Vatican II – the second session finds its mark

This move was important for many progressive bishops because the new presidents would be more impartial interpreters which would facilitate the process.

Vatican II - the second session finds its mark Archdiocese of Wellington In the last article we mentioned how, a few days before the opening of the second session of Vatican II on September 29, 1963, the new pope, Paul VI, had asked the curia to help reform this executive office. This, along with Paul VI’s opening address, inspired great hope that he would continue in the footsteps of Pope John XXIII. He wished the council to continue as it had started. Certain improvements helped to convey the first session’s sense of hope.

Who did what
Some of the presidents of the daily sessions were chosen from among the more progressive cardinals. This move was important for many progressive bishops because the new presidents would be more impartial interpreters of each session which would facilitate the process.

The process would always be determined by the secretary-general, Archbishop Felici, who would liaise between the Theological Commission, the bishops and the pope. He would determine the timetable of discussions on the 16 or 17 new documents chosen by the commissions who rejected the original documents presented at the start of Session I.

Needing a mini-break
The secretary-general chose certain parts of documents to give freedom to those who wanted to speak on a given topic. Unfortunately, the haphazard selection discouraged many bishops whose Latin was not too expert.
Bored with the long speeches (limited to 10 minutes for each bishop), many departed to one of two bars in either nave called ‘Bar Jonah’ and ‘Barrabas’, for a coffee or, at times, something stronger, to debate the points more freely in their own languages. Where to cut off the speeches was determined by the president or, more appositely, the secretary-general.

The fourth estate
The second improvement was in the council’s relationship with the press. Bob Kaiser in his book Inside the Council writes of the largely ineffective Vatican Press Office which daily produced an edited communiqué on the subject discussed without mentioning the speakers or what they said.

Fewer than half of the 900 reporters who descended on Rome for the opening were allowed in (and none admitted once the debating started) so the communiqués were the only source of information. But when reporters challenged the press office that the reports sounded as though they were prepared before the communiqués were even distributed, the office retorted with, ‘Now you will have to wait for an hour after the council is finished for the day if that is what you want,’ which seemed to admit that the official report was prepared well before the day’s business had ended.

Kaiser was a Time magazine correspondent who wrote the story when Pope John appeared on the magazine’s cover in October 1962 before the start of the council and ‘Man of the Year’ (Pope John) later the same year.
After one report from the press office, the editor of the London Tablet, Douglas Woodruff, wrote, ‘It reads like a hasty précis of a poorly written seminary manual of 40 years ago…written in English so peculiarly outrageous that one hardly knows whether to laugh or cry.’

By the end of the first session, one or two press conferences run by the American bishops and the Divine Word Fathers, showed how inadequate the official Vatican Press Office was.
Kaiser concludes his chapter on the press, ‘The Catholic peoples of the world – their parish priests included – can only guess. If the second session goes as the first, the separated brethren will understand when the council’s answers are handed down in solemn brevity. But the Catholics will not.’ Fortunately, the press communiqués, although not yet perfect, improved greatly for the second session.

Thirdly, Cardinal Cushing’s offer to provide simultaneous translation started being implemented in this session using foreign priests or seminarians studying in Rome at the time. However, it was found that reporters could tap into the system so, for a while, translations stalled while a more secure system was installed.

The crucial debates centred on the church, revelation, liturgy and ecumenism. These were interrupted from time to time when the subject got too heated with the ‘conservative’ bishops, mainly those in the curia, realising it was a life and death struggle for them in many instances.

The issues on the church, for instance, centred mainly on collegiality – the College of Bishops called the Apostolic College – their consecration making them the successors of the 12 apostles who together with Peter as their head or centre constituted what later became an essentially infallible council.

Through the accidents of history, particularly the centralisation of the papacy, the growth of the curia and the papal appointment of bishops which ebbed and flowed around the time of the Reformation until, in the 19th century, the papal appointment of bishops again became the norm, especially as monarchies began to disappear.

With Pius IX at Vatican I in 1869-70, papal infallibility was defined in the hope that, when the council resumed after the Franco-Prussian War (which never eventuated), it would be balanced by a declaration of the infallibility of the church.

Bishops seen as functionaries
However, from 1870 more and more bishops were seen as the pope’s ‘branch manager’ in his diocese instead of as successor of the apostles in his own right. Several bishops called for a senate to assist the pope in Rome and, horror of horrors, that the curia should be the bureaucracy of both the pope and bishops. By refining the ancient doctrine of collegiality, the battle of ‘progressives’ and ‘liberals’ raged through most of October.

The ‘conservatives’ also baulked at the Document of Revelation which again at the Reformation had said the essential revelation or teaching of the church was based on the scriptures and tradition as opposed to Luther’s ‘Scripture alone, faith alone’. The reformation Council of Trent(1545-63) had said revelation was partly based on scripture, partly on tradition, but it was never defined as such.

Modern scripture scholarship was almost unanimous, Catholic and Protestant, that scripture was the real basis of faith because, in many instances, tradition was shaped by historical and cultural factors which were hard to assess.
This became an immense battleground with the conservative bishops thinking that, by downgrading tradition, the church would lose one of its important anchors. Eventually, Jesus would be proclaimed as the one source of revelation.

Again with ecumenism, contemporary thinking of ‘We are the only true church, possessing all truth and the only solution is to join us’ was showing through and the document needed re-drafting. Again there was a great deal of fighting among the bishops, some of whom did not want to see the church’s stance ‘watered down’.

The secretary-general (and possibly the pope), when he felt an impasse had been reached in each debate, terminated the debate until the next session in 1964. Because he often used the phrase ‘A decision from on high’, the pope was believed to be the one originating the decision, giving the impression the pope was favouring the curia.

When a vote was taken to continue the debate on collegiality and keeping the document in the same arguments as the ‘progressives’ were defending, an overwhelming majority of the bishops voted ‘Yes’.
This showed (four to one) that the large number of bishops who were between the ‘conservatives’ and ‘progressives’ were more convinced by the arguments of the ‘progressives’ and this continued until the end of the council. The curia had reason to worry.

Next month we will finish the second session where the documents on the Liturgy and Social Communications, the first two documents of the council, are passed. We then go on to look at the exciting third session.

For previous articles by this author on Vatican II – Pope dies between the early sessions

Nothing passed, the lines are drawn

Its long beginnings and gatherings

Vatican II and its long beginnings

Vatican II between the lines