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Today’s divided church has roots in Vatican II

Edited by Giuseppe Alberigo
Orbis/Peeters, 532 pages, $80


Pope John XXIII died in June 1963, seven months after the close of the first session of a council he had hoped would synchronize the church with the modern world. Aggiornamento (“updating”) was the word he used.

John wanted a pastoral council with no anathemas. The curia would have none of it. At the opening of the Second Vatican Council in October 1962, it presented 70 documents in Latin, enough to fill 2,000 folio pages. These 70 schemas, more than twice the volume of texts issued from all previous councils put together, renewed the anathemas of Trent and Vatican I, as well as the wholesale denunciation of the contemporary world already found in Pius IX’s “Syllabus of Errors.”

The 2,500 bishops flown in from all parts of the globe, separated by a babel of languages, and without training or experience in acting as a group, might easily have been stampeded into giving a blanket approval to the curial program. Some wanted the pope to intervene. But John knew this would defeat his project. He simply repeated in his opening address and in other talks in the early days of the council what he had said when he first announced the council in January 1959. It was up to the bishops themselves to run the assembly.

Suspension of meetings for a few days permitted the emergence of two blocs, a majority who shared the pope’s concept of aggiornamento and a minority convinced that the pope’s ideas were mistaken and dangerous, perhaps even heretical. The rest of the first session produced little more than a decision to reduce the schemas from 70 to 20 (later 17, and finally 13), and to have the surviving documents completely rewritten to express the view of the majority.

The curia, however, did not give up. With an ailing pope and the bishops dispersed, it quickly organized a sabotage strategy. It ignored the pope’s orders to have revised schemas sent to the bishops by Easter. On John’s death in June, the work slowed to a halt. When Paul VI was elected to succeed John, the curia rejoiced. He would provide a modernization of structures, not the reform in depth envisaged by aggiornamento.

The present volume is the story of the success of the curial strategy. While Paul named four moderators to direct the council proceedings, he not only chose one to represent the minority, but left the moderators without clearly defined functions. The minority introduced a flood of mostly frivolous amendments to the schema on the liturgy, forcing more than a hundred votes that consumed almost the entire session. The only other document completed and promulgated was the schema on the communications media. A text that pleased nobody because of its superficiality, it was approved by bishops for whom the subject was of marginal interest, so that they would have something to show at the end of two sessions of the council.

Even more decisive victories for the minority were Paul’s actions on two projects presented by the majority. One was to create a council of bishops from all countries to constitute a legislative or decision-making body for the church, transforming the curia into a civil service. The other was the issue of reform of the curia.

In both cases Paul simply removed the issues from the council’s agenda and made decisions clearly contrary to the expressed desires of the majority. The Synod of Bishops would be a strictly advisory body, to meet if and when the pope called it, and to offer advice only on issues specified by the pope. As for curial reform, it was to be carried out by the curia itself. Paul would later repeat this overriding of the will of the majority by reserving to himself a decision on contraception.

Such is the story told in this third volume of a five-volume definitive history of the council written under the guidance of some 50 of the world’s leading church historians. It is being published simultaneously in Italian, Portuguese, German, French, Spanish and English. Although a few documents are still not available to historians, it is unlikely that anything will later emerge to alter the conclusions recorded here.

The story -- not always an edifying one -- is on the whole well told. It could have been improved by more rigorous editing to eliminate repetitions. I was also frequently frustrated by a failure to explain the nature of the action taken on an issue. Thus, on page 465 we are told that debates led “to some ‘conclusions’ on collegiality, the restructuring of seminaries, the participation of the laity in the general congregations of the council, and concelebration” -- but there is no indication of what these conclusions were. It would also help if we had a sentence to describe an individual when first mentioned. Who, for example, is Hien (page 405), for whom no first name is given and who is not even listed in the Index of Names?

This book, nevertheless, is extremely important. It helps us to understand both the success and the failure of Vatican II. If we are living today in a deeply divided church, it is because an overwhelming majority was given a vision of aggiornamento, then denied the reality.

Gary MacEoin’s e-mail address is gmaceoin@compuserve.com

National Catholic Reporter, September 22, 2000