Following the interminable debates and document revisions of the third session of Vatican II, it was with a great deal of apprehension that bishops gathered in September 1965 for the final session.
Instead of implementing the voted changes, the commissions had often taken time to incorporate the wishes of a small, conservative minority in a quest for near unanimity.
Five documents had been passed in the previous two sessions with 11, some highly contentious, partially debated, all to be passed in the scant 12 weeks of what was hoped to be the last session.
Everyone was agreed on this. Bishops had travelled from near and far at the start of air travel, spending months away from their dioceses and many were tired of long debates and the queuing of hundreds to speak on a particular subject.
Some speakers were boring and those in their audiences, who were not following the intricate points of theology, would disappear into Bar Jona or Bar Abbas for a coffee or something stronger and some more relevant discussion. As well, Pope Paul’s intervention at the end of the previous session gave many the sense that the General Council’s freedom was being curtailed.
However, the predominant feeling was well summarised by Benedictine Council member Abbot Butler,
At the beginning of the Vatican Council, no one knew which way the church would renew herself. But by the end of the third
session last winter, we realised that it was not going to be a superficial adjustment but a radical one. It meant a basic reappraisal of Catholicism. By then this was not only the view of a progressive minority, but it had captured the centre of the council.
Compromise brings warning
To expedite the close of the council at the end of this session, a mood of compromise arose on all sides so that, instead of endlessly debating matters considered comparatively trivial, these should be left in the text. Thus, in considering the teachings of Vatican II, it is important to look at the main thrust of any document rather than, (this applies to scripture also) taking some texts out of context and out of harmony with the whole.
Papal finery discarded
At the opening of the fourth session, Pope Paul wished to show that the spirit of the new document on the liturgy was being implemented.
The Mass was concelebrated with 26 other bishops. Pope Paul entered St Peters on foot, vested like any other bishop in a simple cope and mitre instead of the elaborate and unwieldy papal mantle and tiara.
In his opening speech, the Pope drew applause when he said he was instituting a synod of bishops, rather than a senate which sits continually instead of at intervals as the council had done.
The Pope was to undertake the reform of the curia mainly to introduce other than Italian personnel. However, it became clear that even Africans and Asians can become Roman thinking after studying in Rome and becoming part of curial culture.
The fourth session swung into action with the promised discussion on the document on Religious Liberty. With 224 dissenting votes to 1997 in favour, the document was still referred to the Theological Commission to search for a compromise. Meanwhile, discussion continued on the document on Revelation, voted on article by article with huge majorities of bishops in favour until article 8 where 49 wished for revision of some of the texts with the same reference of the document to the commission.
Gaudium et Spes too worldly
A lively debate then followed over what would become the longest document of the council, the ‘Church in the Modern World’ ( Gaudium et Spes).This was criticised as too optimistic and naturalistic. ‘The mystery of the Cross is almost forgotten,’ said one bishop. Many agreed that, while it mentioned some of the problems of the modern world, it needed more balance. Most liked the general tenor of the text and it was voted overwhelmingly to proceed with individual articles.
The debate stalled over whether communism should be condemned (remember this was just after the Second World War when the fear of the spread of communism was widespread after the domination of Russia and China). Most still felt Pope John’s plea at the council’s opening to build bridges rather than condemn should be the guiding point and that the documents showing the deficiency of atheistic regimes were enough.
The next sections on marriage and family were somewhat curtailed by the Pope’s taking to himself the setting up of the commission on birth control and it was felt little could be said about this without knowing the outcome. Difficulty was caused by certain Eastern churches allowing divorce for serious reasons when the bishop declared the marriage ‘dead’.
In the middle of this often heated debate, Pope Paul flew to New York to address the United Nations where he received great international attention and much acclamation. The debate continued in the Pope’s absence and, by the time he returned, had turned to the problem of war and the ‘cold war’ of nations being armed to defend themselves.
As October sped by, many of the other documents were debated and passed, each by overwhelming majorities. These are summarised below.
The decrees on the Pastoral Office of Bishops, the up-to-date Renewal of Religious Life, the Training of Priests, the Declaration on Christian Education and the Declaration on non-Christian Religions were passed on October 28.
Two more documents, on Divine Revelation and the Apostolate of Lay People, were passed and promulgated on November 18.
Next month we will see the unfolding drama of the end of Vatican II when the last four documents were passed and promulgated. Pope Paul made a dramatic and more pleasing end to the council, markedly different from the closure of the third session.