There was still uncertainty before the end of the third session of Vatican II over at least three documents especially that on the church about which there had been heated debate. Chapter III on collegiality was in contention. This provided for the governing hierarchy of the church to constitute the bishops, united with the Bishop of Rome as anchor and presider.
However, when debates on whether the curia became the bureaucracy of the Pope and the bishops gathered momentum, the curia sensed its loss of the power it had retained for at least 900 years. There was little sign of the curial reform Pope Paul had promised.
An explosive rule
Chapter III had been given an overwhelming mandate. The text was not strong enough for the curia to fear the worst. Amid rumours that the council might be jettisoned, Pope Paul solved the impasse in the following manner.
On the Monday of the last week, November 16, 1964, the bombshell dropped. Two days earlier, the bishops had been given the amended text on The Church. They were pleased to see it was substantially unchanged but Chapter III had a nota praevia (explanatory note) attached.
Archbishop Felici warned the bishops ‘to study it carefully, because it is sometimes difficult to understand’.
On Thursday when the final vote was to be cast, Felici told the bishops that the explanatory note was the only and compulsory explanation of Chapter III that would be permitted. Although it was obvious the Pope had written the note, Felici would say only that it was from a ‘superior authority’.
The four points of the note
1 College is not to be understood in a strictly judicial sense as a body of equals who entrust their power to their president but rather of a stable body – does not imply the transmission of the extraordinary powers of the apostles to their successors, nor obviously equality between the head and members of the college…
2 Membership comes with episcopal consecration and hierarchical communion with the head of the college and its members…in the consecration there is given an ontological participation of the sacred offices…but the word ‘offices’ rather than ‘powers’ is used advisedly. To have such an immediately usable power, there must be a canonical or judicial determination by hierarchical authority – hierarchical communion is required with the head and members of the church – the documents of more recent pontiffs about the jurisdiction of bishops are to be understood as dealing with this necessary determination of powers.
3 The college is always and necessarily understood together with its head because the Pope retains intact in the college his office as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the universal church.
4 The pontiff, as supreme pastor of the church, can exercise his power at all times at will – as his office requires…but the college is not always in full act; indeed it performs strictly collegial acts only at intervals and only with the consent of the head.
Pope Paul’s nota praevia won over the vast majority of the around 300 bishops in the minority and, in the end, only 10 of the 2,144 bishops voted against the document.
The Pope, of course, had every right to intervene, but many bishops felt the power of bishops in a general council had been undermined to please a small minority.
On the same day, the document on religious liberty came up for a vote – another hotly debated subject understandably criticised by bishops from communist, fascist or recently fascist countries like Italy.
On the previous day, some 200 bishops petitioned to postpone voting on this document to allow more discussion time. The session’s presider, Cardinal Tisserant, in hurried consultation with the other presidents (some of whom later said they could not hear him), announced a postponement of the document until the next session.
Xavier Rynne writes that this announcement was at once engulfed in ‘a wave of grumbling, protests and commotion which spread throughout the hall.
‘One would have to go back to an earlier council, that of Trent for example, when an enraged bishop pulled another’s beard, to find a precedent for the scene of consternation, outrage and dismay that took place on this memorable morning. The bishops felt cheated, betrayed, insulted and humiliated.’
Cardinals and bishops left their seats and milled around the main altar while the speakers on the document on Christian education talked to virtually no one.
Five hundred bishops petitioned the Pope to allow a vote on the Declaration of Religious Liberty which, he had declared to the United Nations in April, there was every reason to hope would be passed.
An ‘eloquent’ protest
While the petition was being signed, Bishop De Smedt of Bruges in Belgium gave his speech on religious liberty. The bishops applauded him often – four times in one particular line. When he had finished, rhythmic applause rose from the seats, ‘the longest and most sustained applause accorded any speech at the council, which the moderator was powerless to stop’, observes Xavier Rynne.
‘Some of the bishops stood up in order to clap their hands more freely. Denied a formal vote, the bishops took their revenge by voting in this way, if not for the text of the declaration, then for the principle of religious liberty.’
Cardinals Meyer, Ritter and Léger took the petition to the Pope and were blocked from entering his apartment. Nevertheless, they insisted and the Pope received them kindly. But, he said, Cardinal Tesserant had observed all the rules of the council’s meeting and it was not for him to block them; however, he promised to put the religious liberty document first on the agenda for the fourth session, a promise he repeated formally two days later. There was hope the Pope might relent but by Friday the announcement was still a postponement.
On the Thursday again, the final document on ecumenism had not been printed (and therefore was not able to be read properly) but would be voted on the following day. The Pope had secured 19 changes, which many of the protestant observers felt gave a more ‘anti-protestant’ bias to the document, but it was passed on the Friday together with the document on education.
The contentious final chapters on non-Christian religions (Jewish and others) were postponed until the next session. Both actions displeased some of the non-Catholic observers.
Xavier Rynne writes,
‘Pope Paul was carried into the basilica on Saturday, November 21, for the closing public session looking glum and tense. One might have expected that there would be joy over the final promulgation of the Constitution on the Church and the Decree on Ecumenism – both milestones on the road to aggiornamento – but the applause accompanying their proclamation was somewhat perfunctory and came mostly from the throngs of visitors, monks, nuns and tourists crowded into the transepts.’
The protestant observers were particularly disappointed in the Pope’s opening speech. There had been some controversy in the council about Mary’s place in the conciliar decrees and most bishops wanted to show her union with the church by placing her position and special role in chapter eight of the Decree on the Church. A number wanted a special document on her.
The Pope spent a large part of his speech proclaiming her Mother of the Church and very little on the promulgation on ecumenism and Oriental churches.
One-third of the work done
Five documents had now been proclaimed; the last 11 would be completed in the fourth session.
Xavier Rynne concludes,
‘After the ceremonies, the grim-faced Pope was carried out through the same tiers of stony-faced, unresponsive bishops, whose lack of enthusiasm was the dominant note of the proceedings.
‘The contrast with the closing of the first session under Pope John could not have been more marked.’