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Vatican II: 40 years later
Across the Age Spectrum

Council was a radical conversion process


Vatican II was for me a conversion experience as total as Saul’s on the road to Damascus. My understanding of what it means to be a Catholic changed radically. My world of fixed essences and eternal truths, held together by two minutes in the confessional on Saturday night and a 20-minute passive presence at Sunday Mass, disappeared.

As a journalist on assignment to cover the council, I found myself still immersed in that accustomed world -- miters, pomp, protocol, secrecy. As though ecclesial concerns were none of the business of the people of God, an expression not yet coined, the press was excluded from the sessions in St. Peter’s. (Later I would learn that in Rome sub secreto means, “Tell it only to your friends.” But that was no help to a newcomer without the right friends.) Curial officials issued a daily news release remarkable only for lack of content.

Slowly, however, things happened. Reform-minded bishops and periti, experts in various theological fields, leaked rumors of dissension in the aula. Next came underground news conferences. The big break came when a panel of periti, sponsored by U.S. bishops, agreed to give us a daily English-language briefing. It became for journalists a graduate course in theology.

One day the rumor flew in the press office that one of the “council fathers,” as the bishop participants were known, had questioned the “well-established doctrine” that banned communicatio in sacris, praying with Protestants. At the news conference, the usually headline-hunting periti declined to comment because it was still unclear what the council would decide. Only the fearless Fr. Bernard Häring took the microphone when it was clear none of the others would respond. A stretcher-bearer in Hitler’s army, risking his life by moonlighting as a chaplain, he had offered absolution and Eucharist to Catholic and Protestant alike. “I was the only Christian minister available at a moment of extreme need,” he said. In Russia he baptized babies he knew would be reared as Orthodox.

It was such inspired moments that opened for me the possibility of a different vision: a way of life in which I was called to participate in the continuing creation, in which important things still remained to be done and I had a role in doing them. It would be a more demanding religion, not an easier one. I would have to use my own judgment, make my mistakes, even challenge authority. But it would be -- and it is -- a life worth living.

This message of the council undoubtedly reached many, as it reached me. But in the end it failed to be institutionalized. The Roman curia’s thousand-year control of church structures survived intact. As the pope’s civil service, the curia had been assigned the task of preparing the agenda. And it was determined from the outset to prevent the aggiornamento, the updating, that was Pope John XXIII’s stated objective when he told a group of cardinals in 1959 that he intended to call a general council of the church. What he wanted, he insisted, was a pastoral council with no anathemas.

The curia ignored him, as it had been ignoring popes for centuries. When the bishops assembled in October 1962, they were presented with 70 documents in Latin, enough to fill 2,000 folio pages. It was more than twice the combined volume of all texts issued by previous councils, and it repeated 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 this 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 Second Vatican Council: 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 was largely consumed in procedural wrangling. But in the end the majority succeeded in its efforts to reduce the schemas, or draft documents, 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 Pope John’s death in June, the work slowed to a halt. When Paul VI was elected to succeed John, the curia rejoiced. A lifelong member of the curia, he would provide a modernization of structures, not the reform in depth envisioned by aggiornamento.

The new pope quickly handed decisive victories to the minority by his action on two projects promoted by the majority of the council fathers. One was a proposal 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 modern civil service. The other was the allied 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 when he reserved to himself a decision on the contraception issue, on which it was clear that many sought a major change from the “traditional” position. It was not until 1968, three years after the end of the council, that Paul disclosed his decision, reaffirming the “traditional” condemnation of artificial means of contraception. In that case, the people of God took the unprecedented step of rejecting the papal teaching, deciding that the choice of means to regulate family size is a matter for the consciences of the spouses.

Here, I think, we have an excellent example of where we are as a church as a result of Vatican II. As the people of God we have embraced the spirit of the council. We have accepted our responsibility as adults to make our decisions on the basis of our consciences. We have embraced the preferential option for the poor, understood as a true commitment to radical social change.

We lack the machinery, nevertheless, to give substance to our mission. The minority that controls the institutional structures has a different vision. Ours is a deeply divided church. We are still trapped in the dilemma that stultified Vatican II. We need another Good Pope John, another prophet, to call us to repentance.

Gary MacEoin is author of a history of Vatican II and co-author (with Francis X. Murphy) of a history of the first Synod of Bishops.

National Catholic Reporter, October 4, 2002