After my articles on Blessed John XXIII, the editor has asked me to write on the documents of Vatican II and what they were saying.
Readers will recall that John XXIII called an ecumenical council of the church early in 1959. His experience as a Vatican diplomat in Bulgaria and Greece which brought him into contact with Orthodox Christians and Muslims as well as his work in the curia in Rome and under the curia as a diplomat convinced him the church needed to change.
Many have said Vatican II was the greatest single event in the 20th century church. The previous ecumenical council, the first Vatican Council, was suspended in 1870 because of the Franco-Prussian war but was never resumed. Hence the name, Vatican II.
Differences in interpretation
One of the great difficulties in any discussion on Vatican II is the different meanings that can be read into several passages. In this the documents of Vatican II have the same problems as many passages in the bible. Sometimes a literal interpretation of one or two texts has been erroneously built into a whole belief system without reference to the passage’s context.
The Catholic, Orthodox and many Protestant churches such as Anglicans and Presbyterians have adhered to the principle in scriptural interpretation of examining the text in its context – what is the passage saying and how does a particular text fit into the whole and how does this book fit into the other books of the bible?
Most Catholic and Protestant scholars of the last century have shown this to be the true skills of interpretation. In the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation we read (Ch III Section 12)
‘Rightly to understand what the sacred writer wanted to affirm in his work, due attention must be paid both to the customary and characteristic patterns of perception, speech and narrative which prevailed at the age of the sacred writer, and to the conventions which the people of his time followed in their dealings with one another … no less attention must be devoted to the content and unity of the whole of scripture taking into account the tradition of the church and analogy of faith …’
Therefore, the taking of one text and placing too much emphasis on it without reference to its unity with other texts and the unity of the whole can be misleading.
In the same way with the council documents, there were examples of texts used out of context with the unity of the document. So the reader must ask, what the main thrust of the document is and how a particular text fits into this unity.
I will endeavour with the six main documents of the 16 that really changed church history to isolate the main points, because the hundreds of thousands of words (making a thick volume) would take volumes to go into.
I will try to provide the historical context of each of these six main documents to see where and why the majority of the bishops supported the main arguments but pointedly rejected others. It is an interesting and exciting story which I hope you will enjoy.
Certain texts contain apparent contradictions mainly because a conservative minority of bishops in the council would insist on inserting a paragraph which the progressive majority let them leave in the main text to allow discussion on more important issues.
During the four years the council was meeting, the two thousand or more bishops from all parts of the world had to spend 12 months away from their dioceses and wanted to avoid being bogged down by smaller issues so they left certain texts which did not quite fit into the thrust of the main document.
Conservative commentators have often used these same texts to build up arguments to refute what is often the main thrust of a text. This is also why the 10 lesser documents were not always given the time and depth for debate. A huge amount of time was spent on what I have chosen to call the main documents.
In fact, 10 of the 16 documents were passed only in the last two months of the fourth and final session partly because some of the main ones were the result of often heated debates and the lesser ones did not have the time to be spent on them that the others had merited.
For these reasons we sometimes notice in the same document, eg, Document on priests apparent contradictions, Ch II Section 4:
‘Priests have as their primary duty the proclamation of the gospel of God to all.’
And then in Ch III Section 13 ‘Priests fulfil their chief duty in the mystery of the Eucharistic sacrifice.’
But, in the last hurried months of the council there was no one to synthesise the various documents that had been passed and they could in their own way present apparent contradictions.
For instance in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Ch III Section 25 we read, ‘In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent of soul. This religious submission of the will and mind must be shown in a special way to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra (infallibly).’
Yet in the Declaration of Religious Freedom Ch 1 Section 3, the statement is: ‘Hence every person has the duty and therefore the right to seek the truth in matters religious in order that the person may with prudence form for himself or herself right and true judgements of conscience with the use of all suitable means … in all their activity persons are bound to follow their consciences faithfully, in order that they may come to God, for whom they were created. It follows that they are not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to their consciences.’
Here, of course, the decrees are talking about non-infallible doctrines.
The fact that the sessions were all in Latin and most of the bishops who studied Latin in their seminary days could struggle to read it but not often speak it, slowed things down for many.
The great Cardinal Cushing of Boston offered to pay for simultaneous translation phones. This offer was rejected and he attended no more sessions.
In the next Wel-com we will see the glorious pageant of more than 2,300 bishops processing through St Peter’s Square into the great basilica for the opening of the council and look at its first session where no documents were passed but great drama was enacted.
It is so important to look at the mindset of the bishops at the time they discussed the documents to see some of the contextual thrust of each document.