How a Lutheran Saw It

Vatican II, Forty Years Later

The sixty or so delegated observers at the Second Vatican Council, of whom I was one, were a privileged lot. Catholic bishops sometimes complained, and not always humorously, that we outranked them in terms of the council’s protocol. The side door by which we entered Saint Peter’s Basilica for the daily plenary gatherings during the three months each year the council was in session was the same one the cardinals used, and like them we sat in ringside seats facing the presiding officers, they on the right, and we on the left of the high altar. The two thousand bishops, in contrast, entered by the distant front portals used by everyone, and were seated in tiers facing each other down the whole length of the central aisle. Often they could not see the speaker or presidium even by craning their necks. The perhaps equally numerous periti (experts and consultants who included some of the world’s greatest scholars) were even more disadvantaged. They were tucked away in the awkwardly placed galleries of Saint Peter’s upper reaches. Most of these periti were theologians brought along by bishops as advisors and, in some cases, writers of the Latin in which all speeches and other business of the plenary sessions were conducted. There were bishops and even some cardinals whose Latin was not up to following the proceedings, but they were not supplied with translators.

We, the delegated observers, in contrast, had learned theologians to sit beside us as translators and informants whenever we wanted them.

Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston offered to equip the aula at his own expense with the electronic equipment needed for simultaneous translation; his offer was rejected, and as a result he stayed home much of the time on the grounds that he could do more good where he understood the language.

At a dinner he held for the North American observers during the second session, he claimed with Irish humor that his attendance at the council would have been better if he had been treated as well as we were.

The observers’ advantages, furthermore, went beyond protocol to substance.

We were regularly briefed and consulted by what was then called the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity; we had more opportunities for personal contacts with a wider variety of leading members of different hierarchies and schools of thought than did most bishops. We had, furthermore, the advantage of being oddities. There were only a few of us non-Catholics amidst thousands of Roman Catholics in a council which had as one of its three main purposes the improvement of ecumenical relations.

Furthermore, we had, so to speak, ambassadorial status; the delegated observers were official representatives of their respective churches. They had the double task of reporting back what they learned, and of explaining their own communion’s probable reactions to what the council might do.

Naturally we were courted, quoted, and treated as if we were persons of consequence even when, as in my case, this was not the case....

Change came to seem inevitable. One New England bishop, now dead, told me confidentially during a lunch just the two of us had together that he personally preferred the old ways, including Mass in Latin. Yet he had voted for almost all the changes. He had been reading Hans Küng’s book on the church, The Council, Reform, and Reunion, and detested what he read. He would resist the developments Küng was urging when he got back to his own diocese. He was too old to change his habits of thought and action. Yet he believed that the council had no alternative but to give the green light to such developments. In the long run they would dominate the church.

This dichotomy between the policy votes of the bishops and their policy preferences was not uncommon. The bishops as a whole voted for more radical change than they had thought desirable, much less possible, when they arrived for the council. This willingness to allow developments that were not to their taste is explainable, it seems to me, only in the context of an ecumenical council. It could not have happened in assemblies of the World Council of Churches (WCC), the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), or any other denominational legislative body, not to mention Roman Catholic national episcopal conferences or international synods of bishops. None of them is able to be as venturesome or vulnerable to the unexpected as an ecumenical council can be.

The crucial singularity of an ecumenical council is that it runs as long as is needed for the participants to make up their own minds—in the present case, the total time was twelve months spread over three and a quarter years.

The bishops had the leisure to discuss, to hear extended debate, to attend seminars, to read and think and, in short, to be persuaded. They were persuaded, for example, on the question of biblical criticism. Most of them were deeply suspicious, but the scriptural scholars, not least because of Cardinal Augustin Bea, were there in swarms and conducted what were in effect crash remedial Bible courses with remarkable success. During a reception, at the American Embassy of all places, one Californian bishop eagerly told me how his thinking had been transformed by Barnabas Ahern, who had impressed him as a saint as well as a scholar. He would like, he said, to get Father Ahern to give a spiritual retreat for his diocesan priests. If someone like Ahern believed in P, J and E and thought there were legendary and midrashic elements in the birth stories, then such views could not be as dangerous as he had supposed.

This was not an isolated case. Without many similar alterations of episcopal minds, Dei verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Scripture and Tradition, would not have passed. The same is true of the constitutions on the liturgy and on the church, perhaps especially the chapter on Mary. Once these were passed, the other dramatic breakthroughs, the declarations on ecumenism, non-Christian religions, and religious liberty, followed naturally though not without difficulties.

It needs to be stressed, however, that the bishops were for the most part persuaded by scholarship rather than piety. The renewers argued circles around the traditionalists. They unmasked their opponents as mistaking the post-Tridentine developments, not least the Marian and papal advances of the nineteenth century, for the total Catholic heritage. It was rather they, the renewers, with their appeal to Scripture and the patristic and to some extent medieval patrimony, who were the true traditionalists. It was they rather than the reactionaries who had tradition on their side.

That is why they won. The attractiveness of aggiornamento, updating the church, and of ecumenism, opening the church, was greater for the world outside the council, but what was crucial for the scholastically trained conciliar majority was rather different. The majority were persuaded by reasoned argument, in many cases against their preferences, that the curial conservatives were theologically bankrupt by their own standards.

They had been hoist with their own petard, defeated by their own artillery.

It was the renewers who had the better knowledge of tradition as a whole and appealed to it more effectively. Yet, though many conservative bishops could no longer vote conscientiously with the curia, their mental habits remained those of nineteenth-century neoscholasticism. They had voted for resourcement, the return to the sources, without themselves knowing how to put this into effect, with the result that they got kinds of aggiornamento and ecumenism that they had not intended.

Let me conclude with two memories from notable public occasions. First, there was the speech Archbishop Leon Elchinger of Strasbourg gave in Saint Peter’s on how much Catholics owe to non-Catholics even in matters pertaining to the faith. One of his examples was scriptural scholarship. Roman Catholics, he said, owe a great debt to Protestant biblical studies. Second, he spoke of what he called the dogma of justification by faith first defined, as he put it, when the Jerusalem Council, referred to in Acts and Galatians, exempted Gentile Christians from circumcision and full Torah observance. This central dogma of the Catholic faith, Elchinger continued, has at times been better maintained outside than within Roman Catholicism, and if Catholics are now rediscovering it, it is largely because of the ecclesial communities issuing from the sixteenth-century Reformation.

At these words, to my surprise, I started to cry. Elchinger was in effect saying that Luther was at least in part dogmatically right. I found myself thinking of Abbott Butler’s report from the First Vatican Council ninety-odd years before of what had happened when the Austro-Hungarian Bishop Josip Strossmeyer had objected (also in Saint Peter’s and from much the same spot) to the view of some previous speakers that all the ills of the modern world, atheism, anarchism, and repudiation of Christian morality, had stemmed from the Reformation. "We must remember," Strossmeyer said, "that there are millions of Protestants who truly love the Lord Jesus." As he spoke, cries of "heresy," "blasphemy," "come down, come down," grew so loud that he was forced to leave the podium. The contrast between then and now was what made tears of joy roll down my cheeks. It is the only time I have wept in public except at funerals.

The other event I shall mention was a little homily John XXIII gave the observers in a private audience he had with them at the beginning of the second three-month session. That also was a happy occasion. The council was going the way the pope, not to mention the observers, welcomed, and none of us knew he was a dying man. He spoke on some favorite words of his from Scripture, "the mercies of the Lord are new every morning," and said that he had experienced their truth throughout his life. He was one of those who find it hard to decide what to do on any given day, but the Lord was merciful: he always told him every morning. This had happened through his superiors: there were those above him who made the decisions which he carried out. Then, however, he was elected pope. "But you know," he said with his bubbling good humor, "I needn’t have worried. God’s mercies continued to be new every morning." (What we all thought of, of course, was his convoking a council which nobody, absolutely nobody, it seems, had advised him to call and which had sent the whole Vatican bureaucracy into a tizzy.)

John XXIII would repeat those words if he were with us now. He was basically a traditionalist rather like Mother Teresa, for example, and I suppose he would be appalled at much of the aftermath of the council. Perhaps he would sometimes even wonder, as Luther did about the Reformation after a comparable lapse of time, whether it was really worth it. Yet the Lord’s mercies are new every morning. What stops those words from being Pollyannaish is their context: they come from Lamentations (3:22–23). Even in our day, cheerfulness keeps breaking through.


This essay is adapted from The Church in a Postliberal Age, by George A. Lindbeck, edited by James J. Buckley, © George A. Lindbeck, published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Used with permission.

Published in the 2002-11-22 issue: 

George A. Lindbeck is a Lutheran theologian and professor emeritus of the Yale Divinity School.

Also by this author
The Ratzinger File

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads