What Happened at Vatican II? Nicholas Lash . 1. REMEMBRANCE “Do this in remembrance of me.”[i] All things are born and die in time, but only in the case of human beings is an awareness of temporality constitutive of their identity. Without remembrance, we know not who we are, can make no plans and have no hope. We learn, or fail to learn, to live and speak the truth - and truthfulness takes time.. Bernard Lonergan’s first words to my uncle Sebastian Moore (who had gone to work with him in Rome) were: “Concepts have dates”. Battered by Enlightenment, Catholic Christianity pulled up the drawbridge and withdrew into a citadel of illusory timelessness, a simulacrum of eternity in which nothing ever happened and, most importantly, nothing ever changed. If, in the 1960s, “aggiornamento” was required, when had Catholic thought begun to fall behind the times? Lonergan’s answer was: around 1680: “When modern science began, when the Enlightenment began, then the theologians began to reassure one another about their certainties”.[ii] From this point of view, Vatican II may be considered - notwithstanding the unsurprising imperfections and incompleteness of so vast an undertaking - as the high point of the Church’s re-engagement with its temporality, renewed remembrance (in acknowledgement of its contingency) of the richness of its history (“ressourcement”); a re-engagement which thereby also brought it into fresh, constructive but by no means uncritical, relationship with the forces shaping the modern world in which it lived (“aggiornamento”). . 2. TELLING TRUE STORIES Major historical events are not susceptible of any one, uniquely “correct” interpretation (not for nothing do we have four gospels!). Any account of what happened at Vatican II will be told from some particular point or points of view, will select some themes and features, rather than others, for particular consideration. What we ask of historians is not that they say everything that could possibly be said, but that they be wholeheartedly committed to truthfulness and accuracy in their handling of evidence, and that the points of view from which they write be honestly and clearly indicated. Polemics makes bad history. By these criteria, the Church has been well served by the international team of scholars, brought together by Giuseppe Alberigo of Bologna, who laboured for over ten years to produce a five-volume History of Vatican II.[iii] With different chapters written by over two dozen different authors, an editorial board ranging from Roger Aubert and Henry Chadwick to Cardinals Dulles and Tucci, and weighing in at some 3,000 pages, this is a work of daunting erudition, an invaluable aid to our remembering. An Italian commentator has complained, in the online magazine L’Espresso, that “rarely do we find critiques of this history”, a judgement that I find surprising.[iv] The first three volumes were reviewed, appreciatively but by no means uncritically, by John Paul II’s friend and biographer, George Weigel.[v] From the first volume, he picks out Komonchak’s 189-page chapter on “The Struggle for the Council during the Preparation” as a “masterpiece of research and exposition”, and concludes that “the dramatic ‘form’ of the Council, which Professor Alberigo and his colleagues are eager to recapture, is itself the best testimony to the futility of trying to tell the history of Vatican II as a tale of political intrigue”. Weigel remarks that “the great challenge to any history of Vatican II is to avoid what might be called the ‘Cowboys and Indians’ interpretation of the Council ... Professor Alberigo’s team is not altogether successful in avoiding this temptation in Volumes II and III. But the wealth of detail assembled in each of these books ... is such that the careful reader can make his own interpretive judgements, and can do so in a much more informed way”. “Pope John Paul II”, notes Weigel, “who was one of the youngest Council fathers during the first period, has insisted for almost four decades that the Council can be grasped in its essence only if we think of it as an epic spiritual event, at which the Holy Spirit led the Catholic Church into a new encounter with modernity precisely for the sake of evangelizing the modern world”. With that observation in mind, I turn next to three themes that are indispensable to our understanding of what happened at Vatican II: the relationship between events and documents, the extent to which the Council marked some kind of new beginning in the Church’s life, and the different relationships to the Council of John XXIII and Paul VI. . 3. EVENTS AND DOCUMENTS Towards the end of the first session of the Council, Yves Congar wrote in his journal: “The episcopate has discovered itself. It has become aware of itself. Given that, the formulas will emerge”.[vi] Already, in that first session, says Alberigo, “the bishops and their ‘experts’ with them, gained an almost totally new awareness of their concrete and common general responsibilities for the universal Church”. It is this, he says, which warrants “the methodological choice that inspired the concept and realization of this History of Vatican II ... That choice rested upon the view that to equate Vatican II with the corpus of its texts not only impoverishes the hermeneutics of those texts themselves but is also fatal to the image of the Council”.[vii] The soundness of that judgement is borne out by my own memories of conversations with bishops at the time, and by everything that I have since read of their assessment of the conciliar experience. Notwithstanding the longueurs and exhaustion, the confusions and the tensions, of four years of debate, the Council was, for those who took part in it, the most profound and transformative spiritual and educational experience of their lives. It was, said Archbishop Denis Hurley, forty years later, “the greatest adult education program ever”.[viii] Before the Council opened, John XXIII expressed the hope that it would be a “new Pentecost”[ix] and, after it ended, the very English voice of Christopher Butler observed: “I am less doubtful than I once was that [the Council] was gathered for a second Pentecost”.[x] . 4. CONTINUITY AND REVOLUTION Between the third and fourth sessions of the Council, E. E. Y. Hales published Pope John and his Revolution. Insisting that the conciliar project was appropriately described as “revolutionary”, he nevertheless warned: “We are told that the movement now started is irreversible; but it is hard to see why ... Moreover, an able and experienced civil service, such as the Curia, could circumvent it”.[xi] But may not the epithet “revolutionary” exaggerate the difference between the Church as it was before Vatican II, and the Church as the Council fathers strove to have it be? At one level, the answer is, undoubtedly: “No”. It is difficult for those who have grown up since the Council to appreciate how profoundly different, for better and for worse, is the sensibility of Catholicism today from that of the preconciliar Church. Before the Council, for example, even to suggest that the Church needed to be reformed made one suspect of heresy, as Yves Congar discovered when, in 1954, four years after the publication of Vraie et fausse réforme dans l’Eglise, he was banished for a year into the wilderness - to Cambridge.[xii] In a lecture delivered in 1965, Bernard Lonergan argued that “Classical culture has given way to a modern culture, and, I would submit, the crisis of our age is in no small measure the fact that modern culture has not yet reached its maturity”.[xiii] So far as the Church’s participation in that crisis is concerned, he insisted that “The crisis ... that I have been attempting to depict is a crisis not of faith but of culture. There has been no new revelation from on high to replace the revelation given through Jesus Christ. There has been written no new Bible and there has been founded no new church to link us with him. But Catholic philosophy and Catholic theology are matters, not merely of revelation and faith, but also of culture. Both have been fully and deeply involved in classical culture”,[xiv] and that culture has now, irretrievably, broken down. The Church after Vatican II is, indeed, the same Church as the Church before, but it is required and called to be that same Church very differently. . 5. A TALE OF TWO POPES Two men of strikingly contrasting character. There is little doubt that John XXIII’s warmth and spontaneity won him a place in people’s hearts more swiftly than the great respect in which Paul VI eventually was held. During the first, “somewhat chaotic” session of the Council, John XXIII tended to stand back and “let things ride”. He “wanted the bishops to find their way by themselves”.[xv] Paul VI, largely “excluded from the official preparation for the Council” by “the Roman Curia, which was mainly in control of the preparatory phase”, took a little time to find his feet, and the first few months of his pontificate, the summer of 1963, “were marked by indecision and compromise”.[xvi] During the final sessions, he came increasingly “to emphasize his role as moderator and mediator between the component parts of the assembly”, his overriding concern being “to ensure the greatest possible consensus” in the Council’s decisions.[xvii] In this he succeeded, to an astonishing extent, and if there was a price paid - in concessions to the handful of bishops who, from start to finish, resisted the entire programme of reform - it was, almost certainly, a price worth paying. If only someone like John XXIII would have had the inspired courage to convene the Council, probably only someone like Paul VI could have seen the venture through. . 6. ONSLAUGHT FROM THE VATICAN On June 17, 2005, there was a book launch in Rome: Il Concilio Ecumenico Vaticano II. Contrappunto per la sua storia,[xviii] mostly reviews of studies of the Council, purporting (according to one news agency represented at the launch) to give “the Holy See’s point of view on that milestone event”.[xix] The author: Archbishop Agostino Marchetto, an official of the Secretariat of State who seems never to have been bishop of anywhere, but is a beneficiary of the custom of ordaining senior curial officials to the episcopate as if the sacrament of holy orders were a kind of life peerage. The focus of the launch, and the main target of the book (the account to which it seeks to supply a “counterpoint”) was Alberigo’s History which, in Osservatore Romano, Marchetto had “repeatedly ripped ... to pieces after the release of each volume, criticizing every page”.[xx] Taking part in the launch was Cardinal Ruini, Vicar General of Rome, president of the Italian bishops’ conference and Grand Chancellor of the Lateran University. Comparing the History with the “highly inflammatory and partisan” history of Trent by Paolo Sarpi, he challenged the “central thesis of Alberigo and his ‘Bologna School’, founded by Fr Giuseppe Dossetti in the 1960s ... that the documents produced by Vatican Council II are not its primary elements. The main thing is the event itself. The real council is the ‘spirit’ of the Council”. According to Ruini, the History of Vatican II portrays “The gap between John XXIII and Paul VI” as “unbridgeable. It is almost as if the ‘letter’ of pope Giovanni Battista Montini had suffocated and betrayed the ‘spirit’ of pope Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli”. Another central thesis of the History is “that Vatican II marked a fundamental rupture between the preceding, preconciliar period and the postconciliar period that followed. Cardinal Ruini challenged this vision at its core”.[xxi] A few weeks later, Marchetto, interviewed by Catholic Online, claimed that the History’s “unbalanced” and “ideological” analysis of Vatican II “betrays the event”: the Council “does not constitute a break, a sort of birth of a new Church”. Moreover, “The opposition between John XXIII and Paul VI, which would separate ‘John’s Council’ from Paul VI’s ... is groundless”. Asked about two other issues - collegiality and Paul VI’s reservation of the question of birth regulation to himself - Marchetto said: collegiality was “an ecclesial characteristic of the first millenium, which was rediscovered, so to speak, by Vatican II. It was placed, without contradiction, next to papal primacy, exercised personally, which developed especially in the second millenium”. As to birth regulation, Alberigo is wrong “to speak, as he does, of a ‘trauma caused throughout the Christian world by the encyclical Humanae Vitae’”. Finally: “from the beginning I have defined as ‘ideological’ the interpretation made by the Bologna Group. And where ideology exists there is a lack of balance, extremism, blurred vision” (weaknesses from which, presumably, “the Holy See’s point of view” is immune).[xxii] It is alarming that there should still be people in the Vatican who are unable to come to terms with the fact that the Council happened as it did, and deplorable that two such senior curial officials should distort the account given in the History in so misleading and unscholarly a manner. . 7. SACRAMENTS AND POWER STATIONS “By her relationship with Christ, the Church is a kind of sacrament or sign of intimate union with God, and of the unity of the whole human race”. Commenting on this first article of Lumen Gentium, Christopher Butler said: “The Council has helped me to see that this notion of the sacramentality of the Church is basic to our understanding of her”.[xxiii] According to Congar, the greatest shift that Catholic ecclesiology has ever undergone occurred in the pontificate of Gregory VII (1073-1085). In the context of developments in canon law, Church and episcopacy, previously understood in symbolic, sacramental terms - as signs and images of God’s transforming presence - came to be understood juridically in terms of the possession and the exercise of power.[xxiv] From this point of view, the debates through which the text of Lumen Gentium emerged - with the structuring institutions of episcopate and primacy being considered (in Chapter 3) in the light of a larger picture of a pilgrim people drawn through history towards God’s kingdom (Chapter 2) which, in turn, needs to be understood in the light of our meditation on the mystery of God’s redemptive gathering of humankind (Chapter 1) - may be considered as announcing the recovery, in Catholic Christianity, of a rich and ancient vision of the Church which had been largely overlaid, obscured from view, by the juridicism of intervening centuries. Whatever the detailed working out of the theory and practice of episcopal collegiality, we might surely have expected, therefore, in the years after the Council, not only a diminution of the unprecedented centralised control which the Roman Congregations had acquired during the twentieth century, but a renewed attentiveness to the concerns and needs of local churches. But this, of course, is not how things worked out. During the long pontificate of John Paul II, striding the world stage like a colossus, and largely uninterested in details of structure and administration, the Curia tightened its grip. Consider two issues: episcopal appointments and vocations to the priesthood. Episcopal appointments. The 1917 Code of Canon Law enshrined a quite new claim: that the Pope had the right to appoint all bishops in the Catholic Church. As recently as the early nineteenth century, “the last thing the Holy See wanted was to get involved in selecting bishops for the Universal Church”.[xxv] Today, far from the equivalent canon having been repealed, Rome unilaterally draws ever more narrowly its criteria for “suitable” appointments and, again and again, rides contemptuously roughshod over nominations made by bishops’ conferences. Vocations. It is through the community of the Church that the Holy Spirit calls people to its ministries. There cannot be a “shortage of vocations”, only a failure, on our part, to invite sufficient people to bear the burden of such service. It is intolerably paradoxical that, in 2005, the Holy See should, on the one hand, have invited us to celebrate a “Year of the Eucharist” while, on the other, drawing the criteria of those who may be ordained so narrowly as to ensure that, in large parts of the world, the eucharistic community that is the Catholic Church is being, quite literally, starved to death. . 8. CONCLUSION What happened at Vatican II? According to some people, it would seem, the answer goes: “Not much, really. Things looked threatening for a time but, once the bishops went away from Rome, we soon got things back on track”. Before the ice freezes on the Council’s vision and programme of reform, we can be grateful for the History of Vatican II for keeping alive another memory of how things might yet be made to be.
[i] Luke 22.19
[ii] Bernard Lonergan, “Theology in its New Context”, A Second Collection (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1974), p. 55. Cf. Nicholas Lash, “Modernism, Aggiornamento and the Night Battle”, Bishops and Writers. Aspects of the Evolution of Modern English Catholicism, ed. Adrian Hastings (Wheathampstead; Anthony Clarke, 1977), pp. 51-79.
[iii] Edited by Alberigo, the first four volumes of the English edition, edited by Joseph Komonchak, and published by Peeters of Leeuven, appeared in 1995, 1997, 2000 and 2003. The final volume (published in Italian in 2001) is due in 2006.
[iv] Sandro Magister, “Vatican Council II: A Non-Neutral History” [www.chiesa.espressonline.it/english], a column issued on the publication of History of Vatican II, Vol V.
[v] See First Things 67 (1996) and 114 (2001).
[vi] History of Vatican II, Vol. I, p. 575.
[vii] History, Vol. II., p. 583; cf. Vol.I, p. xii; Vol. IV, p. 327.
[viii] Cited by John Allen, National Catholic Reporter, 18 October 2002, reporting on a congress in Rome held to mark the fortieth anniversary of the Council’s opening.
[ix] History, Vol. I., p. 42.
[x] B. C. Butler, Searchings (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1974), p. 265.
[xi] E. E. Y. Hales, Pope John and his Revolution (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1965), p. 205.
[xii] Having narrowly avoided censure simply for using the word “reform”, it seems that it was an article sympathetic to the “priest-worker” movement which was the last straw. A decade later, Paul VI drew on Vraie et fausse réforme when writing his encyclical Ecclesiam Suam (see History, Vol.II., p. 452).
[xiii] B. J. F. Lonergan, Collection (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1967), p. 259. Though the terminology was not in use at the time, Lonergan’s position would now, I think, be best described as “postmodern”, for the meaning of “modernity” has changed.
[xiv] Op. cit., p. 266.
[xv] History, Vol. II, p. 495.
[xvi] Ibid., pp. 504, 506.
[xvii] History, Vol. IV, p. 633; cf. Vol. II, p. 579; Vo.III, p. 443..
[xviii] Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2005.
[xix] ZENIT, 20 June 2005.
[xx] Magister, “Vatican Council II. A Non-Neutral History”.
[xxi] Sandro Magister, “Vatican II: The Real Untold Story” (22 June, 2005). On Dossetti, adviser to Cardinal Lercaro and, for part of the second session, secretary to the Cardinal Moderators of the Council, see Joseph A. Komonchak, “Augustine, Aquinas or the Gospel sine glossa? Divisions over Gaudium et Spes”, Unfinished Journey. The Church 40 years after Vatican II, ed. Austen Ivereigh (London, Continuum: 2003), pp. 102-118.
[xxii] Catholic Online, “Clearing the Record on Vatican II: Interview with Archbishop Agostino Marchetto”, 14 July, 2005.
[xxiii] B. C. Butler, A Time to Speak (Southend: Mayhew-McCrimmon, 1972), p. 147.
[xxiv] “Le plus grand tournant que l’ecclésiologie catholique ait connu” (Yves Congar, L”Eglise de Saint Augustin a l’époque moderne [Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1970], p. 103).
[xxv] Garrett Sweeney, “The ‘wound in the right foot’: unhealed?”, Bishops and Writers, p. 217.