Shortly after announcing Vatican II, John XXIII sent a letter to all the bishops soliciting suggestions for the council’s agenda. He told them to submit their ideas “with complete freedom and honesty...on anything Your Excellency thinks should be treated in the council.” Responses poured in, but for the most part they called for little more than a tightening of the status quo. How did it happen that prelates like these came to repudiate what they had earlier proposed? How did an overwhelming majority emerge that gave the council a direction that seemed so unlikely when it opened on October 11, 1962?

Of course there is no simple answer to this fundamental—and perennial—question. Over the past two decades, new studies of Vatican II have been pouring off the presses, especially in Italy and Belgium. Those books have shown the almost incomprehensible complexity of the council. Vatican II’s destiny was mainly worked out in the official mechanisms of Vatican II, though they were cumbersome and sometimes working at cross-purposes with each other. As in every large meeting, however, informal alliances and networks were just as important.

Melissa Wilde has broken new ground in her sociological analysis of two of the more important alliances. The Conference of Delegates, organized by French and Latin American bishops, met every week and convened delegates from episcopal conferences around the world to share information and concerns. The group gave encouragement to bishops of a reformist bent when they found that others were coming to share their viewpoint. As Wilde shows, the Conference operated in a collegial style and therefore served an important consensus-building function. This was particularly important for the bishops of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, who often felt marginalized because most of the council leadership was European. The reciprocity and openness of the Conference’s style explain how effective it proved in helping to develop “the majority.”

The polar opposite of the Conference was the International Group of Fathers, at whose core were ultraconservatives like Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who would become a schismatic after the council. The Group eschewed any operational mode that resembled collegiality, which meant that, in its efforts to sway opinion in the council, it shunned making use of episcopal conferences. Its own principles, therefore, stymied its ability to shift opinion except by direct appeals to individual bishops and by directly or indirectly pressuring the pope. The Group pronounced on issues; it did not engage in dialogue about them. The Conference of Delegates and the International Group could hardly have had more different modes of networking—or, for the latter, of not networking.

Along with her analysis of these two unofficial alliances, Wilde profiles four groups of bishops according to their priorities and perceptions of the church in their home dioceses. She retrieved from the Vatican archives the votes of the bishops (twenty-five hundred of them!) on ten crucial issues—a formidable accomplishment. She analyzes and codifies the voting patterns to show how the priorities of the four groups played out. Many charts illustrate Wilde’s findings, and—even for a sociological ignoramus like me—the patterns she detects make sense.

Wilde has an agenda beyond explaining the dynamics of Vatican II. She addresses her peers in the sociology of religion and makes revisionist claims about method. In particular, she challenges the dominant “supply side” paradigm, which argues that those who possess resources are assured favorable outcomes—in this case, the curia. I am certainly not qualified to pronounce on such matters, but some of her peers have written in support of her work. Wilde has made effective use of a method never before applied to understanding the dynamics of the council, and has thereby revealed the importance of the infrastructures of Vatican II. Thanks to her scholarship, we now see more clearly how the council got its shape.

That’s the good news. There is bad news. It begins with Wilde’s sometimes elementary factual errors. While the mistakes are inconsequential to her main arguments, they remain distracting. More serious is Wilde’s approximate grasp of theology and her inattention to the council’s historical context. These shortcomings lead her to simplifications that distort the record. It is true, for instance, that bishops from Northern Europe were the ardent proponents of ecumenism at the council, but nowhere does she state that it was John XXIII who put ecumenism on the agenda in a way that demanded action. Wilde knows, also, that “the new theology,” developed especially in France by Henri de Lubac and others, was important, but she practically identifies that rich movement with ecumenism—just one of its components, and sometimes marginal. Perhaps unwittingly, Wilde promotes the simplistic good-guys-versus-bad-guys interpretation of the council that has prevailed for too long in North America.

Her last chapter covers “the council’s failure to liberalize birth control.” Wilde argues that if birth control had been a sticking point in the ecumenical movement—as was the church-state question—then the council would have been more aggressive in addressing it. Maybe. That would have meant a direct confrontation with Paul VI, which no bishop would engage in. The argument here tends to be reductionist, and in that respect it is like several others in the book.

Still, Wilde deserves our attention. Her book is to be read for what it professes to be, a sociological study that deals with one aspect of the council. Helpful though her approach is, it entails serious limitations for understanding the theological and historical event of Vatican II.


Related: Bernard P. Prusak reviews John W. O'Malley's What Happened at Vatican II
Rewriting History, by Joseph A. Komonchak
Aggiornamento Adjourned, by Terrence W. Tilley

John W. O’Malley, SJ, is University Professor in the Department of Theology at Georgetown University, and the author of many books, including Four Cultures of the West, Trent, Vatican I, What Happened at Vatican II, and The First Jesuits. 

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Published in the 2008-02-29 issue: View Contents
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