from this past Sunday on http://stjames-cathedral.org/Pubs/Pastor/audio/rghgreeting.wma He says Pope John XXIII was his hero.

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About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.