October 12, 2012

Vatican II: The council that transformed and defined the Church

Year of Faith logo(Editor’s note: Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on Oct. 11, 1962. Pope Benedict XVI marked the 50th anniversary of the council’s opening and kicked off the Year of Faith with an Oct. 11 Mass in St. Peter’s Square. Jack F. Fink, editor emeritus of The Criterion, has written a four-part series reflecting on Vatican II. This is the first installment.)

By John F. Fink

First of four parts

The Second Vatican Council, undoubtedly the most important religious event of the 20th century, opened on Oct. 11, 1962. As we observe its 50th anniversary, we should be aware that most Catholics today were not born yet and have no firsthand knowledge of the Church before Vatican II.

The purpose of this series of articles is to explain what happened 50 years ago.

The beginning of Vatican II really went back to 1870 when Blessed Pius IX suspended the First Vatican Council. That council defined the Church’s infallibility, including the circumstances when the pope teaches infallibly. It then intended to go on to define the role of bishops and others in the Church.

However, the day after the council voted on infallibility, war broke out between France and Germany, and many of the bishops left Rome. Two months later, Victor Emmanuel’s army entered Rome and added the Papal States to the new kingdom of Italy. The pope suspended the council indefinitely.

When Pope Pius IX died in 1878, the papacy had been changed considerably from what it was when he was elected 32 years earlier. He had, unintentionally, created the modern papacy. It was stripped of its temporal dominion, but it had vastly enhanced its latent spiritual authority. From then through today, we have had popes who exercised greater spiritual authority, but much less temporal authority than their predecessors.

The pope who exercised his spiritual authority to the greatest extent was St. Pius X, who condemned all forms of modernism. In 1907, he published a decree that condemned 65 modernist propositions. All clergy had to take an oath disavowing any form of modernism.

In 1908, Father Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, delivered a lecture in which he said that he believed it was important for the Church to face up to the issues raised by the modern world. For this, he was denounced as a modernist by a cardinal.

Father Roncalli, who had been denounced for modernism, was a month short of his 77th birthday when he was elected Pope John XXIII in October of 1958. The cardinals in the conclave that elected him may have considered him to be an “interim” pope, a caretaker pope, one who wouldn’t reign for very long.

However, John XXIII didn’t think he was only a caretaker pope. Three months after his election, in a talk to the cardinals of the Roman Curia, he announced that he had decided to convene an ecumenical council.

Pope John turned the task of preparing for the council up to 10 commissions dominated by cardinals in the Roman Curia. Not surprisingly, the first drafts of documents prepared by the commissions were basic summaries of then-current theology. But this wasn’t what Pope John had in mind.

When he opened the council on Oct. 11, 1962, he made it clear what he did have in mind. He said, “Authentic doctrine has to be studied and expounded in the light of the research methods and the language of modern thought. For the substance of the ancient deposit of faith is one thing, and the way it is presented is another.”

As the council began, the Roman Curia tried to gain control of the 10 commissions by selecting the commissions’ chairmen. That failed when Cardinal Achille Lienart of France proposed that the bishops elect the chairmen. Those elected represented bishops from various parts of the world.

Pope John had planned to keep his hands off once the council started, but he really didn’t. First of all, just 13 days after his installation as pope, he made Archbishop Giovanni Montini a cardinal. Montini had worked closely with Pope Pius XII for many years. But then, for unknown reasons, when Pius appointed new cardinals, he skipped over Montini, making it certain that he would not succeed him.

Pope John and Archbishop Montini had worked together in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, and the new pope recognized that Montini had the ability to swing around the Italian bishops to the pope’s understanding of the council.

Another prelate who thought along the same lines as Pope John was Archbishop Leon-Joseph Suenens of Belgium. In January 1962, Pope John made Suenens the Archbishop of Brussels and charged him with developing an overall plan for the council. He made him a cardinal, too.

Cardinal Suenens’ plan called for the council to discuss the nature of the Church, which he called ecclesia ad intra, and the Church and modern problems, called ecclesia ad extra.

Once Cardinal Suenens had his plan ready, Pope John urged him to meet with three other hand-picked cardinals. Pope John told Suenens, “Bring them together so that I will be able to say, ‘According to the wishes of a number of cardinals,’ while being vague on the details. Then it won’t look like something I just cooked up.”

That plan, though, wasn’t presented to the bishops. As Peter Hebbelthwaite said, in his monumental 750-page biography of Pope Paul VI, “The real significance of the meeting of Suenens’ ‘gang of four’ was that if, as this group suspected, the council reached a procedural dead-end, an alternative plan would be available to rescue it.”

Cardinal Montini, however, was impatient. A week after Pope John opened the council, Montini wrote to Cardinal Amleto Giovanni Cicognani, secretary of state, a letter transparently intended for the pope. Why, he wanted to know, was Suenens’ plan being ignored?

Then Montini took over Suenens’ plan. 

For the first time, he suggested three sessions of the council and spelled out what each session should do. By suggesting three sessions, though, Montini was in effect raising the question of the pope’s succession since no one expected Pope John to live for three years.

During the night of Nov. 25-26, 1962, Pope John had a serious hemorrhage. Cardinals Montini, Suenens and Giacomo Lercaro, the three most authoritative figures of the council, arranged the final week of the session to try to make it end with the feeling that, even if not much was accomplished, at least the bishops got to know each other and there was promise for the future. Then Pope John got up from his sick bed on Dec. 8 to close the first session.

Pope John XXIII died on June 3, 1963, at age 81. Blessed John Paul II beatified him in 1999. He had been pope for less than five years, but the council he started changed the Catholic Church both internally and in its relation to the outside world. For many Catholics, that was not particularly good news.

Many of them, including some cardinals—perhaps especially some cardinals—thought that Pope John’s papacy had been a disaster for the Church.

Cardinal Giuseppe Siri of Genoa, for example, was quoted as saying, “It will take the Church four centuries to recover from Pope John’s pontificate.”

And these cardinals, of course, took their feelings into the conclave to elect Pope John’s successor.

(John F. Fink is editor emeritus of The Criterion.)

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