One of the prominent theologians nominated to advise the bishops at Vatican II, Hans Kung, is critical of the first two sessions but, as he awaits the third session, looks at the good that has already ensued.
‘Despite all the great difficulties and severe obstacles, I still cherish a well-founded hope because no doors have been shut and there have been no definitions or dogmatisations, negative or positive’ (as Pope John had wished).
Kung continues in his autobiography,
Countless doors have been opened, there is now discussion on all questions in the Catholic Church – except on birth control and celibacy. (Paul VI had removed the first by appointing a special commission to report back to him. On the second, the secretary general, Cardinal Felici, had told any bishop wanting to speak on celibacy, ‘The subject is forbidden by authority on high’). A new spirit has come to life, a spirit of renewal and reform, of ecumenical understanding and dialogue with the modern world among bishops, theologians and in the Catholic Church generally. The Catholic Church will never be the same again.
But there was a general uncertainty among the progressive bishops about how the third session would go. A particularly ominous sign appeared towards the end of the second session when the Archbishop of Cologne, one of the outstanding German bishops, Cardinal Frings, attacked the Holy Office, the curial name for the old Inquisition.
In many respects the mode of procedure of the Holy Office is no longer in keeping with the present time; it does damage to the church and, for many, is scandal.
He then went on to show that its secrecy and denial of natural justice and proper deference to the accused went against the mercy of Christ. There was tumultuous applause. The Prefect of the Holy Office, Cardinal Ottaviani, red and quivering with anger replied, ‘These words arise out of ignorance, to use no worse a word’. The consulters at a trial came from the best people in the Roman universities and everything was conducted with justice, he said.
This intervention together with the bishops moving in on the collegiality debate − some even suggesting the curia should be the bureaucracy of both the Pope and a senate of bishops − was laying the ground for an immense battle. Many bishops interpreted the Pope’s actions in the closing days of the second session as favouring the curia.
We have previously seen the character of Paul VI beginning to have an effect on the council. Many Italians nicknamed him Amletico(Hamlet). He shared Hamlet’s melancholy and indecisiveness. In trying to please both sides, he often satisfied neither. His interference in the second session increased greatly in the third session. Whereas John XXIII’s interference was rare and confined to consulting both progressive and conservative bishops, Paul VI interfered more directly. Many noted quietly as Paul grew into his office, the consciousness of his having to answer to God for change and this deeply spiritual man agonised over his responsibility. Thirty years in the confines of the curia made it difficult for him to think outside the culture in which he had grown up.
The council’s first two documents, on the liturgy and the means of social communication, were passed at the end of the second session.
The latter is regarded as one of the council’s weaker documents. It was written in the early ’60s when television was still to be tested in the First World and the document sounded a rather negative note:
Mother Church…is also aware that men and women can employ these gifts (of the media, radio, newspapers, advertising, television) against the mind of the divine benefactor and abuse them to their own undoing. In fact the church grieves with a motherly sorrow at the damage far too often inflicted on society by the misuse of these media.
There seems to have been little consultation with experts in the field.
The document on the liturgy, on the other hand, became the subject of vast debate over things like Latin or the vernacular and lay participation.
• The document says the liturgy is ‘the outstanding means by which the faithful can express in their lives and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true church’.
• It underscores the church’s mission to be a sign or sacrament of Christ and of God’s presence in and for the world…particularly in the Eucharist.
• Through the liturgy the church continues Christ’s worship of the Father which Christ achieved principally by the paschal mystery of his passion, death and resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God.
• Through our participation in that same worship, we have a foretaste of the heavenly liturgy that is to come.
• It can be described as ‘the summit to which the activity of the church is directed. At the same time it is the source from which all her power flows.’
• Because the church is the whole people of God, everyone must be encouraged to participate actively in the celebration of the Eucharist and the other sacraments (nn 26, 28, 29, 31, 47-55). But this is impossible if the liturgy, which is a world of signs and symbols, is not intelligible to those who participate (n 21).
• This is why the language of the Eucharist and the other sacraments is once again the language of the people and the rites and ceremonies should be accordingly simplified. There should be no rigid conformity in matters which do not involve the faith or the good of the whole community (nn 37-38).
• Concelebration of priests is now permitted as well as communion under both kinds.
This revolutionary document after being debated on and off for two sessions was finally passed. One of the non-Catholic observers at the council, James McAfee Brown, writes: ‘No matter what else the council does or does not do, the liturgy document will stand as a significant achievement – the most sweeping reforms in four centuries had just been completed with only 19 negative votes’ out of 2177. There was prolonged applause.
The third session starts
Pope Paul concelebrated the opening Mass of the third session on September 14, 1964. The debate on the church resumed with the first chapter being passed by a large majority though the second and third chapters met with more opposition. The three sections the conservatives opposed most were still passed six to one in favour.
The debates on religious liberty, which the North American bishops strongly supported, met sharp opposition especially from the curial and a number of southern European bishops. Chapters four and five of the controversial document on ecumenism were removed and inserted into a new document – both had invoked much conservative opposition, particularly chapter four (Jews) which drew fire from bishops of Arab countries and pockets of European dioceses where a lot of anti-Semitism existed.
These debates and those on the apostolate of the laity, priestly life and ministry and the eastern rite churches took up most of October.
The church in the world
However, on October 20, debate began on the long-awaited document, the Church in the Modern World. Its optimistic tone and its assertion of the church as a servant of humanity met much opposition from the conservative minority. Some of the bishops’ speeches on both sides of the debate were magnificent.
World poverty elicited a heated debate. An American lay-auditor with 20 years’ experience of relief and population problems in all parts of the world, James Norris, became the only lay person to address the council. He was received on November 5 with warm applause.
In early November, the documents on missionary activity, religious (orders and congregations etc), priestly formation (seminaries) and Christian education were discussed and, as usual when things became heated, Cardinal Felici would terminate the debate saying ‘From a higher authority’ we must move on to another subject. Everyone knew Pope Paul was intervening.
Concern about papal intervention
From mid-November a feeling of unease grew among the bishops that the Pope was interfering too much (which he had every right to do) and speculation that he would interfere directly to allow the chapter on collegiality in the church document to be altered to please the consciences of the curia and the conservative bishops in their consistent opposition. Their answer would come in the Semana Nera(The Black Week) on November 17, 1964.