October 19, 2012

Vatican II: Council must define role of bishops and people of God

Year of Faith logo(Editor’s note: Blessed 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. John F. Fink, editor emeritus of The Criterion, has written a four-part series reflecting on Vatican II. This is the second installment.)

By John F. Fink (Second of four parts)

The conclave to elect the successor of Blessed John XXIII was, in effect, a vote on the Second Vatican Council that he had called. There were many cardinals who thought that the best thing that could happen would be to elect a pope who would close the council for good and be done with the foolishness that Pope John had started.

It took six ballots before Cardinal Giovanni Montini was elected. He took the name Paul VI.

Although Blessed John XXIII convened the council and saw the necessity for bringing the Catholic Church into the modern world, Pope Paul VI, while still a cardinal, was one of two men who did the most to set the direction of the council during its first session—the other being Cardinal Leon-Joseph Suenens.

Pope Paul also was pope during the council’s most meaningful three sessions, and then it was he who had the task of carrying out the council’s decisions.

Pope Paul was elected on June 21, 1963, and on June 22 he announced that Vatican II would continue. The second session began on Sept. 29.

When he opened that session, Paul said that the First Vatican Council had defined the role of the pope. Now it was time to define the role of bishops and others among the People of God.

The question was, did the collegiality of the bishops start “from below” or “from above”? Was the primacy of the pope set in the context of collegiality or was the collegiality of the bishops set in the context of the primacy of the pope? Were the bishops only representatives of the pope or did they have a separate role?

As the second session opened, Pope Paul met weekly with the four council moderators who had been chosen by the council secretariat. The moderators were cardinals Suenens and Giacomo Lercaro, who had worked so closely with Cardinal Montini during the first session, plus cardinals Julius Dopfner of Munich and

Gregoire-Pierre Agagianian, the sole representative of the Roman Curia.

The moderators proposed five questions they thought the bishops should decide as they worked on the document that was to become “Lumen Gentium,” the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” considered the council’s most important document since most of the others proceeded from it. It defined the roles of people in the Church.

However, two other documents were passed during the second session. The first was “Sacrosanctum Concilium,” the “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,” and the second was “Inter Mirifica,” the “Decree on the Media of Social Communications.”

I can’t possibly go into detail about all of the council’s documents. To do them justice, I would need at least a separate article for each of the 16 documents, and more for at least two of them. All I can do here is to summarize them.

The vote on the “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” was an impressive 2,147 in favor and only 4 votes against. The bishops recognized that renewal of the liturgy would make the most difference in the lives of most ordinary Catholics.

The “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” was a

40-page document giving general principles for the restoration and reform of the liturgy, emphasizing the communal nature of the liturgy, and adapting it to the culture and traditions of nations.

Between 1963 and 1974, the Vatican issued 24 other documents on the liturgy—instructions, declarations and decrees following up and implementing the council’s “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.” These gave us the Mass as we know it today, much different from the pre-Vatican II Tridentine Mass.

If the “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” was so far-reaching, the council’s second document, the “Decree on the Media of Social Communications,” was by far the council’s weakest. It was so feeble that a group of journalists produced a one-page memo which declared that this document would be forever cited as “a classic example of the way Vatican II proved incapable of facing the world around it.”

About the only good thing that came from the decree was the establishment of the Pontifical Commission for the Means of Social Communications, known today as the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. It published an excellent document in 1971 called “Communio et Progressio,” the “Pastoral Instruction on the Means of Social Communications.”

When the council’s third session opened in 1964, debate continued on “Lumen Gentium.” Chapter 3, on the role of bishops in the Church, ended up being about 20 pages long.

In broad terms, collegiality describes the manner in which the body of bishops, together with the pope, exercises its power. It does so solemnly when they all gather in an ecumenical council such as Vatican II. They can also act in a collegial manner while dispersed throughout the world.

The document says that bishops do not act as vicars or representatives of the pope, but as representatives of Christ in their dioceses. However, they act collegially only when they do so together with the successor of Peter, the pope, which means that collegiality does not diminish the primacy of the pope.

With all the controversy surrounding “Lumen Gentium,” the amazing thing is that, when it was finally put to a vote, it passed 2,151 to 5.

This is an important document since it set forth the nature and mission of the Church and all its members. Its eight sections included “The Mystery of the Church,” “The People of God,” “The Hierarchy,” “The Laity,” “The Call to Holiness,” “Religious,” “The Pilgrim Church” and, finally, “Our Lady.”

“Lumen Gentium” is the document that called for the restoration of the permanent diaconate, but it wasn’t actually accomplished until a postconciliar document was published in 1968.

At the third session, the bishops also discussed whether or not there should be a separate document about Mary or whether discussion about her role should be included in “Lumen Gentium.” The majority of bishops decided to put discussion of Mary in “Lumen Gentium.” It is an excellent treatment of Mary, but the fact that Vatican II decided not to have a separate document about Mary has been blamed for decreasing devotion to her.

There was more controversy during this third session than just on the matter of collegiality and whether or not there should be a separate document on the role of Mary.

On Oct. 23, 1964, Archbishop Pericle Felici, secretary of the council, announced that the question of artificial birth control would be removed from the competency of the council and dealt with by a special commission.

Cardinal Suenens was one of those who reacted to the pope’s decision. He made another dramatic intervention, this time wondering whether the emphasis on “increase and multiply” had not obscured the other text in Genesis, “They shall be two in one flesh” (Gn 2:24). He said, “I beg of you, my brothers, let us avoid a new ‘Galileo affair.’ One is enough for the Church.” It was reported that this intervention caused tensions between Cardinal Suenens and Pope Paul.

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

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