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Curia’s defeat at Vatican II was short-lived


Edited by Giuseppe Alberigo
Peeters (Leuven, Belgium)/Orbis Books, 1997,
603 pages, $80, hardcover


A widely accepted myth about the Second Vatican Council is that the council fathers at the first session in the fall of 1962, having almost miraculously recognized that the documents prepared for them by the Roman curia contradicted the purposes of Pope John XXIII, decided to throw them out and start afresh.

The myth is not baseless. This second volume of a five-volume definitive history of the council written under the guidance of some 50 of the world’s leading church historians, shows, however, that the reality was much more complicated and contradictory. It reveals the drama, then hidden by inflexible rules of secrecy, of bishops -- who gradually coalesced into the majority -- struggling to understand what John XXIII meant by aggiornamento and to find concepts and words to express it; and bishops convinced that the pope’s ideas were mistaken and dangerous, perhaps even heretical.

Pope John had a problem, a big problem. He knew the church had to break out of the prison in which it had locked itself, to stop navel-gazing and recommit itself to its true role of service to humanity. He knew that many bishops thought as he did. The problem was that they wanted him to do it. And he knew that if he did it, nothing would have changed. He would only have confirmed further the concentration of power and decision-making in the papacy. To achieve meaningful changes, the bishops had to reassert their role as successors of the apostles.

That was what John told them in the talk in which he announced the council, in the 1961 Christmas address, in the powerful exhortation with which he opened the council and in many other talks in the opening days of the council. It was up to the bishops themselves to run the council.

The curia would have none of it. While the bishops were unorganized, did not even know each other, the curia had a clear program: to defend the fortress against all enemies, including the barbarian bishops from north of the Alps, even an old pope who did not understand that he had been elected only as a transitional figurehead. And the curia, headed by Cardinals Alfredo Ottaviani and Guiseppi Siri, had substantial outside support, including Cardinals Francis Spellman of New York and James McIntyre of Los Angeles.

The first weeks of this first session determined the success of the council. The nine months’ intersession between the first and second sessions determined its failure. That is the story described here.

The role of the theologians was critical. For a century the bishops had been split from one another, relating directly and almost exclusively to Rome. Their dominant mood when they met in Rome was of frustration, solitude, confusion. As they got together in informal groupings, however, the theologians helped them to update themselves on new theological thinking, from Christology to ecclesiology. As the authors of this book put it, “they began to see the possibility of deeds they would never have dared before. ... Episcopal collegiality began to be operative immediately, even before it came to be formulated.”

The major challenges the council faced were gradually identified. The church had to go beyond the scholastic understanding of natural law and return to an emphasis on the active role of the Holy Spirit in the lives of God’s people. It had to go beyond the church-state problematic. It had to promote unity of Christians without uniformism or “return.” It had to clarify its option for the poor, as well as its relation with the world.

The first working session was critical. The council had to make the fundamental decision whether or not it was to govern itself. The curia had been in charge of all preparations. The order of the day was to elect commissions for the council itself, and the council fathers were instructed by the general secretary to vote immediately. Had they done this, it would mean the automatic confirmation of the members of the preconciliar commissions. Fortunately, enough resistance emerged spontaneously to force postponement for some days. The bishops had time to draw up lists that ensured their control of the proceedings.

While the discussions and votes at the first session made clear that a majority of bishops supported John XXIII’s call for aggiornamento, the defeat of the conservative group was not nearly as complete as has been widely believed. Nor had the curia itself lost any of its confidence. With an ailing pope and the bishops dispersed, it quickly organized a sabotage strategy.

Pope John in the spring of 1963 was hounding the council authorities to have the revised schemas sent out at latest by Easter, but Ottaviani and his close collaborators were doing everything possible to slow down the work so that the documents would not be ready when the council would reconvene in September. For example, several meetings of the Commission on Bishops were called between December 1962 and November 1963, but each was canceled by its president, Cardinal Paolo Marella.

Instead, he left revision of the document to Bishop L.M. Carli of Segni, one of the strongest spokesmen of the minority opposed to a renewal of the theology of the episcopate.

The election of Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini as Paul VI in June 1963 was also a victory for the curia. Although he was definitely not the pope they would have liked to have, he was supported by Ottaviani and Cardinal Amleto Cicognani as the best they could hope for in the circumstances. Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro would have continued John’s dream. What Montini would provide would be a modernization of structures, not a reform in depth.

This is the reality with which we still live, namely, a divided church. On the one side are those who accept the council documents interpreted minimally; on the other, those who read them as the first steps in implementing a vision.

Gary MacEoin writes from San Antonio.

National Catholic Reporter, October 9, 1998